It is often said that we hear what we want to hear. This could begin to explain my initial reaction to Tom Oakes latest offering, Water Street. The LP is a flute-centred affair which, with tracks like ‘Debussy And The Low B’ as well as several tasteful adaptations of traditional standards, is clearly indebted to the 18th century European classical tradition. Why is it then, that 30 seconds into title track and album opener, ‘Water Street (#5211)’, the motifs emerging over the steady introductory atmosphere don’t so much conjure visions of a Mozart Concerto performance as an impromptu Wayne Shorter nightclub set?
Indeed, the attention to melody given throughout Water Street brings to mind many of the jazz greats, including Sonny Rollins, the aforementioned Shorter, and even Thelonious Monk, who was once quoted as saying “Stop playing all those weird notes, play the melody!”. For all its melodic adventurousness, Water Street ultimately maintains its footing, grounding itself in the tangible to prevent itself from becoming an abstraction altogether.
One’s perception of the work presented on Water Street is contingent upon how deeply predicated one’s own tastes are on the established practices of contemporary vocal pop music. While there may not be much here for the average Ariana Grande listener to sink their teeth into, those whose tastes frequently lead them to the arena of instrumental composition may very well develop a fascination with what it is Oakes is attempting with this record.
Water Street straddles several different, and often conflicting, worlds in its ten tracks. The bulk of the record’s sound is derived from various flutes, establishing a baroque atmosphere. The naturally established sounds – the flute recordings along with some derived from the weather itself, and some from a bouzouki – take on the form of electronic samples, stacked and layered to create a sparse orchestration that leads one to wonder how Debussy himself would have utilized the recording technology of the current-day.
The implementation of sampling techniques and electronic approaches through the lens of formal classical music is a potential goldmine of musical discovery just waiting for an artist restless enough to reap its substantial harvest. While Oakes scratches the surface here, the proceedings remain firmly rooted in the classical tradition by which they are informed. Those familiar could feasibly view this LP as a traditionalist response to the similar techniques utilized on Will Varley’s most recent full-length offering, The Hole Around My Head, released earlier this year and likewise recorded in isolation.
Nonetheless, the presentation throughout displays an urgency which suggests a greater emphasis on the playing itself than the structural sensibilities of the Western tradition, again taking a subtle but notable page from the jazz playbook. This is most evident on cuts like ‘The Ace and the Deuce’ and ‘The Fastest Zebra’ which assert the flute’s capabilities as a lead instrument with the emotional depth of a saxophone or piano when trusted in the hands of the right musician.
What Water Street offers is an atmosphere to explore. With rich, warm tones, Oakes invites the listener in to experience his own musicality and heritage. An interesting and worthwhile contrast to the standard instrumental fare occupying most collectors’ shelves, Water Street brings something all its own to the table, providing a sense of perspective that has become more and more elusive in modern music as of late.
Artist’s Website: https://www.tomoakesmusic.com
‘Debussy And The Low B’ – official video: