Barbacana – Barbacana

BarbacanaBarbacana is an Anglo-French quartet, established in 2009, comprising Brits James Alsopp and Kit Downes, and France’s Sylvain Darrifourcq and Adrien Dennefeld.

The group’s declared influences are: “classic British Prog and jazz-rock groups such as Soft Machine, Matching Mole and Hatfield and the North,” but the quartet wear the prog mantle lightly, channelled through the organ, keyboard and prepared piano of Kit Downes in a style thankfully more indebted to Keith Tippett than Rick Wakeman. In fact, the prog-fess turns out to be something of a red herring.

Barbacana (Babel Label) begins with a brief, Beefheartian jambalaya, but “Animation” evolves into a subtle meditation, in which electric keys provide a pearlescent backdrop to sparingly textural shades of acoustic instrumentation. Much of what follows is often thoughtful, meditational and beautifully unforced, by turns moody and broody, and enlivened by quirks of animation.

Alsopp and Downes were both players on Dan Nicholls’ Ruins, a superb electric jazz project with a multimedia component. Barbacana put more emphasis on acoustic post-jazz, but likewise operate bass-less, reliant on keyboards and guitar for low end and harmonic complexity.

At 26, Kit Downes is already the leader of his own trio and quintet, in addition to playing with the established ensembles Neon Quartet, Troyka, and Golden Age Of Steam. He’s joined here by his colleague in GAOS, James Allsopp on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. Their bandmates are Adrien Dennefeld, who played cello on Downes’ Quiet Tiger album, featured here on both cello and guitar; and percussionist Sylvain Darrifourcq, on “drums, objects, toys”.

Downes and Dennefeld take two compositional credits apiece, but all four contribute, and the material carries such a strong collective signature – the group already has its own sound and feel – that the listener can tease the improvisational weft of individual lines from the collective tension.

“For no Raisin” is an Allsopp favourite, previously recorded by both GAOS and Fraud, remodelled by Barbacana with a snare pulse and organ drone etched by Dennefeld’s slide guitar and sparse piano preparations, while Allsopp’s tenor traces its own narrative.

“Migration-Big Big Shop” is the album’s ten minute showpiece. Initially barbed and twitchy, the quartet briefly lock into a funked-up groove, but ease back when cliche beckons. Dennefeld and Allsopp forage, free-roaming for melodic inspiration, and when they’ve truffled up something good Downes fills it out with soulful organ swells and Darrifourcq agitates. The conclusion is a taut but unforced calmando.

The five minute “Outro”, one of Dennefield’s pieces, is also beguilingly unhurried, taking the album out on a minimalist organ pattern shadowed by cello, clarinet, and Darrifourcq’s subtle brushwork and super-slow bass drum pulse.

This is one of the quirkiest jazz albums I’ve heard in some time, albeit it never lapses into whimsy. The Captain Beefheart vibe of its opening minutes is soon dispelled and never overtly returns, but the spirit of the Captain’s boho nonconformity pervades the whole album. In his own review of Barbacana, the Jazz Mann’s Ian Mann detects the influence of Django Bates, and I think he’s onto something there; Barbacana are similarly idiosyncratic, and just as capable of poignancy as they are audacious.

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Dan Nicholls – Ruins

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