From starting out as a loosely-organised acoustic jazz tribute act, The Blessing have moved on to develop a unique sound which matches their exotic culinary preferences. Frederick Bernas met two members of the Bohemian Bristol-based group.

Easton is a part of Bristol with a notoriously interesting reputation, so naturally I was eager to step out of the city’s student bubble and visit Jim Barr’s studio there. A ten-minute train ride from the centre of town, a quiet high street and a graffiti-coated alleyway later I arrived at an old warehouse in the heart of the cultural quarter.

Barr, bass player in The Blessing, was joined by saxophonist Jake McMurchie. They’d been working on final production touches for their upcoming album, All Is Yes, due to be released in February next year on Candid Records. “It’s our first studio album; we’ve done a couple of live recordings, but they’re not as defined or unique as what we’ve come up with now,” Barr explains. “We’d been playing together so long, but not made a proper studio album together,” McMurchie continues. “We had plans for a while which never really happened, so this time we decided to get in the studio and do it.”

The Blessing formed in 2000 as a tribute to Ornette Coleman. “We started off playing lots of Coleman stuff with double bass, sax, trumpet and drums – the same lineup as Ornette’s groups in the 60s – and then we suddenly discovered this other sound about a year ago,” Barr narrates. “It was also about playing with complete abandon, finding something where we could all let rip and freely improvise, as opposed to playing mouldy old jazz standards.”

So what was the moment of realisation which transformed the sound of the band? Barr answers: “Jake wrote a tune that had quite a punky bassline; I tried to play it on the double bass and thought it wasn’t really happening, so I got the electric bass out and that was it. That one tune led us into this whole other world – everything we’ve been writing since then has been quite aggressive and spiky, or atmospheric in a filmy sort of way. It’s definitely not an acoustic jazz thing anymore.”

“It’s not just free jazz anymore either,” McMurchie goes on, “It’s structured. It has, for want of a better word, an element of the rock approach. It’s still got that open sound, but a lot more riff-based. It’s not written by brain, it’s written by cake.” OK. The food theme is a recurring topic throughout the interview, which is definitely something I can relate to – “The new album was largely inspired by Moroccan cuisine,” states the saxophonist.

This burst of creativity in composition and the shifting dynamics of the group meant The Blessing turned into more than an occasional side project, according to Barr. “That sudden injection of energy made it feel more like our thing, not just a nice thing we did sometimes at the weekends. It made us think this was really something that was worth pushing,” he articulates.

The other half of the band is Clive Deamer on drums and Pete Judge on trumpet, both of whom draw glowing references. “Clive is definitely the powerhouse of what goes on,” McMurchie describes. “He’s an amazing drummer with a ridiculous CV. He does the Portishead thing with Jim and is playing with Robert Plant at the moment; he worked with Roni Size in Reprazent and is the only drummer I’ve ever heard do drum & bass live the way it should sound. There are lots of drummers who do it but he makes it sound like nothing else. He’s done so many different things, so he doesn’t come with any preconceptions about what he’s supposed to do in our music. He can also play extremely quietly and incredibly loudly: suddenly it can just go to levels you wouldn’t have dreamed it could go to and it’s a wonderful thing.”

“The trumpet player Pete is the same,” Barr continues. “He doesn’t come at it from a trumpet player’s perspective. He’s got his own sound and he approaches it in a very creative and musical way: you never get standard trumpet-style stuff, which is always good. Jake and Pete are particularly amazing together – it’s like they’ve got USB cables between their brains, there’s stuff going on that makes you believe in telepathy.”

“Again, that’s because we’ve played together a lot over a long period of time,” McMurchie puts in. “Having that sort of understanding is really key to our sound. The other thing I really like about what Pete does, going back to the point of not approaching it like a trumpet player, is when he makes sounds you think can’t have come from anywhere – let alone a trumpet. We’ve got what could be a limiting factor of only having bass, drums, trumpet and saxophone, but Pete in particular can make it sound like something else entirely just by fiddling about.” According to Barr, this repertoire of random noise includes “the sound of a central heating system draining down” – I’ll definitely be listening out for that on the new album.

During the interview I was introduced to a novel term – ‘jazz close’. The bassist describes this new buzzword: “It’s like jazz but it’s not. It’s not jazz not jazz.” He draws on the example of groups like Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland, both of which are currently at the forefront of the British creative music scene. “Even if you don’t like that kind of music, you’ve got to recognise that they’re doing something significant, they’re great musicians and people are really getting into it. I love it.”

The Blessing are at the Pizza Express Jazz Club (definitely an appropriate venue) on November 4 and again in the capital on December 21, in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. An extensive UK tour is organised for the album launch next year, but what are the plans after that? “We’re on a three album deal with Candid, with the option of a fourth, so we’ll be back in the studio working on the next one very soon after the tour,” Barr answers. “We’re aiming to raise our profile at home and move on to a few Europe dates in the spring, then hopefully we’ll get over to North America at some stage.”

To round things off I asked if they had any interesting stories from previous London shows. “They’re always going to be food-related,” McMurchie says thoughtfully. “We had a nice gig in London before Christmas and ate at a very good Ethiopian restaurant in Finsbury Park – I recommend that highly.”

Published in London Tourdates magazine, 1/11/07.