Greatest hits: Joby Burgess, ‘A Percussionist’s Songbook’

A fascinating record with wide-ranging ambition and, surely, mass appeal. Joby Burgess has created a release for classical label Signum that could sit equally comfortably in the rock or ‘world’ genres, such are its broad range of influences and audible sense of adventure.


In his sleeve notes, Burgess mentions his exposure to all kinds of music growing up in a household of open-eared enthusiasts, but reserves a special fondness for the 7” singles he used to buy at weekends.

This enduring love of the short, sharp format provides the foundation for ‘A Percussionist’s Songbook’, which brings together seven especially commissioned stand-alone pieces from contemporary composers and two new works from Burgess himself. However, with many of the pieces hovering around the five or six-minute mark – and paying significant heed to what Burgess describes as his love of “the hook” – the satisfying result reminded me more of listening to one of those great compilations of 12” versions, where your favourite parts of your favourite songs would stretch out, blissful, trance-like.

The overall format of the album is intriguing in itself. Burgess did not commission ‘songs’ in the normal sense – instead, each composer has taken a text and used that as inspiration to create a piece for percussion and electronics. ‘Vocals’ are used sparsely, and when they do turn up, they are processed, treated or sampled in some way. That said, the album does not aim to be mystical or obscure – the texts are supplied in the CD booklet, so every listener is invited to understand the concept behind each track. Instead, while savouring the bright, welcoming sound of the arrangements, there’s the added stimulus – if you want it – of deciding how each composer has interpreted their chosen texts and entrusted the result to Burgess to realise.

(All the music – every instrument – on the album is played by Burgess, clearly multi-tracking and mixing where necessary. Characteristic of the album’s propulsive, energised mood is the signature pitched percussion sound of what I take to be – most of the time – marimba, vibraphone or something closely related. My untrained ear cannot always tell them apart, especially when Burgess also features some rather galactic-sounding instruments alongside them: examples include the almglocken, aluphone, space harp and xylosynth!)

I was especially keen to hear the contributions of two composers whose work I’ve come across frequently in recent years and feel particularly drawn to: Tunde Jegede and Dobrinka Tabakova.

I first encountered Tunde Jegede’s writing and performance during Rebeca Omordia’s African Concert Series. Here, he provides Burgess with a two-section piece that begins with an eerie ambience punctuated by hesitant cascading strikes, but soon shifts gear into an infectious African rhythm with Burgess combining treated vocals, syncopated snare-drum-like sounds and a seemingly endless, circular marimba (I think!) pattern. The composition is titled ‘The Ancestors are Within’, and it’s immediately apparent how Jegede has depicted their immortal spirits emerging from nature to sing and dance.

Tabakova’s ‘Desert Swimmers’ feels genuinely hypnotic, partly due to its use of looping technology to bring motifs round in repeated cycles and allow Burgess to perform its multiple elements live, building layer upon layer. It is inspired by a passage from Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’, which describes a legendary lush, fertile world abounding in flora and fauna, its lakes once full of swimmers, now lost beneath the desert sands. Tabakova’s parallel melodies allow this vanished realm seemingly to co-exist, and occasionally break through, the thin veneer only just hiding it from our sight – and hearing.

The album is somewhat unified by themes of yearning, loss and remembrance, and accordingly, old and new sonic worlds collide. Yazz Ahmed’s ‘Throw Your Pumpkin (& Pick Me Up)’ marries a Middle Eastern soundworld with chattering, clattering electronica (I could swear some of the noises were like synth-drum patches from the 80s), with Burgess’s jazzy melody bringing an organic MJQ feel into the mix. This is taken to more of an extreme in Gabriel Prokofiev’s contribution, ‘Dr Calvin Remembers’, a tribute to the robotics psychologist created by Isaac Asimov in his ‘Robots’ fiction. Detailing a scientific leap forward recalled by Calvin – the creation of a mobile robot with a voice – Burgess’s vibes convey a faltering, brave-new-world innocence against a barrage of mechanical whirs and whistles, followed by hammering drums; cogs and sprockets engaging in our imaginations.

One of the very best tracks is saved for last, Burgess’s own ‘Take Me Home’. The starting text for this is an extract from Peter Gabriel’s lyric for ‘Solsbury Hill’. Without simply adapting that song, Burgess has infused the track with the spirit of Gabriel’s music: a high-pitched keening that recalls  ‘Mercy Street’ or ‘I Grieve’… an initially distant, pounding bass drum evoking ‘Biko’… even the chiming, insistent echo of ‘San Jacinto’. Its stately build provides the album with a fitting climax.

Warmly recommended.


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