Monocled Man is an unconventional, bass-free trio under the leadership of trumpeter Rory Simmons, who regularly tours as part of Jamie Cullum’s band and who has also performed and recorded with Friendly Fires, Bat For Lashes and Katie Melua amongst many other credits. The band released their debut album Southern Drawl on Whirlwind Recordings in 2014. It successfully explored angular rhythms and some unusual and often innovative textural and dynamic possibilities for this kind of small ensemble. The sound of the group was as much defined by Jon Scott’s active drumming and Chris Montague’s wide range of guitar sonics as by Simmons’ more plangent trumpet melodies. The music sounded assured, imaginative, turbulent and often unpredictable, but it still operated within recognisable contemporary jazz parameters.
The follow-up We Drift Meridian is somewhat different, to the extent that it would be easy enough to assume it to be the work of another band entirely (although the individual contributions of the musicians remain distinctive and identifiable). The music here blends acoustic textures with electronics in a fluid and effortless manner. Musical reference points from notional jazz communities might include keyboardist Craig Taborn’s wiry, fragmented and thoroughly brilliant electronics project Junk Magic or David Torn’s industrial, menacing masterpiece Prezens. More recently, and perhaps more pertinently for Simmons, trumpeter Dave Douglas made a similarly immersive and atmospheric journey through electronic sound worlds on his High Risk album. Simmons has also spoken of musical influences well beyond the jazz world, including the likes of Clark and Jon Hopkins.
Whilst these sound worlds sometimes seem cold and detached, the music also has a sense of melancholy that hints at loneliness and isolation. The latter emotion is significant, given that Simmons’ inspiration from the album was Pocket Book of Remote Islands, a book by German writer Judith Shcalansky, detailing her childhood interest in disparate islands and their inhabitants. For example, Tromelin Island, the location that gives name to the album’s mysterious, compelling overture, is the site of the wreckage of a slave ship that ran aground in 1761. It is also appropriate that the music consistently evokes both mystery and awe.
The album achieves an impressive unity and coherence in sound. Recurring characteristics include eerie echoes and reverb, purposefully splintered and broken grooves and coiled, deceptively delicate picked guitar lines. The approach to melody seems to lie mainly in the exploration and development of short, insistent motifs. Vocalist Emilia Martensson adds inventive phrasing in her understated but impressive contributions (particularly on the haunting title track). It is a work where attention to detail in sound design is as important as individual improvisatory contributions or compositional approaches to harmony and rhythm. Some of the depth in sound is achieved through the judicious use of effects, and in the intricate blend of acoustic and electronic drums. The approach manages to make many of these pieces sound simultaneously muscular and vulnerable.
A frequent pitfall of some electronic music (and an anathema to jazz musicians) is the difficulty in integrating dynamic contrasts. This is something this band deftly avoids, as tracks such as Fiction Afloats and Marie Betsy begin with soft pattering and build to greater intensities (the latter hints at post-Kid A Radiohead). The cinematic feeling of Deception Island is expertly punctured not just by Ed Begley’s increasingly angry, frustrated vocal but also by sudden bursts of abrasive noise.
Whilst there is ample improvisation and a restless activity in the music, there is also a sense of wide open space suggestive of being adrift on the seas. This combination of the mechanical, the geographical and human feeling is effective, and deserves to be heard both within and outside the jazz scene.