This outstanding album wasn’t planned. Last year Mara! performed at the European Broadcasting Union Festival in the Czech Republic, and the ensuing recording was so exceptional as to demand release.
Praise be. It is no disservice to the band’s glowing back catalogue to suggest that this album is its finest. The sound is transparent and sparkling, and it is one of those rare live recordings which actually bottles the energy and excitement generated in concert – and with the band at its best.
The program is brilliantly structured. There is a sense of impending drama in the edgy Na Dolu, with its rolling bass solo from Steve Elphick, followed by the settling effect of Andrew Robson’s Glastonbury Lullaby, the composer’s soprano saxophone melting across arco bass. When Mara Kiek’s voice finally bursts upon us on All Summer, it is a sonic king-hit. Erupting into life, the song has Mara’s voice flooding through the swirling horn-lines, with stirring solos from Llew Kiek’s bouzouki (which has never been better recorded), Paul Cutlan’s tenor sax and Robson’s soprano.
It highlights how this incarnation of the band has evolved. The jazz inclinations of Cutlan and Robson
have complete freedom to raid the Eastern European folk foreground of the Kieks, with Elphick astride both camps, gluing them together.
Cutlan’s soprano sax is a dervish frenzy of melody on Llew’s thrilling Eyes Like Berries
. Then his clarinet, an especially evocative texture in this music slinks to the fore on Robson’s silken Alessandria
, which also features a streaming bouzouki solo. Nesine
is a traditional Turkish song on which Mara’s voice has the unstoppable force of an avalanche amid the guttural saxophone interjections.
Cutlan’s witty The Big Pack hurls Robson into a spasm of invention, as, in completely contrasting style, does Tu Madre, with its riveting opening dialogue between guitar and bass, before the tune uncoils into Mara’s lovelorn and affecting lament. Offer Elphick solo space in such a mood and he will almost invariably create something memorable. His solo here equals the work of Charlie Haden or Danny Thompson.
They close with The Big Dance, the energy electric as Cutlan’s soprano scalds its way over the bouzouki and bass, while Mara sings like her life depends on it. Sometimes the best things aren’t planned.