‘Drama’ – Colin Towns Mask Orchestra


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


Provocateur Records – PVC1044 (2015)

‘Drawing Breath’ – Blue Touch Paper


SUCH IS THE POWER and creative breadth of this second release by Colin Towns’ six-piece, Blue Touch Paper, this may indeed be a case of needing to draw breath! The composer and pianist/keyboardist is hugely respected in both jazz and rock worlds – and, with a career that includes a prolific contribution to TV, film and theatre, the writing here reflects that rich eclecticism.

For this exciting project, Towns employs a remarkable, fearless band to achieve the challenging diversity of his mind’s eye – Mark Lockheart (saxes), Chris Montague (guitars), Edward Maclean (bass), Benny Greb (drums) and Stephan Haass (percussion and electronics). Unsurprisingly, there is a strong sense of dramatic soundtrack within these twelve originals; and the field of play is so vast that I also hear jazz/rock textures suggesting the likes of Weather Report, Brand X, Colosseum II, King Crimson, Nik Bärtsch, maybe some semblance of ’70s heavy prog., and perhaps even Zappa. Yet there is a magic in the way these threads are expertly woven together to create something new, whilst also allowing freedom of expression and improvisation (something which Lockheart and Montague grasp with both hands in their typically matchless soloing).

Fuse lit, the percussively-activated ‘Attention Seeker’ opens the album brightly (Stephan Maass a key colorist in the band), Mark Lockheart’s instantly-recognisable and spirited tenor technique coupling with Chris Montague’s edgy guitar. From its mysterious keyboard opening, the theme-tune-like ‘Isadora’ gathers pace into a samba frenzy before relaxing into raunchy anarchy, Lockheart’s gritty tenor encouraging ‘the boys’ to vocalise along. The distant, floaty piano and plaintive sax of ‘Heaven’ offer a brief interlude, and then… ‘Suddenly a Tango’ lives up to its name, Colin Towns’ energetic marimba/brass keyboards and piano, along with bass and percussion, providing the perfect foundation for Montague’s distinctive experimentation. A smouldering, Spanish-implied ‘Juggling with Strangers’ takes us back to film or TV score territory. Lockheart sounds remarkably Shorter-esque on soprano, Maclean’s supple five-string bass is delightful against complex clapping rhythms and sympathetic percussion, and Towns on piano feels the hypnotic vibe.

Theatrical and mocking, with braying keyboards and sax, ‘The Joke’ might be the stuff of nightmares… except that it’s actually a tour de force, with a terrific, rocky climax. Through the ‘fog and filthy air’, ‘Fair is foul’ portrays Macbeth’s macabre coven via soprano sax, tolling bell, chants, ‘fx’ and dramatic quotations (Towns is a master of such imagery). Continuing this tangle with darkness is the thrilling, urgent ‘Watch Out’… but keep running and don’t look back! Lockheart’s disembodied tenor on title track ‘Drawing Breath’, against searing keyboard strings, rumbling bass and wailing vocal, has me reaching for the light switch – but not before I can enjoy Chris Montague’s resonant, stressed, sitar-style lead guitar over the thunderous drums and percussion of Greb and Maass.

Echoic nightscape ‘Neon Shadows’ again has the imagination running wild, catchy bass groove underpinning soprano sax as well as the scratches and scrawls of guitar and electronics; and ‘Yes But Now’ quickens the pace – a great platform for the whole band involving Montague’s trademark Fender pyrotechnics and crazed bluesy piano from Towns. With credits rolling, the cryptically-named ’48 Prefabs and Forks No.60′ appears to calmly draw down the curtain on a rollercoaster ride of emotion and adventure. As Colin Towns says, he doesn’t subscribe to any kind of rule book – “music either moves you, and your heartbeat goes, or it’s nothing at all”.

‘Drawing Breath’ is released on 14 October 2013, touring in February 2014 (10-minute promo video here).


BLUE TOUCH PAPER bluetouchpaper.com
Colin Towns keyboards  colintowns.com
Mark Lockheart tenor and soprano saxophones  marklockheart.co.uk
Chris Montague guitars  chrismontaguemusic.com
Edward Maclean bass  edwardmaclean.de
Benny Greb drums  bennygreb.de
Stephan Maass percussion and electronics  myspace.com/stephanmaass

24 February 2014 The Vortex, London
25 February 2014 Turner Sims, Southampton
27 February 2014 The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal
28 February 201 Band on the Wall, Manchester
1 March 2014 The Capstone Theatre, Liverpool

Provocateur Records – PVC1043 (2013)  provocateurrecords.co.uk