Keyboardist and organist Dan Nicholls might be a new name to many, so quietly and unassumingly has he gone about his work so far, despite being a core member of one of London’s Loop Collective (also home to the likes of Outhouse and Jim Hart). Part of this maybe that he has thus far divided his time between studies in Birmingham and Copenhagen, often performing in collaboration with American or European musicians. Ruins is his debut recording under his own name and, although a challenging listen, immediately marks itself out as a major artistic statement.
Nicholls has commented recently on difficulties associated with the word ‘jazz’, when much of what is currently emerging from the British jazz scene has more of an ‘underground sensibility’. In part, he is right, although one of the most striking things about Ruins is its eloquent, successful hybridisation of a range of current and historic jazz influences. It would certainly be difficult to write about this album without making at least passing reference to contemporary New York musicians such as Craig Taborn, Tim Berne and David Torn – and Ruins seems to feel of a piece with masterpieces such as Taborn’s Junk Magic (which brilliantly fused improvisation and electronics) and David Torn’s darker Prezens. Yet Ruins also seems to reach back to something other than the contemporary avant-garde – there seems to be a feeling for electric-period Miles Davis, Nucleus or even the Mahavishnu Orchestra in some of the album’s more intense, groovier passages.
Beyond this, Ruins is co-produced by Matt Calvert (who also plays as part of the incandescent, maverick post-rock group Three Trapped Tigers), and makes fruitful use of loops and electronics. This music has an unforced, compelling sense of the new, not least on the closing idontknow – a solo vehicle for Nicholls that adroitly explores mystery, space, texture and sound.
Ruins is not a straightforward or easy listen, at least in part because it often eschews conventional melody in favour of intricately designed, darting and weaving flurries of notes. Sometimes these interlock, most impressively on the opening salvo of tracks (on which Tom Challenger joins other reed players Shabaka Hutchings and James Allsopp), creating a lattice effect. Tracks tend to build gradually and carefully, sometimes bursting into propulsive, thrilling grooves (particularly on Chaos Happens and the unpredictable, superbly executed Withdrawal).
Nicholls has assembled an outstanding ensemble, capable of handling his complex material with assured security. Bass-less groups can be problematic, but here the unusual arrangement seems to afford the musicians a good deal of freedom within the formally daring, highly detailed written context. The dependably brilliant Kit Downes provides much of the foundation on Hammond Organ, allowing Nicholls to play expressively and creatively above the surface, whilst drummer Dave Smith (also of the excellent Outhouse and Juju and currently touring with Robert Plant) provides both a range of textures and some engaging forward motion.
The most experienced and intrepid listeners will find this all captivating, but open-minded newcomers may be aided by Nicholls’ strong conceptual underpinnings for this music. He is interested in politics and media, most specifically in the manipulation of disaster imagery. Withdrawal investigates the Arab Spring, whilst Voice Intercepts suggests an engagement with phone hacking and the Leveson inquiry. Much of Ruins does indeed come with a strong sense of menace and foreboding, but it also sounds logical and structurally planned – an admirable attempt to make sense of a confusing, violent world.