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Ensemble Nist-Nah “Elders” LP/CD

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Master percussionist Will Guthrie slips into transcendent gamelan-jazz mode on this debut album from his nine-piece percussion group Nist-Nah. Traditional Indonesian instrumentation – with a breathtaking vocal performance from Jessica Kenney – are filtered thru free improv modalities to end up with a flutter of sound that lodges itself somewhere between Ornette Coleman and Autechre. Fully mindblowing this one.

Astounding debut from Ensemble Nist-Nah, a percussion group that uses drum kits, junk percussion and a complete set of Javanese gamelan instruments to produce sounds that absorb folk, jazz, noise and elements of contemporary composition. With Guthrie at the helm, it’s not hard to see how the Nantes-based ensemble is able to traverse such precarious territory and emerge unscathed. He’s long balanced these elements successfully, most impressively on 2020’s Black Truffle released “Nist-Nah”, where the seeds of “Elders” were sown. Here, those early sketches have been developed into maps and portraits, building in contributions from a diverse range of players who give the compositions weight and animation.

Eleven-minute opener ‘Geni / Tirta’ reflects on Guthrie’s process and foreshadows its development, arcing from a modern-jazz-gone-gamelan opening (the infectious horn-gamelan licks are particularly inspired) into a ritualistic downtempo shuffle, and then transforming in the third act with a stunning vocal from Jessica Kenney. Kenney, who’s collaborated with Sunn O))) and Eyvind Kang among others, is well known for her mastery of Indonesian vocal music, and gives the composition an emotional heft that’s hard to forget.

Elsewhere, jazz modes overlap gamelan styles, on ‘Planeker’, familiar microtonal chimes are restructured into slippery neo-funk bumps, where knotty drums are offset by a  gamelan set playing melodic droplets with an almost electronic sensibility – it sounds like “On the Corner”-era Miles Davis re-imagining latter-day Autechre via Antony Manning’s foundational “Islets in Pink Polypropylene”.

‘Elders’ is more restrained, and offsets bells and chimes with atmospheric waves of a-rhythmic percussion that rise like seismic shocks; closing track ‘Swayer’ continues in this vein but submerges the sounds in marine air, coming across like a sub-aquatic funeral rite.

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CD, Vinyl LP