You don’t get too many musicians who can play both drums and violin, but when you do it can bring into being a beautifully balanced - and inspired - set of music.

Label: Strings Attached Records
Time: 7 tracks / 56 minutes

The drummer in van Essen – known mainly for his work in Iona – has the rhythmic sense to use time signatures that drive music forwards, and the violinist in him brings out the melody.

He describes this release as, “a fusion of ambient, progressive world music with violin as lead instrument,” which is quite a fair summary, the ‘world’ referring to Irish-leaning music, with a touch of Eastern in “Labyrinth” (although his own Dutch nationality adds to the nations involved).

While it is easy to worry that drummers’ solo albums might be a nightmare 50 minute solo, their role actually gives them a lot of freedom to bring in other musicians to paint fresh musical images that do not have to reflect any other band. And while former bandmates Dave Bainbridge (keys and guitars) and Troy Donockley (pipes, whistles and bouzouki) give frequent glimpses of what Iona might have produced had they carried on, the addition of cello, saxes and duclar (a duduk with the mouthpiece of a classical clarinet) gives this a wider bandwidth of textures.

These are predominantly new works, but a fresh, double-length, live-in-the-studio version of “A Million Stars” (originally from Iona’s Open Sky) also makes an appearance.

Although they flow beautifully into one another to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, individual tracks have their own character. “Introspection” is a lovely, meditative, Celtic-tinged piece, while the smile-inducing “Cats in the Bakery” is very Irish; “Labyrinth” reflects those Iona instrumentals where Bainbridge soars ecstatically on guitar; “The Face of Grace” is deeply personal, and the whole release reflects van Essen’s dedication to composition and arrangement. (He has studied Orchestration for Film & TV with Berklee Music Network).  

That strand comes out particularly in the magnificent “Origins,” a melody written for his studies, wanting a piece to depict the emptiness at the beginning of creation giving way to “something new and the growing diversity in nature... and the peace, the shalom that followed after the Creator said, ‘It is done’.” In Iona tradition, at twelve minutes long, this is the ‘epic’ track here.

The album is beautifully packaged, with 4 fold-out panes, each with notes and personnel for one track. The whole is much lighter than the nocturnal cover images suggest.

Some players here look new to working with the rest, such as Jimmy Johnson (who has performed with Allan Holdsworth), although it is upright bassist Mark Dekkers, whose jazzy fluidity most often stands out to me.

Frank van Essen has created something distinctive here: beautiful, impeccably played, personal, reflective and created with care and thought from the outset.

Derek Walker