Electronic Music, Jazz
Reviewed by Tim Rollinson, July 1st, 2014
Virtual Proximity is the debut album produced by Melbourne saxophonist James Annesley. It is jazz-electronica, slow to medium tempo darkly shaded beats and loops overlaid with post-Coltrane tenor and soprano saxophone improvisations. The project has developed into a live performing unit also known as Virtual Proximity since the original CD release, making the digital release retrospectively eponymous.
Stylistically, the recording has elements ranging from 80s electro-funk, particularly in its use of 808-style drum sounds, to something that resembles early 2000’s dubstep a la DJ Distance in the prominent dark sub bass riffing, its stark aesthetic and almost total lack of chordal harmony. Industrial noises, environmental and spoken word sound samples along with the occasional blip, bleep and other glitchy punctuations add atmosphere.
James Annesley is an accomplished saxophonist, jazz musician and composer. On this album the saxophone (tenor and soprano) contribute improvisatory, modern jazz lines that blend chromaticism, pentatonics and blues inflections. Some tracks use the soprano to evoke a Middle-Eastern flavour. Annesley has a beautiful tone on both instruments, particularly the tenor which is used a little more emotively and with more spontaneous melody. Given this, it’s surprising that there isn’t much in the way of written melody or arranged parts for multiple horns to add greater compositional depth and texture.
Annesley has played or programmed, except for a couple of cameos, almost every sound on the album. Guesting on track 10, Alien Zoo Keeper, is Erin Adams playing trombone, and on Surprise Visit (tk 8) Hugh Harvey on drums and Tom Lee, double bass. The album benefits from the addition of these musicians, short as their appearances are, to humanise and to give a sense of interaction and instrumental colour. The majority of the tracks although varying in length, tempo and groove, draw from a similar sound palette.
The album’s most creative and interesting tracks seem to be in the second half. Track 6, Lucky For Some, eschews dark hip-hop for a lighter, more syncopated, African-influenced feel, a little bit Weather Report with Zawinul-like synth bass. In this track, the tenor improvisation is more intimate, using some subtone in its melodic and rhythmic invention. In track 12, Subtle Chaos, the drum loop is nicely lo-fi with atonal horns blowing almost inaudibly in the background. Adelaide Distorted (tk 13), makes good use of an insistent string pattern and Nintendo Afterglow (tk 14) leads to a re-imagining of Miles’ 80s music as if played on Gameboy.
This album was originally released in 2009 and was four years in the making, placing its conception to almost a decade ago. In the electronica component of this music, it is vital to be current and as cutting edge as possible. Its a difficult tightrope to walk, on the one hand pushing technology to create almost unlistenable cacophonies of digital sound and at the other extreme, creating contemporary wallpaper as, for example, the default setting on a pay TV programme guide.
This album seems to document Annesley finding his feet in this setting and shows enough good ideas and ability for us to expect to discover that this is the kernel of a project which has become more sophisticated and self-assured. There are more recent releases available. Search under the name Virtual Proximity as well as James Annesley.