Invocations (Jazzman Records)

Nat Birchall 

Released October 23, 2015

Jazzwise Top 10 Releases of 2015




The music of Nat Birchall joins with a long-flowing conversation in jazz. His chosen tongue is that of the spiritualised musical discourse whose vital source can be found in the sacred testaments of John Coltrane, and which was channelled most directly by his fellow travellers Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, and his wife Alice. Many others followed where Coltrane led, giving voice in music to the esoteric renewal of the soul and mind that lent spiritual strength to the black counterculture, and complemented the political radicalism of the late 1960s and 1970s. This rich vein of spirit music has rarely been tapped by British jazz musicians, and Birchall is one of the few to have been drawn to it with the conviction of heart that it demands. For these are the sonic and spiritual spaces where the colossi of an earlier age declaimed and confessed with sacrificial passion, from within the flames of revolution.
Ultimately, it has been the sonic pathways offered by jazz that have provided Birchall with the clearest way to channel the resonances of the higher heights, wherefrom timeless musical messages might be revealed. ‘It seems to me that’s it’s the most direct way of tuning in to this higher source. That music seems to me to display this connection to whatever this higher source, this higher energy, might be. It seems to connect to it the most, more than other music. You can hear it in other musics to a certain degree sometimes, but this seems to be almost purely of that nature. That’s what really motivates me the most.’
All music is a spiritual communion – it is a talking in tongues, a present conversation with the past and the future, a dance with technology, a branch held out to a stranger. It speaks to the old and the young in a language that is beyond language, it expresses and elicits emotion and thought at once, it is both bodily and mental, noise and silence, intention and accident: it is the dissolution of opposites, the fleeting noise made eternal prayer, the transubstantiation of spirit into sound. Music is the expression of unity, in which difference is both accepted and resolved, and from which a mended world might be born. To make music is, as Roland Kirk observed, to talk with the spirits. We are lucky that the music of Nat Birchall allows us to hear the sounds of their world once more. 

Track Listing:

1. Song to the Divine Mother (Nat Birchall) 12:00

2. Invocation (Nat Birchall) 11:55

3. To Be (John Coltrane) 7:42

4. Njozi (Vision) (Nat Birchall) 7:59

5. A Luta Continua (Nat Birchall) 7:30


Nat Birchall: tenor saxophone, bells, shakers, voice (3)

Adam Fairhall: piano

Tim Fairhall: bass

Johnny Hunter: drums

Christian Weaver: congas, bata drum, shekere, bells, shakers

John Ellis: voice (3)

Recorded November 12-13, 2014, at Limefield Studio, Manchester

Produced by Nat Birchall

Recorded by John Ellis

Mixed and Mastered by John Ellis and Nat Birchall

Mixing and Mastering engineer: John Ellis


There is a feeling of a new beginning on this collection from Nat Birchall. Superficially the album is released on Henley-on-Thames’ Jazzman records rather than Birchall’s own Sound Soul and Spirit records, on which he released the wonderful World Without Form and classic Live in Larissa. More tangibly only Adam Fairhall on piano remains from those two collections, representing the last common link to the pool of musicians Birchall and Matthew Halsall drew from in their classic collaborations on Gondwana records. Halsall is on record as saying that the parting was amicable, which seems reasonable given that Birchall was a better fit fit for the spirituality of “When the World Was One,” than the gentler more composed “Into Forever.” The latter was the first Halsall record that Birchall had not appeared on at least one track, so it is hard not to feel that the end of a chapter has been reached. 
If that is the case then Invocations finds Birchall in creative rude good health. The key to his music is his beautiful deep tone married to an instinctive understanding of the need to give that sound space to breathe. It’s a wordless expression of feeling for the music, showing that ‘passion,’ a word devalued through overuse by lesser artists, need not be synonymous with some quasi-sophisticated branding approach, corporate mission statement or pointless competition with his peers. Birchall, it should also be noted, eschews the critical shorthand “spiritual jazz” preferring to describe his music as “spiritual in its intent …that attempts to connect to, or invoke, the Universal Spirit or Sat-cit-ananda” and there can be no doubt of the depth of feeling, love and desire to communicate through the music he plays. 
The other reason for the sensitivity around the “spiritual jazz” tag is that it tends to imply a reductive simplification of the music, albeit in the service of higher goals, when in truth Birchall brings a wider palette to the listener. Read his eloquent website blog on how he reached jazz via the dub reggae of the 1970s, finding something in John Coltrane’s ‘Blue Train’ era tenor saxophone sound that reminded him of Tommy McCook, and it’s hard not to ascribe his audible sense of musical space and dynamics to these early tastes. Birchall also emphasises that he was a listener before he was a musician, leading him to value the totality of the sound, the feel and timbre of the instruments and the way that they were recorded, over the simple actual notes played. This is something that, arguably, also comes from that golden age of Jamaican music and feels refreshing at a time when even our music finds little middle ground between dry intellectual games and pointless easy listening.  Dues are paid to John Coltrane with the cover of “To Be,” but the four lengthy Birchall compositions that form the rest of the collection are if anything better still. Among the highlights are the way that “Invocation” hits a soulful piano and bass riff shortly before the 5 minute mark like Alice Coltrane covering Horace Silver; or how opener “Song to the Divine Mother” winds a slow, intense, Birchall solo around the rhythm, the emotion growing as it progresses into Adam Fairhall’s rippling piano solo. As befits the senior collaborator in the band, it feels as though Fairhall features more prominently on this album—his piano solo on final track “A Luta Continua” is excellent being both powerful and engrossing as it emerges over the soulful bass line in the first half of the piece. Birchall joins around the halfway mark to bring the track and the album home to a satisfying conclusion. 
There really must be something in the water in the North West of the UK that has brought forth so much talent in recent years. Younger, more open in outlook and less conservative than the cut throat London scene that tends to monopolise the attention of the UK media, the likes of Birchall, Matthew Halsall, GoGo Penguin, The Weave, Matt Owens and the Beats and Pieces Big Band are among those who have emerged from the area in recent years and long may it continue. Invocations continues the almost routine excellence that Birchall has given us of late, and if Live in Larissa taught us anything it is that live he could stretch these pieces still further. A light in a sea of mediocrity, the prospect of Birchall playing these tunes live in 2016 has just made the New Year a very appealing prospect. Unreservedly recommended.

Phil Barnes (All About Jazz)