, November 16th, 2012 07:51
Emerging from a London jazz scene long intertwined with the changing styles of the city's club and bass cultures, drummer / composer Tom Skinner is already at the centre of a complex web of projects and collaborations. Proving that a decent and imaginative sticksman will never be short of work, his most high-profile associate is probably the near-ubiquitous Matthew Herbert, but Skinner is also a member of the increasingly-acclaimed trio Zed-U, led by fast-rising horn player Shabaka Hutchings, and Hutchings and Skinner also play in Sons of Kemet, where Skinner doubles up with Polar Bear drummer Seb Roachford.
Go back a few years, and you'd have found Skinner lurking in conceptual avant-garde soul troupe Elmore Judd, who eventually evolved into the Owiny-Sigoma Band after a trip to Nairobi to collaborate with local musicians Joseph Nyamungu and Charles Owoko. Throw in stints backing such acclaimed jazz names as Finn Peters, Cleveland Watkiss, Mulatu Astrake and Denys Baptiste, and you can see why this album- his debut solo proper- might be approached with a certain amount of eager curiosity.
Skinner released a free mixtape this summer as an appetiser, a forty-seven minute sampler of home recordings and early experiments; its electronic sound and cut n' paste aesthetic was a result both of the hip-hop Skinner was then listening to and the limitations of his bedroom recording set-up. Engaging as it was, Smash & Grab was only ever intended as a clearing of the decks before Skinner threw open his doors to greet the world- combining a tribute to the big palookas of Incredibly Strange Music, The Residents, with his own obvious nickname and an invitation to come inside and sample his wares.
Opening track 'Aquarius' immediately sets out in more sinister style than much of Smash and Grab, with loose, ritualistic drumming underpinning a John Barry-in-dub collage of submarine sonar bloops, gently throbbing under-judder, swampy burble, harpsichord chimes and general ominousness. The creepy quotient hardly lets up with the title track, which is a fairly faithful cover of the Residents' original; Shabaka Hutchings' clarinet snakes between the nursery rhyme nightmare lyrics, then is replaced by a rasping baritone saxophone and crisp club beats for a hard bopstep breakdown.
The clarinet returns in more pastoral mood on 'Crush', murmuring softly over Skinner's driving African rhythms, and creating a bucolic reverie with a slight synapse-frazzled edge, that at times whiffs a little too pungently of generic Lemon Jelly chill-out muzak, but which also hints oddly, to my mind, towards an imaginary instrumental outtake from XTC's English Settlement album. It's at this point that one begins to notice the deliberate flow of the album, away from the edgy darkness of the opening and moving, if not towards bright sunshine, then at least towards a hazy warm twilight. Sequenced like a mixtape, each track slips easily into the next, and the Danny Thompson-like acoustic bass on 'Foot Tap' further emphasises the Pentangle, John Martyn Brit jazz-folk feel of the previous number, courtesy of Tom Herbert from The Invisible and Polar Bear.
Hutchings' urgently visceral saxophone cuts up again on 'Bump,' the tracks drained and fractured post-bop like a slowed-down cousin of the excellent Gyratory System. But from this point on we're mellow all the way, as 'Knot Blue' brings guitars to the fore, both acoustic and electric, over a weave of natural and programmed beats resulting in soft stoner jazz that's too brightly clinical and druggily smug for my tastes. 'Venus' is equally smooth, but more organic; a drifting half-dream of wordless female vocals and drowsily plucked guitars, wandering through a mirage of clicks and feints, Byron Wallen's horn answering dimly in the distance. Another guitar piece, 'Me and My Lady' again has something of early John Barry about it, while 'The Sky is Falling' has a pastoral indifference that belies the somewhat apocalyptic title, floating gently downstream, far away from the burning city.
Skinner's accomplishments as a musician are without question, but borrowing the name of your project from one of the Residents' most notorious numbers invites certain expectations, one of which is that the listener will be consistently challenged and even unsettled by the music produced. To some extent- mostly on the earlier pieces, and maybe too on 'Bump'- this album fulfils that criteria, but too often it seems to drift into Gilles Peterson by numbers, late-night easy listening, reliant too much on craft and technique and too little on original ideas. The record's drift from generating a creeping unease to pursuing an ideal of toked-up, musically tight niceness was accompanied, for me, by a sense of disappointment and drifting attention. Hello, Skinny; lovely to meet you. But next time, let's get nasty.