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Michael Pignéguy & The Awakenings Ensemble
Michael Pignéguy & The Awakenings Ensemble

Perth based Michael Pignéguy is a musician, composer and arranger, and the driving force behind The Awakenings Ensemble, a moving feast of international musicians that has performed in the US, the Middle East, Asia and around Australia.  Pignéguy has produced and co-produced numerous albums under his own name and for other artists. In 2019, with The Awakenings Ensemble, he released Global Rhythms Live at VIVID Festival 2019.  Now, Pignéguy and The Awakenings Ensemble are set to release an ambitious double album, DualityAround The Sound spoke to Pignéguy to take a look behind the scenes of the creation of his latest work.

Duality is positively groovy!  That’s really the only word for it. 

Buried in his contact details, Pignéguy lays claim to the moniker, ‘the sound sculptor’, which is as much a tongue in cheek self-deprecation as it is an aphorism for what he does best.

“I started with that back in 2008,” Pignéguy said, “I thought that was a fitting description of what I do in some ways, particularly as an arranger and composer. It fits into that space of the composing and arranging rather than the performing, if you know what I mean, because I write my own music but also, I was doing probably a lot more arranging for other people in the orchestral space and other things as well. And, when I was living overseas, I was doing a bit more music for vision, documentaries, short film and things like that.  So, it was linked to what I was doing.”

What Pignéguy has been doing is creating, recording and performing music that’s seen him work with artists as diverse as Ben Folds (USA), Nayla Al Khaja (UAE), Maias Al Yamani (Syria), Matthew Rybicki (USA), Hassan Moataz (Egypt) and Trilby Temperley (Australia).  His relationship with Temperley, as well as producer, Brodie Stewart, has endured and it is these three that form the nucleus of the current iteration of The Awakenings Ensemble.

Speaking about the development of Duality, Pignéguy said, “From a production point of view, I’ve worked closely with Brodie Stewart and Trilby Temperley.  We complement each other because my musical production knowledge and mixing and mastering skills are just very basic.  The production team has made a big impact on the album, which I’m happy has gone pretty much how I planned with lots of bonuses along the way.”

As a composer and musical director, Pignéguy is as clearsighted as they come, so how did he manage when the process of creating and recording Duality, which involved working remotely with musicians across the world during last year’s COVID lockdown, didn’t always go to plan?

Pignéguy took up the story, saying, “Because of COVID lockdown it was doubly hard earlier on. Initially we had planned to do a live recording back in April [2020] but that couldn’t happen due to the lockdown. So, what we did was work a lot long distance with people, which is something I’ve done in the past quite a bit, so I was already comfortable with that way of working.  You’ve got to be very clear about what you want, you have to provide the best possible sort of [song] beds, so I felt like it was already quite good and it’s improved even further during the recording process.  When we did a showcase of a number of the tracks back in September [2019], it wasn’t a double album at that stage.  It was nice because you don’t usually get a chance to perform tracks from an album as you’re creating it.  You might do in a sort of a covert way, I suppose, or as you rehearse, but you don’t usually won’t get to perform them.”

The resulting double album, Duality, is positively groovy!  That’s really the only word for it. 

My last close-up experience with jazz music was some years ago at The Basement in Sydney.  I’m going to choose not to remember who the artist was, but a good portion of the show was dedicated to the drummer covering his kit with a red blanket.  Perhaps it was a metaphor for how deliberately opaque the music was.  Needless to say, I left before half time.  Thankfully this was before I appointed myself to the position of music journalist, otherwise I think I would have been ritually disembowelled for that one. 

My point in mentioning that here is that, by contrast, The Awakenings Ensemble’s latest double album is an absolute banger, choc full of accessible music that is intelligible to the lay person such as myself, but sufficiently complex to satisfy the mind, soul and pretentions of the most ardent of enthusiasts.  Balance in all things is an admirable virtue and one that Michael Pignéguy and his ensemble have nailed with the greatest of aplomb.

Asked to reflect on the essence of his creation, Pignéguy said, “I think that the rhythm factor is quite an essential thing. One of the things I learned when I was living in the Middle East was the difference in texture, so the texture of what’s called Oriental music there is much more open and that actually had quite a big influence on my writing as it can be much more complex harmonically.  Part of the reason it’s become a double album is because of the vocal collaborations.  I felt, when we performed back in September, that the songs wouldn’t sit well together on the same album, so that that was one of the reasons why we chose to go with a double to allow all the vocals to be on one disc.  A lot of those (vocal tracks) are cowrites, so I have a little bit more of my producer hat on there as well writing, so I allow myself to be pulled further in whatever direction it might be.”

As Pignéguy observed, Duality is an album in two movements, each having its own disc.  The first disc, Introspections, contains seven instrumentals.  Talk about challenging!  I’ve been scorned, derided and snickered at in the past for my self-declared inability to come to grips with music that has no vocals, so the prospect of listening to and reviewing this music was, to say the least, daunting.

Starting with a drum break, the opening track, ‘Footprints’, signals that this is an ensemble led by a drummer.  Pignéguy also just happens to be a composer and arranger and it’s these talents that shine through, along with his virtuosity on his chosen instrument.  The music is honed and tight, it’s complex and swings through more movements than I’ve had identity crises, but there’s nothing there that doesn’t belong, that doesn’t add to and enhance the story telling.

Sandwiched in the middle of this disc, ‘Relentless’, features the vocal talents of Pakistani artist, Nadeem Abbas.  It’s a crossover track that Page and Plant likely would have taken some pride in, should they have had the song writing and arranging sensibilities to pull it off, but it’s also the track that had the trickiest birth, according to Pignéguy, who said, “Probably one of the most difficult was with Nadeem.  It wasn’t finalised until last week, it took that long, whereas most other pieces came together a lot faster.  Some things translated and came together really fast and very clearly worked, and other things just take a lot longer and I’m very proud of that one because of how it brings together everything I got back from Nadeem during the recording process.

“With Nadeem we had to travel backwards and forwards, but most times when you’ve got a clear idea of who the artist is and what they do and you’re able to hopefully make the right choices.  Hopefully, as a composer and producer you’re able to see inside the minds of the players, you know them well enough, but of course you do get those curveballs.  They’re relatively rare on the playing side, it’s more when you’re trying to do something which is a bit more challenging from a compositional perspective, trying to bring different strands together.”

Duality’s Introspections disc is a rush that ends with the frenetic guitar close out of final track, ‘Departure Lounge’.  The silence when the track stops is almost like a deliberate exhortation to get up and change the disc.  The energy of the music hangs in the air long after the vibrations have stopped. 

If I’ve listened this far and I’m still liking what I’m hearing, I wonder what disc 2 will bring?

Duality’s second disc, Collaborations, opens with ‘Love Your Lies’, featuring vocals from Sophie Foster, who also sings on ‘Forgotten Memories’ and ‘Make Me Feel’.  I feel I need to acknowledge at this stage that, when I first listened to Duality, I began with the second disc, because I felt safer there.  That’s where I reached the conclusion that this is one groovy album.  From the guitar and funky, fuzzed out keyboard that open ‘Love Your Lies,’ to the soul/hip hop inspired, ‘Like A Fool,’ featuring Evelyn Feroza on vocals, and the straight-out RnB of ‘You Know You Do’, featuring Alemay Fernandez on vocals, this disc effortlessly transcends genres and excites at every turn.

There’s a lot more that could be said about Duality and the people that created and recorded the music across its two discs.  There’s a wealth of talent on display here that stretches over 14 highly accessible and well put together tracks.  The music on Duality might best be pigeonholed as jazz, but genres are tricky things, often more straitjacket than guide and champion.  This is a record that you can approach and enjoy from whatever perspective makes your music muscle memory stand your hairs on end and send tingles down your spine.  But, rather than listen to me go on any longer about how, even though I’m a philistine, even I like Duality, go have a listen for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.

Duality is a mouth-watering proposition as a live performance and a challenge for Pignéguy, who said, “We really try, where possible, to faithfully reflect the album and we’re still going to do that.  They are two different animals so there’s certain decisions you have to make so you’re not bending over backwards to do something so much that it compromises how relaxed it’ll feel in the [live] show.  We are definitely thinking of them in two different ways, and some tracks are more affected than others.  To me all the core feelings will there but I suppose, you know, on some things it’s understood that there are six or eight horns on the record and on stage we’ve got two live horns and two keyboards, so that’s quite a difference.”

Duality is set to be launched at The Duke of George in Fremantle on Saturday 13 March with tickets available here. 

We’re lucky to be able to see such big music in such an intimate venue, so I’d recommend getting your hands on tickets while you still can.  Once life returns to normal, Pignéguy and his colleagues will likely leave our shores for festivals in Asia and the US, amongst others.

“I definitely want to be doing that,” Pignéguy said, “That was the plan, first national and then Asia was the thinking.   I’m definitely looking forward to things opening back up again.  I’m excited to actually play with those people that are on the album that are not here as well and get that interaction.  I think the US is definitely going to be last on the list for quite some time, but I think Asia and national, that’s the next step.

“This group to great extent is quite attuned for larger venue or festivals.  One thing that, perhaps, I’ve done quite well with the group is that the detail on some of the arrangements, really trying to make sure that they if you did hear us in a venue with two or three thousand other people they would still translate really well.”

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For more information on Michael Pignéguy and the The Awakenings Ensemble check them out on Facebook here and on their website here.

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