Editor's Rating

“The Scenery of Life Unfolding” – CD cover art from Birchall and Woolhouse

‘The Scenery of Life Unfolding’, from the duo of ‘Birchall and Woolhouse’, is an album of richly layered, and emotionally stirring music. On the one hand: It is a document of the musical friendship between its two creators: Shannon Birchall – Bass and Jeremy Woolhouse Piano/Composition.

On the other hand: This album is a musical journey that is full of brooding, melancholy, and sense of regret over missed opportunities.  And whilst these moods are sustained throughout the album, it is never mired in its emotional world: Rather: There is a sense of transcendence, hope and quiet resilience that I am left with after repeated listening to this CD. There are also moments of humour and playfulness, which punctuate the more prevailing darker atmosphere.

‘The Scenery of Life Unfolding’: has a strongly narrative, even ‘cinematic’ quality, and as its title suggests: The listener – when experiencing all ten tracks in sequence – is taken on a tour through a kind of ‘musical exhibition’. The title of the album, and title track, refers to a quote from Zen Buddhism:  “Thoughts are nothing but secretions of the brain … [They are] the scenery of the Life of the Self.” – Uchiyama Kosho Roshi.

Whilst inspiration for the overall themes explored on the album is largely drawn from Woolhouse’s interest in Buddhism, the pieces themselves stem from life experience, and reflect a sense of: Longing, regret over lost connections, quiet contemplation, as well as a sense of hope tinged with melancholy. Some individual titles, which reflect this sense of ‘stepping through the scenery’, are: ‘Echoes in Emptiness’, ‘Lost Friends’, ‘Darkening Shadows’, Optimist’s Folly’ and ‘Tears for the Summer’.

It is in the music, however, that this ‘Scenery’ becomes most vivid. The ‘Leading Character’, in many ways, is Shannon Birchall’s bass, which provides both a grounding quality to the fluctuating musical moods, as well as giving voice to, much of the drama. For the grounding aspects, Birchall employs a strong pizzicato technique, bringing out all the rich and woody colours of his instrument. And for his melodic expressions he engages a lyrical arco (bowing) technique.

Jeremy Woolhouse’s rich and lyrical piano playing is also a constant on this album, and in many ways he sets up the musical drama for Birchall’s ‘Leading Man’ character. Bringing to life these 10 ‘musical scenes’, Woolhouse draws on his breadth of experience as a pianist, composer and ensemble leader.

A musical style that is present in Woolhouse’s writing and playing – either overtly or obliquely – is Argentinian Tango (especially the music of Astor Piazzola), for example in the pieces: ‘Virtual Affection’, ‘Bubbles Rising’ and ‘Tears for the Summer’. The lyricism and orchestral approach to the piano of players like Keith Jarrett and Kenny Barron, is also brought to mind. Particularly in some of the slower tempo pieces like: ‘Lost Friends’ and ‘The Third Person’. However, Woolhouse’s playing never seems derivative, and a distinctive and individual ‘pianistic voice’ is present throughout this album.

As distinctive as each of these players is, it is the easy yet robust sense of musical interplay between Birchall and Woolhouse that ultimately stands out, and carries this album through, from start to finish.

To summarise, the features of this album which have stood out to me are:

  • A rich tapestry of musical moods and colours
  • A strong sense of lyricism, contrasted and balanced by harmonic and rhythmic tension
  • A distinctive emotional character, which is confidently and sensitively sustained throughout the album
  • A distinctive compositional voice which helps give the album its ‘structural integrity’.
  • A very high level of individual playing, as well as excellent interplay between the two performers – both in the written and improvised sections of the album
  • A unique stylistic expression, which draws inspiration from the Tango, contemporary ‘piano jazz’, and other styles, but is never subservient to them

Dan Nilsson

– stream audio, order CD or purchase download at http://music.jazzpiano.com.au/album/the-scenery-of-life-unfolding

– artist’s website;  http://www.jazzpiano.com.au