With its sci-fi looking front cover and references to other worlds I really was not sure what I expected to hear when I first received The River Tethys. So what did I hear and, more importantly, how was I left feeling?
Ben Wilcock describes the structure of the album like this:
“Each track on the album is based on different unique worlds explored by the various protagonists within the Hyperion saga [The Hyperion Cantos series of science fiction novels by American author Dan Simmons]. We recorded the music and then each track was assigned to characters and scenes in the novels. I knew that musically this was going to be a meeting of old and new worlds, which is where the connection to the books comes in; distant worlds connected by a commonality. As we put the tracks together for the album it became clear which track suited which character or world.”
‘Sol Draconi Septum’ starts very simply with drums, bass and then piano. This is not the futuristic soundscape sound that I was expecting from having read the inspiration behind the album or from seeing the cover. The style does change part way through from what I would say is a mainstream feel to something more contemporary that “portrays the drive and desperate desire to reach the surface as our protagonists travel beneath the ice”. The second track is ‘La Rosita’ (written by Carl Fenton and Lester O’Keefe). The beautiful melody is played by violinist Tristan Carter at a very leisurely pace with equally delightful piano accompaniment from Ben Wilcock. The tempo goes through the roof with the Dizzy Gillespie composed tune ‘Groovin’ High’. This is a great version of the familiar melody with the piano playing a real standout – according to the press pack notes “the piano deconstructs each phrase and superimposes them without form or structure”. This may be the case, but the original composition is not lost.
‘First Gate’ begins with solitary minimalist piano, the drums enter with a heartbeat followed by a drone, bowed on the bass. This has the feel of someone tentatively exploring a new place. The piece doesn’t really conclude but fades out but leaving the listener with the sense that if they listened hard the tune would still be there, like a whisper. ‘The Butterfly’ is a traditional Irish slip jig but with an extended introduction. The piano playing is first class on this lilting Irish tune as is the drumming from John Rae. ‘T’ien Shan’ is a short solo piano piece that derives its name from a mountain range located in Central Asia. The tune acts as an interlude, which I found sublime to listen to.
Aenea “is the main protagonist of the novel series. She is a twelve-year-old half-human, half-android. The song is based on different harmonic centres, each representing different qualities of Aena: optimism, beauty, insight, and mystery.” The composition does indeed represent the qualities listed. Ben Wilcock leads on the piano, but it is Tristan Carter’s violin that brings the character of the tune to life. ‘The Stinger’ changes the mood of what is being heard completely. The tempo is up, the bass playing of Dan Yeabsley comes to the fore, this is terrific be-bop style playing at, apparently, three hundred and eighty beats per minute – I didn’t count.
‘Chitchatuk’ is a very different composition that leads with pizzicato bass and violin. This tune has a free-jazz feel to it, almost like listening to a people jabbering away in an unfamiliar language. The piano then tempers the unfamiliar and gives the sound a rounded, fuller tone. ‘The Secret life of Music’ is a tune in the style of Errol Garner, paying homage to the old school. There is free, improvised section that bridges the worlds of traditional and contemporary jazz. A jaunty tune that lifts the spirits. ‘Star Eyes’ brings The River of Tethys to an end. The melody starts in a traditional mainstream fashion with repeated motifs but, according to Ben Wilcock, the solo parts play off a different ‘beat one’. I am not familiar with the tune but its style, and what Ben has done with the “arrangement”, I very much enjoyed – particularly the playing of Dan Yeabsley on bass and drummer John Rae.
“All of the tracks on the album are ‘one takes’ because we wanted the recording to really capture a true collaborative improvisation,” he says. “Jazz and sci-fi don’t typically mix so, conceptually, this album has taken me in a new direction, and I hope listeners will feel that they are listening to something fresh and innovative.”
I did feel that I was listening to something different, I liked the mix of the new with the familiar and how the familiar was used. The musicianship is first-class throughout, but it is the way in which the violin has been used that, for me, gives the album an added piquancy and for which composer should be congratulated.
The River of Tethys will be released Friday, 13 August, 2021 on Thick Records (NZ).
1.Sol Draconi Septum 2. La Rosita 3. Groovin High 4. First Gate 5. The Butterfly 6. T’ien Shan 7. Aenea 8. The Stinger 9. Chitchatuk 10. The Secret life of Music 11. Star Eyes
Ben Wilcock – piano; John Rae – drums; Dan Yeabsley – bass; Tristan Carter – violin