Londoner Ash Walker is one of those nouveau-retro producers who grasps the power of collaboration, and better yet, understands how to mix elements into grand robust harmony. For some, the ideology of stretching across decades of musical ideas reaching from Duke Ellington to King Tubby, Pete Rock to Curtis Mayfield would just short-circuit some arrangers’ brainwave activity. But Mr. Walker has the first concept down right that sees his herculean projects of putting soul into this time-traveling entity come to fruition without exception.
These building blocks, distinct eras drawn from the grand canon of Black music, are all extensions. Progressions. Chuck D, always a beacon of truth, put it best: “We all come from the damned dirty blues.” Amen.
So yeah. Ash Walker gets it. He’s a DJ among other things—stretches of spinning vinyl in Brixton with The Specials to scattering dub across San Francisco and LA— so I’m sure he dusted off, researched some ’60s David Axelrod, ’70s-era Quincy Jones, peak ’90s 4 Hero, and deep-oughts creations from Shafiq Husayn’s Shafiq En’ A-Free-Ka era. And got to serious cookin’.
Ash Walker, on his sophomore effort Astronaut is doing a lot. And in the world we live in today, we need a lot. So he packs it, judiciously. Since 2015, Walker has released ornate arrangements that he refers to as “adventures on land.” As an ardent collector of jazz, blues, soul, funk, reggae and all things in-between, his pendulum of influence swings from bygone eras to the ensuing, yet nothing feels detached. With 2019’s Aquamarine—a palatial gathering of soundscapes, designed for the traveling-without-moving temperament—the British artist put together a trip-hop-meets-R&B union that scooped up Radiohead fans and dropped them in the lap of fuzz, crackle audiophile nirvana.
Four years in the making, Astronaut, filled with an ensemble cast—were talking Wes Anderson levels—turns the emphasis to a degree of sound I like to call “big step soul.” The ’90s throwback ballad mode opener “Only Love,” featuring Lou Rhodes, hits like an exceptionally great and forgotten trip-hop b-side, jettisoned to the back of your local record store. The Giant Steps vibey goodness of “Astronaut” features Amp Fiddler and Laville, which makes a heady amalgam of hip-hop, dub, jazz into otherness. Set to a lazy weekend pace, “Automoton” featuring Oscar Jerome and Joe Armon-Jones, gives that dubwise keyboard work—you’re destined to run it back a couple of times and spark one.
Another big stepper, wide vibe jawn that just goes is the standout: “Time Gets Wasted,” with Denitia and Sly5thAve. These types of free and unhurried soul junkets are sparse these days, so it comforts the ear and mind that much more. Fashioning soul music as a salve or balm.
Walker and his laundry list of experts—Andrew Ashong, Ebi Soda, Oscar Jerome, Joe Armon-Jones, Yazz Ahmed and Kennebec—bunker down for the dignified arrangements, an school Quincy Jones feeling, that I can attest will stick with you for days, weeks, seasons and most definitely years.
Label: Night Time Stories
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to Treble since 2018. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in The Wire, 48 Hills, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK and Drowned In Sound.