Album Review: Peace Flag Ensemble – Astral Plains : Shimmering electro-acoustic jazz for wide horizons.

The Breakdown

As ‘Astral Plains’ stretches out those layered arrangements get more intense and those finite details more nuanced. It’s music that leaves room to breathe.
We Are Busy Bodies 8.9

The first time you hear the music of experimental jazz collective Peace Flag Ensemble, you sense that it will be good for you. This is a band that make soundscapes, often spacious, often serene, so fluid, so open that as you listen there’s a sense you are being listened to. It’s music that leaves room to breathe.

Formed by sound artist Michael Scott Dawson and pianist Jon Neher, this revolving group of Saskatchewan musicians take the less frantic approach to improvisation. If the tune needs arrangements or composed parts or free experiments then that’s what happens, the whole is important. Their inspired 2019 debut ‘Noteland’ justifiably drew Keith Jarrett/Talk Talk comparisons, so the release of the follow up ‘Astral Plains’, again through We Are Busy Bodies, comes with a benchmark of expectation. The news is that Peace Flag Ensemble have more than sustained this giddy reputation.

That’s not to suggest that this sophomore album merely hits repeat with a little more assurance. Clearly the key elements of their collective sound are still evident: the bass and piano anchorage; the melodic channels of trumpet and sax; the bristling frost of electronic chill; and the essential unhurried pulse. None of this should be unexpected, after all Dawson and Neher self-identify as ‘serial creators of slow music’ (check in with their releases as a duo on Whitelabelrecs and Fenwood Rail). What has changed though is the scale of the collective with new collaborators introducing the potential to extend the scope of the music.

For this latest recording the Peace Flag core continues: Dawson on electronics and guitar; Neher on piano; Travis Packer on bass; plus Paul Guitheil and Dalton Lam providing the sax/trumpet interweave. Joining the quintet for ‘Astral Plains’, Michael Theivin adds percussive delicacy, Carter Powley agile clarinet while saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi and trumpeter Nick Walters bring their own supportive detailing. What’s immediately clear from the first sombre bars of opening cut The Work, is that for this band change is subtle. The track is a classic night ballad, Guitheil’s weeping sax, that ages as the song progresses, and Neher’s lounge bar chords, ooze nostalgia and weariness. Paired down with whispering electronics and the peep of a guitar shimmer it’s a reassuring statement that Peace Flag Ensemble won’t resort to big band temptations just because they have the capacity available.

That mindset often underpins the open terrain of ‘Astral Plains’. It’s there on the minimal and magical Waiting Is My Favourite Colour, all slow piano drips, aching sax melody and distant electronic whispers, or on the emotional nu-soul Neher/Guitheil duet of Too Beautiful For A Cubicle which sees the pianist making a fine Fred Hersch connection. You’ll even find restraint on the post rock subterfuge of Burner Phone, where a nu-metal bass line lurks as a shadowy simplicity adds to the tension.

That’s not to say that there’s any reluctance to explore the added range of instrumentation. As ‘Astral Plains’ stretches out those layered arrangements get more intense and those finite details more nuanced. Take You Can’t Pin Joy Like a Moth as a starting point. It’s a piece that dawns, unfolding from a simple, tumbling piano and bass phrase to a glorious closing reveal. Here the percussive shunt brings hints of urgency while Dawson’s electronic mists thicken and Patrick Shiroshi’s elegant tenor dovetails with Guitheil’s more rasping lines. Emotionally spiritual but reassuringly earthbound this is landscape music shaped from the same vistas as Nordic jazz or the post rock impressionism of Sigur Ros. Then there’s the pastoral dreaminess of Natural Amble where Powley’s clarinet and Dalton Lam’s trumpet wander around each other with a balletic freedom on a tune that ripples from post classical elegance to fifties soundtrack romantics.

Maybe it’s Agnes Martin Dreams Of Macklin that best represents the added character and definition that the broader ensemble brings to Peace Flag’s sound. A homage to the iconic Saskatchewan minimalist painter, the emotional switches in the artist’s story, that took her from Macklin to NewYork to an adobe house in New Mexico, get told with a reverent sensitivity. There’s a balance and stillness to the playing here, the wind instruments breathing softly and Michael Theivin’s persuasive rhythms bringing gentle momentum. As the track flutters past you get echoes of Kenny Wheeler’s unflustered genius.

Theivin’s intuitive drumming has considerable impact elsewhere on ‘Astral Plains’ and not just through upping the pulse. On the drifting Bluets the teasing interplay between instruments is given some calmly wafted direction by his skittering beats alongside Dawson’s timely synth buzz. Theivin’s percussive lead also adds direction to the complex resonance of Shamble On as Neher’s carefree chords and Lam’s trumpet lines respond to the accentuated rhythmic shifts. Unsurprisingly introducing drums also frees up the ensemble to groove a little and when they do it’s a wow. Doubters only need to catch the funky rustle of More Bill Joy Than John Wisdom to be convinced. Unrolling with a nightlife swagger, referencing (maybe) a tech luminary and a Cambridge philosopher, Peace Flag’s ‘gone Gondwana’ moment recalls the bluesy beauty of Mehldau’s ‘Highway Rider’, so what’s not to like?

Stepping back from ‘Astral Plains’ you begin to recognise its sense of place. With roots around the Saskatchewan city of Regina, Peace Flag Ensemble make music from the flatlands, wide-sky soundscapes from an urban viewpoint. Closing track Dark Matter, Light Humour percolates between the city’s bustle and what surrounds it, those expansive unpeopled horizons. A day-breaking melody and an urgent bass line, busy chords and spacey electronics, “Astral plains/Heavenly prairie” gets sung and you have to look up. That’s the power of Peace Flag Ensemble on this exceptional album, they fly with purpose and conviction while the destination is yours to find.

Get your copy of ‘Astral Plains’ by Peace Flag Ensemble from your local record store or direct from We Are Busy Bodies HERE

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