Album Review : John Garner – ‘Movie Night’ : Re-imagining the soundtrack through an improviser’s lens.

The Breakdown

An inspiring shimmy into the jazz side of improv, the series of sonic scenes created for this intriguing collection throbs with an infectious spontaneity.
Difficult Art And Music 8.8

That most singular of labels, Lewes based Difficult Art And Music consistently end the year with a flourish. They capped 2022 with their three volume cassette release ‘Bivouac Of the Avant Garde’, a fulsome resume of the experimental, leftfield scene from those on the inside. Now to round off 2023, the final release from the label this year marks an inspiring shimmy into the jazz side of improv with ‘Movie Night’ by John Garner.

Garner is a multi- tradition violinist with a reputation for pushing his instrument beyond the established parameters. Formally trained in classical, jazz and South Indian music it’s his experimental energy and sonic diversity that’s made his name and fuelled an impressive catalogue of cross genre albums. Now based primarily in the North – East, his chums who join him on ‘Movie Night’ are also lynch pins of that area’s bustling jazz/experimental scene. First up there’s bass supremo, self-proclaimed ‘open-hearted improviser’ and Garner’s frequent musical partner John Pope (check out the duo’s fiercely fresh ‘Water Music’ album from ’22 for additional evidence). Pope plays a pivotal role on ‘Movie Night’ beyond laying down the low end foundations by featuring on all the tracks and sharing production duties with Garner.

The other contributors make up two separate quartets around the Garner / Pope axis, vibes player Will Hammond with mystery keyboardist StrangeDogWoof (possibly alt songwriter Tobias Sarra) in group 1 and drummer Marlene Everling joining renowned electric guitarist Mark Williams in group 2. These pairings and groupings may be inconsequential as ‘Movie Night’ was created by a process that aimed to confound expectations. Each quartet had one night to record together, improvising to silent films they had never seen before, which may not sound that innovative except there were more twists. Before beginning each musician chose one of two films to soundtrack in real time but to double the jeopardy that choice was not revealed to the other players. Would they play to their chosen movie or would they tune into the ‘group’ sound?

This lucky dip approach formed the first take, but for the next recording each quartet watched and played to a third film in unison allowing them to draw on their more familiar improvisational practice. The final tracks for the album were then formed by chopping up these four lengthy recordings into shorter segments then re-ordering them to make the ‘Movie Night’ narrative. Applying Terence Malick or Mike Leigh principles to arrive at a soundtrack might seem contrived but the series of sonic scenes created for this intriguing collection throbs with an infectious spontaneity.

That doesn’t mean that ‘Movie Night’ is focused on flooring you with a blast of wild energy, there’s a steady momentum and internal rhythm to the record. That’s achieved by the careful track sequencing and the complimentary dynamics of each quartet. The sections drawn from the sessions featuring Will Hammond and StrangeDogWoof alongside Garner and Pope tend towards the acoustic and concentrate on leaving space. Take the wandering sway of Chunk Shanty where Garner’s breathy flute and stark primitive mandolin tumble into a swirl of spinning bass and piano rumbles. Along the way a snatch of the trad ‘Drunken Sailor’ stumbles briefly into view before rolling away. Calling At Dawn applies less ebb and flow as the dense atmospherics build while Hammond’s vibes bringing some chinks of light whereas Albatrossie shivers with a pent-up tension throughout. Here Garner stretches the thinnest notes on his violin almost to the point of silence with an extraordinary focus on timbre and suppression.

Less dynamic restraint comes with the tracks featuring Williams’ mercurial fret-work and Everling’s punchy beats. Set to a walking bassline and strolling swing, Lumberjack Camp sees Garner and Williams face off , scratchy versus soft chimes then throttled shredding against power chords. As the piece takes a post rock turn, echoes of the nineties Brit-jazz rock tumult (a la Troyka or Trio VD) get suggested. Rangers On A Strain similarly works within those ‘band’ conventions as it gathers itself up into a lo-fi blues shuffle. Textured with percussive minutiae, the instrumental choices surprise, a jaw harp, harmonica twinge and cosmic finger chimes no less. It’s almost perky until Garner’s cawing two-tone rag shatters any notion of a dusty, leftfield hoedown.

Throughout ‘Movie Night’ the project co-ordinator’s violin threads within each of the thirteen vignettes, fundamental to the album’s complex weave. Sometimes the provocateur, sometimes the responder, Garner’s contributions show an intuitive appreciation for the moment that’s key to the most impactful free form music. On the reflective Shaghai Nightscape his yearning melodies unravel at just the right moment as the vibes cascade and John Pope’s bass tugs urgently. Kobuku is perhaps subtler, a gentle paced almost new-age meditation that gets agitated by Garner’s precision jerky, jibing bowed sounds.

There’s also room for explosives and sonic carnage on the album to ensure a different wow factor. No Actual Transmission summons grinding noise interference and Williams’s immense guitar whirlwind to deliver a gothic drone direct from some black hole. The closing track Broken Toy then builds on that resonant foundation. From amped up fret wipes to violin siren calls, reverse guitar loops to fractured drum rattles, it’s a gurgling, choked final shot.

Many a movie night can be an excuse for soporific sofa ambience but John Garner and pals are out to subvert the monotony. Their ‘Movie Night’ is confrontational and demands concentration, intense but also resolutely fulfilling. For those who seek binge listening with a difference, alternative thrills are waiting right here.

Get your copy of ‘Music Night’ by John Garner direct from Difficult Art And Music HERE

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