Tonic: Album Review — At The Barrier

BY GARETH ALLEN ON 

Tonic by Steve Baker, is an album of remarkable jazz infused compositions and arrangements, played by a fine ensemble of musicians. 

Release Date: 8th July 2022 — Label: Ubuntu Music — Format: Digital / CD

Steve Bakeris a truly remarkable artist, being a gifted muti-instrumentalist, as well as a music producer, composer, and orchestrator/arranger. He has composed for both television and radio, and Tonic is his first album as leader of the music. It is a significant and impressive work, involving a big band ensemble of exceptional musicians, and string orchestrations performed by the Hungarian Studio Orchestra conducted by Peter Illenyi. The compositions resonate with an epic and multilayered musical delivery, that is both immersive and engaging. 

Jazz is at its heart, alongside influences from rock and the classical world. In its scope and musical sweep and ambition, this album is reminiscent of Neil Ardley’s 1976 classic work Kaleidoscope of Rainbows. Which means it is very good indeed and essential listening. 

The opening sequence False Relation Parts 1 and 2, begins with Steve Baker’s beautiful piano melody, where breathtaking spaces are left, enabling the notes to literally hang in the air. The introduction of Mark Lockheart’s ascending saxophone marks the transition into Part 2, where acoustic guitar, piano and brass and woodwind instruments, provide a gentle platform for the dream like voices of Angeline Morand, Carmen Daye and Lauren Christie. The three voices combine to create a fabulous impressionistic palette of ethereal sounds. The splashing cymbals and brushed drums provide a subtle and precise rhythmic underpinning. It is a very striking musical opening to the album.

The track following is called Riley, which Steve Baker describes in the album sleeve notes as “A response to Bridget Riley’s Nataraja (1993) long before I knew its meaning”. You can view this oil painting on canvas on the Tate Britain website. The track clocks in at well over eight minutes, allowing the music to really stretch out, and showcase some remarkable playing. There are dynamic shifts of pace during the piece, from a majestic shuffle, through a slow ballad, to a frenetic big band sound. The solo embellishments by John Parricelli on electric guitar and Mark Lockheart on saxophone are intricate and beautifully played. At the center of the piece are the ghatam and konnakol vocals of Ghatam V Suresh and the drums of Ralph Salmins which provide a wonderfully expressive and musically outstanding rhythmic pulse to the piece. 

Over repeated listens it will reveal a myriad of exciting musical layers

GARETH ALLEN

Laura Jurd, who plays trumpet and flugelhorn on the album, provides some exquisitely crafted elegiac phrases on The Garden. The subtle shifting percussive patterns segue into a funk driven sequence, where Dedi Madden’s magnificent fills on lead guitar, seem to clip and sing, reminding this reviewer of Frank Zappa’s iconic approach to guitar phrasing. 

Rightly Said, another highlight on the album, appears at points to conjure up the atmosphere of a Raymond Chandler novel, though from the sleeve notes this is not the inspiration for the music. This of course is the joy of great music; in that it provides space for the listener to add their own interpretation. The piece veers between slow languid sections and more quickfire big sound segments, with some fabulous brass and electric guitar musical accents.  The drums and percussion are crisp, musical, and completely enveloping, a testament to the impressive engineering and production on this album. 

Belinda, the closing track, opens with piano and birdsong, before the delightfully graceful strings make their entrance, and Richard Harvey’s recorder flies free above the mix. The sleeve notes for the track talk about “Simple misunderstandings can have a lot to answer for. This is about conflict, depression, addiction, contemplation, forgiveness & acceptance”. On the track, Mark Lockheart’s saxophone solo soars and the music seems to effortlessly convey both a sense of poignancy and new beginnings. 

This is an album to treasure, enjoy, and listen to at a deep level. Over repeated listens it will reveal a myriad of exciting musical layers. The compositions, arrangements, and ensemble and solo playing are simply superb. On the CD copy of the album, the artwork from original prints by Niki Medlik, is visually striking, and together with the sleeve notes describing the inspiration behind each piece, are a very worthwhile companion to the music.