Some bands lack a real awareness of how to use space; far too many artists want to fill any gaps with music, be it layering up the instrumentation, using a well-worn chord progression or simply continuing to sing/emote when there’s absolutely no need. It means there’s nowhere for the initial sketches to move into and grow. Adult Jazz does not do any of this.
The Leeds four-piece made up of Harry Burgess, Tom Howe, Tim Slater and Steve Wells don’t make what you might class as “easy” music; what debut album Gist Is is made up of is a series of expansive pieces that allow you to explore the world of Adult Jazz; it’s a world that’s hard to classify, but try to imagine if Wild Beasts went a bit prog-jazz and you’re getting somewhere kind of close. The songs on this album seem to start at a small point in an undefined centre before pulsing outwards in all directions, changing form and structure as they go – in that respect, it’s almost impossible to describe what this music sounds like, or how it might make you feel.
While there’s a structure of sorts to Gist Is, there’s a real improvisational feel to the album from the moment an organ buzz comes out of the silence on opening track “Hum” and Burgess’ falsetto floats up and down the register, being pitch bent alongside the singer’s own flights of fancy. From then on the space is explored in a way that recalls, to me, a folk musician like John Martyn would. The organ, errr, hum remains the focus of the piece despite Burgess’ vocal gymnastics and the loose drumming that kicks in around halfway through the track: like Martyn hitting his guitar between strums, the percussion finds the spaces between the existing instrumentation to ensure nothing becomes overcrowded or unnecessarily layered. The same trick is pulled on “Am Gone”, a track that swings jazzily, like a playful Talk Talk; the bass and slide guitar slip between the scattered drumming and Burgess’ scat singing. It’s uncomplicated and carries a real sense of fun, something that’s often absent in music with this amount of ambition.
The airy “Springful” is perhaps the best example of Adult Jazz’s space management: in a rush to make a statement record, many bands tend to overload but here the quartet find depth and ingenuity through a simple vocal, free drumming and a clarinet dipping in and out of the mix. There’s also room for chiming guitar, but that simply replaces the clarinet and follows the path that instrument was taking; all the guitar does is change the mood, making the track instantly more mournful before exploding in bursts of colour when it’s joined by some glitches of electronic. Pushing out in all directions, and all moods as well it seems.
There’s a delightful coolness to “Donne Tongue” and “Pigeon Skills” (these song titles!) that makes Gist Is feel like a summer record, recalling the way in Joni Mitchell combines folk and jazz – she’s an artist made for the summer, and Adult Jazz have that same lightness of touch that suits endlessly hazy days. When we finally reach epic nine-minute single “Spook” it feels like a culmination of sorts; it doesn’t feel like a long song simply due to the variety of routes the track takes during the running time: startingwith subdued piano and ambient hums, we go through trembling guitar and powerful brass and percussion, while Burgess sings “Spook at the door / I spoke with a whisper” with an eeriness that casts him as a central character in an MR James story. It’s everything you need to know about Adult Jazz in one song – their mission statement, if you will. There’s only one real misstep and that’s when the band try to pack too much into “Be A Girl” but they recover this immediately with the sprightly closer “Bonedigger”, which features some incredible finger-picked guitar and wonderfully muted brass, but once again arranged in a way that you don’t know where the track might head.
Gist Is shows a lightness of touch that’s few and far between on debut records. You get the feeling that the next Adult Jazz record might be entirely different given how unpredictable this one is…but for now, here, this is an album without boundaries – lose yourself in it.