Metamorphic - The Two Fridas
Ian Mann at Jazzmann
You have to hand it to the pianist and composer Laura Cole, she’s not a musician who does things by halves. 2018 has been a big year for Cole with the release on the Discus record label of two, yes, two, double albums.
The first of these to appear was “The Two Fridas”, featuring Cole’s long running group Metamorphic. This was quickly followed by “Enough”, a collection of solo piano performances naturally credited to Laura Cole.
I intend to take a separate look at the solo piano recording so will turn first to “The Two Fridas”, a recording in part inspired by the work of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. During a childhood illness (specifically polio) the young Kahlo invented an imaginary friend or alter-ego she kept with her for the rest of her life, this ‘Other Frida’ eventually inspiring the famous painting “The Two Fridas”.
The album artwork features images inspired by the Kahlo painting, the new works coming from the celebrated ‘jazz painter’ Gina Southgate (‘Fridas for Laura on the front cover) and from Gonzalo Fuentes (‘Ride on a pig, then die and go’ back cover).
“The Two Fridas” is the third recording by the Metamorphic group and follows the single albums “The Rock Between” (2011) and “Coalescence” (2013). Both of these albums attracted considerable critical acclaim, and both are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.
For this latest recording Metamoprhic has, ahem, metamorphosed in an octet with Cole on piano and Rhodes joined by long standing members Kerry Andrew (vocals), Chris Williams (alto sax) and John Martin (tenor & soprano sax). The new look Metamorphic also features Ollie Dover on bass clarinet, Johnny Hunter on drums and twin bassists Seth Bennett (acoustic) and Ruth Goller (acoustic and electric).
Cole’s writing has always been intensely personal and she describes both this album and the companion solo piano work as “an attempt to express intimate emotions and thoughts through the creative and recording process, they aim to tell a story”. Both double albums also reflect Cole’s interest in “symmetry and the double sidedness of things, maybe as a Gemini”.
On both the “Two Fridas” and “Enough” recordings each composition or improvisation is dedicated to a specific person. The first disc, “Frida 1”, commences with “Cellular”, dedicated to saxophonist Jason Yarde and originally written as a large ensemble piece for the band Cole co-led with Seth Bennett, the Bennett-Cole Orchestra, which appeared briefly on “Coalescence”.
Cole says of the piece;
“There are four simple musical cells to the composition. What interests me is how, as a band, we move between these cells; the relationship and transition between between improvisation and written music”.
The music itself commences with what sounds like collective improvisation, the slur of reeds, the rustle of drums and percussion and the grainy sound of bowed basses. Out of this a more obviously written passage emerges with Andrew’s wordless vocals an integral part of the ensemble sound, but that spirit of improvisation still remains close to the fore. Hunter eventually strikes up a propulsive drum groove as the piece enters its next phase, with the horns and Andrew’s voice carrying the melody, as well as sheering off into improvisational jousting. The piece ends as it began with a final brief bout of almost free playing.
“Deer Medicine”, dedicated to Ellen Scrimgeour, was inspired by dream imagery, the deer in Cole’s dream indicating a new spirit of gentleness. Scrimgeour gave Cole a text explaining the significance of this, and those words form the basis of Andrew’s improvised vocal. The powerful ensemble playing is punctuated by an atmospheric piano / bass duet mid tune, this leading to a dramatic closing section featuring increasingly dynamic ensemble passages allied to the elemental power of Andrew’s wordless vocals.
“Charcole 1”, dedicated to Cole’s family, is the first of three wholly improvised pieces and was inspired by a trio gig that Cole witnessed in Brussels featuring guitar, duduk, percussion and electronics. Metamorphic’s improvisation inevitably sounds very different but retains something of that trio’s spirit. There is a pre-composed element, the evocative words written by Cole and whispered, sung and spoken by her, in conjunction Andrew. The sombre, poetic quality of the words is reflected in the scratchy, grainy improvisations of the musicians with eerie bowed bass, the furtive rustle of percussion, the piping of the reeds.
“The Mountains, The Sea / The Island” is a two part, ten minute epic that draws its inspiration from John Donne’s “No Man Is An Island” quote. The leader’s piano engages in dialogue with Hunter’s percussion on the dramatically atmospheric opening passage. Cole’s piano then leads the next section in trio mode, with wordless vocals and reeds gradually added to the arrangement as the piece slowly gathers momentum, Dover’s bass clarinet is a distinctive component here. Layers are added until Hunter establishes an off kilter funk groove that forms the basis for a thrilling series of saxophone exchanges featuring Martin and Williams. The piece ends as it began with Cole at the piano.
The title of “Dark Thundering Moon” came from Cole’s then eight year old daughter, Martha, who was writing the screenplay for an imaginary film. Cole asked if she could write the music for the film, and dedicates the recorded work to Martha. The music is as atmospheric and evocative as the title, beginning with what sounds like a freely improvised passage featuring the deep sonorities of bass clarinet and bowed double bass. From this emerges a brief written section featuring piano and wordless vocals, followed by a more dynamic ensemble passage featuring Andrew’s singing of Cole’s lyrics, the words including those of the track title. Cole takes an extended piano solo, her first thus far, and demonstrates considerable fluency and inventiveness. Hitherto she’s largely been content to be a member of an ensemble where dense writing meets free improvisation and conventional jazz soloing is something of a rarity. It’s back to the ensemble and Andrew’s adventurous but emotive vocalising in a rousing section that includes some dynamic drumming from the excellent Johnny Hunter. The composition then resolves itself peacefully around the sound of the leader’s piano.
“Frida 1” ends with Cole’s ingenious “Little Woman, Lonely Wing”, a splicing together of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”, conceived after Cole envisioned an imaginary meeting between the pair. It represents one of Cole’s numerous “hybrid” pieces where she splices the music of two different composers together, linking them with compositional ideas of her own. This piece first appeared as a full band performance on “Coalescence” but is here revisited in the piano trio format featuring just piano, bass and drums. In this sense it’s one of the most ‘conventional’ performances on the album but it’s still a fascinating listening experience that casts the music of Coleman and Hendrix in a new light and offers further evidence of Cole’s considerable pianistic abilities (the piece is dedicated to fellow pianist Alex Wilson). Hunter and the bassist (presumably Bennett, both arco and pizzicato techniques are deployed) also impress as they offer empathic support in a highly interactive trio performance.
“Frida II” commences with the brief group improvisation “26,302”. The piece is dedicated to the late Bob Hesketh, a long standing friend of the Cole family who was a crossword compiler for The Times. Number 26,302 was the final crossword that he compiled for the paper and the words that are spoken and sung derived from his clues, so he gets a writing credit of sorts. The music consists of clues spoken by a range of female and male voices, the speakers being Andrew, Cole, Goller, Dover and Williams. The music features both plucked and bowed double bass, presumably Goller and Bennett working in tandem.
“Senken” is dedicated to Corey Mwamba, the Derby based vibraphonist who acts as producer on Cole’s solo piano album “Enough”. “Senken” is about cuts” declares Cole, “musically, metaphorically and actually, and how we, as musicians deal with this”. It commences with the pure sounds of Andrew’s wordless voice, this soon joined by double bass and a choir of reeds. The addition of drums gives the music urgency and heft and spurs Andrew into a more abstract and aggressive style of vocalising that is extremely effective. A second, more animated horn chorale, leads into a powerful closing section braying horns, Goller on electric and powerful, rock influenced drum grooves. There’s even time for a more impressionistic coda of voice and Rhodes on a piece that crams a lot of information into its four minutes forty seconds duration.
“Digging For Memories” is this disc’s epic, a seventeen minute suite inspired by the harrowing experience of Cole’s visit to Auschwitz. The title is a quote from the German Jewish writer Walter Benjamin who fled from Occupied France intending to escape to the US but became trapped at the border in Northern Spain, eventually taking his own life. Cole’s composition is dedicated to the philosopher and author Georges Didi-Huberman who also visited Auschwitz and similarly struggled to find an appropriate artistic response. Cole’s composition is a powerful piece of work featuring some rousing ensemble playing, initially led by Andrew’s strident wordless vocal but also featuring strong contributions from Cole, the reeds and drummer Hunter. A relative calm after the opening storm features an impressive pizzicato double bass solo. The piece also includes a spoken word section as Cole’s poem “The Phoenix”, with its images of fire, ash and rebirth is convincingly delivered by Andrew. The music that follows this is suitably atmospheric and reflective with unsettling saxophone multiphonics. The closing section is ushered in by a double bass motif, the mood of the piece subtly altering as the music gathers momentum, becoming positively anthemic as Andrew’s voice soars and the twin saxes take flight.
“Charcole II” represents a second setting of Cole’s poem and was recorded immediately after the first version. Cole decided that both takes were worthy of a place on the finished recording. The mood and many of the musical elements remain the same. Cole dedicates the performance to the saxophonist Tony Kofi.
The title track draws on some unique sources of inspiration. At the time of its release Cole sent a copy of “Coalescence” to the great Robert Wyatt. Wyatt was suitably impressed and forwarded a postcard to Cole offering words of support and encouragement. The visual image on this card was of the Kahlo painting “The Two Fridas”. Inspired jointly by Wyatt’s words, the poetry of Sylvia Plath and by Kahlo herself Cole wrote the poem that forms part of this piece, her words imparted by Andrew, accompanied by bowed bass and delicately nuanced drums and percussion. Cole references the fact that Kahlo produced so many self portraits with the line “I am the person I know best; it will be better in the knowing” appearing in the lyrics and on the album packaging. It’s a good quote but its unfortunate that not all of Cole’s words are reproduced within the package, the full text would certainly add much to the listener’s appreciation and enjoyment of the music. Initially the music is reflective and introspective but the mood changes in the later stages of the piece as Williams and Martin go head to head as the mood and momentum of the composition changes, their playing perhaps a reflection of the underlying theme of duality. The piece resolves itself with a return to the spoken word and a reprise of Cole’s poem and is dedicated to Wyatt.
The closing “Truth” is the only non-Cole original on the recording. It was written by drummer, composer and educator Pete Fairclough, a hugely influential figure on the jazz scene in the North of England. Cole was once one of Fairclough’s students but has since played professionally with him. Her arrangement of Fairclough’s piece is dedicated to its composer, and is clearly a homage to a truly inspirational figure. Soft reeds and gently brushed drums help to give the piece a pastoral air. It’s uncannily beautiful and represents a delightfully peaceful conclusion to an often turbulent album.
“The Two Fridas” is arguably Cole’s most ambitious and personal recording to date. More than with most jazz musicians one feels that for Cole the creative process is a very necessary source of catharsis. Thus her sound-world is very much her own with musical, literary and other influences coming together. It’s sometimes a demanding listen, and for this reason her music will only suit so many people’s ears.
Personally I applaud her originality, individuality and ambition, although even I have to admit to finding it a difficult listen at times. That said its best moments are highly rewarding and in the current overall musical climate it’s good to hear artists making heartfelt personal statements and taking musical and creative risks.
You can buy this album here.