Evolution is the solo debut by pianist John Ellis, a founder member of the Cinematic Orchestra. The seeds of the album were planted when he was granted a commission to write for the 2015 Manchester Jazz Festival, and composed a series of pieces designed to be accompanied by visual projections from artist Antony Barkworth Knight. Somewhat bizarrely, the visual element is almost entirely missing here, replaced by somewhat austere artwork by Daniel Halsall, which seems to be in stark contrast to music on the album.
But then again, Ellis seems to thrive on the contrasts – combining acoustic piano with synthesizer and electronic effects, traditional jazz instrumentation with Malian kora. In lesser hands, such a fusion could be doomed to failure, but here Ellis creates a soundscape that is quite unique. The refrains themselves are often quite simple, but Ellis allows plenty of space for each group of instruments to play off one another, constantly varying the combinations to good effect.
Evolution is almost a concept album, loosely based on traditional theory, but also asking questions as to where we take the planet, now that humans are the dominant species.
Flight opens with a synthesizer pattern and the sound of birdsong, before the kora comes in, similar in sound to a harp. The main theme is played on clarinet and alto sax, with Ellis’s piano playing a percussive role. There are short solos by both alto sax and kora, before Ellis takes over, but no one musician ever dominates.
Interlude One is more stripped back, opening with solo piano, before a lyrical solo by Sam Healey on alto, which segues into Unidentical Twins, one of my favourite tracks on the album. Again, Ellis makes use of contrasts to portray the opposing voices that surround us. First we hear two koras play against one another, played by Jali Nyonkoling Kuyateh and John Haycock, the percussion slowly building behind them, before clarinet and saxophone take over.
Interlude Two sounds as though it was influenced by a train journey, the chattering drums courtesy of Rick Weadon replicating the noise of a train, the horn section perhaps representing the traffic in the city.
The Ladder is another evocative soundscape, with Ellis switching to a warm-sounding electric piano, before a combination of flute and kora join to play the main theme. Ellis takes a rare solo, with Jason Singh adding percussive vocal effects, and there’s also a fine trombone solo by Ellie Smith. Again, the unusual combination of instruments sounds unlikely on paper, but works well.
Poemander is an ancient Greek word signifying a kind of guardian angel, and there’s an air of calm to this tune, which begins with just piano and cello, the gentle percussion sounding like beating wings.
A Bigger Cake is more joyous, and described as a dance, celebrating human fulfilment. A dance it is not, but it does at least sound celebratory, before the haunting Arrival brings the album to a close, the horns and kora improvising around Ellis’s piano.
The album was launched around the time of the EFG London Jazz Festival last year, with Ellis supporting his label mate, Matthew Halsall. The cinematic nature of the music worked well on a larger stage, and in the same vein, this music sounds better on an old-fashioned stereo system than in the car, allowing more space for Ellis’s unique vision. It’s an uplifting, spiritual album that dovetails with Halsall’s own approach to music, but is quite unique in both style and instrumentation. Highly recommended.
John Ellis - piano, keyboard
Pete Turner - bass, synthesizer;
Helena Jane Summerfield - clarinet, tenor sax, flute
Sam Healey - alto sax
Ellie Smith - trombone
Jessica MacDonald - cello
Jali Nyonkoling Kuyateh - kora
John Haycock - kora
Rick Weedon - percussion
Jason Singh - beatboxer