Album Review: Jonny Wickham – Terra Boa: Vibrant new jazz with a Brazilian heartbeat

The Breakdown

A ‘love letter’ to the complex tapestry of Afro-Brazilian rhythms, Terra Boa is an album of warm contours and thrilling vistas that open out to let you in.
Fresh Sound Records 8.8

Well you can’t say that Jonny Wickham’s first solo album lacks ambition. ‘Terra Boa, out now via Fresh Sound Records sees the jazz bassist and composer leading a sizeable band through a set of originals that in his words make up a ‘love letter’ to the complex tapestry of Afro-Brazilian rhythms. Added to that he’s embraced traditional Japanese aesthetic, Wabi-Sabi, to help with the navigation of a project that reaches beyond the musical challenge and feels deeply personal. Sounds intense? Well ‘Terra Boa’ is but not in an over-wrought, introspective way. It’s an album of warm contours and thrilling vistas that open out to let you in. It’s intense as in passionate, it’s intense as in dynamic and Jonny Wickham has come to share the energy.

Of course he’s not starting from scratch on ‘Terra Boa‘. For all his various gigs as a go-to bassist (with Ian Shaw, Johanna Burnheart, Alex Western King etc) his pull has always seemed to be towards Latin/Brazilian music and the community that surrounds it in the UK. He’s played in a whirligig of bands including Samba Azul, Caravela and Waaju and so clearly knows his Baiao from his Bossa. Connections made in these groups, drummer Ben Brown, percussionist Jeremy Shaverin and guitarist Greg Sanders, extend into the ‘Terra Boa’ ensemble and nourish the easy going camaraderie that flows through the album’s grooves. What Wickham manages to do here though is fashion something that surprises and stretches beyond the sound of good times, beyond the carnival, beyond the homage. This love letter has something new to say.

The opening number, Mono No Aware, underlines that originality. A tranquil, passing shower of chimes and keys drifts into a yearning ballad, that drips with melancholy. The soft rhumba, the mournful sax tones and vocalist Irini Arabatzi’s innocent reserve help the tune to almost hover. It’s a gentle, perhaps unexpected introduction that convinces you that Wickham is taking chances with persuasive assurance. The ballad gets a revisit on the exquisite slow bossa of Neon Muse. Here Tom Barford’s tenor sax excels as the emotions well up mid-song, making the sweep from sultry schmoozing to high pitched angst sound so real. Arabatzi’s vocals again live the lyrics without any unnecessary melodramatics, shading the lines “My fickle friend you have made me blue/ You always do/I’m violet through” with a weary resignation.

As you listen through ‘Terra Boa’ you soon realise that Wickham’s Afro-Brazilian influences are used so intuitively and organically that they become part of the fabric of the innovative music that he has created here. Space and Time takes us on another latin-jazz extension, pinned around Bahia rhythms but revealing a gorgeous, horizontal soulful glide. Starting with a gleeful skank and an upbeat Brothers Johnson/Strawberry Letter 22 vibe, it swoops through the funky gears with ease. Lyle Barton’s Wurlitzer matches classic tones with his exceptionally ‘on-it’ groove and Greg Sanders/Irini Arabatzi’s slide guitar/vocal hook hits the space-jazz bullseye. It’s a shame the band’s wind down on an infectious chunky vamp gets faded rather than played out but maybe space and time demanded.

Uncanny Alley delivers more surprises. Serenely introduced by shimmering electronica, the song soon bursts into a samba funk swagger. Some crystal clear scat takes the tune’s hook before a swirling shoegaze soundscape supports a fabulous trade-off between Jonny Mansfield’s flying vibes and Wickham’s elastic bass. Here the band let the riffs run jazz-rock style and there’s some perky broken beat pauses. It’s compelling stuff.

Naturally, given ‘Terra Boa’s starting point, the woven percussion is pushed forward at all the right moments. On Berimbou the whole arsenal of caxixi, pandeiro, surdo and claps come into play on a tune with an Azymuth bounce and Weather Report momentum. Tom Barford’s flute and Greg Sanders’ guitar twin the airy melody, while Lyle Barton brings those sharp montuno stabs into play before a pacey rhythm section dash for the finish. The bateria also kick off the title track before it shuffles and shimmies urgently with the air of Mendes late sixties pop wafting in with the organ chords. It’s a carnivalesque fast paced coming together, pumped up further with a giddy jazz fusion conversation between Wickham’s nimble bass lines and Sanders’ sustain hungry guitar. How the two parts fit so perfectly is a mystery to anyone outside this fabulous band.

Perhaps it’s Millenium Seagull that captures the collective energies all in one place before ‘Terra Boa’ closes. Chattering guitars and a brisk rhythmic switchback recalls the syncopated complexities of fellow London fusionistas Penya. James Corpus’s brassy toned flugelhorn first croons the melody then, with a series of dazzling runs, takes into orbit before we’re back to the tunes soukous tinged tunefulness. There’s a joyful pleasure to the playing that radiates outwards here and the moment the driving riffs meet the chiming highlife guitars is pure jit-jiving magic.

Terra Boa‘ is Portuguese for ‘Good Earth’ and it’s a title that sits well with this vibrant collection. This is music that sounds natural and celebratory, that touches on the joy and reflects on sadness, that draws on those fertile rhythms of Brazil and then grows with it. Part of Wabi-Sabi thinking embraces the impermanence of things and as Wickham plays out a solo sketch on the final (bonus) track Azizam, you sense that he might already be moving on. ‘Terra Boa’ ensures that listeners will be moving with him for some time to come.

Get your copy of ‘Terra Boa’ by Jonny Wickham direct from Fresh Sound records HERE

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