OUT NOW: WHAT LARKS
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Jazz violinist Minnie Jordan is a relative newcomer to the contemporary jazz scene, and she has made it clear that she is here to stay with the release of her first album of all-original material, What Larks. The inspiration behind this collection of 8 fiercely original pieces brings a welcome and timely perspective; it is music based on the sounds of the natural world, particularly birdsong. Every track seems to invite the listener to do just that—to truly listen and perceive the world around us in a new and almost reverent way. This is not music that underestimates the listener—instead it demands we follow along with every unexpected turn, challenging us to do away with our expectations. In fact, the first note we hear on the album isn’t violin. Nor saxophone. Not even drums, which come in second. It is the high-pitched, insistent call of a whistling duck, (hence the title of the track, Little Whistler). By the time Minnie and her band launch into the angular melody, we are ready to be taken on this journey, like a bird riding an air current.
It is also worth noting that throughout this album Minnie shows us how well the texture of the violin can blend into the traditional instrumentation and structure of jazz music. This is especially highlighted in the ruminative ballad titled “Wings Folded”, in which saxophonist Stephen Byth blends a beautiful counterpoint seamlessly into Minnie’s violin melody. There are no concessions made to her less-than-common jazz instrument. Are there often strong echoes of the fiddle music of her Texas childhood? Absolutely—just listen to the raucous title track, “What Larks.” But these influences serve to enrich her playing, giving her a sense of rootedness, rather than changing the idiomatic direction of the music. The sound she delivers with her hard- swinging rhythm section (Ilya Blazh, drums, and Greg Loughman, bass) is clearly more influenced by Art Blakey than Kenny Baker.
Lest we forget though, this is not purely an album for our idle enjoyment. This music has a message—maybe even a mission–which is put forward clearly in “Summer Song”. It is the only vocal track on the album, and the only one recorded entirely remotely during the pandemic. It features Minnie’s sister Ella Jordan, as well as a globe-spanning rhythm section—Yessaï Karapetian (France) on piano, Misaki Nakamichi (Japan) on drums, and Giacomo Tagliavia (Italy) on bass. Despite the geographic distance between the players, the result is a testament to the sensitivity of the musicians. The lyrics are brutal, depicting with uncanny imagery the devastation of drought and the utter uncertainty of our future on earth, along with the implications for birds, wildlife, and our entire ecosystem. It’s hard to listen to this song without caring about the issues at hand, and it’s a surprisingly effective, albeit unexpected part of the album.
Altogether, What Larks almost feels like a concept album, tied together by an appreciation for “voices that aren’t human” (as Minnie says in an almost cinematic voiceover in “Frogsong’). It’s a wild ride, but by the time we reach the last track, (“Bindle and Pochette”) a mellow saxophone/violin duo playfully interweaved with a field-recorded soundscape of bird calls, we imagine that she might be walking purposefully on down the road, bindle and fiddle in hand, and we are excited to see where her journey takes her.