Album: MARK NORTHFIELD – Ascendant (Substantive STAVECD1 2008)

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Mark Northfield is a pianist and composer and occasional singer. Ascendant, his debut CD, is a collection of collaborations with guest singers, arranged predominantly for piano with additional colour provided by strings and occasional saxophone, guitar and drums. Its mood is resolutely of late night melancholy, at times touching on Chet Baker-like smooth jazz, classical romanticism, show tunes and even polyphonic chant on “The Calm”.

Northfield’s piano playing can be florid, but generally he gets the tone right. It would be easy to slip into Richard Clayderman style schlock when doing this kind of romantic piano, but it’s a pitfall he manages to avoid. The singing can be a bit mannered, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Sleeping Beauty”, for example, is a comic waltz that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Sondheim musical (except that it has a tune): a surreal satire that imagines a nation governed by Tesco and smiling penguins gradually being engulfed by rising sea levels. It benefits from the amused detachment that singer Paul Cozens gives it.

“Weight”, with vocals by Bryony Lang, is an exceptionally strong ballad that builds into an almost angelic climax of voice, piano and cello. Northfield himself sings “Zero”, a song that reminds me of the richly arranged pastoral pieces on Nick Drake’s Bryter Later until it builds into a transcendent chorus. Closing track “Luco” sees the strings come into their own on a Nyman-esque, minimalistic piece that is underpinned by a repeated two note theme. Each of the tracks on the album are linked with ghostly fragments of other songs that give the whole thing the feeling of an interlinked suite rather than a set of standalone pieces.

Ascendant may be a little too rich for some. It comes firmly from the classical tradition rather than the pop one. This is emphasized by “Decidedly Dumb” whose soft-rock arrangement feels decidedly out of place. It’s an intelligent and literate album, but accessible too. I’d recommend it to fans of neo-classical acts like Max Richter and Clogs, but also to open-minded aficionados of torch songs and even stage musicals. It’s an album that straddles genres, but seems to suffer no discomfort in doing so. A fine debut.

Tracks
1 Waiting For Green 6:03
2 Resistance 6:35
3 The Calm 5:40
4 Sleeping Beauty 4:09
5 Decidedly Dumb 6:42
6 Weight 5:41
7 Zero 6:55
8 Our Father 4:34
9 Luco 6:17

Website
www.marknorthfield.com

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