The sleeve photo of Mancunian saxophonist Birchall leaning on the trunk of a majestic tree could be something of a metaphor. Nature provides him with stability and a certain solace. Alternatively, the tree is the mid-60s music and philosophy of John and Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, and Birchall is one of many branches. The themes of universal consciousness, harmony and devotion that he uses for his song titles - Open Up the Gates, Keep the Light Shining and, of course, the title-track - make the lineage clear, as do the techniques which he applies for his original compositions.
Coltrane's use of scales and modes, with all the startling emotional power derived from the dramatic splash of two or three piano chords upon the constantly rotating floor of double bass, is faithfully adhered to. Equally appealing is the occasional burst of hard swing, during which Birchall's rhythm section, impressively manned by drummer Gaz Hughes, bassist Gavin Barras and pianist Adam Fairhall, flies forward as assuredly as a bird departs the bough of a baobab. Along with trumpeter Matthew Halsall, this is the same group that appeared on Birchall's 2009 release Akhenaten and the players build on the cohesion showed in that session, but important additions are kora/harp player Rachel Gladwin and percussionist Chris Manis, both of whom enhance the meditative, slightly hazy ambience by an economic rather than expansive use of notes.
Then again, one of the defining features of Birchall's aesthetic is the use of space, subtlety and restraint in both his melodies and improvisations, perhaps to best evoke sprawling, open landscapes and inner peace. Although his work on tenor strikes a fine balance between stirring overtones and languorous, floating phrases, his timbre on the soprano has an almost gossamer lightness that swirls effectively around the slow, yearning dredge of the double bass on hymnal pieces such as Going to the Mountain or Higher Regions. Although clearly a Coltrane disciple of sorts, Birchall is assiduously developing a gospel of his own, and it will be interesting to see what form his profound neo-spirituals take in the future.