‘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)

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‘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)

‘Southern Drawl’ – Monocled Man

MonocledMan

THE NAMES Rory Simmons, Chris Montague and Jon Scott, together as a trio, are all it takes to set the jazz pulse racing. Already prominent in multifarious line-ups and projects, each bring their razor-sharp creativity to this zesty trumpet, electric guitar and drums collaboration.

Monocled Man’s instrumentation may initially appear curious, with no evidence of traditional bass input – but the saturation achieved, due in part to Chris Montague’s signature guitar loop wizardry and Rory Simmons’ intelligent audio editing, offers an absorbing 9-track, 45-minute playlist (all composed by Simmons) which is as full-bodied as it is exciting. Fast becoming a major player on the British scene, Jon Scott delivers both hard-hitting and sensitive drums/percussion which maintain and add lustre to what might be recognised as a grungy New York jazz or jazz/rock soundworld, though a certain Britishness is tangible; and Simmons’ blistering, clear trumpet shines like a beacon – yet, impressively, he never overdominates the collective trio’s offering.

Opening number Southern Drawl fanfares the album’s intent, Montague delivering the crunchiest, Frippertronic-style effects and Simmons blasting a high solo line against Scott’s solid drum framework; the three musicians cohere perfectly, briefly taking a more introverted path before changing up again to full intensity. There’s a touch of John Schofield to Big Wheeze as the trio share intricate, shifting melodics, Montague summoning his Troyka experience to provide the grooving bass end, and Simmons hitting rasping heights usually occupied by such greats as Jon Faddis – classy stuff indeed. The more reserved Scribbles further highlights the band’s connectivity, its motion, repetition and electronics suggesting early hours downtown cityscapes; and Pud Pud finds Simmons’ echoic trumpet dancing effusively to Scott’s relentless metallic rhythms, Montague presenting the most dazzling array of rapid bleeps, scratches and clashing, bent solo lines.

The anticipatory, slightly uneasy momentum of Royalty is heightened by pedalled cluster guitar chords with hallucenogenic cymbals and keyboards; and, in Van Vliet, Simmons’ mournful solo tune pervades the in-cahoots chimes of guitar, electronics and fluttering percussion. Over its seven minutes, Blip finds the trio perhaps at their most cohesive, synths behind the trumpet lead suggesting a brassy ensemble backing and Montague excelling with customary crackling improvisation. Following a brief, reverbed Royalty Reprise, Bullet Nose ends this compelling set with Simmons’ trumpet bristling above the percussive guitar/drum partnership, its irregular rhythms increasingly monopolised to great effect by the drive and dexterity of Jon Scott.

The verve and raw energy of Monocled Man is addictive, especially from a trio (Troyka and Partikel fans are sure to find the rough-hewn vitality here very attractive), and the prospect of live extemporisation is definitely something to look out for (their ‘Jazz in the Round’ performance at The Cockpit Theatre, London, on 20 June 2014, is to be recorded for BBC Radio 3’s ‘Jazz On 3’). Further information, audio samples and purchasing here.


Rory Simmons
trumpet, keyboards, audio editing  rorysimmons.com
Chris Montague guitar  chrismontague.com
Jon Scott drums  jons.co.tt

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4649 (2014)

‘Ana’ – Emilia Mårtensson

ana2

MUSICAL DISCOVERIES are, I believe, waymarkers on a lifetime’s journey of appreciation and enjoyment of the artistic creativity that those blessed with a talent bestow upon us. Once experienced, they stay with us forever, evoking memories of the first unexpected rush of exhilaration that touched our soul.

In 2010, I chanced upon a debut release (Kairos Moment) by hitherto unknown contemporary jazz ensemble, Kairos 4tet. Led by indomitable saxophonist Adam Waldmann, their originality spoke loudly and clearly to me – and amongst the instrumental energy, a jazz vocalist delivered a single heartfelt ballad, Unresolved. Transfixed by its depth and beauty, I went on to discover this solo artist’s own debut album (And So It Goes… with pianist Barry Green) as well as appearances on subsequent Kairos albums and intimate piano-accompanied performances in London and Manchester.

Unsurprisingly, Emilia Mårtensson is rapidly making a name for herself on the London jazz circuit and beyond. A grounding in the folksongs of her native Sweden and standards of the leading ladies of jazz, combined with an admiration for a singer-songwriter genre that includes Paul Simon, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, has resulted in a meltingly gorgeous voice characterised by sincerity, warmth, dynamic control and endearingly crisp Anglo-Swedish diction.

Masterminded by producers Rory Simmons and Alex Bonney, this second solo release features a particularly inventive instrumental line-up, the spacial detail of which complements and colours Mårtensson’s sensitive approach so appropriately. As before, Barry Green’s expressive and intuitive piano is the perfect match for Emilia’s velvety tones. Rhythmic and ornamental zest is provided via a refreshing range of timbres from Brazilian percussionist Adrian Adewale; and bringing a deep sense of equilibrium is bassist Sam Lasserson. Finally, fashioning the most wonderfully interwoven textures on half of the album’s ten tracks are the Fable String Quartet, whose precision and integrality with this project are outstanding.

Illustrating all of this is opening number Harvest Moon, written by Jamie Doe, Emilia’s soft vocals floating above a gently bubbling momentum. In profound dedication to her grandmother, Ana is communicated with love (Soft, at night, her hand on mine, she says, “Close your eyes before you open up your mind”), Barry Green decorously enhancing the affectionate mood over Sam Crowe’s delicate string arrangement. Barnaby Keen’s Learnt from Love is a standout, the distinctive chord progressions and melody of the chorus, in particular, still lodged in my mind from a live first hearing last July; and Emilia’s voice also displays a brighter, stronger edge.

Tomorrow Can Wait is perfect for Mårtensson, the heart-on-sleeve poignancy of writer Emine Pirhason’s verses emphasised by the initial sparseness of solo piano, and Emilia’s digitally-layered harmonies are used to great effect here, suggesting her folk roots. Traditional Swedish folksong is represented by bass/percussion-accompanied När Som Jag Var På Mitt Adertonde År; and Black Narcissus Music, Joe Henderson’s familiar tune set to Emilia Mårtensson’s skilfully-intoned words, is interpreted breezily courtesy of a great Rory Simmons string arrangement which melds perfectly with the instrumental trio.

Paul Simon’s Everything Put Together Falls Apart comes so naturally to Mårtensson before Green and co. run with it in a jaunty, bluesy direction. Moffi’s Song confirms her own songwriting prowess, its string-led arrangement imbuing this tribute to her grandfather with the feel of an old jazz classic; and to close, a folksy unaccompanied miniature, Vackra Människa – the translation, ‘beautiful person’, so very fitting for this accomplished singer.

Released on 7 April 2014 (in Babel Label’s 20th anniversary year), Ana is available here … a musical discovery awaits.

Video: The Making of Ana
Video: Harvest Moon


Emilia Mårtensson
 voice
Barry Green piano
Sam Lasserson double bass
Adriano Adewale percussion

The Fable String Quartet
Kit Massey violin
Paloma Deike violin
Becky Hopkin viola
Natalie Rozario cello

Babel Label – BDV14126 (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)