Review : Wyatt - For the Ghosts Within
PitchforkWhen The Guardian asked Robert Wyatt how he felt about the neologism "Wyatting"-- playing a weird song on a jukebox to freak out other patrons-- he noted that he doesn't try to disconcert people with his music; he tries to be normal. What constitutes "normal" for Wyatt is this: He was a titan of the Canterbury prog-rock scene in the 1960s before turning to jazz and experimental idioms, though he also had a big single in the 70s with a cover of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer". He's equally hard to pigeonhole via his diverse collaborators, including Brian Eno, Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Gilmour, Max Richter, Björk, and Hot Chip. Wyatt freaks us out because he seems too chimerical and free for this age, with its mania for classification. He's a traditionalist who hears with weird ears.
His latest album, a collaboration with the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and the violinist Ros Stephen, is again evasive, seeming at once defiantly old-fashioned and defiantly quirky. The trio, backed by Stephen's Sigamos String Quartet, brushes the mothballs off a variety of jazz standards, from David Raskin and Johnny Mercer's weepy "Laura" to the Louis Armstrong chestnut "What a Wonderful World", and checks in at "Lush Life", "In a Sentimental Mood", and "Round Midnight" along the way. But the record also features Palestinian rapping, screwy remakes of old Wyatt songs, and Wyatt's second stab at Chic's "At Last I Am Free". The mood is elegiac yet playful, with Wyatt's advancing age and bulletproof stature creating an impression of ease, not to mention a welcome indifference to popular trends.
The fine musicianship does justice to the standards. The coarse wool of Wyatt's voice plays well against the strings, and Atzmon's alto sax injects some glossier colors. His style here blends bebop virtuosity and Middle Eastern sinuosity. In most cases, there is something pleasingly "off" or new about the standards. "Laura" has seldom sounded so understated and ghostly, and it plays wonderfully beside the original "Lullaby for Irena", an incorporeal love song. On "Round Midnight", the piano melody is transcribed to strings, and a lonesome whistle stands in for the vocal melody, drawing its wistfulness into surprising clarity. Shades of radio crackle drift through the patient, noodling "In a Sentimental Mood". Only the tranquil and straight-faced take on "What a Wonderful World" that closes the album seems untouched by a light, impish subversion....full text
ContactmusicRobert Wyatt has an extraordinary voice. It is difficult to think of many contemporary singers with his natural talent, let alone singers with a background in popular music. Björk, who collaborated with Wyatt on her under-appreciated a cappella album Medulla, has spoken enthusiastically (if also inaccurately) of his 'five or six octave' vocal range. Unlike so many big-lunged pop singers of recent years, however, Wyatt is uninterested in bludgeoning the listener to death with the sheer force of his vocals. Rather than marching up to the listener and confronting them, his voice hangs back, beckoning, enticing, luring them in. His greatest strength is this restraint, which allows us to appreciate every subtlety and every emotional nuance; and boy, Wyatt is great at nuance. This is amply demonstrated by his most powerful performances, his star turns on the moving Elvis Costello collaboration 'Shipbuilding' and the Chic cover 'At Last I Am Free', both of which convey the sound of a man grappling with and trying to master deeply felt sadness. On both tracks, Wyatt manages to sound simultaneously despairing and desperate to maintain his composure. It is easy to imagine that were either song to last any longer, he would burst into tears.
For The Ghosts Within, Wyatt's collaboration with the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stephen, sees him apply his talents to a number of jazz standards, including 'What A Wonderful World', Duke Ellington's 'In a Sentimental Mood', and Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight'. The trio's interpretations of these standards are interspersed with some their own compositions, as well as a new version of 'At Last I Am Free'. With the exception of the frankly bizarre 'Where Are They Now?' (of which, more later) the music is uniformly lush and rich without being sickly, and is dominated by mellow, reflective strings and punctuated by tasteful - perhaps overly tasteful - bursts of saxophone. Nothing about the arrangements or playing on show is especially exceptional, and so it is left to Wyatt to ensure that proceedings consistently rise above the ordinary. He fulfils this task with aplomb, sounding gloriously fragile on 'Laura' and giving a strikingly mournful, borderline sarcastic reading of 'What A Wonderful World'. He is good on the reworking of 'At Last I Am Free' too, although the emotional impact of the original is rather diluted by the warm string sound and studio trickery on show here....full text
MusicomhRobert 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...full text
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