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Riaan Nieuwenhuis’ instrumental jazz rock soars

Last updated on November 20, 2020

Riaan Nieuwenhuis’s Bleeding Moon seemed to come out of nowhere before entering my orbit. The fifth album from the accomplished South African composer was begun around the time of the lunar eclipse in July 2018. Featuring celebrated global musicians, this excellent instrumental jazz rock soars like the last twenty years of man’s life in space among the stars. 

Was the eclipse of the Blood Moon really the catalyst for this album? Maybe, but all events spark artistic creation leading to Graff/Del Aire, where all but one of the piano tracks were recorded. Starting from the outside in, Nelis Kruger’s cover photograph with Lara Kruger-Nieuwenhuis’ artwork evokes memories of great album covers like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The composer self-produced this effort, with Mark-Louis Ellis handling mixing and Tim Lengfeld handling mastering duties. Together they create an imaginative artistic statement.

This follow-up to 2018’s Reminiscence may be an extension of that creation, like stepping stones to a new space. Listeners are immersed in a funky jazz/metal/rock creation that is admittedly otherworldly. Music that defies classification is a view into the unknown. Nieuwenhuis has crafted an album in its purest form; an exemplary work that defies genre.

“Courtesy” stands alone on this album as the first and only song recorded on Tunes Studio’s pristine grand piano. Nieuwenhuis welcomes us with his restrained performance. This track shines clearly, echoing Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Not simply a jazz record, each clear chord structure dancing across the ivories has elements both haunting and hopeful. Instrumentation for the album’s nine tracks comes to life via the backline of drummer Jean Marais and bassist Mark-Louis Ellis.

Strutting in with Chico Muñoz’s trumpet balanced with Almuir Botha’s rhythm guitar, the tone certainly falls into a jazz vibe, but this album is about defying gravity, metaphorically speaking. “Clarksdale” grooves down into the old-school jazz-rock instrumental mood that made bands like Pink Floyd legendary. After immersing in Joe Russo’s music, I realized that instrumental composition really reveals its magic after total immersion. 

Multiple guest artists on this album provide an opportunity to compare performance styles. On “Declaration” Albert Frost (lead guitar), Rob Nagel (harmonica), and Wilken Calitz (violin) create an aura much like the Moody Blues or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. “Extraditione” brilliantly shifts into the Metallica orchestral-rock feel that I personally love. 

“Boreas,” written by Mark Louis Ellis (classical guitar), is the standout track of the album. Restrained, plaintive, and simple, the interplay of guitar and piano is reminiscent of Italy’s embrace of the harpsichord in the 17th century. Serving as an elegant resting place, I personally would love to hear more in this style. “Courtesy” continues in this same space, redefining the album’s overall tone. Stately, it carries with it an overall feeling of defiance. C.J. Bergh lends his classical guitar to “Agreement,” with a final homage to classic chord structures, echoing past masters. 

Closing with some contrasts, “Certainty” seems connected to the classical sensibilities of the record. “Frontier” drops back into an interesting place, as Heinrich Wesson (guitar), Riku Latti (accordion) and Nieuwenhuis (guitar) flip the switch back to the contemporary. Somehow, this is a rock instrumental with jazz funk grooves and a classically-driven piano piece blessed with stunning instrumentation. These two ends of the spectrum show the rare weakness of the album: dropping rock or classically-driven songs into the wrong place in the track order hurts the flow of the record. Still, the stylistically diverse record has many nuanced moments throughout the nine songs that show glimpses of music’s eternal connection to the universe.–Lisa Whealy