Noel Langley’s debut album begins with a Fanfare For The Uncommon Man, an appropriate gesture given the extent to which Langley is a most uncommon musician. Most readers not intimately entwined with London’s close-knit jazz scene will probably never even have heard his name, yet Langley is among the most respected trumpet players in the UK.
He founded and continues to perform with the London Jazz Orchestra and has played with a number of major big bands. He is also equally adept in pop and rock horn sections, performing regularly with Swing Out Sister and contributing to works by major household names (Adele, Manic Street Preachers, Radiohead, Lou Reed).
Yet Edentide is Langley’s first album as leader, completed just in time for his 50th birthday celebrations. Langley’s renewed sense of urgency followed the death of pianist, composer and fellow London Jazz Orchestra member Pete Saberton, another hugely respected but criminally under-recorded musician (the LJO continues to do great work in keeping Saberton’s music alive).
Langley’s career so far seems to mirror that of one of his major influences, the trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler (Wheeler’s composition Four For One is included here). Wheeler waited until the age of 38 to release Windmill Tilter, his first album as leader, after many years working tirelessly in a range of ensembles. Jazz remains a musical idiom that values and respects artistic maturity, and it is perhaps to Langley’s credit and advantage that Edentide is a mature and focused work, with a very clear sense of artistic identity. Recorded in a short three day session, but painstakingly edited and mixed over the course of a year, Edentide seamlessly conjoines the spontaneity of improvisation with careful orchestration and nuanced production. Frequently cinematic in its sound and approach, Edentide is a work packed with surprises and ingenuity.
The opening Fanfare, originally composed when Langley was just 15, suggests that his compositional voice has been lying dormant for some time. Played privately at pianos on many occasions but never before presented to an audience, it would be fascinating to hear exactly how this Aaron Copland-referencing widescreen gem began life. Langley’s playing and arranging skills reach an apotheosis on the increasingly dense cascades of Sven’s Island, a piece that also benefits from the rhythmic impetus of percussionist Asaf Sirkis. It has the impetus and forward motion of a club track, the rhythmic intricacy and unpredictable phrase lengths of jazz and the rich colours and emotional heft of a film score.
Langley has a clear gift for development – and his ability to extract vivid detail and riches from ostensibly simple themes and foundations is one of Edentide’s many virtues. Langley’s interpretation of composer Graham Fitkin’s Glass is at once haunting and beautifully optimistic, given illustrative depth by the arrangement for the Stealth Horns (a combination of the Swing Out Sister horn players and the ensemble Langley put together for Radiohead’s King of Limbs From The Basement session).
The eight pieces on Edentide are seamlessly intertwined, and although the music frequently takes unexpected detours and drifts, it is held together by frequent return visits to the sound of the harp or a mysterious pedal drone. Langley has crafted a unique sound world that feels like an intensely personal musical space. Other musicians make crucial contributions (including tuned percussionist Keith Fairbairn and pianist Alcyona Mick, who both help define the sound), but it seems as if Langley has thought very carefully about which musicians to involve here and why.
Yet in spite of its personal nature, and Langley’s role as a humble auteur, this music is also generous and accessible. Langley claims that his intended audience is ’99 per cent of the population’, specifically those who ‘think they hate jazz’. Reaching this audience is no doubt too insurmountable a task for one musician – and one suspects that wider success for Edentide depends on a change in attitude towards jazz from areas outside the niche media that currently sustains it. Yet this is such open-minded, expansive music – rather than being introspective, it reaches out and communicates clearly.