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Jez Hellard & The Djukella OrchestraJez Hellard & The Djukella Orchestra
Album: Heavy Wood
Label: Djukella
Tracks: 13

Jez Hellard is one of those restless, travelling, troubadour souls that journey the length and breadth of the country and far beyond to ply their musical trade. To put it in some sort of geographical context, the promotional biography that accompanies this CD tells us that since 2005 he has played almost a thousand gigs, which I imagine he has topped by now! From Vancouver to Istanbul, New York to Taipei, from Glastonbury Festival and Canada's North Country Fair to theatres, venues, clubs and house-concerts around the world.

As yet another artist loosely defined as 'Folk' that cannot be tied down to any genre, Jez appears to have internalised everything from the worlds musical collective unconscious in his travels.

On this album, 'Heavy Wood' Jez takes care of the vocals, harmonica and guitar. The shifting personnel of his accompanying Djukella Orchestra include Nye Parsons on double bass, fiddlers James Patrick Gavin and Alastair Caplin, Dominic Henderson on uilleann pipes, accordion from Tommie Black-Roff plus brief cameos from James Hegarty on pandero and Ewan Bleach on Clarinet.

Before going on to the music, mention must be made of the love and attention given to the packaging of this CD. It comes in a CD version of the old LP gatefold sleeve and the accompanying booklet includes details of the songs, where each originated and how it captured the attention of Jez. In addition, there is also a wonderfully honest and witty essay that spans his love of the long lost cassette mix tape and the joys of undiscovered treasures therein, a pithy commentary on the state of modern music and his passion for the medium of song, in all its forms and traditions.

Now, to get straight to the point, I think this is a wonderful album, full of superb playing, invention, beautiful dynamics and universally absorbed influences. With pretty much all of it recorded live, the sound quality, mix and separation between instruments is stunning.

With the exception of Jez's one original song, 'We Have The Time' the other twelve tracks are either Trad Arr pieces or numbers gathered along the way from his favourite writers and performers.

The opening three tracks are simply superb.

Track one, 'The Lord Giveth (and the Landlord Taketh Away) enters with a fiery fiddle line, acoustic guitar and Jez's chugging, wheezy harmonica with his voice sitting sweetly on top of the mix. The rhythm pushes and pulls and his voice here reminds me a little of Rory Mcleod, who is of course another great traveller and collector of song. A real showcase of an opening track.

'A Taoist Tale/Mcleod's Farewell' enters in stately manner with fiddle and uilleann pipes beautifully to the fore with a more earthy vocal from Jez, capturing something of Chris Wood in its gravitas, before the song shifts seamlessly into the reel of 'Mcleod's Farewell'.

Track three 'By Weary Well' is my favourite on the album. A sweet guitar piece kicks it off in courtly time before fiddle and viola lend an almost Nick Drake type feel, which is remarkably atmospheric and supplies a lovely setting for Jez's appropriately weary, longing vocal. In a sweetly captured live moment, at about three minutes forty, Jez sings the line 'safe from the wind and rain' and then backing off from the mic slightly says to the band 'give us some wind and rain' which prompts a marvellous, swirling but strangely moving fiddle solo over a glorious musical backdrop. Another verse comes in and then the song builds again instrumentally towards an epic, virtuoso climax, which put me in mind Fairport Convention in their pomp and shades of 'A Sailors Life'. Six minutes and fifty four seconds of pure pleasure.

Space does not really allow such a detailed exposition of the remaining ten songs but they are all of equal stature and merit in my view. Such is the breadth and scope on offer here that there is much to appeal to differing musical persuasions and I imagine it likely that there will much discussion about 'favourite' tracks.

In brief though, there are some fine purely instrumental tracks, two great almost singer-songwriter numbers 'We Have The Time' the Jez Hellard original and 'Pass it Along' by Scott Cook, which starts with the simple 'life of the guitar' as a metaphor before stretching into something altogether more profound.

'Borders' is another standout with its choppy guitar, syncopated vocal and marvellous clarinet from Ewan Bleach. In fact, the only minor quibble I can come up with is the inclusion of 'She Moved Through The Fair'. Nothing wrong with the version here, it is beautifully performed. The trouble is, it is such a quarried song that I really don't think the world needs another version, particularly when Jez's ability to find lesser known, hidden gems is so engaging. However, it just comes down to personal preference and I am sure it will be many listeners favourite track!

I cannot praise this album highly enough. Wonderfully packaged, with stunningly interpreted and performed songs full of depth, texture and passion that reveal themselves even more with repeated plays.

I have run out of superlatives to describe 'Heavy Wood', so all I can do is encourage everyone to get a copy and partake of the full experience!

Paul Jackson