‘Live’ – Brass Mask

Brass Mask LIVE

OUTRAGEOUS… cacophonous… majestic… and totally absorbing! Bandleader and Loop Collective saxophonist Tom Challenger brings the natural, live-stage experience of this nine-piece ensemble out from under the spotlights and into our hands. 

Imagine colourful New Orleans street promenades coalescing with free jazz in an unfettered, contemporary spirit, and that might just begin to identify the simmering-yet-brazen brilliance of Brass Mask. Exuberant 2013 studio debut Spy Boy first revealed the power of this coming-together of mostly London-based talent. Now, Live combines developments of some of those joyous, smile-inducing compositions/arrangements from Challenger with new material; and one look at his experimental personnel hints at the firecrackling show in prospect – George Crowley, Rory Simmons, Alex Bonney, Nathaniel Cross, Theon Cross, Dan Nicholls, John Blease and Jon Scott.

Tom Challenger’s inspiration for this project stems from various online bootlegs which feature, for example, the raw energy of John Coltrane, Mardi Gras Indians and Haitian Rara bands. But this is a live album with an edge, as he and Alex Bonney sensitively link and support the recorded gig (from the capital’s Servant Jazz Quarters) with imaginatively-crafted electronics, as well as ‘field recordings’ of “mangled YouTube and iPhone samples of found sound”. And it’s a blast!

The bleating, effected horns of Francilia herald Shallow Water – a slow, stirring, processional funeral march which trudges to wailing tenors and trumpets (quite different from the dance-groove original); Lil’ Liza Jane‘s infectious, shuffling trad playfulness echoes to almost sneery horn riffs amidst the most vociferous tuba, organ and percussion; and trancelike The Bague is just as cunningly shambolic. Held-back gospel tune Indian Red feels made for such a live setting, preening itself with hard-blown brass before breaking into swingin’ double-time abandon, whilst the grungy, rasping blues of I Thank You Jesus, underpinned by Nicholls’ sustained, palpitating keys and Theon Cross’s wildly whooping tuba, demands to be heard over and over.

Nyodi‘s oscillating canvas invites a delightfully unexpected Joe Zawinul-type tuba groove (à la River People), complemented by Wayne Shorter-style tenor tumblings and, appropriately, sustained, Weather Reportian chord clusters. Rapid, madcap capers in The Merman suggest Madness on acid; and the glorious, reedy, push-pull riff of Francis P (all ten minutes or more of it, compared to the original of less than three) enjoys a frenetic phantasmagoria of organ/keys, jousting trumpets, flailing tuba and the oxymoron of an ascending electronic wind-down.

A splendid, visceral hullabaloo. Turn up the volume and immerse yourself in it. Released on 21 April 2017, Brass Mask’s Live is available as CD or digital album from Bandcamp.

 

Tom Challenger tenor sax, clarinet
George Crowley tenor sax, clarinet
Rory Simmons trumpet
Alex Bonney trumpet
Nathaniel Cross trombone
Theon Cross tuba
Dan Nicholls organ, keyboards, percussion
John Blease drums, percussion
Jon Scott percussion

tom challenger.co.uk
loop collective.org

Babel Label – BDV15137 (2017)

‘Porgy & Bess’ – Fini Bearman

Porgy&Bess

GEORGE GERSHWIN’S 1930s American folk opera, Porgy & Bess – a tale of against-all-odds love set against a backdrop of prostitution and drug addiction – is known to many for its popular songs such as Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So and I Loves You Porgy.

In 1959, iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and renowned bandleader Gil Evans together issued a recording, on Columbia, of their own interpretations of songs from the opera, which became one of the most enduringly favoured Davis albums from what has become a considerable discography. The inherent blues/jazz feel of the original was what particularly drew them to their new nine-piece band explorations (not just ‘jazz treatments’), leading Evans to divulge, “The three of us, it seems to me, collaborated in the album.”

Some fifty-odd years later, it’s that landmark Davis/Evans recording which has provided the inspiration for London-based singer, songwriter and composer Fini Bearman to present this new album of eight numbers/impressions from the original score, backed by an impressively adaptable line-up: Ross Stanley (Hammond, Wurlitzer), Matt Calvert (guitars, plus piano), Jon Cox (double bass) and John Blease (drums, percussion). All arrangements are by Bearman, Calvert and Blease and are transformatively compelling.

For example, in Bearman’s hands, Davis’ New Orleans-style funeral march interlude of Gone, Gone, Gone breaks into a strong-beat Sixties single, courtesy of Ross Stanley’s evocative Augeresque organ playing and Matt Calvert’s lively, tremulant guitar (interesting to consider Miles’ recording was made on the cusp of a decade that was to be characterised by this sound). Fini Bearman’s voice is strong, soulful and, if emulating this period, utterly convincing. The despair of My Man’s Gone Now, as heard in Gershwin’s vocalised original (though more smoothly swinging in Davis’ world) is beautifully weighted in its solid, sustained, major/minor bluesyness; and, in stark contrast, the plainly optimistic (usually baritone-sung) I Got Plenty of Nuthin’ skips in countrified abandon, Bearman getting into its cheeky, resigned character.

Porgy, I’m Your Woman Now is touchingly delicate, the spacial arpeggioed guitar arrangement here illuminating the beauty, and even modernity, of Gershwin’s writing; and the richness and feeling in Fini Bearman’s delivery carries the song so well. Lively blues to the fore, It Ain’t Necessarily So rings to the crashing, gritty precision of Calvert’s guitar and Stanley’s truly authentic chordal and soloing organ tone – sensational stuff from the whole quintet. I Loves You Porgy, a well-covered classic (and here, as in Miles’ version, a first take) is winsomely engaging – Bearman feels the emotion of the lyric, and echoic guitar and brittle percussion provide a certain weightlessness, whilst Ross Stanley’s bright melodic tone is quite magical.

The chirpy beat of Davis’ There’s A Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon is delightfully remodelled as an easy-going groove, held up well by bassist Jon Cox and drummer John Blease, which Bearman clearly revels in; it all sounds remarkably fresh, shimmering to guitar and Rhodes soloing. And to close, Prayer – a freely-improvised, less obvious impression of Summertime – perhaps suggests the misty poignancy of the previous number as it ebbs and washes to vocal and instrumental overlays, idealistically heading out to New York.

David Ewen, Gershwin’s first biographer, reputedly stated of the man and this opera that he “never quite ceased to wonder at the miracle that he had been its composer. He never stopped loving each and every bar, never wavered in the conviction that he had produced a work of art.” Its longevity, although due in part to the popularity of the mainstream ‘hits’, is testament to that belief – and thanks to the vision of artists including Miles Davis, and now Fini Bearman, his work can continue to be appreciated through contemporary interpretations. And that, happily, is one of the wonders of a living, breathing, creative genre such as jazz.

Released on the ‘F-IRE presents’ label on 28 October 2014, Porgy & Bess is available from ProperMusic and usual outlets.

 

Fini Bearman voice
Ross Stanley Hammond organ, Wurlitzer
Matt Calvert guitars, piano
Jon Cox double bass
John Blease drums, percussion

(original credits: music by George Gershwin; libretto by DuBose Heyward; lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin)

finibearman.com
f-ire.com

F-IRE presents – F-IRECD 76 (2014)

‘Spy Boy’ – Brass Mask

Image

AN EARTHY, ALL-ACOUSTIC ENSEMBLE can be both refreshing and deeply affecting… and, indeed, Tom Challenger’s Brass Mask octet reaches right out and grabs you by the ears, heart and soul. With debut album, ‘Spy Boy’, this creative powerhouse delivers a distinctively venturous 13-track programme of exuberant (and, at times, emotional) strength.

Formed only last year, the standout grouping of horns and percussion offers intense, brash, rhythmic grooves as well as infectious, improvisational joy and freedom, drawing on a variety of influences such as the carnival atmospheres of Mardi Gras/New Orleans street bands, as well as Deep South spirituals/hymns and South African township music. Sax, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, drum and percussion pyrotechny is provided by current London jazz luminaries George Crowley, Dan Nicholls, Rory Simmons, Alex Bonney, John Blease, and Nathaniel and Theon Cross.

Challenger, primarily as a tenorist, is already a big name on the contemporary jazz scene (Dice Factory, Outhouse, Fofoulah), and here he magically weaves together a tapestry of imaginative self-penned compositions and brilliantly leftfield arrangements of traditional tunes, resulting in a blaze of colour (Dan Nicholls’ sleeve art interpreting this well!). As well as the thrilling invention of the writing, Challenger clearly relies on the skill, intuition and pluckiness of his colleagues – and how it pays off. Take, for example, Francis P, a short, rebellious number which encapsulates the raw abandon of this eight-piece; sax and trumpet sections blasting a strong unison line over irreverent tuba and deliberate clattering drums, tenor breaking off to improvise grittily.

Thank You Jesus immediately appeals with its slow, hard, bluesy edge. The lazy, swaggering, discordant Indian Red possesses a similarly charismatic gospel feel, seemingly taking to the street and then ending in glorious up-tempo celebration – irresistible! And the first of these three traditional tunes, Shallow Water, displays the band’s trademark bold unison melodies and effective overlapping of parts.

Rain, Rain, Rain dances lightly before increasingly building its strength and complexity, the impudent, crunchy tenor and trombone solos here a dream. The deep tuba, trombone, bass clarinet and percussion rhythm of Wizards provides a superbly mysterious ground for saxes, trumpets and clarinets to blend as well as fly improvisationally – and with razor-sharp brass stabs and high trumpet lines above escalating heavy drums, this proves to be nine and a half minutes of creative excellence. The foreboding of closely-meshed reeds in Israfil is made all the more intense by an incessant cymbal rhythm which then menacingly stops short of the conclusion, creating a tangible tension; and from a similarly troubled opening, Don’t Stand Up becomes impressively driven by rapid bongo-led percussion, pacey instrumental soloing and the occasional, characteristic tuba (“whOOh!”) outburst!

Brass Mask play tightly, as one, yet also enjoy what appears to be considerable free reign – the entire album maintaining a spirit which, once you are ‘in’, is so incredibly satisfying. This is certainly ‘jazz out of the comfort zone’ and, for that reason, hugely exhilarating. But hearing is believing – check out the excitement at Bandcamp.

Released on Babel Label, 14 October 2013.


Tom Challenger
sax, clarinet, percussion
George Crowley sax, clarinet
Dan Nicholls sax, bass clarinet
Rory Simmons trumpet
Alex Bonney trumpet
Nathaniel Cross trombone
Theon Cross tuba
John Blease drums, percussion
(additional percussion: Jez Miles, Hugh Wilkinson)

tomchallenger.co.uk
babellabel.co.uk
loopcollective.org

Babel Label – BDV13121 (2013)