Review:  The Scenery of Life Unfolding
by Lloyd Bradford Syke
Syke on Stage
January 2015

Even in the first moments of Birchall & Woolhouse’s The Scenery of Life Unfolding, many influences are in evidence. The piano-bass duo veers between jazz and ‘new’ music, informed by the spectres of European folk, discordant avant-garde and classical; the last lent particular credence by way of the opening cut, Echoes In Emptiness, which is emblematic of all these infusions, but distinguished by aching, bowed textures. 

Jeremy Woolhouse, who’s composed all the tracks, is candid about his reverence for the duets of Charlie Haden (with the likes of Keith Jarrett, John Taylor, Hank Jones and Egberto Gismonti) and in the unfussy, elegant, spacious-yet-intimate ambience created by Shannon Birchall, Woolhouse has found his own haven of Haden. 

Echoes is haunting, but not coldly so: on the contrary, Woolhouse sets us up for a melancholic reflection; the mood is slightly troubled, tormented. Aesthetically, it excerpts a dark night of the soul, seeming to emulate, embody and evoke the kind of fears and anxieties that return, time and again, just when we thought it was safe to sleep, perchance to dream. At the same time, there’s a sense of the easy, unspoken rapport between the two musicians, who are on precisely the same page, complementing and, yes, echoing patterns and dynamics with precision and a patina of pathos; clearly, in such delicate hands, the two are by no means mutually exclusive. I’m not sure what their history is together, but it sounds as if they’ve been playing together for decades. I say precision, but I wouldn’t want to intimate they’re mere technicians: this album drew me in, emotionally, from the first notes. It is intensely musical and exceptionally well-produced. Intimate would be an apt descriptor; hardly deniable, given the plethora of clicks and clacks that have been deliberately left in.

You’ve heard of food-and-wine matching, no doubt. Well, if a similarly intuitive art can be applied to music, might I recommend a single malt to go with this collection? For there’s something smoky and mellow here that can only but be enhanced, it seems to me, by a meditatively-sipped, neat Scotch. If you make it a double and can bear the exquisite pain of Birchall’s blue notes, you will also find the searing, sad passion of tango in the expression of the first piece, too. 

All these influences are deceptively interpolated and coalesce so seamlessly as to necessitate progressive discovery through repeated, critical listening: small but precious treasures are to be found between the lines on the manuscript (if there is one); should you have the patience and perspicacity to persist, your tenacity will be rewarded, rest assured. 

The dialogue between bass and piano is profoundly sensitive and empathic; sometimes so much so, it’s almost as if Woolhouse & Birchall are privy to the same neural signals, by some magic channelled through two bodies and instruments. Simpatico is a word that leaps to mind. Subtlety, if not sublimity, is  another. Compositionally, I can’t think of anything more perfectly-formed. As played, there’s harmonic nuance and the rattles, creaks and buzzes of Birchall’s, by turns, plucked and bowed upright bass bring a grounding, crunchy granola that counterpoints Woolhouse’s keynotes, that veer between silken and emphatic.

Though the sound and disposition shifts with Virtual Affection (in my mind’s eye, the veil of night is lifting and the sun beginning to tentatively dawn), it segues as if part of a considered continuum; a stream of consciousness. But who ever heard of a jazz concept album? It’s gently syncopated, but without sacrificing a free-flowing melodiousness. And just as one is lulled into a harmonious comfort zone, Woolhouse throws in a handful of unexpected, almost menacing chords, to keep things interesting and lively. It could almost be Burt Bacharach, if Burt had an inclination towards more sombre shadings. It’s a little more upbeat than Echoes, but never completely surrenders introspection. It has an easy propulsion, like South American Getaway, but is more contemplative and melancholic. Piano and bass complement each other so synergistically, again, it’s as if they’re tuned-in identical twins. This is a track that could fill many a lonely late night. All that’s missing is the chink of ice in a stocky glass, holding another wee spot of mellowing Scotch. And you’ve got to love the unexpected denouement, on plucked, buzzing bass strings. But what’s with that title? Well, apparently, it’s inspired by the poetry of one Lisa Chappel, who writes of technology taking over where interpersonal contact left off. 

Chappel’s urgent scribblings in tattered notebooks (or on bruised and battered notebook computer, perhaps) have also inspired Four Hours Out of Heathrow. Again, the title encapsulates the subject crisply: the unbearable lightness of being hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres from all that’s familiar. As I write, the wreckage of an Air Asia flight is being plucked from its watery grave, so such a tune sounds a little more sombre, contextually. The piano veritably aches, albeit not in a despairing way, but one which acknowledges loneliness, almost as if the absence of the other is making the heart grow fonder; or, at least, grow. It’s very possibly the most singularly beautiful melodic motif and sensitive arrangement on the entire album: a model of almost ascetic restraint in the patient, gentle exposition of the tune, which is, as a consequence, all the more pregnant with emotion. There’s nothing much academic going on here; it’s a straight-shooting piece, it’s arrow shot directly from the heart, into yours. 

From the sublime to the exquisite: Lost Friends; a tune of sweet and sour reminiscence. More memory than nostalgia, rose-coloured glasses have been cast aside, in favour of clear-sighted recollections. Again, there’s a nagging anxiety, even amidst its essential tranquility. Again, I hear Bacharach. And I mean it as the highest compliment: to stay true to a jazz sensibility, on the one hand, yet discover something, by way of melodic exploration, that might afford pleasure to those more attuned to the popular canon is a musical bridge not so often crossed.

Darkening Shadows, in a sense, picks up where the melancholic reverie of Lost Friends leaves off; here, we’ve a more realistic worldview, in which edginess can permeate even the most blissful moments, as if ethereal forces are determined we don’t ever have too good, or uninterrupted a time. There’s that sneaking anxiety yet again; collywobbles communicated through deviations from the melodic traverses one might’ve predicted.

There’s something acutely and attractively romantic and old school about Optimist’s Folly, as if written in homage to the great American songbook. The piano part is wistful, but it’s Birchall’s bass that’s really to the fore and it’s his inflections that bend the conventional popular songwriting shape into something a little more shape-shiftingly amoebic. While Woolhouse tinkles, Birchall bows and plucks, finding consonance with Woolhouse’s left hand, rendering texture, tactility and a subdued, ember-like glow. Memories and regrets are made of this.

Bubbles Rising is tinged with tango, albeit the more horizontal folk dance. Again, there’s a respectful conversation between bass and piano, with Birchall leading the way in a surreptitious solo that helps build tension and oxygenate the piece. Two-note twiddles on both instruments, by turns, might well imply butterflies, or lovebirds, caught in flagrante delicto. It’s more direct and self-possessed than it’s tuxedoed predecessor; certainly no less suave.

Tears For The Summer, too, succumbs to a Latinesque overture, but with this duo’s characteristic silkiness, while the following, title track fans out from but a few tentative notes, with allusions to pretty Celtic yearnings. It’s touching and eloquent, like a wordless eulogy for an Irish, Scottish or Welsh relo, or a longing for a season of light, or just lightness. So many of these tunes, this being no exception, hark lovingly back; odes to sweet times past; fond reminiscences.

Finally, there’s The Third Person, the last lullaby on the record. The Celtic notion still swirls around it and one can’t help but wonder if it’s an expression of resigned grief for lost love. Or a sad reflection on the impersonality of the digital age.Regardless of intention, under its cloak of ambiguity, there’s an intense lyricism.       

Repeated listens make emblems, or hooks, more evident: each track seems to have a pattern; a central figure. The Scenery of Life Unfolding is just that: Woolhouse seems to be looking at his own life, or lives more broadly, painting at least some of the scenes and seasons he stumbles upon. As we’re likely to know from John Lennon (and experience), life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. It sounds as if Woolhouse is making an earnest attempt to document and seek meaning from the unbidden and providential nature of human existence. Sometimes, there’s an urgency or impatience in the quest but, much of the time, he lets it all wash over him and the emotional tide laps at our feet and tickles our toes. Or ears. It’s a patient, dignified meditation that is sure to enrich your appreciation of musical composition and its profound potential to heal and move us, in a positive direction. It will, I expect, as it does mine, becalm your mind, no matter how rocked by tribulations; albeit first-world ones. You might well shed a tear. And why not. A lachrymal lustration never hurt anyone.

This album isn’t merely a compilation of tracks, it must be said. It’s more holistic and considered than that. There’s a flow, so that one melody eddies into another; snuggling-up, like a couple on a couch, staring into the fire. Or each other’s eyes. Here is a picture of the furniture of life, upholstered in beguiling melodies and informed by knowing harmonics. The collection’s title could hardly be more apt.  

And, there’s a third partner in this duet. Kind of like a fifth Beatle, I s’pose. And that’s Haydn Buxton, the engineer, who has eked out a fastidiously detailed, up-close and deeply personal sound that puts you right in the room. You don’t hear sounds like this every day.