Cinematic Orchestra: Ma Fleur
Ninja Tune

Ma fleur précieuse might be a more accurate title, given how captivating the Cinematic Orchestra's third studio album turns out to be. Five years on from the group's last full-length, group leader Jason Swinscoe, ably assisted by a simpatico group of bandmates, returns with a musical ‘screenplay' for an imagined film. The project stretched over multiple years and continents: he began the record while living in Paris, then gave his initial sketches in early 2005 to a friend who created short story scripts with each track treated as a scene; Swinscoe, by now living in New York, continued working on the material while contemplating potential singers; ultimately, he recruited three, each of whom represents a different life stage: Patrick Watson (youth), Lamb's Lou Rhodes (mid-life), and jazz legend Fontella Bass (old age).

Whatever its meandering developmental trajectory, the album arrives as a fully-formed and deeply satisfying creative statement. Powerful vocal spotlights alternate with instrumental settings that liberally draw upon jazz, gospel, blues, and even classical musics (“Prelude,” a string-based overture, and “Into You,” a lovely saxophone chorale). The riveting opener, “To Build a Home” alternates hymnal verses featuring Watson's rather androgynous high-pitched voice, minimal piano chords, and strings with more aggressive Glassworks-styled piano passages where Watson's vocal soars gloriously and gracefully drops from a wail to a sigh in a second. Bass, who sang on the ‘60s hit “Rescue Me” and was married to the late Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpet icon Lester Bowie) makes her first appearance on the gospel-flavoured rumination “Familiar Ground” and, despite having only the most skeletal of lyrics to work with (“How near / How far”), still emotes movingly. “Breathe” is the album's peak, a poignant requiem featuring Bass. There's a clearly audible fragility to her voice, and the listener almost feels uncomfortable hearing Bass bravely confronting her mortality in song. Throughout the song, the band alternates between restrained passages where her vulnerability is on full display and robust eruptions where her voice is almost overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Orchestra's attack. At album's end, “That Home” briefly reprises “To Build a Home” before “Time and Space” appears. With strings, glockenspiel tinkles, and acoustic guitars a lush counterpoint to Rhodes ' time-worn vocal, the song closes Ma fleur in a spirit of elegiac uplift.

The players—saxophonist Tom Chant, drummer extraordinaire Luke Flowers, pianist Nick Ramm, and guitarist Stuart McCallum, in addition to core members Swinscoe and bassist Phil France—imbue the material with a jazz sensibility, but labeling Ma Fleur jazz would be misguided, as the album's eleven compositions defy such simplistic categorization. If there is a common thread, it's the emotional intensity that gives this oft-magnificent album its depth and staying power.

May 2007