Album Appreciation: Active Imagination by Nick Walters

One of my favourite records of last year was Nick Walters and The Paradox Ensemble’s ‘Awakening’. It was released in January, and somehow got missed off my ‘essential’ list; something which I consider to be an oversight. It was one of those occasional record shop finds… I bought it on the strength of it being on the 22a label since I’d come to appreciate a string of excellent releases from the likes of Tenderlonious and Ruby Rushton; furthermore Walters features on the latter of these.

‘Awakening’ was an immediate hit for me, not only was I taken with Walters’ trumpet playing; but also with the breadth of music on that album. It was the Paradox Ensemble’s first outing for six years… apparently being brought together again by Ed Cawthorne (aka Tenderlonious), I really liked the big band feel of this 13-piece megalith on the one hand… while on the other I was also entranced by the African rhythms and Indian influence that added extra dimensions to the record… 

Move on twelve months and we find ourselves with a new Nick Walters release, this time with a smaller band, again featuring Cawthorne (flute & soprano sax), and Rebecca Nash (piano); but also Jeff Guntren (tenor sax), Nim Sadot (bass), Joseph Deenmanode (percussion) and Max Hallett (drums). 

I have been listening to this album for about a month and it is only now when I am researching it that I find that it was recorded in a single day, with hardly any practice time in advance… each of the band members improvising using Walters’ compositions as a framework. I find this amazing because this feels like such a tight and well-arranged set, with each of the players seemingly knowing their part and adding value to the collective.

Nash kicks off ‘So Long Chef’, with a piano intro that is both lush and soulful, before the band slide in and are very quickly up to pace… I immediately feel what I feel a lot about this album, that here is something that sounds both fresh and familiar… every note feels purposeful and every solo enhances the atmosphere of the recording… I can only imagine what it must have been like to be there at the moment on that day… scintillating.

After that ‘Ahimsa’ is well named with its cosmic and spiritual overtones. Ahimsa is a key tenet of Indian Religions emphasising the ideas of compassion and non-violence. Here you can feel that in the beautiful tenderness of the playing and in the way that the track draws you in and enrobes you. There is a holism to the playing here that is entirely in keeping with its theme… it is just a joy to listen to every nuance by each of these musicians. In this situation I am loathed to pick any one out… but Nash’s piano is just exquisite here.

Next up are ‘Gordian Knot Parts 1 and 2’, the first part of which brings Walters’ playing to the fore in a manner that is both engaging and bewitching. Although only around three minute you feel as if you are in the middle of something longer and deeper; and although we move organically into the second part it is more upbeat and rounder in its sound. A ten-minute epic this really just gets better and better as it progresses, and with every listen. It is here that the band really cut loose with solo after solo of high-quality playing. Yet there no sense of individuals trying to outdo each other… rather that they are seeking to add to the whole.

Finally, ‘Dansoman Last Stop’ has more of a ‘standard’ feel to it, but only really compared to what has gone before. It’s probably here that I most got an inkling that of the improvised nature of this record through the pure liquid nature of the playing; and a close listen to this really tells me what contemporary jazz can be… then Cawthorne comes in with a solo and… well I’m not sure I can really describe it, it’s just an exemplary piece of playing which combines technical excellent with the sort of pure soulfulness that just transports you elsewhere.

With that it is finished… a set that feels far too short, and yet I am at least secure in the knowledge that I can put it on again… and that is exactly what I have been doing over the last few weeks. This album has rarely had a single play, and it is rare for me to put something on twice in a row.

With ‘Active Imagination’ I am really beginning to understand what jazz is about, and why I like it so much. This album has not only been a pleasure to get to know but, for me, an education into how I can better appreciate it. 

‘Active Imagination’ is out now on 22a



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