As anyone who, at last month’s EFG London Jazz Festival experienced the thoughtful and candid, often filmic soundscapes of London-based band Glasshopper will testify, this 6-year-old band’s debut album Fortune Rules has been worth the wait.
Led by tenor saxophonist Glaswegian Jonathan Chung, who composes all the tracks as well as some of the album lyrics (Rumi and Tom Stoppard also take bows), the sense of careful searching and the music’s gentle grace suggest it might not be too far a stretch to characterize this album as spiritual jazz. Chung’s involvement with multisensory art collective Bittersuite and refugee charity Play for Progress similarly suggest an enquiring spirit. He is supported here by his old friend from Glasgow days, accomplished drummer Corrie Dick, whose playing on this album is particularly delicate, and by (often Bill Frisell – evoking) electric guitarist, James Kitchman. For an explanation of the band’s name, see A J Dehany’s interview with Chung in London Jazz News.
As to the meanings behind the album title Fortune Rules, one might guess at these.
The album opens strongly with the over 15-minute-long ‘Letters’, atmospheric electronics receding as Chung’s slow, melodious sax senses its way through in a sort of meandering mindfulness. Following a centering pause, Kitchman’s augmenting guitar picks up the melody as Dick’s percussive net and crisp stick patterns interplay intricately. Really lovely stuff.
Second track ‘Jenny’ is also mostly in slow or moderate tempo, feeling ruminative, spacious, soothing even, notwithstanding the lolloping rhythm. The intensity builds as drums and guitar threaten to head off on their own terms, but ultimately all coalesce at near stalling speed.
Guest singer Sylvia Silas’ pure vocals, at times evoking Bjork, share Rumi’s wise words in the piece ‘Sky Circle’ in which points of stillness carry as much weight as the notes do. The spiritual theme continues in the opening bars of ‘Clydesdale’, which somehow sound like both the deep booming of ships’ horns, as well as that from Tibetan monks’ long horns or dungchen. In this track guest Mike Soper’s trumpet and Chung’s sax commune, trading melody between each other with a courteous sensitivity.
Next up is ‘Birdwing’, the echoey sax stretching out across the octaves as guitar and percussion skip lightly alongside electronic warbling. A soaring, up-tempo, up-lifting psychedelic piece, which contrasts beautifully with subsequent, slighter track, ‘Ember’ which features some fine vocals from Ed Begley.
Penultimate song ‘Build A Bridge’ features again Silas’ clean vocals while the closing, title track finds the band displaying with borderline theatrical relish their jazz chops, including a dancing Latin rhythm from Dick.
Fortune Rules sounds to this listener as though it has come from a mature band, making one wonder if Chung has a somewhat older head on his shoulders than he might realize. And for sure, Glasshopper have been gigging for some time now. This is an album that could form the lyrical soundtrack for a beautiful film and the sense of groundedness, collaborative questing and restrained emotional intensity makes one curious as to where Chung and the Glasshopper crew’s travels might take them in future.
A final mention should go to album artist Coll Hamilton, whose portrait of the band members is as striking as the music.