Jez Hellard and the Djukella Orchestra: The Fruitful Fells
Jez Hellard and the Djukella Orchestra – The Fruitful Fells
Djukella Records (JDHCD004) – July 16, 2021
The arrival in post of a new album by Jez hellard It’s a bit like receiving a letter from an old friend that you haven’t seen in ages. Not that I can count him as a friend, but after getting excited about his latest album, Heavy wood (reviewed here), it almost feels like that. And The Fruitful Fells is literally a letter with music attached; Jez’s notes on the inner three sides of the tri-fold sleeve begin with “Dear Friends Near and Far” and end with “Jez”. As with any long overdue letter from a friend, there is a lot of catching up to be done, why it took so long (five years) to release a new studio album, how it was recorded in Machynlleth, in the distant reached central Wales, the hassle of trying to reunite the Djukella Orchestra even virtually. And finally, how it might not be the album that many fans have been waiting for. It’s a brave statement for any artist, but Jez has never shied away from saying it as it is. So, to paraphrase his letter, some roaring dance tunes are for the next album, this one, coming after a period of longing, loss and soul-searching, is to warm you up through the dark times.
With this goal firmly in mind, Jez put together fourteen songs, only one of which he wrote himself. The rest are singers and songwriters. Sometimes it’s the same person, often not, whose songs, when Jez has heard them over the years, have encouraged, enlightened, educated, angered, aroused, amazed. The list goes on, but I don’t need to explain much more. In addition to the cover text, there is a beautifully illustrated 24-page booklet with lyrics and much of the reasoning as to why these songs are important to Jez and why they should be important, and maybe a little helpful, for us.
Membership in the Djukella Orchestra has always been a bit variable, and registration during the pandemic has added obvious difficulties. But all of the bands that made Heavy Wood have contributed to The Fruitful Fells to some extent. Jez, naturally, is on all tracks, mainly on vocals and guitar, adding harmonicas to several. Nye Parsons on the double bass is almost as ubiquitous on all tracks except the Big Steamers acapella. On the other hand, the violins of Alistair Caplin and James patrick gavin are only heard three times each, while Dominique henderson‘low whistle and Tommie Black Roffthe accordion of each makes only one appearance (together, these last three artists form the trio Teyr). With Alastair and James playing reduced roles, the rest of the violin comes from London-based Polish jazz violinist Piotr Jordan, who also plays viola on two tracks. Are also involved Ewan Bleach on clarinet and percussion by Matthew Pharaoh.
The successful Fells opens with a song that sounds immediately with the album title. Will go up again has lyrics linking the cyclical pattern of farm life, planting, growing, harvesting, dying and working the land passed from generation to generation. But, of course, this traditional model is increasingly threatened by the industrialization of food production and the rapacious acquisition of land for other purposes. Thus, in a song, we find two of the subjects that, throughout his career, have inspired Jez to communicate through music. On the one hand, his deep appreciation and desire to protect the natural world. On the other, an attachment to socialist principles in the broadest sense of the term. Will go up again was written by Si Kahn, but Jez’s connection to it stems from being sung by the late Roy Bailey, and its inclusion is, in part, a tribute to the inspiration he drew from Roy. The track opens with Jez’s guitar and a deliberately edgy violin from Piotr giving way to Jez’s breathy voice accompanied by guitar and bass. This hushed accompaniment is punctuated throughout with plaintive violin phrases. As with this opener, many of the album’s arrangements are clean compared to the standard Djukella Orchestra. There is no doubt that this approach makes for powerful music, especially for three of the tracks when there really is no orchestra at all, just Jez on vocals, guitar and harmonica alongside. of Nye’s bass. Of these, the treatment of Home by Christmas, the song written by Robb Johnson to commemorate Passchendaele’s 80th birthday, is notable. Long celebrated as a passionately political songwriter, in Home by Christmas, Robb obliquely links the posture of generals that led to such horrific loss of life with the attitudes of today’s ruling elites, perpetuating a society crudely. uneven. Jez’s voice has never been short of passion when needed, but here he uses a smooth, almost flat approach, allowing the lyrics to do their job. Behind the vocals, Jez’s guitar is made of soft chords and arpeggios, while his moaning harmonica adds emotion. And, besides all of that, Nye sets the most wonderful bowed bassline. Bitch? Certainly not. Deeply effective? Without a doubt.
Another facet of the album leaves behind the uncluttered approach, heading for a full Djukella Orchestra. The inclusion of Piotr, however, with his background as a jazz violin, means that the arrangements are more likely to have a Grappelli whiff rather than a Celtic violin. Falling somewhere in between, the liveliest pace is in the treatment they gave to Richard Thompson’s The Sights and Sounds of London Town. With the tempo imposed by Mat’s percussions, it suffices to add Jez, Nye and Piotr to give the song a big sound, an instrumental break that looks like a western hoe. The sound can be uplifting, but if you know Thompson’s lyrics you will realize that this is far from everything.
The largest assembly of musicians is on Food banks & Ferrari, a song Jez borrowed from Medway-based duo Sally Ironmonger and Barry Carter. Jez, Nye, and Piotr are joined by Ewan’s clarinet and Tommie’s accordion, with sound engineer Mike West sneaking in to add vocal harmonies to the chorus. It is a piece of song, contrasting the hopes of the past, in this case the euphoria of the birth of the welfare state after World War II, with the present realities, perfectly illustrated by the concomitant increase in l use of food banks and Ferrari property. We must not forget the strength of the song with its superbly appropriate slogan. Still, it’s even more likely that you’ll remember the clarinet, as Ewan weaves his melodic line around Jez’s voice and then, in the instrumental break, practices with Piotr’s violin for a magical effect.
Jez certainly uses this album to further his vision of the alarming state of the world today, but his choice of songs doesn’t overlook the softer, more romantic side of his nature. There is a version of Ewan MacColl The joy of living, a song that could make the toughest political animal cry. While the inclusion of his version of Dick Gaughan’s arrangement of Burns’ poem Now Westlin Winds brought a big smile to the lips of this reviewer. Jez sums up the song as “one of the most perfectly alluring love songs and an invaluable guide to the birds and bushes of the British countryside”. Certainly an irresistible combination.
I could write a paragraph on each song; there are eight more that I haven’t mentioned yet. But I won’t, this is after all a review and not a monograph, and it is surely kinder to leave some surprises when acquiring the album. As with his previous album, Heavy Wood, I really enjoyed the combination of great music with both informative and entertaining lyrics. The Fruitful Fells also comes with the bonus of hearing new versions of some familiar songs. For music created with the intention of “warming you up in dark times”, you may feel that part of the subject itself is more on the dark side. But Jez is ahead of you and offers this “I hope he goes to a point to remind you that it is the world rather than you that has gone mad” preview. The world might be crazy, but it is infinitely improved by incorporating music like this, imaginative, stimulating and, above all, entertaining.
Fruiful Fells comes in a beautiful gatefold box, complete with a 24-page booklet filled with thoughts, lyrics and beautiful photos of Yasmine Zarrouk and several others.
Pre-order via Bandcamp: https://jezhellardthedjukellaorchestra.bandcamp.com/album/the-fruitful-fells