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Szun Waves - New Hymn to Freedom Music Album Reviews

Luke Abbott’s synth/sax/drums trio illustrates the links between London’s fertile jazz scene and longstanding psychedelic traditions in six vibrant, unedited improvisations.

When mountains move, entire landscapes change—not just how we perceive them, but the physical properties of their dirt, what oenologists call terroir. One such tectonic shift appears to be taking place throughout the UK’s experimental-music scene. The rising profile of London’s jazz movement is pushing the immediacy and vibrancy of group improvisation far from the jazz community itself, creating an environment at once related and separate.

To wit: It's entirely possible to hear New Hymn to Freedom, the excellent sophomore album by Szun Waves, as part of this new world. To place it in this context, one need only engage “Constellation,” the album’s grand, searching opener, wherein saxophonist Jack Wyllie, synth experimentalist Luke Abbott, and drummer Laurence Pike slowly bloom together into a noisy flower, full of yearning spirituality, knotty runs, and wonderful internal exchanges, all of it at once synthetic and organic. Texturally, Szun Waves even mirror the sax/synths/beats mix of the Comet Is Coming, one of the numerous groups featuring Shabaka Hutchings, a central figure in London jazz. (The two projects also share a label.)

The six wholly unedited improvisations of New Hymn to Freedom don’t so much open the window on another corner of London’s “scene”—only the most broad-minded interpreters of the word “jazz” would place much of this droney, psychedelic music in that tradition—as they illuminate the field on which many of UK’s experimental musicians have been playing of late. Social, sharing, dynamic interplay is hardly the exclusive provenance of London’s DIY scene, but the recovery of this model for musicians working at the intersection of electronics, rhythm, and improvisation has been instrumental in pushing individuals towards group settings.

Szun Waves is a trio of such curious veterans. Abbott’s is probably the most recognizable name, from the texturally thorny, synth-heavy electronic music he’s been creating for nearly a decade as part of James Holden’s Border Community stable; both Wyllie, whose saxophone and electronics are an integral part of the Mercury Prize-nominated jazz ensemble Portico Quartet, and the Australian Pike, a veteran of electronics-meets-jazz groups PVT and Triosk (whose 2003 album with producer Jan Jelinek, 1+3+1, is one distinguished precursor of New Hymn to Freedom), are more formally attuned to collaborative improvisation. The project began as a duo between Abbott and Wyllie, exploring a space somewhere between drone-oriented ambiance and Vangelis’ globe-trotting new age (you can hear why Wyllie’s Portico were long-time mainstays of Peter Gabriel’s ethnographically inclined Real World label), and the trio’s potential fruition came into focus on 2016’s At Sacred Walls.

By comparison, New Hymn to Freedom feels like a wonderfully rollicking coming-out party, consistently stormy and stirring in ways that the trio’s debut only hinted they could be. One of the traits it does share with the more electronic-minded London jazz participants is its desire to push people toward engaged motion. On “High Szun,” Pike moves all over his kit to rev up the rhythm alongside Abbott’s arpeggiated synth runs; Wyllie’s soprano phrases are often processed, short and repetitive, before voicing the tune’s melody with a stateliness that briefly recalls Coltrane and Pharoah cutting through the musical gale. One can envision hearing this at strategic moments in DJ sets by Four Tet or Ben UFO.

At their best, Szun Waves jams come as swells, with a power that is hard to dismiss, regardless if you can see their intentions from a click away. Even when the build-up is as long—and the name as potentially portentous—as the 12-minute closing title track, the pay-offs win. The feedback-like squall of a duet between Abbott and Wyllie at the end of “New Hymn to Freedom,” with Pike’s hi-hats pushing the space, can easily be imagined as the contemporary progeny of numerous jazz-attuned psychonautical Brits, from Robert Wyatt to Jason Pierce. It’s also a bountiful example of the local dirt’s modern harvest. Drink it in.

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