Proudly rooted in Northern England and the Manchester jazz scene, influenced by global and electronic music and constantly returning to the ecstatic masterpieces of the early 1970s Afro-American spiritual jazz for inspiration, Matthew Halsall continues to enchant with an impeccable series of releases on his own Gondwana Records label. Following on from his 2020 album Salute to the Sun, the 2021 live version at Hallé St. Peter’s and two subsequent EPs from the same sessions (The Temple Within and Changing Earth), Matthew Halsall returns with An Ever Changing View (8 September 2023) and its companion EP Bright Sparkling Light (1 March 2024).

Matthew Halsall - An Ever Changing View (2023)
Matthew Halsall – An Ever Changing View (2023)

An Ever Changing View

Approximately one minute into the YouTube video for Mountains, Trees and Seas, one can briefly glimpse a vinyl copy of Francis Bebey’s “Psychedelic Stanza 1982-1984” displayed on top of a record shelf. A pioneer of African electronic music, Francis Bebey (1929 – 2001) was a Paris-based writer, singer, songwriter, broadcaster and musicologist from Cameroon who was instrumental in breaking down barriers between Western and African traditions by integrating early electronic samplers alongside acoustic instruments in a DIY fashion.

Released posthumously in 2014, Psychedelic Stanza 1982-1984 is an outstanding compilation of new instrumentals and songs showcasing the sanza, the small African lamellophone also known as thumb piano, kalimba or mbira. Every song on the record is built around circular rhythmic patterns and sometimes amplified grooves generated by various thumb pianos, percussions and flutes. To this day, the vintage collection exerts an influence that extends far beyond the confines of roots music circles and more than likely contributed to channel the creative energy underpinning An Ever Changing View.

If Matthew Halsall started introducing the kalimba on Salute to the Sun to add additional colour, the instrument becomes the foundation stone to most compositions on An Ever Changing View. Practically every track is built around hypnotic loops on thumb piano, glockenspiel, log drum, bells, xylophone (Chris Davies) and custom-made instruments including a set of 17 triangular bells. The thumb piano is both a rhythmic and a melodic instrument and as a result, the traditional drum kit (Alan Taylor) tends to feature less prominently in favour of other percussion instruments and congas (Sam Bell, Jack McCarthy). Interspersed by three short field recording interludes, the seven airy compositions feature magnificently intertwining ostinato patterns on piano, Rhodes piano (Liviu Gheorghe, Jasper Green) and Harp (Alice Roberts, Maddie Herbert), all chiming in unison with the thumb piano loops and sustained by the bass lines of Gavin Barras. Alto saxophone (Matt Cliffe) and higher pitched wind instruments such as the soprano saxophone and the flute (Chip Whickham) all trade solo sections alongside the crystal-clear lines of Matthew Halsall’s trumpet. On the last trumpet-less track on the album “Triangles in the Sky”, subtle wordless vocal lines by singer Caitlin Lang can also be heard.  

I decided to find places by the sea with beautiful views […] that would inspire me. I was trying to record compositions with a landscape painting process in mind where I was looking at a view for eight hours a day and trying to create sounds that captured the things I was seeing.

The mood is clearly contemplative throughout and reflects on the part of the musician a conscious effort to move away from the perpetual commotion of city life. Most of the tracks were conceived during residencies in four different houses on the British coastline – Bridlington in the North East, Penmaenmawr in North Wales, Newborough beach on the island of Anglesey and a small wooden lodge in a forest outside Holyhead. The majestic seaside landscape provides the creative and even visual backdrop to the album as it features on the cover and inner sleeve artwork. But it’s the natural cycles in motion such as the weather, tidal and solar patterns generating this “Ever Changing View” which provide the entire palette of colours and sounds informing the arrangements.

In addition to commissioning custom-made instruments for the album, Matthew Halsall also commissioned London-based artist Sara Kelly to design a giant hand-dyed tapestry for the album, showcasing floating coloured shapes that beautifully echo American artist Alexander Calder’s kinetic art and mobile sculptures. Like a software developer mocking up the early stages of a new system design by sketching the process on paper, the multicoloured canvas prefaces the album by mapping all the diverse instruments used on the recording, each with their own shape, colour and vibration. The giant frames were then shot in situ in some of the residency locations on the coastline to illustrate the cover artwork of the album. The frames did also travel on tour with the band as a stage prop.

Bright Sparkling Light

Matthew Halsall - Bright Sparkling Light (2024)
Matthew Halsall – Bright Sparkling Light (2024)

A three-track EP featuring music from the same sessions as An Ever Changing View, Bright Sparkling Light was originally meant as a tour-only release sold after concerts. But the demand was such that the EP was subsequently made available to the general public and re-pressed, with the artwork cover echoing the shapes of the original commissioned tapestry. The EP format allows the ensemble to feature its longest composition of the entire project on the B side with “The Tide and the Moon” spanning 10 minutes.

Drawing the listener in from the outset with a stunning colourful floating canvas against a backdrop of coastal hills in the distance, boasting an impeccably-designed vinyl package for both the double LP and the EP with an original font and embossed lettering, Matthew Halsall’s two most recent releases compile a flawless creation at the intersection of contemporary visual art, experimental jazz and ambient music.