Album Review: Darren Pickering Small Worlds

Darren Pickering Small Worlds – Volume One
(Rattle)

Reviewed by Tim Gruar.

This is the debut album from one of Jazz’s most sort after sidemen. He’s a jazz pianist, composer, educator, modular synthesist and session musician. He’s the man for innovation and creative extensions to the genre. On this new album he pushes the boundaries and redraws the map.

As the go-to pianist, he’s featured on albums by Shapeshifter (Stars), Pacific Heights (The Stillness), Julia Deans (Modern Fables), Oakley Grenell (The Deep), Cairo Knife Fight (Iron), The Tiny Lies (The Oaks They Will Blow), Departure Lounge (In Session), Sacha Vee (Sacha Vee, Rising One, and Luminous), Oval Office (Oval Office, Move, and Don’t Stop), Glen Wagstaff (Firefly), Sumo Jazz (Shiko, and Throwing Salt (Best Jazz Album finalist at the 2011 NZ Music Awards).

His brilliant, soulful track ‘TA2’ was nominated for this year’s APRA Best Jazz Composition.

Recent recordings for the YouTube sessions ‘Live at Alex’s’, especially the audio quality, inspired Pickering to properly lay down his material. So, he and the band decided to record a number of original compositions at his Ōtautahi home recording studio (Rapaki Studios), done over several ‘mini-sessions’ between October and December 2021. The end result was enough to fill at least two albums. This is Volume One.

The aim of the album was to combine improvisation with the originals to completely rework the music. On first and subsequent listens you will certainly be pleasantly bamboozled by these tunes. They sound both familiar and fresh. Only the most diligent will recognise any of them for what they really are.

Alongside Picker (on keys, of course) is Mitch Dwyer (guitar); Pete Fleming (bass) and Mitch Thomas (drums). Together they bring a cinematic flavour to the ensemble’s sound. This is enhanced by the electronic textures of from a Pickering’s large arsenal equipment in his ever-expanding Eurorack Modular system and iPad apps.

While totally original, you can hear many influences – Aaron Parks, Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band, The Cinematic Orchestra, Floating Points, Kraftwerk, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Slowly Rolling Camera.

‘Simple Ballad’ and ‘Moody 7’ open the album slowly, with a gentle ease. This is aural wallpaper to sooth your soul and nestle you in. Mitch Thomas’ brush work is like a gentle caress of the temples, sending you into a slumbering, comforting trance, which Picker’s noodling piano keys skip across the octaves with the delicateness of a butterfly’s wing brushing your forehead.

‘In the Knower’ seems to trip across a repetitive motif that I could have sworn was stolen from Big Ben’s Chime pattern.

With ‘Ixtapa’ we get to hear some of Pickering’s digital wizardry. Like some post – Cold war radio room data flow, it stutters to life in a series of blips and beeps before transmorphing into a more familiar jazz piano trio composition, riding a simple harmony and melody structure. I was hoping for something more experimental and challenging and feel a bit short-changed on this one. There is promise of a greater reach and direction.

‘Cain Song’ and ‘Estonia’ have more promise. They reference geographical points and hint at folk songs from various ethnic regions. A trick Mozart used when composing his operas, mixing the familiar with the new. The latter also features some crisp, broody guitar work from Mitch Dwyer.

‘Standing’, a track written by Pickering and Andrew McMillan seems to hover like a mist across the eardrums. Bands of hum and drone buoy it up before a clever rock guitar groove slowly interjects. This is all about the cinematic and the abstract. It breaks mood and speeds up like a rush of wind to a steady cadence with Pickering and Dwyer hopping in two-step in and out of a solid net of drum and bass ambience.

‘Klazmus’ recalls some sci-fi drone and tone in it’s introduction as the band breaks into a slow groove.

By far my favourite is the Kraftwerk-styled ‘Strega Tone Poem’. It begins with a blipping, repetitive series of stark notes. Scratchy and raw, as if created by some ancient alien machinery from the pre-war years. Then the band mimic this and start to take over. If Brian Eno was still in Berlin and jacked up with a modern jazz quartet instead of ‘Heroes’ era Bowie, then this is what may have come from that collaboration.

I love this album because it redefines what jazz is and wrestles it out of the hands of the academics who tend to overthink and over play the genre. The addition of electronic textures heightens the experience and blurs the boundaries, making the experience far more unique and adventurous.

Sure, you can call this ‘jazz’, but I call it cool!

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