It’s been six years since jazz trumpeter and electronic musician Justin Walter’s last album for Kranky, the ethereally wonder-filled ‘Unseen Forces’, and almost a decade since his label debut ‘Lullabies & Nightmares’. The Ann Arbor artist obviously utilises his time with care and consideration, a nurturing process that his luminous, delicate soundscapes require. Now the time has come for another intriguing reveal in the shape of ‘Destroyer’, once more on Kranky and marking Walter’s continuing exploration of the possibilities voiced through his trusty Electronic Valve Instrument, or EVI amongst friends.
He first encountered the EVI around 2010 as part of Michigan’s NOMO collective where one of his friends in the ensemble was experimenting with a saxophone version. The EVI is a rare breed, an electronic wind instrument invented by musician and synthesist Nyle Steiner in the seventies, that parallels the trumpet but which needs linking to a synth or computer to produce the notes. Not widely available, there are only a few devotees like Justin Walter who can exploit the EVI’s extraordinary potential.
That doesn’t mean that his releases are simply some sort of quirky demonstrators (remember those ‘magical sounds of the moog’ samplers). Walter’s fluent fusion of jazz, ambient and electronic music, blended from boundless improvisations, positions him alongside Jason Sharp for innovation and opens up comparisons with Colin Stetson. Now, the new album ‘Destroyer’ looks set to re-confirm his position as someone pushing the envelope labelled minimalism to open itself a little wider.
Take a track like Radio Contact which begins with an almost hymnal counter point melody before setting off on a drone episode that judders with desperation and stark single note loneliness. It’s an exemplary piece of unhurried music but one that leaves with an unconventional pause before a brief return to the opening themes. New Pads also finds Walter playing with sectional structure, layers of EVI minor harmonies bringing a neo classical sheen to the atmosphere before a pause then jump to the lived-in pattern of an acoustic harmonium. It’s a change of breath, a shift from the outer to the inner that closes with a final bluesy flourish, exposing the experimental edge embedded in ‘Destroyer’.
What these tracks also highlight is the intricate assemblage work that underpins Walter’s approach on this album. Each is sculpted from demos and improvisational sketches in a process that aims to keep the tunes focused and restrained. Inner Voices may stretch over eight minutes but it swaps scene with purpose from pastoral early music tunefulness to more sonorous grandeur of Basinski-esque proportions. Similarly the title track shows how effective Walter is in creating music that is sharp and to the point but still graphic and visual. As moon kissed pools of gamelan ripple, single note echoes call out, while across the soundscape electronics arc and bend, sometimes harmonic, sometimes distorted. It’s a CinemaScope image, a sci fi horizon imagined in under four minutes.
To underline the economy that Walter employs, a proportion of the cuts on ‘Destroyer’ are kept relatively brief. This in no way means these cuts are they mere fillers, they stand as exquisite miniatures: Fear 17’s crooning trumpet sound glides elegantly over a tumbling piano; the raw, clawing melodics of Cliff The Cloud Catcher grapple with some amped up looping patterns; and Walter touches the beautiful essence of Beverley Glenn Copeland’s ‘Keyboard Fantasies’ on 11.27, 1002 as well as the vaulted calm of Transitions.
Sometimes the intention to evade any aimless noodling might seem a little over zealous. On the startling opening fanfare of For Us, all flighty EVI-lines, buzzing drones and marching percussion, an enticing otherworld gets conjured up before the sudden fade. Still doing the unexpected is key to Walter’s statement on ‘Destroyer’ and you come to trust his judgement, particularly when you get moments of perfection like Slow Walkers. Over a foundational string monotone and the softest bass note puff, Walter eases melodies of choral purity into the frame to bring calm and resolve. It’s a composition of real integrity delivered with a similar quiet assurance found in Nils Frahm or Max Richter’s work.
2023 has been a year which has seen the blurred boundaries of experimental, electronic, ambient and drone merge ever closer together, with the result being music of high distinction and unlimited spirit. Loren Chasse and Juho Toivonen’s ‘ACLOD’, Matthewdavid’s ‘Mycelium Music’, Neil Cowley’s ‘Battery life’, Jim Wallis’s ‘In Huge Gesturing Loops’ and just recently Laurel Halo’s ‘Atlas’ have all contributed to this vintage twelve months. Now joining them comes ‘Justin Walter’s ‘Destroyer’, a late entry but one that shouldn’t be passed over.
Get your copy of ‘Destroyer’ by Justin Walter form your local record store or direct from Kranky HERE