Press

ISOTROPES

The Wire – review by Andy Hamilton
New York City Jazz Record Gazette – review by Tom Greenland

On a related note, GIO’s Raymond MacDonald can be heard splashing around in a digital bubblebath with Australian musicians Alister Spence and Shoeb Ahmad on Isotropes, the debut album from their new trio Sensaround. Over Spence and Ahmad’s glistening maritime soundscapes, MacDonald’s soprano sax soars with beautiful siren calls and swooping seagull tones. Out now on Cube (sic), it takes electro-acoustic improv into strange subaquatic realms. Stewart Smith, The Quietus

This band could not be better named, because even just in stereo the music surrounds you. Sounds of seeming substance loom out of a swirling mist of smaller sounds, but then dissolve, so all is ephemeral and ghostly, just like life.
Sensaround consists of Alister Spence (Fender Rhodes, pedals), Raymond McDonald (alto and soprano saxophones) and Shoeb Ahmad (samplers, pedals). Their improvisations can amount to brief fragments or go on longer journeys, such as Sense V, where McDonald’s saxophone has ample cause to be agitated by the layers of eeriness (bordering on scariness) built up by the others. Yet, like one surviving turbulent times, the horn lines ultimately arrive at a certain peacefulness.
The essential format barely changes between pieces; the interest is maintained by a curiosity in what happens next, rather like following a plot. Although the music would certainly still have aesthetic appeal without the saxophone, with it comes something stronger: not just a sense of humanity, but of humanity adrift in a hostile world. If you enjoy nightmares, play this in bed. John Shand, Sydney Morning Herald

Alister Spence returns fresh from the success of last year’s duo album with Myra Melford, Everything Here Is Possible (reviewed in these pages), with not one but two releases: Firstly in a trio with Canadian bassist Joe Williamson and Swiss drummer Christopher Cantillo, and secondly as a member of Sensaround. While both albums fall into the category of free jazz they are two very different beasts. Sensaround’s Isotropes is the more adventurous release, featuring Spence on Fender Rhodes, (although you’d be hard pressed to recognise the instrument) and pedals. Over a sound-bed of constantly changing noises that almost gurgle in and out, Raymond McDonald plays fairly conventional sax, in that it is not quite atonal. The listener is drawn to the effects, coming mainly from Shoeb Ahmad with obvious assistance from Spence. The overall effect is almost sombre but also serene. There is much diversity in these two albums, confirming that Spence is a musician of great vision. Michael Prescott, Jazzwise Magazine

Isotropes sees Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra saxophonist Raymond McDonald splashing around in a digital bubblebath with Australian musicians Alister Spence and Shoeb Ahmad. Come on in, the water’s lovely. Sensaround’s electro-acoustic improvisation relies on relatively lo-tech kit; there are no laptops running complex algorithms here, just a few effects pedals and samplers alongside McDonald’s reeds and Spence’s Fender Rhodes piano. Filtered and flipped, the fuzzy keys become a gurgling mass of liquid and gas, not unlike the subaquatic realms conjured on Drexciya’s 1999 techno classic Neptune’s Lair. On first listen, there’s not a great deal of development to these textures, with Spence’s playing seemingly lost in the whirlpool. But over time subtle details emerge: green seaweed undulating in the current, tiny fish oscillating. McDonald soars over it all with beautiful siren calls and swooping seagull tones. An intriguing experiment which bodes well for any future encounters. Stewart Smith, The List

Improvisation heavyweights Alister Spence (Rhodes and effects) and Raymond MacDonald (alto and soprano saxophone) team up with Shoeb Ahmad (samplers and effects) for this release under the group name of Sensaround.
Spence has been a pivotal player in Australia’s contemporary Jazz scene for over two decades as a member of Wanderlust, Clarion Fracture Zone and by leading his own successful ensembles. His musical friendship with Scottish free improviser MacDonald extends ten years and recently the pair recorded a duet album, Stepping Between the Shadows, in 2012. Ahmad recorded Isotropes in his Brick Lane studio in Canberra and has released the ensuing work on his great hellosQuare label; home to albums from Tangents, Pollen Trio and Spartak to name a few.
An isotrope can have a few definitions, depending on your field, but broadly speaking it’s an even distribution of power or matter over all directions. It’s a great metaphor for this album with the trio equally sharing a dialogue over six tracks – named ‘Senses’ i – vi.
Spence’s Rhodes is barely recognisable for most of the tracks, manipulated through a variety of effects pedals. The tweaked keyboard offers a world of pads, drones, squelches and bell like tones. Occasionally it’s native voice is distinguished – during the epic ‘Senses iv’ you can hear the internal tines strummed and a pulsing mid register note. Slow chordal movement is heard elsewhere, nonetheless this isn’t a traditional Rhodes trio record in any sense. Spence’s primary concern is to build a variety of textures.
Ahmad’s contributions are equally difficult to attribute, although I assume tones like the metallic scrapes of the opening track, abrasive crackle of ‘Senses ii’ and spluttering glitch of ‘Senses vi’ are his doing. Between Ahmed and Spence a wonderfully dense and intriguing ambience is created. The cliche that ‘close listening is rewarded’ definitely applies here…BYO headphones for the full immersive experience.
MacDonald’s raspy alto unleashes a hailstorm of restless staccato notes during ‘ii’. Equally incisive is his use of the soprano on ‘iii’. Mid way through the 22 minute plus ‘Senses iv’, MacDonald’s scatternote mode is shelved to make way for some wonderfully lyrical phrases. The woodwinds strike a marked contrast against Spence and Ahmad’s pedal driven collage, yet there is a distinct cohesion between all sources.
Isotropes is a rich and vibrant album, capturing the three musicians deeply engaged in sonic conversation. It’s beautifully sculpted and presented. One hopes that the members of Sensaround can continue to negotiate their respective schedules and produce a follow up album. Matt Wakeling, Cyclic Defrost

It has been some while since I last heard from Shoeb Ahmad – I think (!) – and his HelloSquare label. Here he presents another new name from that current Australian jazz scene: Sensaround. This is a trio with ‘well-known Australian jazz innovator Alister Spence on fender Rhodes piano and pedals, from Scotland Raymnond McDonald on alto and soprano saxophone and Ahmad on two samplers. In January 2013 they went into the studio for a day to record pieces that ended up on ‘Isotropes’, which hold ‘Sense IV’ being twenty-two minutes, two pieces of four minutes and three curious short bits. I’m told they blend free improvisation, electronic music and indie pop in this project, and I might not be too sure about the latter. I liked the new Aussie jazz movement so far but Sensaround is the first I am not altogether sure about. Normally it’s all quite soft, jazzy, freely meandering and that’s what we have here too, at least to a certain extent, but it seems also at times a bit different; a bit more experimental? Or better: a bit of an uneasy marriage between sounds, especially in the shorter pieces – like everything doesn’t quite fit together. It rubs more against each other than that it bounces nicely, but I assume that’s the whole idea. The samplers and keyboards work together quite well, but sometimes McDonald wails a bit too much on top of things. When he’s receiving some treatment – delay, reverb – he fits better in. Don’t get me wrong: I quite enjoy this release! It’s not what I expected, and that, I guess, is always a good thing. It also shows there’s more to the new Aussie jazz than being free and smooth; that it can sound a bit more experimental, or uneasy. This is quite a strange release, but after hearing it a couple times it grew more and more on me. Excellent oddity. Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly

 

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