The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


National Jazz Trio Of Scotland
Standards Volume III David Peschek , July 18th, 2014 06:59

"Bill loves chaos," my friend Robbie says, laughing as we both watch Wells – himself heaving with laughter – tickled mightily by some inter-song snafu. He's playing to a packed house at the Glad Café on the South side of Glasgow; actually, unusually, playing as a trio - Wells on piano, a scuffed, knackered looking upright that Wells makes sound concert-grand; Kate Sugden singing and playing marimba; Aby Vulliamy playing viola and singing. No one I know laughs like Wells: it's always a judder from the diaphragm up, never a coy giggle, always a full body shake. A sense of jubilation in amusement. This show marks the release of his third NJToS release. Generally, the National Jazz Trio Of Scotland tagline involves them not in reality being a trio, and not really playing jazz  – well, not straight jazz (whatever that might be), or what passes for jazz on the Scottish jazz scene. And actually, Standards Volume III is the fourth NJToS album: the first being Standards Vol I, which, unlike its successors, features "proper" jazz standard material and was available only as a small run of CDRs; the official first release – what else? – a Christmas album.

So, of course, what they play live "sounds nothing like the record," Wells says, puckishly. "Just, you know, if you buy one after and are terribly disappointed." You wouldn't be. Standards Volume III was made largely in Wells' kitchen, built around a set of samples recorded with help from Norman Blake, and sounds a little like Robert Wyatt's 'Dondestan' with a crystalline sparkle - songs as plain and sharp and elegantly devastating as they might be if Young Marble Giants' Alison Statton conjured the spirit of Dory Previn. It marks the continuing blossoming of Wells as lyricist - though only the second of his many records to feature his words. They'd barely fill a page, too – spare, concise, deceptively economical – hanging in the air with a plainness that belies their wit; looping back on themselves to weave a  spidery roundel both sweet and unsettlingly tense. As 'Unguarded Moment' has it: "Caught me when I least expected / Found me where I didn't look / Hit me like a block of concrete / On a hook."

'Unguarded Moment' is a little over two minutes of sparkle and swirl, a blissfully vertigo-inducing tempo change, and has a similarly precipitous end. Wells' "Standards" are either exquisite miniatures or delicate hives of repetition – and somehow he's crafted songscapes that seem precise and lush all at once. A version of the Beach Boys' 'With You Tonight' begins with a cough and cuts out the "On and one you go" sections in the (already brief) original, casting a melancholy through glorious harmonies that recalls the bleakness inherent in Carole King's 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow?' "With me tonight, I know you're with me tonight," the voices chorus – but it's only tonight, and it lasts barely a minute and a half – quite literally, small comfort. The gentle, froggish lollop of 'Alive And Well' has a barb amongst its pretty ripples – "I heard you were expecting / I'm not expecting much"; the title refers to "my sorrows" -  but lulls with perfectly judged longueurs. Frequently you don't notice the razor-blades in the apple until it's too late. That said – and to really mix metaphors – 'Push Your Face' does the inverse and hides a rose amongst its thorns. Unrelenting string stabs frame a lyric initially as uncomfortable as the title suggests: "Push your face up to the glass/Twisted out of shape," yet "even with distorted nose/You are beautiful," - the final word elongated to make every syllable vibrate. "Even with distorted noise, it is so beautiful. If it wasn't for that, doubt if I'd get up/So beautiful." The strings keep stabbing away long after the words have knocked you sideways, and you're left a little punchdrunk.  

'Push Your Face' leads into 'With You Tonight' and, by this point, two thirds of the way through an expertly judged 38 minutes, you can't quite find true north in the beautifully disorientating happy/sadness. And then there's the single, 'Word Is Like An Egg' – a clockwork-toy bossa whose curious, awed lyric comes from a collaboration with Saya from the Tenniscoats. "What on earth is there in here?... / It is waiting, breaking / Word is like an egg" – well, quite! Heard on its own, it's charming. In context, it's literally dizzying. It's like Tom Waits' 'What's He Building In There?' played on toy instruments – except, well, that's probably how Tom Waits sees that song anyway.

Then, on 'Liar', Wells sets the amiable sound of what you might, if you were pushed, call "a normal jazz band" way back in the mix as if there's a layer of ice between its amiable honking rattle and the lyric's interrogation of subjective reality. Yet somehow, despite the artful detachment in these songs, there's powerful emotional heft. Not so much in the way of emoting, but an earned weighing-up of things that's entirely captivating – the sense of huge life experience informing these precise, delicate choices.

It doesn't matter that Wells can't replicate these arrangements live: the tension, claustrophobia and emotional acuity of the recorded versions is mirrored in the fragility of the live performances, and the heart-in-mouth quality of the live show is an electric manifestation of the jeopardy in the songs. A tiny marvel, this record. A tiny, exquisitely-tooled marvel.