Alabaster DePlume is not doing things properly, and this makes him very happy.
DePlume is a Manchester-born, London-based bandleader, composer, saxophonist, activist and orator. He’s a resident at the legendary London creative hub Total Refreshment Centre, a recording artist for the off-grid, Scottish Hebridean island label Lost Map, and now the latest arrival into Chicago-based International Anthem’s growing family of progressive musical explorationists. Whilst much of his music contains vocals – often whispered imperatives – this is a collection of instrumentals, drenched in feeling and recorded over four albums and eight earth years in cities across the UK.
The music of "To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1" contains naturally elegant orchestration wrapped around something visceral and primordial. Swirled inside the 11 pieces are shades of Japanese Min’yo folk, Celtic folk, the Ethio-jazz of saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya and hints of the pan-human ‘ancient music’ that sat underneath Arthur Russell’s melodies on First Thought, Best Thought. The music is filled with space, inspired, he says, by computer games and Japanese animation, particularly Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack for Studio Ghibli’s Castle In The Sky.
The record combines new compositions alongside bygone instrumentals and understated lullabies that feel like they’ve been picked from between the cracks of civilisation. These songs were collected from albums "Copernicus," "The Jester," and "Peach" – under-the-radar records that preceded his critically acclaimed 2019 release The Corner of a Sphere. The new tunes feature Dan ‘Danalogue’ Leavers of The Comet Is Coming and Sarathy Korwar alongside a host of London’s finest musicians.
To Cy & Lee… has a suitably individual genesis. DePlume was working for Ordinary Lifestyles, a charity in North Manchester which supports people with disabilities to live in their own homes and to live fulfilling lives. Specifically, he was working with the titular Cy and Lee. His job was to get the guys socialising and he did this by making up songs with them. They’d make up melodies together, humming tunes in the house when they needed something calm, or when they were haring round the city in a battered car. DePlume would record these impromptu sessions in his phone, then go to the studio and use the material as starting points for songs.
He also ran music sessions for Cy, Lee and their friends. “People would focus on a central point, tuning in to one another. There are things we can’t put into words, which can be expressed with sound and music. These guys have fewer words than us, some of them have none. When we put some feelings into a music expression – that’s liberation.”
It’s a method he uses in live shows wherever possible, placing himself and the musicians in the round. The aim is to maximise the creative benefits that a community of players and listeners can bring to the music. It’s a collectivist and humanist approach to making music that sits underneath everything he does. This is music made for a reason, and those reasons include – to paraphrase some of the catchphrases he uses both on stage and in conversation – mixing people up, asking everyone to be as much themselves as they possibly can and the hardcore encouragement expressed in his most popular line, shouted back at him by audiences wherever he goes: “You’re doing very well!”
Practically, he purposefully brings together players of different skill levels and different backgrounds so they have to interact differently, placing them in unusual situations in which to record. “I wanted to destroy the idea of correct so we were playing it different ways for fun. We had a very magical time playing the tunes”. This is activism expressed through gorgeous music that breaks down barriers by encouraging that most powerful emotion: connectedness.
One source of these gorgeous instrumentals is "Peach," an album that later bestowed a name upon legendary monthly sessions he’d run once he’d moved to London. The music was recorded in the middle of the room at Antwerp Mansion, around a big dinner cooked for 60 people.
“The dinner made the air vibrate in the way it did. We did it a certain way, for fun, getting people to shout out instructions – ‘make it like a hangover!’ ‘Make it like a barrel rolling down the ice!’ And we did it that way. You’ve got people eating and drinking around you and they might shout out anything. You can let go and respond.”
The two new pieces were recorded at London’s now-famous Total Refreshment Centre with Danalogue (on piano) Sarathy Korwar (drums), Chestnutt (of Snapped Ankles, on synth), Donna Thompson (voice) and James Howard (guitar). They had a day to record, and DePlume was in post-gig exhaustion. His saxophone was as battered as he was and was failing to play certain notes. “When something is broken or absent or missing, you go around it and that’s what makes it good,” he says. “Then it belongs to that moment. I want to make things that belong to the moment.”
DePlume’s politics might be more evident in vocal songs from his live repertoire when he’s reshaping advertising slogans into a call to arms or encouraging activism on “I Was Gonna Fight Fascism,” but his commitment to the cause is as palpable through the instrumentals of Cy & Lee... This is music designed to respond to what Russian revolutionary poet Mayakovsky described as a “social command.”
“I like the idea that we’re not just doing frivolous decoration. We’re doing work for society. I like to listen for what needs to be said.”
“Years ago I played a bit of sax in other people’s gigs. I realised I was waiting for someone to give me permission to do my own thing. I noticed that no-one will ever give you permission to do your awesome shit, because they don’t know what it is. It’s impossible for them to give you permission. Who gave me permission to talk to you like this? I gave myself fucking permission.”
Alabaster DePlume is not doing things properly. Hallelujah.