I spent a while back there in the early noughties thinking that all the fusions had been tried, and that whatever new forms were going to emerge in music would be so outlandish I might find it hard to grasp them. Actually, it turns out there’s a lot of mileage left in the old stylistic materials, a lot more meaning to be milked from them, and many more ways in which they can be combined and reinterpreted. Emma-Jean Thackray is a bandleader and multi-instrumentalist working in a liminal zone somewhere between dance music and jazz—not electronic dance music, that is, although such influences can be heard in her work, but music for dancing of whatever stripe. On Yellow, her debut album, grooves and riffs invoke trance and ritual, as do the committed modal improvisations with which she and her cohorts ‘decorate time’. There is a very overt psychedelic element to her music, more than a nod to the weed-smoking, mushroom-eating demimonde. and a heavy emphasis on peace, love and unity. She is not alone in bringing such values to bear on groove music—Greentea Peng is ploughing a related furrow, and Jamiroquai was making neo-tribalist eco-hippy funk music way back in the early 90s. In fact, this is a tradition that goes right back to Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic (and all the rest of it), and some of the most influential early jazz fusion—listen to the lyrics from a Return to Forever song, or look at the album art from Herbie Hancock’s Thrust!
There’s something quite unique about the way that Thackray is doing her thing, however. Her raw materials are mostly pretty old-school, and her decision to lean mostly on brass bass, a less facile instrument than bass guitar, keeps the music from becoming too slick or clever. She has a preference for expansive modal harmonies that create a sense of space and ease even when she’s filling the air with riffs and licks. This is not the strictly controlled and tightly arranged sort of groove fusion to which most 70s acts tended over time, but something that harks back to the explosive collective improvisation of early jazz or Charles Mingus. In fact Mingus is a good touchstone for talking about Thackray. His combination of creative improvisational liberty with deep, earthy groove is something which influenced subsequent generations without seeming to leave much of a direct sonic imprint until recently, when I started to hear it in British acts like Polar Bear, Sons of Kemet, Shabaka and the Ancestors and others. Thackray seems to fit with that tendency, but she brings a devotional and celebratory mood to proceedings that makes me wonder what the Coltranes would have been like if they’d been ravers. There’s humour here (‘smells like biscuits/ biscuits and weed’), but for my money Yellow is a very serious piece of work. The time I’ve spent with it has been joyous, time in which I’ve been taken right outside myself, and although there’s plenty of nice playing to relish, this is a record which never panders to technique fetishism. Instead it presents the listener with a moment and challenges them to inhabit it as fully as the Thackray and the other musicians.