In my Marcus Malone live review a while back, I mentioned Calum Ingram and his cello making an appearance for a rather nifty jam during the encores. His contribution piqued my interest enough for me to grab a copy of this, his debut album, on the way out. But if introducing a cello into a rocking blues gig seemed a simple enough notion, this is . . . well, different. If nothing else, as the keyboardist Jan Hammer once declared on one of his recordings: "There are no guitars on this album."
West of Scotland-born Ingram isn't your typical blues muso, and I don't just mean the cello playing. According to his biography, he's spent 5 years studying at the New York School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and composed award-winning music for an Off-Broadway musical.
If the latter hints at a liking for drama, the impression is confirmed by the opening instrumental track here, the imaginatively titled 'Intro', which sounds like nothing so much as the theme music for a rather disturbing murder serial. Ingram adds vocals to the following 'Smile', sounding somewhere in the vein of The Cure's Robert Smith, or perhaps Mike Scott of The Waterboys in keening mode.
Matters take a livelier turn with '03 - Don't Mean No Harm', where some straightforward drums, along with what I guess is Nathan Goheen's upright bass, to create a stronger sense of rhythm, underpinning Ingram's slinky, sometimes funky cello. Some nice sax adds more colour, but the sound is continues to be on the dry side.
Jessie Arlen's backing vocals are another matter. She adds a soulful vibe to the spare, halting 'Chop', and the vocal harmonies on 'Going Home', which bobs along on a rhythm I'm guessing comes from Ingram plucking his cello. There's a subdued, minimalist air to all of this, echoing something like 'Raising Sand' perhaps, though shot through with youthful brio, with Arlen's voice contributing some welcome warmth.
The peak moments are 'Game', and the closing 'Butterfly'. The former sets out with a driving rumble of a cello riff and one of Ingram's better vocals, before breaking off into another halting detour that eventually terminates in a stirring cello solo that calls to mind - oh, Jimmy Page maybe? 'Butterfly', meanwhile, incorporates wah-wah effects on some instrument or other - Ingram's cello, or keyboards? But most distinctively, it incorporates Ingram having an impressive go at an authentically bluesy vocal segment. He may not sound much like Percy Plant in his prime, but the phrasing as he sings 'Need your love so bad' has the kind of commitment that brings the album home with a sense of promise.
On the whole it's probably all a bit bonkers, perhaps with the head ruling the heart too much - if there is such a thing as East European modern jazz then I guess this is what it might sound like. And yet there's still something going on here that seems to offer possibilities. The cello as an instrument of blues innovation? Well maybe. Let's see what Calum does next.