Elephantine is an album that breathes and sells exactly what it self-confesses: a monstrous wave of raw emotion, dotted with infectious melodies and ethereal moments of life-affirming magnitude. Phoenician Blinds demonstrate on their debut that jazz is certainly more than a whisper in the dark when it comes to the issue of genre.
Album opener ‘Exodus’ begins like a scene from the roaring ‘20’s, reminiscent of a typical scene from The Godfather, before a teasing piano leads us to the searching core of the tune. Written as an embodiment of the ongoing refugee crisis, there is a sense of lost wonder throughout the introductory track, which occasionally finds itself before slipping into an almost blissful oblivion. It becomes immediately apparently that Elephantine is more than just a nod to a genre long past its inception.
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As a first time jazz listener, penning the meaning of Elephantine is not simple, but the spectrum of feeling is outrageously widespread. ‘Flight’ – the second track – flows angelically along a sedated piano accompanied by a subtle backing maraca, before concluding on a peaceful overtone of closure. ‘Skip’d’ – fittingly named for its constantly fluctuating rhythm and resemblance to a needle ‘skipping’ on a broken record – is a chaotic ensemble of sound, which simultaneously is both muddled and deliberate, leaving us nevertheless with a head-bobbing rhythm. Whatever the formula is for Phoenician Blinds, it is certainly working and although the band’s message may not be clear to the everyday listener, fortunately pianist Tom Sochas can provide a direct insight into the album’s deeper meaning and the band’s general scheme of things:
“I think the goal of our music has always been to express ideas, thoughts and feelings on what it means to be alive in today’s world. I think the title ‘Elephantine’ is exactly a representation of both the global awareness and ambiguity music carries. To me ‘Elephantine’ sounds almost like a mother elephant’s lullaby to her young one, and that image carries both beauty within it’s deep natural bounds, but also calls to mind the thought that that very image is under threat from humanity. The literal meaning of ‘elephantine’ is ‘representing the awkwardness or clumsiness of an elephant’, and I think as a quartet from a very European and middle class upbringing, we can all relate to this feeling of unease, of being trapped between two extremes both politically and socially. It’s an extremely bipolar world out there and in a way I think this is music to acknowledge and ease this underlying tension. In a nutshell, it’s a return to the basics.”
Third track ‘Theology of Chester Le Street’ is arguably the highlight of the album, beginning in a melancholic fashion before retreating into a lullabying tempo that gently drifts along. This track is certainly the calm before the storm of ‘Young One’, which comes crashing in like thunder before settling down to a tense instrumental chase, concluding on a grand moment of redemption: jazz is certainly back on the musical cards. ‘False Start’ continues the more celestial vibe, slowly swimming through its own tranquillity before subtly coming up for air.
The last three tracks on Elephantine are certainly the more enigmatic of the album, fleeting in both sound and direction. Signum Strøm begins in an eerie fashion; however, find itself halfway in a tempest of sound carried along by a racing piano beat and a jarring saxophone. Bassist Oliver Cross ‘ favourite track, he describes playing it live as ‘getting lost in the mental image of the storm that is conjured up. It really does put me on a boat which is struggling to stay afloat a mere mile away from the shore’. ‘Spinning Wheel’, the penultimate track, feels like itself is spinning away into a dream state. As the saxophone seductively falls in, one can only think of the winter appeal and the tone of finality that is only emphasised by album-closer ‘Chomo Lonzo’.
Arguably, the least ‘jazzy’ song on the record, and named after a Tibetan mountain, this track with its utopian quality, quite the opposite of a loud and bumbling elephant, simply represents the mountain Phoenician Blinds have had to climb to reach such dizzying heights of creativity and confidence. As aforementioned, jazz as a genre may not be as popular as it once was, and with its absence of lyrics and ambiguous sense of structure, this history is hard to argue with. Nevertheless, that does not mean jazz is the elephant in the room music should brashly ignore, rather it is something to be addressed and made relevant again.