‘Drama’ – Colin Towns Mask Orchestra

Drama

BEFITTINGLY, Colin Towns’ latest production, Drama, is lavish, expansive and thrilling. Drawn from the composer/keyboardist’s extensive, high-profile projects for the theatre – an environment which he has more than successfully navigated for many years – this double CD combines original music from an impressive range of stage productions with jazz-focused reinterpretations.

The Mask Orchestra was formed by Towns back in 1990 – and for this seventh release, he welcomes back a host of seasoned, big-name jazz artists to collaborate with new-generation players (all listed below) to create a dynamic 21-piece wall of sound. The scale of the undertaking is epic – so much so that these two and a quarter hours might initially feel somewhat dizzying. But then, out of the seemingly relentless rush, the detail begins to emerge as Colin Towns’ considerable jazz, rock, TV and stage soundtrack experience is distilled into a gripping collection of skilfully crafted portraits which draw on a variety of genres, whilst incorporating and encouraging jazz’s inherent improvisational excitement.

To ‘tread the boards’ appropriately, the band were required to digest the synopses of the fifteen storylines – from Macbeth to Hysteria, The Cherry Orchard to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Whatever level of understanding you may or may not have of these great theatrical works, there’s a hair-tingling exhilaration to the musical realisation of each; Towns’ description of his compositions (with their origins in shows from 1986 to 2014) being “simply maps, and the musicians are the magicians who turn them into 3D kaleidoscopes.”

As the house lights fade, this ‘supergroup pit orchestra’ launches into a raucous pictorialisation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a fascinating hybrid of Russian dance and New Orleans street jazz, briefly tempered by Julian Siegel’s lyrical tenor and then excitingly driven into its conclusion by Chris Montague’s electric guitar flamboyance and Stephan Maass’s elaborate percussion. The barren, windswept landscape of Shakespeare’s Macbeth becomes increasingly agitated as it evolves into big band grandeur, brimming with rippling horn riffs and Andrew McCormack’s propulsive piano energy; and the languid jazz expression of Long Day’s Journey Into Night reflects the relentless weariness and bitterness of Eugene O’Neill’s script, beautifully portrayed by close-knit harmonies and sumptuous tenor trombone and sax soloing.

Tom Stoppard’s Shakespearean tragicomedy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is sneerily quirky and spiky, and The Bard’s own King Lear eerily captured in Towns’ choral synth miniature, with eloquent tenor solo from Nigel Hitchcock. Peter Shaffer’s troubled equine tale, Equus, darts and leaps with especially effective, sinister trumpet neighs and exciting brass and baritone chasing sections; disquieting Ghosts (Henrik Ibsen) floats mysteriously to Henry Lowther’s lithe trumpet lines; and closing ‘Act One’, Terry Johnson’s impressions of Dali and Freud, Hysteria, are portrayed on a grand scale by Towns’ inventive, saturated orchestration, including sumptuous tenor work from Tim Garland.

Opening ‘Act Two’, the Peruvian hues of Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun are enhanced by a buoyant passing around of its progressive, anthemic tune, swelled by saxophone-led improv and Joji Hirota’s huge, Japanese percussion; and vivid orchestration in The Cripple of Inishmaan (Martin McDonagh) cleverly evokes Irish pipes and fiddle. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s energetic fourteen minutes (interpreting Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s famous novel, then movie) become crazy, challenging, mesmerising… and downright entertaining (its fullness almost beyond categorisation), whilst the inquiring nature of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is reflected in the fantastic, pressing urgency of Towns’ big band thriller. And emotionally romantic Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) is captured by the misty, slow-waltzing soprano sax of Simon Allen.

Towns’ vast musical depiction of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (at virtually twenty minutes, almost too broad to take in) is volatile and impassioned, offering a spectacular window into the composer’s major contribution to British theatre. And before a triumphal, final reprise of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, the liberated themes of A Doll’s House (Henrik Ibsen, Frank McGuinness) are presented in exuberant, showy, jazz big band style, Montague’s guitar adding a contemporary, rasping edge – truly edge-of-the-seat stuff!

Most definitely not your average jazz release – but, especially for those with a theatrical proclivity, this is an ambitious project which delivers on so many levels. Released on 2 October 2015 on the Provocateur label, Drama is available from online and record store outlets, and at iTunes.

 

George Hogg, Graham Russell, Henry Lowther, Rory Simmons trumpets/flugelhorns
Barnaby Dickinson, Tom White, Harry Brown tenor trombones
Roger Williams bass trombone
Peter King, Simon Allen alto/soprano saxophones
Tim Garland, Alan Skidmore, Nigel Hitchcock tenor/soprano saxophones
Julian Siegel baritone/bass clarinet/tenor/soprano/clarinet/flute
Stephan Maass percussion/electronic percussion
Andrew McCormack piano
Arnd Geise bass
Chris Montague guitars
Ralph Salmins drums
Colin Towns keyboards
with special guest Joji Hirota percussion

colintowns.com

Provocateur Records – PVC1044 (2015)

‘Lifecycles’ – Engines Orchestra + Phil Meadows Group

Lifecycles2

LAST SUMMER, saxophonist and composer Phil Meadows released his quintet album, Engines of Creation – a remarkably accomplished debut from a musician whose ambition and drive are clearly on course to earn him a place in the upper echelons of the London jazz scene. Confirmation of his achievements to date (including continued involvement with NYJO), as well as recognising his potential for future success, have come via two accolades: Parliamentary Jazz Newcomer of the Year and the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award.

Phil Meadows’ larger scale project, Engines Orchestra, is an ambitious group of twenty young London-based orchestral musicians who, directed by Matt Roberts, collectively seek to challenge conventions through stimulating, cross-genre, written and improvised music. For this debut recording, Meadows has created his colourful and unpredictable Lifecycles suite which melds the diverse textures and dynamics of both orchestral and quintet sound worlds, pressing into action again his Group colleagues – all rising stars in their own right – Laura Jurd (trumpet), Elliot Galvin (piano), Conor Chaplin (basses) and Simon Roth (drums), plus adroit vocalist/violinist Alice Zawadzki.

The fusion of jazz soloists/bands with orchestra is, of course, nothing new – one only has to look at the seminal late-’50s/early-’60s projects of Miles Davis and Gil Evans, right up to Trish Clowes’ exciting new release Pocket Compass. Such a concept has never been without its critics as, in unaccomplished hands, it can become a laboured, incongruous, cold exercise – but, thankfully, recent collaborations have proved to be both sophisticated and organic, highlighting that there is still much to be discovered and achieved by breaking down perceived barriers. “Lifecycles“, the composer describes, “explores a series of situations that we all experience. The people we meet, love and lose shape our emotional responses” – and the result becomes increasingly captivating.

Missing Days, which opens the ten-track sequence, bustles to the brilliance of the orchestral scoring (a motivating woodwind ostinato here, a brassy stab cluster there, and tight, chattering strings and percussion). Combined with the characteristic fervour of Alice Zawadzki’s vocal delivery – “Sunrise breaks in the morning, people sleep through it all, missing out on the beauty of the time daybreak falls” – and the inspired placing of Tori Handsley’s harp, the piece takes on something of a ‘swinging Sixties London’ busyness; Meadows in no way takes centre stage, preferring to judiciously infuse the arrangement with lyrical alto until it all degenerates into cacophonous disorder. Lifecycles displays a broad, cinematic approach with a memorable brass-bold theme which evokes the pomp of Buddy Rich’s spectaculars, and improvisational meanderings add to the sense of the unexpected, as does the quirky, inventive openness of miniature The Spark. The written and the improvised are strikingly cross-pollenated in Intoxicated Delirium, an exciting showcase of near-perfect orchestral and band fusion, the brash energy reflecting its title – get it on repeat play!

Hallucinogenic Euphoria hints at the prog world of Pink Floyd, the Indian inflections of Elliot Galvin’s piano strings, as well as orchestral strings, mingling superbly with Meadows’ echoic soprano; and the abstract beauty of Prelude easily suggests Bartok and John Tavener. Balmlike harp over desolate, searing, portamento strings in Remembrance seem to speak (in this First World War centenary year) of tentative, rising hope, the development becoming impressively filmic with the addition of Zawadzki’s hard, soulful vocals.

Celebration effervesces in its scored/extemporised balance, Galvin’s unabashed piano bravura all part of the joy; and Laura Jurd’s bluesy trumpet prompts a four-square rockiness from the entire assembly which is irresistible and full of character. Jarring interlude Strife of Life explodes and then relaxes to Jurd’s lead before Twice The Man closes the suite – at almost nine minutes, it’s an impassioned, anthemic piece of writing which erupts into a huge Latinesque party, Meadows’ swirling soprano and Zawadzki’s pliant voice playing host to this unrestrained magnificence!

Keep a keen eye on Engines Orchestra’s progress – a great initiative which is set to include workshops, ensemble performance platforms and artist development programmes, all with the aim of engaging communities of young musicians. And congratulations to Phil Meadows for his vision – a refreshingly different musical approach. Finally, a nod to Oli Bentley (split.co.uk) for the orchestra’s beautifully minimal ‘pulley’ branding, as well as the album’s neatly considered sleeve design.

Launching at Kings Place, London, on 22 November 2014 (as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival), and with a general release date of 24 November, Lifecycles is available from the Engines Orchestra’s Bandcamp page.

 

PHIL MEADOWS GROUP
Phil Meadows composer, saxophones
Laura Jurd trumpet
Elliot Galvin piano
Conor Chaplin double bass, electric bass
Simon Roth drums, percussion

 

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ENGINES ORCHESTRA
Matt Roberts conductor
James Davison trumpet
Eddie Morgan French horn
James Buckle bass trombone
Jennah Smart flutes
Rob Cope clarinet, flute
Gennie Joy bass clarinet, clarinet
Tori Handsley harp
Emily Davis 1st violin (principal)
Tom Aldren 1st violin
Alice Zawadzki 1st violin, vocals
Katherine Waller 1st violin
Minn Majoe 2nd violin (principal)
Kirsty Lovie 2nd violin
Claire Sledd 2nd violin
Connie Chatwin 2nd violin
Matt Maguire viola (principal)
Joe Fisher viola
George White viola
Zosia Jagodzinska cello (principal)
Gregor Riddell cello

 

enginesorchestra.com

Engines Imprint – E1001CD (2014)

‘Live at the 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival’ – Troyk-estra

Troyk-estra

ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING and progressive trios to emerge in recent years has been Troyka, the members of which have also become key players in a host of other contemporary jazz and jazz/rock projects: Chris Montague (guitar, loops), Kit Downes (organ, keyboards) and Josh Blackmore (drums).

Their most recent album, ‘Moxxy’ (Edition Records, 2012), created a surge of interest for the band’s creative process of responding to an array of musical sources and influences to deliver their unique and heady mix of improvised jazz, rock, funk and electronics. Troyka’s live gigs are like no other, these three masters of their craft intuitively creating a mesmerising, sparky, sensory experience. So, with that same visionary spirit, how about augmenting the trio with the power and depth of a big band? Crazy? Well, what ensued was nothing short of a jazz sensation!

Montague, Downes and Blackmore assembled an 18-piece of brass, reeds, bass and vibes (personnel listed below, including familiar names such as Reuben Fowler, James Allsop and Mike Chillingworth) under the direction of Royal Academy of Music Head of Jazz, Nick Smart, who would bring a very different dimension to their music. To re-visit a sound originally built on a collective understanding between three, and widen its scope to a much larger ensemble, must have been something of a challenge – but the result, hearing it captured from the live setting of this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival (originally recorded for BBC Jazz On 3), is both exhilarating and enthralling (and difficult to categorise – though try to imagine a hybrid of Dave Holland, Matthew Herbert and Beats & Pieces plus Keith Emerson, Billy Cobham and Hendrix!).

Anagram antics are plentiful in the titles of some arrangements of existing pieces, so Dropsy changes to Dry Ops, Chaplin becomes Hip Clan, Zebra turns into Braze… but it’s the musical transformations, of course, that amaze, along with specially-written new pieces. Opener Dry Ops confirms straightaway the successful fusion: brass section able to echo the instantly-recognisable technique of Montague’s guitar/effects with similar spike and crackle, as well as combining with the reeds to fashion a tight NYC-sounding orchestration, whilst also allowing space for individual improvisation. The big band scoring of Gain Noon Soon sounds particularly demanding, but this ten-minute number really sparkles, Blackmore just astonishing with the complexity and rapidity of his drumming. Braze is such a fantastic development of the original trio piece, Downes impressing with signature firecracker organ/keyboards and Montague bristling on lead guitar, whilst incisive chordal stabs and mischievous vibes add peppy colour.

Misterioso Elegant Her‘s mournful, bluesy trumpet opening and slide guitar precede an increasingly urgent pace which eventually unfolds into a particularly BIG band sound and a great coda, Downes and Montague rocking (crank up the volume for a superb live feel!). Coley‘s funk-driven groove – led by the Troyka trio, bassist Louis Van Der Westhuizen and Ralph Wyld on vibes – is so gripping, featuring great organ, trombone and tenor soloing. The spacial Hip Clan – a ‘Moxxy’ favourite featuring Chris Montague’s atmospheric Floydian guitar lead – takes on a different timbre as sustained brass and reeds, with vibes, seemingly float it beyond the clouds. Finally, the cryptically-titled 80 Neon Births teases with big band swing, only to develop into an enveloping electronic haze against Blackmore’s percussive power before a blazing, full-on finale.

Those present at Cheltenham’s Parabola hailed Troyk-estra’s performance as “unforgettable”, “stupendous”, “jaw-droppingly amazing” – and, with this closely-recorded and remixed live account, we now have the opportunity to enjoy much of that magic for ourselves. Launching at London Jazz Festival on 23 November 2013 (Purcell Room, Southbank Centre at 3pm), with a general release date of 2 December 2013, this remarkable debut album is available from Impossible Ark at BandCamp. Prepare to be dazzled!


Chris Montague
guitar, loops  chrismontague.com
Kit Downes organ, keyboards  kitdownes.com
Josh Blackmore drums  joshuablackmore.com

Nick Smart conductor
Reuben Fowler trumpet
Alex Bonney trumpet
Noel Langley trumpet
Imogen Hancock trumpet
Kieran Stickle McLeod trombone
Patrick Hayes trombone
Tom Green trombone
Courtney Brown bass trombone
Mike Chillingworth alto saxophone
Nadim Teimoori alto saxophone
Sam Miles tenor saxophone
James Allsop tenor saxophone
Sam Rapley bass clarinet, baritone saxophone
Louis Van Der Westhuizen bass
Ralph Wyld vibes

Troyk-estra

Impossible Ark Records (2013)