Alabaster dePlume is the enchanting moniker of Angus Fairbairn, a performance poet, activist, composer and saxophone player originally from Manchester who moved to London in the mid-2010s to join a residency at the Total Refreshment Centre. The London’s South Bank studio and music venue has not only been home to a community of like-minded musicians, DJs, photographers, poets and painters since 2012, it has also become the epicentre of a thriving jazz scene.
Compiling saxophone-led instrumentals from three of the musician’s previous releases, namely Copernicus (2012), The Jester (2013), Peach (2015) and performed by a large cast of musicians, To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 was jointly released on Scottish label Lost Map Records and Chicago-based recording company International Anthem on 28 Feb 2020 last.
Even though melodies are written, all live performances on To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 come across as vibrant and spontaneous creations. Borrowing from performing arts techniques, every Alabaster dePlume live session involves an element of collective improvisation which is often accomplished through a deliberate lack of rehearsals for instance. Cello, guitar, piano, flute, bass, percussions, synthesisers and voices all converse freely, responding to the fluttering saxophone calls of Alabaster dePlume. His unique brass vibrato sound has often been compared to that of legendary Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya (1935 – 2016), one of the leading figures of the fantastic Ethio-Jazz era of the 1970s who featured prominently in many Ethiopiques compilations and who enjoyed a late career resurgence by recording and touring with Dutch punk-rock band The Ex.
The recording also recalls the sound of American cellist Arthur Russell’s live and semi-improvised orchestral pieces from the 1970s, in particular that of the recently re-released Instrumentals. As well as that, as suggested by the cover artwork, many tracks such as “Visit Croatia” or “Song of the Foundling” have clear eastern accents, echoing scales from the Japanese Min’yō style, the traditional pastoral folk tradition.
Sustained by gentle piano or guitar, songs like “The Lucky Ones”, “Why Buzzardman Why” or “Not My Ask” meander gorgeously as blissful meditations set to the warm pairings of saxophone and cello or saxophone and strings. Other pieces like “What’s Missing” or “If You’re Sure You Want To” follow a similar narrative arc, from a hesitant refrain to an ecstatic chorus finale with wordless vocals.
Initially released on Copernicus (2012) and featuring again on To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 as a live version, the song “To Croatia” was recently sampled by American indie folk singer Bon Iver who included it in his 2020 benefit single Please Don’t Leave in Fear (PDLIF).
When based in Manchester, Alabaster dePlume used to work with Ordinary Lifestyles, a charity organisation supporting people with disabilities to live independently which included Cy and Lee, two adults he became friends with and to whom the record is dedicated. In other words, many songs on the album were originally born as made-up wordless melodies used to communicate and socialise with members of this group.
There are things we can’t put into words, which can be expressed with sound and music. These guys have fewer words than us, some of them have none. When we put some feelings into a music expression – that’s liberation.
Captured in several venues such as Manchester‘s Limefield Studios, London’s Total Refreshment Centre or in Bristol, To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 is a vibrant, heartfelt, quasi-therapeutic and at times euphoric recording blending experimental ambient folk with free jazz improvisation which struck an immediate chord with many music lovers during the global pandemic.
On 1 April 2022 last, Alabaster dePlume released Gold, his follow up double album which was again curated from live residencies with several distinct ensembles in London and where the artist returns to vocals.