Robert Wyatt may be the most pertinent example in support of the argument that technique is not everything in music. His voice – vulnerable, sometimes hesitant, often straying from the true pitch – is far from any textbook case of ‘proper’ singing. He has little interest in conventional projection or false emoting. Instead, his is one of the most nuanced, compassionate and convincingly human voices in contemporary music. Like Billie Holiday or Bob Dylan, his phrasing is inventive and magical. Whilst there will always be blurring of boundaries with Wyatt, there is never any doubt as to the clarity of feeling or as to the texts he is interpreting. He is never anything other than a joy to hear, even when at his most poignant or melancholy.
For The Ghosts Within is rather different from much of his recent work. It is a collaborative project – with saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stephens offering contributions of equal magnitude and contrasting character. There were singular tracks on Cuckooland and Comicopera that, with hindsight, offered some hint of the territory explored here – notably the interpretation of Raining In My Heart and the touching duet with Karen Mantler on Just As You Are. The selection on For The Ghosts Within delves deeper into tradition – with several tracks drawn from the standard repertoire of jazz. Wyatt’s take on the likes of Thelonious Monk‘s Round Midnight, Billy Strayhorn‘s Lush Life or Duke Ellington‘s In A Sentimental Mood may be less demonstrative than many of the classic recordings – but they are rich in subtlety, restraint and, crucially, warmth and humour.
A more obvious source of comparison lies outside Wyatt’s own work though. Atzmon and Stephen have worked together before, on Atzmon’s own standards album In Loving Memory Of America. Like much of Atzmon’s work, that album also provided an opportunity to make a passionate and controversial political statement – although its impact was somewhat muted by the saccharine quality of some of the arrangements. It’s arguable that For The Ghosts Within, and Stephen’s contribution in particular, are more successful – lush, touching, tender – occasionally whimsical, but never sentimental.
Atzmon’s articulate, full bodied playing – rich in both technique and musical language – both supports Wyatt’s conversational approach and contrasts with it. Whilst Wyatt’s tone is mostly reflective or meditative, Atzmon strikes a note of righteousness, purpose and conviction. His refracting of some of these familiar tunes through his Middle Eastern heritage and influences makes for something surprisingly unusual and distinctive – particularly on In A Sentimental Mood.
There are also unpredictable and disarming moments of weirdness, particularly amongst the originals. The title track begins with a contemporary-sounding introduction that is at once menacing and mysterious. It then burgeons into an ornate vocal chorus via some delightfully light and evocative cymbal work from Wyatt and an intoned melody that sounds not unlike a jazzed-up Yo La Tengo. It’s an idiosyncratic, powerful and urgent plea for peace. Less immediately likeable, but somehow no less engaging, is the deeply peculiar Where Are They Now? This begins sounding like one of the Moondog-sampling escapades of Mr Scruff before the intervention of Palestinian rap group Ramallah Underground tips it well outside the realms of the sensible. It’s more than a little jarring in this context – but perhaps that was the intention.
It would be easy to see this as an amiable diversion for Wyatt – but time may reveal this to be as vital a piece in the puzzle of his later work as Cuckooland. This music is at the core of what he does and has informed his musical language throughout his career. The fact that he manages to breathe new life into melodies as overplayed and hoary as What A Wonderful World or as complex and beautiful as Lush Life is triumph enough in itself.