Alabaster DePlume cuts a grand figure: ringed, tattooed, bestowed with a splendiferous stage name that also pokes fun at the idea of stage names. Yet the Mancunian singer-poet-saxophonist’s role in the fertile UK jazz scene is less mad genius than social locus, hosting fertile sessions at London studio and club Total Refreshment Centre in which bright young players can indulge their brightest ideas. His 2022 album Gold: Go Forward In The Courage of Your Love came out of these sessions and situated DePlume’s slithery poetry and tenor saxophone playing within the most opulent strains of ’70s spiritual jazz: Bennie Maupin, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane. Come With Fierce Grace, by contrast, is so spare that it could have been composed in the Stone Age.
Most of the album’s expanse is taken up by percussion: drum thwacks, rimshots, clicked sticks, woodblocks, sleigh bells, chimes. DePlume mostly plays tenor saxophone, and his most sustained burst of spoken-word inspiration comes at the end of “What Can it Take,” riffing on themes from Gold: being “brazen like a baby,” going “forward in the courage of my love.” DePlume’s music encourages an elemental purity of thought, unclouded by the emotional self-censorship that modern social interactions demand. Come With Fierce Grace aspires to a similar ideal in its composition—a raw, brutal immediacy as reflective of an egoless musical ideal as a drum circle, cacerolazo, or grounation. It’s the sort of music people make instinctively, banging on whatever’s handy in pursuit of a common goal, be it communal joy, spiritual ecstasy, or rebellion against the status quo.
The difference is that DePlume has some of the best jazz musicians in the UK behind him. Hotshot drummer Tom Skinner lays down a serpentine groove on “Greek Honey Slick” that moves like a Chinese dragon, or like those guys struggling to carry the giant snake through the meadow on the cover of Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Cellist Hannah Miller imparts a sense of maudlin grandeur to “Fall On Flowers” and “Not Even Sobbing.” Vocalists bring light to this cracked and ragged landscape: Momoko Gill riffs thoughtfully on DePlume’s poetry on “Did You Know,” accompanied by a humming, musing choir of herself, while on the wonderful deconstructed jazz ballad “Fall On Flowers,” a circle of voices coos in mournful unison as DePlume’s saxophone flickers like a votive candle.
Many of these tracks seem to start in the middle, likely because they were curated by DePlume from the best parts of endless jams and shoot-the-shit sessions. As monstrous as tracks like “Greek Honey Slick” and “Fall On Flowers” are, they feel less like self-contained compositions than pieces of a larger morass of music only hinted at on Fierce Grace’s 42 minutes. Jam curation is an underappreciated art (Teo Macero, Carlos Niño, and Mark Hollis are among its greatest practitioners), and DePlume shows a knack for it here. Surely there were more consonant and ear-pleasing moments from the sessions that produced the albums, but most of those probably ended up on Gold. Fierce Grace is beautiful in the same way as a stick insect.
Every now and then, DePlume and his band will hit on an insistent single-note pattern—it happens on “What Can it Take,” again on “Naked Like Water,” and finally on the spectacular and stately “Broken Again.” It’s an unmistakably modern sound, one that repeats with mechanical repetition and inhuman relentlessness: noise, in other words. Amid this primal, ancient-seeming music, it’s as jarring as a straight line on the surface of an alien planet, and it serves as a reminder of the hyper-stratified post-industrial drudgery to which DePlume’s pursuit of musical and mental liberation is a revolt. The music on Come With Fierce Grace is not designed to be played in restaurants, cafes, cannabis dispensaries, or any other context so casual or vulgar. It might seem at first to be about little more than the joy of its making, but what it argues is how precious that joy really is.
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