Click here to [close]

Monday, June 5, 2023

Faith Brackenbury, John Pope, Paul Dunmall, and Tony Bianco - Sentient Beings (Off, 2023)

By Sammy Stein

In September 2022 violin and viola player Faith Brackenbury, tenor saxophonist Paul Dunmall, bassist John Pope and drummer Tony Bianco met in a hilltop studio in Shropshire, England to record. They had not met as a quartet before although Bianco and Dunmall have played and recorded together many times before and Brackenbury has played with Pope and recorded with Bianco.

The date was September 23rd, auspiciously the date of John Coltrane’s birthday. It was clear the quartet shared a love for improvisation and their camaraderie become clear – so much so that Bianco suggested they call the album ‘Sentient Beings’ because of the unreserved outpouring of music that was full of fire, sensitivity, and passion.

Sentient Beings is an exemplar of spontaneous music-making. There are just three tracks named aptly ‘As it Was’, ‘Is Now’, and ‘And Ever Shall Be’ in which the quartet takes turns to lead, sit out, enter, and share diverse conversations. There is noodling at times, with each member laying their own path while at others, there is that wonderful springboarding off each other that only comes when musicians are tuned in to each other’s playing.

Dunmall is flying with his sax as he pushes up, out, and beyond normal parameters, his tongued notes merging into blares and occasional melodic phrasing. Brackenbury’s playing seems to start at every position on the strings, her virtuosity clear as she plucks, bows, and uses the full body of her instruments. Like Dunmall, she occasionally introduces a melodic phrase that counteracts the free spontaneity happening around her and weaves a classical sound into the music. Bianco is standout on drums, his intuition clear and Pope on bass is supportive and creates some deviously inventive solo lines too.

Dunmall leads the quartet many times to challenging and ever-evolving music such as in ‘As It Was’ where he creates rhythm patterns, which the others mimic, albeit not exactly because they put their own subtle spins on the phrases – as expected from these talented improvisers.

Considering the quartet had never played together before, this is a remarkable recording. It starts well with the rapport and intuitive reactions increasing as the recording progresses. The three tracks are broken by very short pauses, just long enough to hit the pause button and go and refresh your chosen beverage if you can pull yourself away from the music long enough. In ‘Is Now’ the music drops away at one point to a pared-back, almost whispered section with the saxophone meandering, the viola sighing gently over the top and the drums adding delicate, intricate sounds, and the bass supporting with its deep, yet gentle voice.

The cover picture shows colourful movement and rolling, boiling clouds with a sun appearing - a perfectly apt choice for this music with its energy, bright spots, and hidden periods of exquisite interaction, shining lit sections revealed before they are gently reclaimed into the beating heart of the music. In ‘And Ever Shall Be’ many times, a kaleidoscope of sound is created, the threads of which come together to create a picture displaying the relationships and imaginative connections of the musicians.

This is some of the best spontaneous playing I have heard in a long time. This music makes your heart and ears sing because the sense of shared understanding is almost tangible. Words can never do justice or relate precisely how the music feels. The best way is to listen to it yourself.