Robert Wyatt has an extraordinary voice. It is difficult to think of many contemporary singers with his natural talent, let alone singers with a background in popular music. BjÃ¶rk, who collaborated with Wyatt on her under-appreciated a cappella album Medulla, has spoken enthusiastically (if also inaccurately) of his 'five or six octave' vocal range. Unlike so many big-lunged pop singers of recent years, however, Wyatt is uninterested in bludgeoning the listener to death with the sheer force of his vocals. Rather than marching up to the listener and confronting them, his voice hangs back, beckoning, enticing, luring them in. His greatest strength is this restraint, which allows us to appreciate every subtlety and every emotional nuance; and boy, Wyatt is great at nuance. This is amply demonstrated by his most powerful performances, his star turns on the moving Elvis Costello collaboration 'Shipbuilding' and the Chic cover 'At Last I Am Free', both of which convey the sound of a man grappling with and trying to master deeply felt sadness. On both tracks, Wyatt manages to sound simultaneously despairing and desperate to maintain his composure. It is easy to imagine that were either song to last any longer, he would burst into tears.
For The Ghosts Within, Wyatt's collaboration with the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stephen, sees him apply his talents to a number of jazz standards, including 'What A Wonderful World', Duke Ellington's 'In a Sentimental Mood', and Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight'. The trio's interpretations of these standards are interspersed with some their own compositions, as well as a new version of 'At Last I Am Free'. With the exception of the frankly bizarre 'Where Are They Now?' (of which, more later) the music is uniformly lush and rich without being sickly, and is dominated by mellow, reflective strings and punctuated by tasteful - perhaps overly tasteful - bursts of saxophone. Nothing about the arrangements or playing on show is especially exceptional, and so it is left to Wyatt to ensure that proceedings consistently rise above the ordinary. He fulfils this task with aplomb, sounding gloriously fragile on 'Laura' and giving a strikingly mournful, borderline sarcastic reading of 'What A Wonderful World'. He is good on the reworking of 'At Last I Am Free' too, although the emotional impact of the original is rather diluted by the warm string sound and studio trickery on show here.
Some of the material collected on For The Ghosts Within was first performed at a fund-raising event which was organised in support of the victims of the violence still occurring in Gaza. The trio's engagement with political events should be no surprise: Wyatt has always been outspoken in his support for left-wing causes, once going so far as to record a straight-faced cover of 'Stalin Wasn't Stalling', a hymn to the merits of the Russian dictator. However, the connection to events in Israel is responsible for the oddest musical decision here: the inclusion of 'Where Are They Now?', a perky, energetic collaboration with Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour. The song is good fun, but seems a little out of place. Perhaps a whole album of oddball political jazz-rap beckons? It sounds like a terrible idea, but then again everything that Robert Wyatt turns his hand (and more importantly, his voice) to seems to turn to gold.