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Album Reviews

Album Review: Jess Gillam - Time (Decca)

Clare Martin

Jess Gillam is a wunderkind of the saxophone persuasion. She hails from the north of England and is making waves in the classical and genre-crossing music worlds.  Decca is releasing her second album on 25 September, following on from an exciting debut calling card.  This second album is a chance for Gillam to diversify, to show her true colours, to create a stamp of her personality. 

The album is a collection of commissions and arrangements orbiting around Gillam's desire to create an immersive musical space in a busy world. Its intention is to range over a world of styles including minimalism, classical to alternative rock. And of course, it is a brilliant showcase for  herself as well as an opportunity for Decca to create a doorway for new audiences via this young saxophone dynamo. 

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The compositional material is truly mouth-watering including arrangements of Björk, Thom Yorke, and Max Richter’s sublime although slightly overdone “On the Nature of Daylight”.  But despite this delicious range, some of the tracks are over-simplified in their arrangements and can feel a bit like a readers’ digest version of your favourite literature.

There is no doubt that Jess Gillam is an extraordinary musician.  She can create soaring tone, breathtakingly long phrases and expression you probably will never have heard from a saxophone. One of the best vehicles for this is the adaptation of James Blake's “Retrograde” which allows Gillam more space and spontaneity.  It is a track of beauty and adventure and for me one of the highlights.

Another very pretty piece is the commission from contemporary classical composer Luke Howard - “Dappled Light”.  And at the centre of the album is Michael Nyman’s “Where the Bee Dances” which launched Gillam in the finals of the BBC Young Musician in 2016. It’s a virtuosic piece and the longest track of the album.  It’s a very enjoyable romp but at times feels like a soundtrack to a cosy Sunday afternoon film. 

Joby Talbot’s “Transit of Venus” is literally a feat of breath on saxophone.  Gillam spins notes of pure silver and, with her ensemble, creates a cinematic kind of magic. Also magic is the final piece “Emerald & Stone”, an arrangement of Brian Eno and Jon Hopkins’ 2015 electronic gem in which Gillam floats notes like liquid mercury.

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I suspect I went into this album hoping to hear new sounds.  But it doesn’t have that raison d’être.  It’s not looking to be ground-breaking. And I suspect I hoped to be challenged by the range of genres. But it’s not aiming to challenge. Once I’d wrapped my head around that I settled into the pleasure of the album’s beautiful aural space.  And I have a new respect for the potential and power of Gillam’s saxophone beyond anything I’ve heard before.

Jess Gillam's Time is available for purchase HERE

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Written By: Clare Martin Clare has performed as an opera, recital and oratorio artist in UK most notably the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London. In NZ she has performed with NZ Opera and with the NZ Symphony Orchestra but more recently she has moved into a wider range of contemporary genres including jazz and even Leonard Cohen. Since 2008 Clare has been teaching from her own music studio working with professional and beginner singers. In 2017 she was a mentor on TVNZ’s The Naked Choir working with a cappella choirs and she currently coaches barbershop and a woman’s ensemble.