Burning Shed 2003 & 2004 / Explore Rights Management 2023
A veteran of avant-garde endeavors ventures on a voyage into a Möbius band and back again.
To suggest that Hugh Hopper was just a bassist would seem to be a huge underestimation; to think that this tireless experimentalist was detached from tradition could feel like a glaring mistake. Here are two rather dissimilar albums able not only to prove such a point but also open unfamiliar aspects of the late great artist’s creative profile, although both were laid down in the family way. With quite a few kindred spirits invited to take a flight of fantasy alongside their old friend from the Canterbury scene, HH’s instrumental intrepidity manifested itself most magically on 2003’s “Jazzloops” and “The Stolen Hour” which saw the light of day the following year, yet he never, even in the most avant-garde turn of events, lost the sense of a riveting tune – and his sense of humor remained the same as well.
That’s why, while the title of “Jazzloops” – recorded three decades after his debut, “1984” – may perfectly describe the principal method Hopper implemented on its tracks, his soundscapes on a suite which sets things in motion here are filled with folk sensibilities, thanks to the presence of effects-infused brass, the deceptive dissonance between Simon Picard’s sax and Christine Janet’s trumpet – running from “T3” to “Garrisoi” – smeared once Hugh’s swirling ivories outline an expanse, a sort of wild jungle, for the tabla-driven rhythm and the four-string heartbeat to spread the composer’s nervous, occasionally vocal message. However, when Didier Malherbe and Pip Pyle join HH for the mesmeric “Sfrankl” to combine bliss and quirks, the ensemble dynamics spring to life and become exciting, but the arrival of Elton Dean and John Marshall on “Acloop” can still surprise SOFT MACHINE aficionados, because Hopper’s bottom-end charge will take the entire sonic space on this piece before motorik groove and reeds’ improv cut into his intense assault. The onslaught is slightly reined in for “Calmozart” whence elegiac tones gradually emerge to solidify in “1212” with the twang of Patrice Meyer’s guitar and the blare of Pierre-Olivier Govin’s woodwind, and achieve magnificence in “Digwot” to the calming weave of Hugh’s subaquatic thrum and Robert Wyatt’s piano and hum – only to find the bassist engage in pure jazz for the trad jive of “L4” and “Nigepo” – the somewhat unhinged finale of the arresting platter.
Stylistically not so far from its predecessor’s liberties and loops, and featuring basically the same personnel, “The Stolen Hour” is distinctly different from HH’s earlier oeuvre – not least thanks to American cartoonist Matt Howarth’s graphic story, reproduced in the booklet, which grounds the record’s concept and gives titles to its numbers. Don’t be confused, then, by the album announcing its entrance with “Craig’s Distended Train Ride” where Wyatt’s romantic cornet and Govin’s sax cushion the muscular jangle of the ensemble leader’s bass to paint the hypnagogic anxiety of a railroad trip in the morning until his chthonic sway grows in scope in the percussive “Complications At Work” and threatens the lyrical fragility of twin reeds’ unison and individual forays into the unknown – and repeat the trick later on on “An Unregulated Sunset” jamming his keyboards in the urban noise and push the silvery trumpet towards the horizon. Yet if the reflective synthesizers render “An Inescapable Encounter With Mrs. Pry” and the wah-wah-washed “Yearning For The Stolen Hour” less adventurous, there’s a wondrous wobble in theses pieces’ flow, signaling the platter’s softer character, as Hugh’s acoustic strum on “The Long Drive” and Jan Ponsford’s ethereal, albeit undeniably human, singing on the otherwise otherworldly “A Sideways Peek At Dreamtime” confirm the delicateness of Hopper’s approach. And his cinematic perspective, too, for “The Stuff He Sees” sees processed piano tenderly contrast the simple beat of strings against the fretboard and a voice edging the same phrase to the fore over and over again, while the faux orchestral “Compatibility” brings hymnal uplift for the listener to marvel at and “Sharing The Stolen Hour” juxtaposes frenetic finger figures and serene woodwind to revel in.
Not an easy listening, these two albums are enjoyable nevertheless, and the more they spin the deeper the rapture.