‘Floa’ – Mammal Hands

Floa

NORWICH-BASED Mammal Hands’ debut album Animalia (2014) considerably raised the profile of saxophonist Jordan Smart, pianist Nick Smart and drummer Jesse Barnett – a trio apparently discovered by GoGo Penguin’s bassist, Nick Blacka. Since then, they have continued to garner interest in the UK, as well as enjoy international popularity (including gigs at festivals in the United States and Canada). Back in the recording studio, they now return with follow-up, Floa.

Comparisons with GoGo Penguin and the Portico Quartet are understandable (listen to the first three tracks, and this might be the GoGos with Jack Wyllie guesting). But Jordan Smart’s saxophone prowess does provide Mammal Hands with an organic, melodic advantage as he shapes his improvisations around the predominant piano ostinati; and notably, as this nine-track album proceeds, the trio pleasingly begin to develop their own, distinct voice.

So, opening numbers Quiet Fire, Hillum and Hourglass easily recall the aforementioned bands’ output, their trancelike repetition ebbing, flowing and gradually crescendoing to greater intensity (steadily-filling Hourglass, in particular, possesses – perhaps with an intended reference in the title – an appealing Philip Glass-like hypnotism with beautifully unexpected key shifts). But a change of gear in the form of a Dave Brubeckian 5/4 swing, in fourth track Think Anything, opens up a whole new vista of interest – a joyful, dancing blend of American jazz and European folk which invites intensifying improvisation from pianist Nick Smart, as well as the opportunity to create catchy, swirling riffs in fourths with Jordan Smart’s alto. Similarly, the sit-up-and-listen effect of In the Treetops suggests Mammal Hands eking out their own identity, as a highly repetitive sax figure is enhanced by Ibiza-style sustained strings.

By this mid-point, there’s the realisation that this music has the ability to seep and flow into the senses, as in the subtle, almost Oriental placidity of The Eyes that Saw the Mountain – yet here is a track which also sparkles with fresh, heavier grooving expressions. Kudu equally reveals that there is much more to this trio than the album first suggests; effective details such as Nick Smart’s low, undulating piano motifs and Jesse Barnett’s tabla resonance create something special in this increasingly energetic, high-point number. Miniature The Falling Dream indicates an aptitude for more filmic textures, with a gently cascading, Brian Eno-like dreaminess; so, too, does changeable Shift, whose eventual rockiness contrasts markedly with dramatically-charged serenity.

Striking, minimalistic cover art apart, don’t judge a book by its cover – i.e. immerse yourself in this whole album’s riches to understand how Mammal Hands are successfully charting their own course… and enjoy.

Released on 27 May 2016, Floa is available as CD, download and vinyl from Bandcamp.

 

Jordan Smart saxophones
Nick Smart piano
Jesse Barnett drums, tabla
with
Gavin Barras bass
Natalie Purton violin, viola

mammal hands.com

Gondwana Records – GONDCD014 (2016)

 

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‘Animalia’ – Mammal Hands

Animalia

IT’S NO SURPRISE that the live gigs of newcomers Mammal Hands caught the ears of Nick Blacka (bass player with trio-of-the-moment GoGo Penguin) – subsequently recommending them to Gondwana Records boss Matthew Halsall who duly signed them to his growing catalogue of new artists – for there’s more than a hint of Blacka’s band in this, their resulting debut release, Animalia, as well as echoes of early Portico Quartet. Yet their style is also defined by elements of electronica, classical minimalism, dance, Africana, and Indian classical, creating a richly creative blend which can, in equal measure, both move and excite.

The strong Norwich-based trio comprises brothers Nick Smart (piano) and Jordan Smart (saxes), with Jesse Barratt on drums and tabla – their eight original compositions here very much on-trend with the current wave of eclectic, democratically-conceived contemporary jazz ensembles. And what a compelling first outing this is.

Eschewing the traditional double bass element doesn’t, as one might expect, result in imbalance, thanks to the solid-chorded/octaved rhythmic piano of Nick Smart. Indeed, opener Mansions of Millions of Years – with influences and moods that might suggest e.s.t., Reich, Glass and Satie, as well as a raga pulse and energy – displays the impassioned intent of this one-time busking band, Jordan Smart’s escalating soprano sax whirling and crying over the busyness of piano and drums. The three players clearly share an empathy in composition and performance, delivering a varied sound world – the brief and more contemplative Snow Bough spacially glinting to falling piano and sax melodies which possess delightful Japanese koto-like clarity.

A brooding sense of anticipation fills Kandaiki, Jordan Smart’s clipped vibrato lines very much reminiscent of Portico’s Jack Wyllie – and here can be found the magic of the trio, as piano and sax intertwine contrapuntal melodies and harmonies over a simmering, near-perpetual 5/4 piano and drum figure. In contrast, the percussive, yet melancholy, open landscape of Spinning the Wheel finds Jordan Smart’s soprano in folky, yearning vein, Nick’s dark-set low piano chords shrouding the piece in mystery.

Suitably-titled Bustle teems with life to its pianistically-tricky seven-beat ostinati and trip-up pauses; and Jesse Barratt’s complex, ticking momentum, including subtly hollow tabla, is great to focus on. Luxuriant Inuit Party presents a particularly rich combination of tenor punch, tightly-clustered piano chords and solid four-square beat which also offers a tangible improvisatory glimmer of their live act. Upping their game still further – and a real stand-out – Street Sweeper revels in an infectious groove, the Smart brothers sharing melodies over an effusive left-hand piano hook, Barratt shuffling enthusiastically as well as offering a joyous touch of Cuban clatter.

Larger-scale Tiny Crumb closes the album, highlighting the trio’s aptitude for building and elaborating on themes, moving up through keys with ever-increasing urgency. Again, Nick Smart’s all-encompassing piano presence is impressive, sharing with Jesse Barratt its rhythmic intensity, all the while encouraging the apparent vigour of Jordan Smart’s tenor (the end of his white-hot, Pharaoh Sanders-style soloing induces a desire to applaud!); and then, a hypnotic, tabla-decorated end-piece which hints at a much longer play-out than afforded here.

As a debut, Animalia is captivating, yet also feels like just the beginning of Mammal Hands’ creative musings. In their multifarious musical minds, not to mention their considerable instrumental proficiency, Gondwana have signed a breakthrough band capable of hitting the heights. Catch a glimpse of the band at 2013’s Mostly Jazz Festival, as well as the official video for Mansions of Millions of Years.

Releasing on 15 September 2014, pre-order/purchase the album (and preview a couple of tracks) at Gondwana Records’ Bandcamp Store.

 

Nick Smart piano
Jordan Smart saxophones
Jesse Barratt drums, tabla

gondwanarecords.com

Gondwana Records – GONDCD011 (2014)

‘Tower Casa’ – Nick Smart’s Trogon

Trogon

DRIPPING WITH WARMTH, Afro-Cuban rhythms and sprightly melodies, Nick Smart’s Trogon* presents a lively, listenable programme of originals and arrangements, all led by the crisp, agile tone of Smart’s trumpet and flugel.

I’ve been listening to this debut release for some time, its resolute, upbeat spark – both in terms of writing and playing – gradually seeping into my consciousness… and possibly helping to drag me through the final throes of a messy winter! There’s an appealing depth and range to this sextet’s collaborative sound – hardly surprising, given the stature of the personnel. Much-in-demand, versatile electric guitarist Chris Montague reveals his mellower side (away from the punky crackles of Troyka); electric bassist Denny Martinez supplies a fabulously deep, resonant groove to combine well with the sunshine-laden piano of Kishon Khan; and the drums and percussion of Dave Hamblett and Pete Eckford ensure these seven tracks shimmer and glisten with a palpable joy.

Nick Smart is renowned in UK big band circles as player and director (Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzmann, Troyk-estra), alongside his role as Head of Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, and brings his considerable experience to this vibrant outing. His own title composition, Tower Casa, revels in its obvious Latin flavour, Khan’s characteristic octaves and chords and Eckford’s embellishments colouring Smart’s trumpet improvisations. A particularly buoyant arrangement of Kenny Wheeler’s familiar Kind Folk finds guitar and trumpet intertwining with remarkably similar timbre, Montague’s typically fluent chordal and solo extemporisations also impressing. Kishon Khan’s writing adds a considerably funky edge to this recording, bass and percussion clearly savouring the piano rhythm of the tambura-introduced Todi or Not Todi; and Smart’s ebullient, gritty trumpet lead encourages the wiry, playful side of Montague’s nature, the whole number just teeming with light and vivacity.

Traditional tune, Candela, is arranged as a wistful, delightfully-measured flugel ballad; and Stan Sulzmann’s Round the Round It All (sounding quite different to Sulzmann’s sax-led Neon Quartet version) dances excitedly to Smart’s tune, thanks to Dave Hamblett’s and Denny Martinez’s determined pulse, decorated variously by Pete Eckford’s percussive brightness. Everybody Else’s Song (Wheeler/Smart) shuffles amiably, guitar and trumpet again accurately doubling as front line, as well as displaying their individual melodic capabilities. Finally, Kishon teams up with the leader in penning Mo Tilda, an insouciant carnival sundown tune (featuring some great guitar and piano gyrations) which might well party long into the night.

The rich, eclectic and international feel of ‘Tower Casa’ ensures a brisk, accessible forty minutes’ worth of sun-kissed splendour in the company of six accomplished jazz musicians. So… bring on the Summer!

Released in Babel Label’s 20th anniversary year (2014), ‘Tower Casa’ is available here.

*Trogon (as illustrated on the album art) is the national bird of Cuba.


Nick Smart
 trumpet/flugel
Chris Montague guitar
Kishon Khan piano
Denny “Jimmy” Martinez electric bass
Dave Hamblett drum kit
Pete Eckford percussion

Babel Label – BDV13129 (2013)

‘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)