Gillian Blair is an exceptional saxophonist who has played and recorded quite widely, either as a solo artist or as part of a small chamber group. "Infinite Stories" is her first solo album, and is so named as she sees herself as a storyteller drawn towards emotional music. The music included on the album holds a personal significance to the artist's career, and seems to frequently involve a female protagonist as composer, commissioner or inspiration for the music. Certainly the cover with its impressionist dabbling of pastel shades seems feminine. Although mainly a solo album demonstrating the instrument's flexibility, some tracks feature other instruments in a supporting role, particularly piano and strings. The album was recorded at the RNCM (Royal Northern College of Music) in Manchester.
The first 3 tracks are movements from "The Singing Fish" by Lucy Armstrong, a 2017 commission by Blair and inspired by Joan Miró's painting of the same name. At the time Armstrong was running workshops about music and songs to primary children, and clearly taking a wildly inventive approach to story telling and musical associations. The first movement adopts a pop approach with driving syncopated piano accompaniment and even a key change, before completely subverting the song format with extended free-ranging cadenza-like flourishes for the sax. The fish then enters calmer waters where the second movement is gently lyrical with a simple melodic line, which becomes rather melancholic. The third movement returns to some lively exuberant playing with jazzy touches, and it's easy to imagine this depicting the darting to and fro of a skittish fish. "Closing" is also a commission for Blair, this time from her former teacher Rob Buckland. This work is equally cinematic though at the more mature end of the spectrum. It is full of comptemplative phrases, with the supporting piano and strings filling out textures and allowing the sax to emote big time.
"Fragmented Spirit" by Stacy Garrop sounds like a full workout for sax and piano. It starts in impressionist mode, but frequently turns on a sixpence into very different moods. It can be dark and then suddenly boisterous, with the sax playing very high notes, bends and runs, before the piece ends in enigmatic almost elegaic fashion. The album then presents two back-to-back memorial works: "Memorial" by Mark-Anthone Turnage, and "Ballad in Memory of Shirley Horn" by Richard Rodney Bennett. Sadness pours out of Turnage's Memorial, dedicated to his mother, as though seeking meaning in a world full of random events. For his "Ballad" Bennett uses the more mellow tones of the tenor sax. The work is not so abjectly sad, and perhaps expresses some degree of character painting. Certainly Blair's tenor sax seems to bring some solace to this touching memorial to jazz singer Shirley Horn.
We return to Fish territory with Cecilia McDowall's "Dancing Fish" inspired by one of Ivan Krylov's fables. The composer originally wrote this for saxophist Sarah Field in 2004, but Gillian Blair makes it her own. It is one of the most engaging works on the album for soprano sax and string quartet, with a subdued beginning becoming more playful and bouncy fulfilling the titular promise of dancing. It is full of mood changes but with the constancy of an underlying folk tune. The penultimate track is "D'un Matin de Printemps" by Lili Boulanger, the tragically short-lived sister of Nadia. This piece (originally for violin and piano) was to be her final completed work, and its joyful post-impressionism belies her ill-health and impending death. The album's final work is the earliest composition "O Frondens Virga" by Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century nun widely regarded as one of the key custodians and shapers of Music during the Middle Ages. Blair has arranged the melody for alto sax, with chordal drone-like accompaniment from 2 tenor and 2 baritone instruments, and it makes a lovely fitting conclusion to an eclectic album.
"Infinite Stories" is a very personal album for Gillian Blair, but highly accessible for all listeners and her saxophone playing is exemplary. The album has been beautifully recorded, and is highly recommended. It is now available to stream or download from Bandcamp, where you can also order in CD format. More information about the artist can be found at her website gillianblair.com.