Album Review : The Circling Sun – Spirits: The esteemed NZ jazz collective’s long-awaited debut more than delivers.

New Zealand spiritual jazz collective The Circling Sun have taken the long and winding road to releasing their first albumSpirits’ (available now on the ever-reliable Soundway Records). Drawn from the confluence of various Auckland/ Tamaki Makarau bands, this fluid congregation of jazzers, record collectors, producers and DJs have been converging for near two decades building a live reputation as show stoppers and stealers on the NZ scene. Now on ‘Spirits’ the collective takes the foundation of their well-matured performance sound as a starting point to reach out and step beyond . So woven into their expansive references to the Afro-American post-bop thesaurus are bold threads of other less expected contexts, extending from the traditions of electronica to the natural soul of Maori/Pacifica culture.

Such an enticing fusion of retro and recent, ancient and modern should be of no surprise when you dig a little further into The Circling Sun story. The ensemble spins loosely around the restless energies of drummer/ percussionist Julien Dyne, the creator of the much-cited broken beat necessity ‘Pins and Digits‘ (2007) plus its more recent nu-soul inflected albums ‘Teal’ (2018) and ‘Modes’ (2021). Though Dyne’s contemporary groove connection may be available, this group represents so much more than a singular vision. The Circling Sun’s instrumental ambition is orchestral in scale, energised by vibrant brass to woodwind discussions as well as urgent rhythmic conversations. A big band then with players who each have plenty to say but who when joined together make a mighty statement.

For amplification look no further than the unhurried immediacy of Kohan. It’s a track that somehow strolls between slinky and celestial. The vocal, trilling flute lines, the afro-cuban piano stabs, those scuttling rhythms, sci -fi synths, the choral highs and sighs, all blend to make Kohan intriguingly genre fluid. Here is a track rooted in a spring heeled bossa strut that divides and sub-divides while retaining an easy-going coherence.

Opening cut Bones also captures this definitive Circling Sun sound. Ambitiously arranged to an Andrew Hill level of detail, the tune reverberates to a tumbling melodic theme and the persistent gush of percussive activity. Sure there’s an affinity with Pharoah Sanders’ musical cosmology here, Cameron Allen’s intense tenor passage instilling the same vicious but vulnerable aura as the great man himself, but there are other things going on that marks the tune with its own identity. The folky skip of JY Lee’s flute and Finn Scholes vibraphone as they share the hook or the waves of choral voices washing gently into the mix speak more of earthly wonders than any imagined heavenly highs.

As the simmering organics of ‘Spirits’ work deeper into your senses you become more conscious of the subtle synthesiser energies that bubble beneath the surface of each track. The restrained combination of Cory Champion’s woozy Buchla doodles and Guy Harrison’s more conventional Korg lines provide a subliminal undertone to much of the music on the album. This sub-stratum has been sensitively overdubbed throughout, shaded into the live ensemble recording with finesse, ‘steering the sonic landscape towards a modern sound’, as band leader Julien Dyne maintains, rather than crunching the elements together.

Such careful fusion works although maybe next time the band might take the brakes off a little more frequently. Evidently, as they show on darker reaches of the riff crashing Veneer where unstable synth dynamics sneakily ruffle the tune’s equilibrium, they can more than deal with the consequences . On the flip-side The Circling Sun also reveal that they can more than cope without any modifications. The mambo jiving Bliss is infectiously kinetic with the acoustic components of the band coming at you live and excitingly direct. Guy Harrison plays with a strident Robert Fonseca authority while JY Lee’s eastern soprano patterns urges the group to a pulsating final stretch.

These less dense interludes certainly provide a finely judged balance on the album but it’s the cerebral immersion of the pulsating whole band arrangements that are at the heart of The Circling Sun’s message here. Spirits (Part 2), a reworking of a track that Julien Dyne originally released on his ‘Pins and Digits’ album, gets transformed by such instrumental expansion. Whereas the original revolved around a stripped back, twin sax conversation, The Circling Sun’s retake goes for ethereal lushness. Twinkling Rhobes, harp, vibes and synths ebb and flow while the horns nestle the tune into the soundscape. It’s a steadily gliding elevation nourished by Alice Coltrane soulfulness but hovering in the ensemble’s own imagined otherworld.

Plume, the closing track on the vinyl (check the CD’s two additional transmissions), looks for similar thermals and brings comparable thrills with its relaxed take on big band swing power. This spiralling trajectory really is The Circling Sun’s forte but here the solo speeches from Cameron Allen’s tenor (all wild oscillations and raw edge) and Harrison’s piano (part Jarrett athleticism part montuno mischief) take the controls. The tune confirms that the long gestation of The Circling Sun’s music has brought with it an integrity and understanding that is necessary to anyone venturing through the astral spaces of sound . Listening to ‘Spirits’ brings fulfilment that is inexplicable but there’s no need to look for meanings, just lean back and let it happen.

Get your copy of ‘Spirits’ by The Circling Sun from you local record store or direct from HERE

Previous Track: Lost Cousins - Plain Sight
Next Premiere: Melbourne based Hot Coppers have a 'Running Mate' - a gentle wry anthemic track filled with a melancholic humour. Debut album and launch date announced.

No Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.