You know the crusty old adage ‘it’s a small world’, well tired as it might be it still has resonance for musicians. Take L.A. underground experimenters Sam Wilkes and Jacob Mann, they go back a long way. Meeting as students at USC music school, bass playing, multi-instrumentalist Wilkes and keyboard-centric Mann have been crossing musical paths ever since, working with the likes of Louis Cole, Rufus Wainwright and Jacob Collier. Naturally space has also been taken up by their own projects, which for Wilkes includes a boundary shifting partnership with sax illusionist Sam Gendel and for Mann being at the forefront of the flourishing LA jazz funk scene. So it’s not surprising that the two buddies may have never found time to focus on producing any music together….until now that is.
The pair have just released the wryly titled ‘Perform the Compositions of Sam Wilkes & Jacob Mann’ on Leaving Records (available from 23rd September), a weird and wonderful dive into a lo-fi electronic jazz with a contraflow of smooth funk and today pop. Shaped from improv-banter in their apartment studio over several ‘four to five day summits’, it’s a record rooted in the intuition of their long-standing friendship. That makes for quirky, care free and naturally flowing music ruffled with a willingness to break out of any cosiness and take real chances, safe in the assurance that they will instinctively back each other up.
Opening cut ‘The Cricket Club’ captures this sneaky risk taking from the off, disguised in a bright, glitchy jingle of admixture synth lines and burbling bass. Brief snatches of Canterbury prog peep out from the flute sounds but the real twist comes when swathes of booming synth chords drench all the playfulness. Just three minutes in and you are left scrabbling for shelter but intrigued by the intrusion, wanting more of those moments when Wilkes and Mann looked at each other in the studio and wondered ‘What if….’
It’s a conversation which is at the heart of this bewilderingly intoxicating album reflecting the creative release of two musicians who have long thought of recording together, both maxing out when that opportunity has finally come. Tune into the enticing ‘Dr T’ for evidence, where Nintendo chatter meets rumbling space jazz disco. A dig through the chord layers and you find skittering beats, shimmying synth chops plus those juicy bass pops that know just when to scuttle. Or take in the smooth electronic locomotion of ‘Witchita Wilkes’ with its teasing vocal scrambles and the promise of a pattering bass break out. Then there’s ‘Around The Horn’, an angular no-wave funk skip with an infuriatingly catchy dial-tone hook or the zinging chime of the Sandro Perri hugging ‘Siri, How Do I Know I Have Commitment Issues’ . This is Wilkes & Mann music, built on the incidental and accidental but still with substance, a spoonful of surprise flavours in a sticky electro mix.
Elsewhere the shared inspiration of lives spent on the move feeds into ‘Perform the Compositions…’ illusive style. The partners recall that the woozy schmaltz of ‘Jakarta’ was first doodled in a hotel room on a visit to play at the Indonesian capital’s jazz fest. On the surface the track plays with a rich muzak vibe but the fluttering electronica loops, forceful chord vamps and an off-centre, hyperactive synth melody soon floor that easy comparison. The dreamy detachment of airport dead-time drifts further into their travelogue with the sumptuous float of ‘Pre-Board’ while the gorgeous bass stroked tunefulness of ‘Soft Landing’ does just that. It echoes the overall impression that making the record has brought some relief for both the players, a time to pause and gather together the snapshots from their musical back packing.
But there’s more than a gathering up of fermenting ideas going on with this album. The recording has a spontaneous energy that makes you appreciate the gleeful irony of the title ‘Performs the Compositions of Sam Wilkes & Jacob Mann’. You feel you are in the room with the duo when those ‘wow’ moments happened and there are plenty of those: the pensive piano balladry on ‘Homeric’ set within some rattling, raindrop percussion; the cooing trip-hop bliss matched with rolling rhythms on ‘Someday’; the lonely vocal mumbles on the shadowed balladry of ‘Yes It Is’; and the multi-layered nu-jazz stroll of ‘Next To’ which gradually fills with crossing patterns like a crowded boulevard.
‘Performs the Compositions…’ as a whole is a collage, packed with detail and busy with ideas. It’s sometimes funny and sometimes serious, sometimes relaxed and sometimes prickly. Pieced together with the right amount of deliberation but avoiding the perils of overthinking, here we have an album that will draw you back again and again to check on how it works….and works it most certainly does.
Pick Up a copy of ‘Perform The Compositions Of Sam Wilkes & Jacob Mann’ from your local record shop or direct from: https://samwilkesjacobmann.bandcamp.com/album/perform-the-compositions-of-sam-wilkes-jacob-mann