Reviewed by Joseph Cummins, October 1st, 2015
Mutiny Music is a journey across the Pacific. The album retells the linked histories of two islands, Pitcairn and Norfolk, while making a close study of musical and cultural fusion.
There’s a number of ways of engaging with Mutiny Music. Of course, you can just press ‘play’ and take in the beauty of the varied terrain: repeated listening is recommended. But Mutiny Music is so much more than a collection of expertly performed compositions. This handsomely packaged release – its design evoking some kind of long-lost 18th century document – also contains extensive details on each song, with explanations of the title or the significance of the composition to the overall narrative of the album. In this way the twelve pieces each play a part in retelling the story of the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, the formation of the community on Pitcairn Island soon after, the development of a distinct language and culture, and the eventual relocation of the community to Norfolk Island in 1856.
Featuring composer Rick Robertson on soprano and tenor sax, Phil Slater on trumpet, Alexander Hewetson on acoustic and Fender bass, Matt McMahon on piano/Rhodes/Hammond organ, Simon Barker on drums and log drums and Aykho Akhrif on percussion, the story of Mutiny Music is told in a number of ways. Original compositions come in the form of Baecastuff’s distinctive take on ‘jazz fusion’, drawing on the moodiness of late-1960s Miles Davis, the spacey-ness of Jan Garbarek, and the swagger of reggae.
But what really distinguishes Mutiny Music are the several other types of composition used. Popular church hymns from Pitcairn and Norfolk are arranged, Barker performs several percussion compositions using log drums (native to the Cook Islands) and Robertson fashions four pieces from voice samples of Norfolk Islanders. The crackle and hiss of the voices – sampled from ethnographic recordings made on Norfolk during the 100-year anniversary of the foundation of the community in 1956 – add another level of sonic intrigue. Similar to the Steve Reich’s well-known use of voice sampling in works like Different Trains (1988), Robertson uses the musicality of the voices to form melodies that work in counterpoint with or are copied by the horns and piano.
Thanks to the creative and sensitive arrangement of the material (as well as, it must be noted, the masterful performance of Barker), the music is often thrillingly dynamic. The performances of all the players assembled are wonderful, and voices as distinctive as those of Slater, Barker and McMahon add another level of richness to this recording. Improvisations are concise, very much informed by the mood of the composition they emerge from. Full ensemble energy is balanced with solo, duo and trio configurations, and some of the most memorable moments on the album occur in these smaller forays. The joyful bass and soprano interaction in the middle of Come Ye Blessed, the melancholy trumpet and piano duo later in that piece, and the solo piano of McMahon on the introduction to Ship of Fame are all highlights. Baecastuff display a seamless ability to move between traditional hymn structures and freewheeling improvisations, and the transitions in mood between different types of composition are an aspect of this album that creates a unique ebb and flow, accompanying the historical narrative.
There is as much going on here conceptually as there is musically: retelling history using a dense weave of musical forms, Mutiny Music is an extremely unique and valuable album.