The Mindful Bard – Invocations

Album: Invocations
Artist: Nat Birchall

“I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.”
– John Coltrane

Discovering Nat Birchall’s music is like finally meeting a reclusive neighbor and happily discovering that he’s a warm-hearted, eccentric genius very much worth getting to know. One of Britain’s hidden treasures, Birchall has a small but slavish cult following (iconic BBC musical pundit Gilles Peterson is a fan), and if you just have a listen you’ll know why at once: a songbird with an ear ever cocked toward Paradise, Birchall uses the tenor and soprano sax to bring glad tidings of a transcendent world to our jaded ears.

In the title track, bassist Tim Fairhall provides an introductory solo as delicate and whimsical as a haiku, and then, just as in A Love Supreme, the cymbals slowly wash in, followed by Birchall’s saxophone prayer, richly reverent, dancing with wonder, lifting its voice in praise.

Then It’s almost as if an answer comes: Johnny Hunter starts to really swing on the drums as the piano dishes up luscious jazz chords and odd rhythms that the bass somehow manages to echo from time to time. The sound then becomes rhapsodic, and free jazz begins to emerge. But nothing ever flies off the rails; there’s a profound integrity to this music that keeps it ever in balance.

These tracks sound so polished and authentically jazz that It’s hard to believe that Birchall came to jazz by way of Jamaican dub, or that he’s also been known to mesh jazz with both hip-hop and Turkish folk music.

When Nat Birchall began listening seriously to music in the early seventies it was to Jamaican dub music; the experience launched a lifelong fascination with how musicians and instruments worked together to create aural beauty and meaning. Not surprisingly, his first introduction to jazz came with John Coltrane’s album, Blue Train. Soon afterward, a chance encounter with an aged alto saxophone gave him an almost mystical epiphany that compelled him to start taking lessons.

That’s right?lessons. No conservatory of music. No scholarship to Juilliard. The man that Gilles Peterson calls one of the best musicians in the UK is largely self-taught.

His compositions, playing, accompaniment, and worldview are all reminiscent of John Coltrane, another saxophone player with an otherworldly bent. His discography boasts a host of albums with deeply spiritual concepts and titles (e.g. Akhenaten, Guiding Spirit, and Sacred Dimension), and yet we find little published information about his actual spiritual practice. It appears that his spiritual practice is, as it was with Coltrane, the music itself. Praise be.

Invocations manifests six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth a listen.

– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
– It’s about attainment of the true self.
– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
– It makes me want to be a better artist.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative S