Amongst the rare works of Neil Ardley that hadn’t received a reissue (CD or other), Symphony Of Amaranths was a major gap, and it finally found its way on Dusk ire in 2012 (much to my relief), though I didn’t find out until a few months ago. Along with its predecessor, Greek Variations, these two albums feature Ardley as a leader of Third Stream fusion (classic and jazz), and it is little wonder some draw comparison between Ardley and Gill Evans or Duke Ellington (as thought of with the previous Greek Variations). Retrospectively billed as the second staple of his “trilogy”, I find Amaranths much closer to Variations than to Kaleidoscope, but also less thrilling than the first. As for musicians, we’ll find the usual suspects, , from Lowther, Carr, Beckett, Barbara, Rendell, Heckstall-Smith, , Tracey,and Jenkins to Ricotti, Clyne, Hiseman, and many others. And in the string dept, you’ll find most of the names found on Variations as well.
The sidelong instrumental title track suite (dedicated to GE and DE) is the main course of the album, and is a good mix of classic music melted in a twirling happy big-band jazz music. The long piece goes through almost every mood, alternating between the string section and the horn section, but never afraid to cross-pollinate and present a hermaphrodite product that can either overjoy or repel the listener. Indeed, the barrier-breaking fusion can be seen as groundbreaking, but can also appear as a sell-out “Night Of The Prom” thing for those who don’t have the historical musical landmarks in mind.
The flipside opens with a big surprise with poems declaimed as narrative Dong And The Luminous Nose: I’m generally wary (if not even dismissive) of such musical cheesy exercise – even worse when rock music is involved: Tull’s Hare in Passion Play or Wakeman’s Journey or Round Table or Procol’s Something Magic - but in this case, we’re dealing with a very well written piece over texts from Edward Lear, James Joyce and Lewis Carroll that avoids cheesiness or ill-attempted humour and involves the spoken words (courtesy of Ivor Cutler) evolving to singing or almost rapping (ala Gill-Scott Heron), partly because the pace is gradually and dramatically increasing throughout, backed some tremendous instrumentation like Ricotti’s vibraphone. Ardley goes one further with Three more Poems, this time sung by the unavoidable Norma Winstone with a fun-time big band, though in this case, we’re closer to crooner singing, if it wasn’t for the advanced un-mainstream arrangements of the music behind her.
Of course, with the fad of bonus material added on to classic albums, they often don’t add up to much or are completely out of context and it is the case here, with the God Saves Tango version. Forgettable and best forgotten, really, as it kind of ruins the experience of the album.
Though SoA and GV are very audacious albums (if the present is a tad syrupy, because of the string section being too present), Ardley would go one step further (if not two) with Will Power (subtitled Shakespeare Birthday Celebration Music), but that is simply a step too far for yours truly. Thankfully enough, Ardley found the light and went back to safer grounds with the excellent Kaleidoscope Of Rainbows (76) and Harmony Of The Spheres (79), though both were quite unique and Ardley-esque in their own rights. In the meantime, Amaranths is a very solid (and unsettling) album that deserves to be heard by all Third Stream fans. And if you’re curious about the slogan of “Britain’s answer to Evans and Ellington”, you might want to check it out, to see if it isn’t usurped. Though Duke might seem a bit of a stretch (the recording technology and time lapsed is too big), comparisons with Gil are certainly valid. OK, Dusk Fire, bring on “Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe”, the last brick in Ardley’s wall.