Levitation Orchetsra - 'Illusions & Realities' (Feature Interview)
London ensemble Levitation Orchetsra return with their second album, an epic, monoumental piece of music titled 'Illusions & Realities' that has been released on Gearbox Records. Bringing together a vast array of inspirations ranging across spiritual jazz, classical, electronica, soul, spoken word, and no-holds-barred free improvisation, the group have really pushed forward since their 2019 debut album 'Inexpressible Infinity'. They have produced an album that exhibits both their freedom as musicians as well as tapping into social commentaries about the landscape of society and how it it has affected them all.
Ben chats to Emma Barnaby (cello), Maria Osuchowska (harp) and Hamish Nockles-Moore (double bass) from the group about the concept of the new album, their recording process and the experience of playing in a big band.
With trumpeter Axel Kaner-Lidstrom (Cykada, Gary Bartz) as musical director, the collective comprises some of London's most promising young musicians, who together play in or with the likes of Alabaster de Plume, Shunaji, Nihilism, PÆN, and Nardedey. The size of the collective is always between 11 and 15 members at any given time.
Since their debut LP (read our review of it here), the group have released one single 'Wave Potentiality' in 2020 which donated all proceeds to Tomorrow's Warriors, the charity dedicated to educating young people in jazz music, and Owó, a forum to support Black British economic development. The tune serves as a beautiful metaphor to the wave of potential our current generation across the globe possesses.
It seems fitting for Illusions & Realities to follow on from this single, with Levitation fulfilling this potential in such a breathtaking way. The album is formed out of group discussions which delve into childhood, stoicism, astrophysical theories, and neurological delusions, They all interweave and circle to the point where truth and reality enter the realm of illusion. Speaking about the album, Axel says:
“Each composition reflects in detail on one of the subjects of our discussions. We formed splinter groups to translate our discoveries into sound and bring to life that which had both astounded and amused us. Over a series of workshops, we transformed these cells into orchestral pieces, the music never ceasing to mutate. These recordings you hold are merely one fixed point in our creative process. It is earnest and honest, sincerely channelled through the spirits of its creators.”
When you listen to the album all the way through, it feels so much more than something you can just take in through listening. It's an experience in of itself, with the spoken word and dramatic interludes between sections narrating the shifts in moods in your head just as they do all the time. But it feels completely magical and surreal. It's like you're watching a show at the theatre without any visual cues, but the sounds and words paint the picture perfect for what the orchestra want to share.
From the opening track 'Life Is Suffering / Send and Receive Love Only', we begin with a melancholic introduction that is gentle and eases you into the soundscapes that Maria Osuchowska's harp and Lluis Domenech Plana's flute serenade you with. Harry Ling's drum pattern bumps with the movement of the strings, but the pace changes as the drums gallop wildly in 'Listen To Her' to match an incredible, pounding saxophone solo.
This song approaches the topic of sexual violence and assault against women that has inspired the #MeToo movement. Dilara Aydin-Corbett speaks honestly and with a commanding presence that holds your attention so intently. The power of her message in lines like "It’s society that’s polluted, My testimony still unrefuted [...] I’m here to shout about the myths that let it perpetuate" are unfortunately a reminder of how the discourse around sexual violence and rape still has not improved in society and keeps women in danger.
The dramatic, film score-esque 'Spiral (Die, Die, Die)' follows with a monster bassline from Hamish Nockles-Moore and the dancy drum beat provides a perfect rhythm for the strings section to add tension through screeching that the horns section backs up. 'Delusion' travels deeper into a new undercurrent of intensity as the movement between free jazz and more ominous sections puts you teeteringly on the edge.
The frantic saxophone solo feels loose and wild and replicates the lyricism from Plumm that depicts the message of the song and whole album - "Confusion, clarity, fantasy, make-believe, Illusions, realities, philosophy fears". Her voice is just as versatile to match the mood the rest of the instruments creates, and always sounds beautiful. The spoken word that comes in the second half of the song makes some intriguing observations that speak about the more existential topics covered on the album - the best example follows:
"And thus we believe that all the maxims that we derive
Like Greggs is a suitable place to eat food
Or playing the saxophone actually makes sense
Has objective bearing
When they are truly subjective by nature"
The four-part 'Child' is sensational. A suite about childhood, lineage and loss deals with the perceptions of ourselves and how our ancestry and descendants could be linked with a greater cycle of being and how connected we are to those from the past as well as those in the future. These ideas are woven together and wrestle with the illusions and realities of our place in the universe. Paris Charles' guitar soliloquy is ethereal and the foreboding singing teases nicely into 'Part II' which explodes into life and then calms into beautiful playing from the flute and strings section.
The reverbtanted harp trickles into 'Part III' and as the violin's become more ferocious, the breakdown into 'Part IV' allows the melodies to sync up and form a wonderful passage to begin the next part of the journey. The saxophone, harp and violins particularly stand out here and towards the end, the drums from Ling once again perform some spectacular patterns to amplify the raging outburst from the saxophone.
The meditative 'Between Shadows' features Kaner-Lidstrom with a trumpet solo as here the blend between classical and spiritual jazz is tantalising. The final embodiment of the album comes on 'Many In Body, One In Mind' and features all the things that have just made the previous 9 tracks so mesmerising - impassioned lyricism accompanying frantic instrumentation that grooves as much as it allows everyone to travel from intricate phrases to fierce soloing.
The album is avant-garde and can feel mind-bending at times when it gets heavy, even though the quitere passages offer plenty of tranquility. But there is a purpose to all the tracks and the stories told evoke how special a group Levitation Orchestra are. Illusions & Realities crosses between genres and exhibits collaboration at its best between a young crop of musicians who create something extraordinarily powerful. They touch on important social, spiritual, and personal topics, whilst displaying a passion to explore and push the boundaries of jazz, classical, electronica and spoken word.
Through channelling the energy of Sun Ra's Arkestra, the spiritual ambience of Alice Coltrane, and the harmonic subtleties of Debussy, the record is unrivalled and magnificent. After earning a cult-fanbase from their first LP which saw sell out all 500 copies of their vinyl release and earn plaudits from the likes of NTS, Bandcamp, WWFM, Jazz FM, Ben chats to Maria, Emma and Hamish below to find out more about this extraordinary record.
How have things changed since the first album 'Inexpressible Infinity' for you as a group?
[Hamish Nockles-Moore] It's been so nice to see to meet up with everyone and play again. It's like the opposite of lockdown with Levitation stuff because there are loads of people in close quarters.
[Emma Barnaby] Definitely the performing in close quarters. I hadn't really played very much at all over lockdown even just for myself. It was a big shift going into rehearsals especially just kind of finding rehearsal spaces at first was kind of hard. We came together in smaller group then got together as a bigger group and kind of figured out what we'd all done.
Meeting individually in smaller groups was actually really nice and not the way that we've done it before, I guess we weren't producing a lot of music together just after lockdown in the same way that we did with the first album where we all got together and wrote together. We'd piece it all together in a larger group which I really enjoyed.
Do you think that's needed for the size of the group rather than having everyone together doing it together?
[Maria Osuchowska] It's good because for the initial rehearsals, we hadn't played together for almost a year and a half. So I think we just actually needed two sessions to refresh the music and remember what some tunes went like. A lot of them that we've been going over in the summer, we haven't recorded yet as well. So the first few sessions were just us getting ready to actually have the big session with the whole band.
[HN-M] It was good as it was like we almost rewrote it because we had to relearn it. It was twice written music which in some ways was really beneficial.
[EB] I hadn't played the music at all at that point as well. I was learning it completely afresh from voice memos from like a year before. One of the nice things about doing it in smaller groups was that we all kind of learned how to play together again and what it was like to play with each other and vibe with certain members of the band - I guess just to be in each other's company for the first time in fucking ages was really a nice kind of welcoming back to playing together as a band rather than just going straight in.
What's the concept of the album as there's a bit of a contrast in the concepts of 'Illusions & Realities'?
[MO] We start the writing process with a theme. So the theme always comes first and everything follows from that.
[HN-O] There's usually also a lot of conversation at the beginning. We all sort of sit in a circle and have a kind of debate on a theme that Axel (Kaner-Lidstrom - musical director) usually brings. These sessions were back in 2018 which was quite a kind of a long time ago.
[EB] All these years have been politically turbulent years. I felt like there was a lot of stuff going on at that point.
[HN-M] The sessions at the time felt like a sort of politically charged moment, which it's been like for a while now. Talking about gender politics and Trump going crazy, and the idea of the truth not being what the truth really is. All that stuff was in the ether.
[EB] Then also having chats like with 'Child' which was so playful and kind of melancholic in a way. It wasn't all consumed by darkness, it was more inquisitorial and we just projected a lot of stuff that we were feeling. It didn't always have to be really introspective with existential ideas about what illusions or delusions or things like that were.
There's also just a feeling through exploring or chatting about those thoughts and those feelings that the music we were offering was a fun, joyous environment to talk about these things. That's why I think all those songs just translate so well when we play live. They really feel like there's a narrative in it, or the audience comes with us and experiences it all with us and have fun.
[HN-M] It's was very performative in the way we write so we will play what we've got so far. Then people have ideas and it's kind of like a slightly slowed down version of a live performance the way we write it.
As there's a lot of improvisation in your music, do alternative takes of songs end up being very different compared to previous cuts when they all come together?
[MO] I think they do tend to shift and definitely, some tracks have sections that naturally over time become slightly more structured, but some sections will remain really free. So those sections can always be really different. Recently when we've been playing this summer, we'd perform a tune and organically develop a completely different vibe and maybe go from being really energetic to mysterious. When we played at Stroud, the whole atmosphere of one song changed but it was still that kind of the same.
[EB] It's related a lot to the environment that you're playing in and the mood that everyone's in you know. We will have a chat before we go on that often can really dictate the energy of where we take the music as well which is really nice.
Are there any kind of rituals you do before you go into the studio or before you play live together?
[MO] We do always have a band chat. We just take a moment to be together, take a moment to connect.
[HN-M] Because there's so many of us as well, we all feel such shared ownership and that kind of thing is always so fun. You're just bouncing off people's energy. Lluis will be jumping around and Harry Lang will be talking bare fast so it's always good vibes.
[EB] I think everyone is very aware of each other and there's enough of us that can carry each other. Everyone's very sensitive to how people are feeling for a particular performance and with the number of us there are, it means that we can open up space in the gig as and when needed to support each other.
Was collaborating in a big group or touring one of the things you missed the most through lockdown?
[HN-M] Definitely, it's just like an extension of missing people, playing with them and missing the sort of conversation and the buzz you get off on the people which is unparalleled when making music together.
[MO] I just remember these group zoom chats and chat about how little we've been up to but also share music and think about Levitation ideas. Sometimes we'd meet up in the park when it was allowed. I found in lockdown I got so used to not playing with people that when I finally did start playing with people, it was really difficult. I'd be really nervous, whereas I never have before so that took some getting used to again.
What records have given you all the inspiration to create the music that Levitation does?
[HN-M] We've been doing these playlists which have been really fun. So everyone curates their playlists on Spotify and everyone has such diverse music tastes so it's always great to hear what people put on there.
[EB] I listen to a lot of classical music. I feel like that gives me energy for Levitation quite a lot. Playing the cello helps channel that inspiration into it and kind of brings that element to Levitation's music. I feel like I can kind of play and contribute as much as any other member of the band and that is also what's great about Levitation. I have developed so much as before when I would play contemporary classical which even though it had improvised parts, it was only a trio. That is wildly different and scary, so this is a mad switch up for me but there's space for it.
It's completely changed how I learn. For example, I learned saxophone melodies on the cello which is such a different way of learning the geography of my instrument than I would be doing in any other setting. So in that sense, I feel really lucky that as a string player, I can come into play with such amazing jazz musicians and still find space and a place to develop my sound.
[HN-M] We're almost 50/50 in terms of having sort of studied or grown up in the world classical music and jazz so it's not one dominating the other in terms of sort of our backgrounds. So that's quite as quite cool as it makes for a proper collaboration between those two forces because they're coming at each other with an equal kind of potency. Everyone's also very interested in what everyone else does or has done in the past which is good.
What plans do you have coming up for the group?
[HN-M] We have our album launch on 19th November in London. It's going to be nice to play again because there's always a nice contingent of people that come down as well that sort of almost feel like part of the band. It makes it a fun party because we get to see all those people that sort of help us do it.
[EB] I'm really excited to see how we're going to play it again. We've been playing a lot of new music and we've not been playing this album as much. After doing everything that we've done post lockdown in the smaller groups and playing together again, and especially where we are now from where we were when we recorded the album, I'm just really looking forward to seeing what kind of new energies are going to be in those performances. I think it's going to be really fun. I'm really excited about it!
You can see Levitation Orchestra play next in London at Studio 9294 on Friday 19th November - find more details here.
Buy Illusions & Realities here:
Follow Levitation Orchestra here:
Read our review for their first album Inexpressible Infinity here:
Levitation Orchestra are:
Axel Kaner-Lidstrom - Trumpet
Lluis Domenech Plana - Flute
James Akers - Tenor Saxophone
Ayodeji Ijishakin - Tenor Saxophone
Saskia Horton - Violin
Beatriz Rola - Violin
Emma Barnaby - Cello
Maria Osuchowska - Harp
Paris Charles - Guitar
Hamish Nockles-Moore - Double Bass
Harry Ling - Drums
Plumm - Vocals
Dilara Aydin-Corbett - Vocals
Roella Oloro - Keys