Bill Wells & Friends: Nursery Rhymes

A sublime piano jazz records, mixing grownup sounds with child-like traditions

There’s an amusing and ultimately compelling concept at the heart of Falkirk jazz composer and indie collaborator Bill Wells’ latest project; in his words, that he wanted to play children’s nursery rhymes without the ‘sugar-coating’ and with the ‘harsh realities’ buried within exposed to the light. In that context it perhaps hasn’t been entirely successful, for much of the music here is gorgeously warm and comforting. It’s also been created with the help of an irresistible roster of collaborators which is more than the equal of any group Wells has put together before.

Yo La Tengo appear frequently throughout, and former Belle & Sebastian chanteuse Isobel Campbell, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and country singer and daughter of Mose Amy Allison all make a couple of guest appearances. In one of the least likely musical occurrences of the year, Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki takes the lead on ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, her voice ringing and quivering like the bells and gently sawed strings playing in the background. Unlikely sonic convergences abound on this record; take, for example, jazz singer Karen Mantler huskily breathing her way through ‘Three Blind Mice’ while Yo La Tengo grind away at a measured surf-blues alongside Wells’ rangy piano in the background, or Blake and Aby Vuillamy roaming in bassy tones over ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’.

It’s predominantly a piano jazz record, and one which reminds of those colouring-in books for adults in its appropriation of a childhood pursuit for grown-up enjoyment. The sound of these familiar (and perhaps not so familiar, in the case of a number of transatlantic jazz singers whose variety enhances the record greatly) voices singing such unusual choices is undoubtedly a novelty, but there’s some striking music here. Mantler and Vuillamy, in particular, are sublime foils for Wells’ relaxed muse, while Campbell is revealed once more to be a striking, sultry jazz vocalist, particularly on the enveloping ‘Rock a Bye Baby’.

Nursery Rhymes by Bill Wells & Friends is released by Karaoke Kalk on Fri 20 Nov.
Preorder now

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