Jez Hellard travels… a lot. And on those travels, whether in the UK, around Europe or further afield to Canada, Taiwan, wherever he goes, he collects. Collecting not only songs and musical influences but he seems to have a knack for collecting the musicians that go with them. His ever growing list of collaborations is astounding. Not surprisingly, this has led him to develop a repertoire for which the term ‘eclectic’ just doesn’t do justice. For his latest album he’s managed to herd some of his favourite collaborators back into the pen he calls the Djukella Orchestra (of which, much more later). I rather like the image of Jez as a free-spirited sheep dog, it suits him. But in an era when many musicians favour packaging their latest offerings into a ‘project’, such a free-spirited approach could leave the casual listener somewhat bewildered, at a loss to know what to expect next.
Well aware of this, Jez accompanies the CD with a booklet that is, in its own right, as informative, thought provoking and, above all, as entertaining as the music. Recounting that ‘djukella’ (or perhaps ‘djukela’) is Croatian for ‘mongrel’ he happily describes the CD as a ‘mongrel mix of songs and tunes, old and new’. But he then provides the ideal container to put them in, by reminding us about that almost forgotten art form, the mixtape. Back in the day when cassettes were high tech, Jez’s friend Keith Neville was the king of the mixtape and his productions have clearly left a lasting impression. So, after singing the praises of both the mixtape format and Keith, Jez’s liner notes meander through topics as varied as Louis Armstrong’s definition of folk music, the rôle of the campfire in the oral tradition, the (lack of) financial rewards for modern day songwriters. This and much more is discussed with great humour and refreshing openness before moving on to detailing what Jez knows of the origins of each song and tune. I’m tempted to recommend the album for the booklet alone.
But what of the stuff that really decides whether or not people buy an album, the music? Well that gets an unequivocal thumbs up as well. Jez has the type of voice that impels you to listen, sometimes quite breathy, sometimes throaty, almost spoken at times. But then it’s capable of giving the full lyrical treatment to a song such as the classic She Moves Through The Fair, adding a couple of rarely heard verses to those commonly recorded. There are two other traditional songs in the collection, Wheel of Fortune and Bonny Bunch of Roses. The remaining songs are more recent compositions from well-known and not so well-known writers, two are by long-time collaborator, Canadian Scott Cook. His song The Lord Giveth (And The Landlord Taketh Away), highlights the plight of the common man when faced with the power of the financial establishment. It’s been recorded several times over the last few years and loses none of its edge in this version. But Jez notes a comment from Scott, “…it seems no matter how clearly you sing about how we have all been (and continue to be) royally shafted by the financial criminals who run our banking system, if you put it in a major key with a nice quick tempo, people love it.”
Social comment is well to the fore in another couple of songs, Jez describes himself as “rarely writing songs” but was spurred into making an exception by the reply from an Afghan when asked “What do you think of the occupying soldiers in your country?” “They may have the watches, but we have the time…”. We have the time has probably the simplest arrangement on the album, just Jez on guitar and Nye Parsons on double bass, letting powerful words come to the fore.
Elsewhere on the album, the full power of the Djukella Orchestra is unleashed. The core members of the band are Jez himself on guitar and harmonicas, Nye Parsons on double bass, Alastair Caplin on fiddle and viola, James Patrick Gavin on fiddle and guitar, Dominic Henderson on uillean pipes and whistles and Tommie Black-Roff on accordion and piano accordion. These last three play together regularly as TEYR. The band recorded the tracks live in the studio and it certainly shows through in the sheer energy of their performances. Jez’s harmonica, whether overdubbed onto vocal tracks (the only overdubs used) or played as part of the ensemble on the instrumentals is a striking characteristic of the album sound. Bonny Bunch of Roses is paired with an instrumental, Gordon Duncan’s march Jock Broon’s 70th and the extended piece gives us instrument combinations ranging from more or less conventional to the decidedly unexpected. The song builds up from Jez’s vocal and guitar, adding whistle and then accordion and fiddle, all three very effectively supporting the vocal lines and providing more complex phrases between the verses, underpinned by guitar and double bass. Once the melody progresses into Jock Broon’s the harmonica takes the lead over accordion and fiddle and when that combination is joined by uillean pipes the track really catches fire. It’s just over 9 minutes of sheer delight, that’s if you can resist putting it on repeat.
At the opposite end of the instrumental scale, the set of reels Not Safe with a Razor/Wing Commander Donald Mackenzie’s/Highlander’s Farewell kicks up a storm from just Jez’s guitar and James on fiddle. James and Alastair get to combine, with James on fiddle and Alastair on viola, on The Humours of Ballyloughlan/Cliffs of Moher/Farewell to Erin, and the result is electric, booking them a place amongst the best of Celtic string arrangements. There’s an abundance of talent in evidence throughout the album but it’s clear that Jez is core to it all. It’s his voice that makes you sit up and take notice of the song lyrics, as for the instrumentals, his harmonica can raise the sound into the extraordinary whilst his guitar provides a driving rhythm for the others to build around. The overall effect is just ridiculously enjoyable. In the end, I don’t think I can better Jez’s own explanation of why the album is called Heavy Wood – “Fiddles in the right hands are more heavy metal than guitars can ever dream of being, and when they bow the bass and crank up the pipes it certainly has me headbanging”. I couldn’t agree more.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Heavy Wood is Out Now, available via Bandcamp: jezhellardthedjukellaorchestra.bandcamp.com
They are on tour now, dates here: www.jezhellard.com