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Camphor by David Sylvian

Singer/songwriter David Sylvian has long worked on the fringes of jazz. Starting out in the British glam/pop band, Japan, he wrote introspective songs and eventually steered the band into incorporating elements of both Asian and Middle-eastern music. With his first solo release, 1984’s Brilliant Trees, he assembled a line up that featured the talents of jazz trumpeters Kenny Wheeler, Mark Isham, and Jon Hassell. Successive recordings have featured guitarists Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, and David Torn, pianist Jon Taylor, and bassist Chris Minh Dokey.

Following the career retrospective Everything And Nothing, Camphor is another retrospective of sorts. It is also a contractual obligation release, the final recording under his now ended 22 year run with Virgin records. But unlike many final contract releases, this is not just a pastiche thrown together by record company execs in order to cash in on an artist one final time. All the tracks here were picked out by Sylvian. Much to Virgin’s credit, they gave Sylvian access to all of his back catalog tapes and many of the tracks have been personally remixed, creating a fascinating re-look at his work.

Opening with the funk rave up, All of My Mother’s Names, we are greeted with tablas, Fender Rhodes piano, and long toned guitars. This could easily be something out of Bitches Brew era Miles. Marc Ribot delivers a John McLaughlinesque performance on guitar. Red Earth (as summertime ends) is from the Japan reunion under the name Rain Tree Crow. With its slow, ambient groove and ethnic percussion, it bubbles along, instruments moving in and out of the mix. Answered Prayers is a gorgeous track from Gone To Earth. Over a lush ambient loop, Bill Nelson delivers an exquisite acoustic guitar performance. The Song Which Gives The Key To Perfection is one of the few vocals on this mostly instrumental collection. A new track, it features Sylvian singing in Hindu(?). Sylvian and his wife, singer Ingrid Chavez, have been devotees of guru Sri Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, and his more recent releases have shown a decidedly Indian flavor on many tracks.

New Moon At Red Deer Wallow is another track from Rain Tree Crow. The sparse hand drumming is layered with keyboards and guitar that move in and out of the mix. Bassist Mick Karn’s bass clarinet is featured as the main instrument here. The song itself is all about atmosphere. The remixed version of Wave, from Gone To Earth, is on of the albums highlights. Gone are the up front drums, keyboard chords, and the vocals. Brought out instead is Robert Fripp’s searing guitar line that was formerly in the background. Allowed to flow on top of a lush, keyboard backing, the guitar is haunting and mesmerizing. The other highlight is the remix and reworking of Mother And Child, from 1987’s Secrets Of The Beehive. The vocals are replaced by Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer. His slightly dark and brooding trumpet lines add to the already haunting mood. This is exceptionally beautiful.

Plight is a remixed excerpt from one of Sylvian’s two ambient collaborations with German icon, Holger Czukay (from the legendary group Can). It is a short exercise in ambient collage. Upon This Earth (also from Gone To Earth) is a remixed excerpt that again leaves off the vocal and focuses on Fripp’s lead guitar line. Rain Tree Crow’s Big Wheel In Shanty Town is a sort of Middle Eastern funk, anchored by Mick Karn’s bubbling bass line. Karn’s overdubbed horn line adds a bit of James Brown flavor to things. The Healing Place (from GTE) is another moody vehicle for Bill Nelson to lay down a beautifully simple guitar line. Camphor is one of the new tracks. It features Sylvian on all instruments and is another moody, ambient piece. The CD closes with A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce, a little known b-side that features the piano of John Taylor sparsely played against Sylvian’s synth background.

While this is not strictly jazz, Sylvian’s ambient moods are not far removed from some of the more atmospheric music one might hear on the ECM label. Recommended for adventurous listeners and late nights.

As a limited edition bonus, there is a second disc featuring remixes of much of the music from his two CDs with Holger Czukay, Plight & Premonition and Flux & Mutability. The nearly forty minutes of music is a collage of ambient moods.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: David Sylvian
  • CD Title: Camphor
  • Genre: Ambient Jazz
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Record Label: Virgin
  • Musicians: David Sylvian - guitars, keyboards, percussion, vocals, with a large supporting cast.
  • Rating: Five Stars
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