‘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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‘Vyamanikal’ – Kit Downes & Tom Challenger

Vyamanikal

ARISING from a 2015 Aldeburgh Music residency, keyboardist Kit Downes and tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger conceived this imaginative project under the title Vyamanikal (from an ancient Sanskrit term for ‘flying machines’ – Vaimānika Shāstra).

Seven improvisations, recorded across five Suffolk churches*, take advantage of pipe organs and converted harmoniums in widely differing acoustic environments. Some instruments are in a creatively intriguing state of disrepair, whilst others – such as Framlingham’s historic, opulently-decorated 17th Century Thamar organ – are presumably more likely to be heard sounding the triumphant strains of J B Dykes or Samuel Wesley.

As a church organist of many years, I declare a specific interest in the instrument’s myriad capabilities. But here, like some musical ‘horse whisperer’, Kit Downes discovers and teases out perhaps hitherto undiscovered hoots, wheezes and subterranean reverberations which are accordantly combined with tenor saxophone ‘plainsong’ and distant, natural bird calls (close to Suffolk’s wetlands).

The duo recently took their project to St Ann’s Church, Manchester, backed by continuous video projections of various hard and soft landscapes. Late at night, with Downes arched across four manuals and pedal board, the deep, 32′ acoustic bass frequencies remarkably shook and rattled the very back corridors and galleries of the 18th Century architecture; and Challenger’s dry, often hollow tenor echoed around the elegant, white-columned ceiling spaces, melding sympathetically with the windy or intense strains of Downes’ own improvisations.

Rural village church quietness is discernible in Apicha as chattering birdsong and variably-opened, train-whistle-like drawstops are underpinned by sustained chordal clusters, whilst tentative tenor melodies drift around; and Bdhak‘s repetitive engine-room bleeps and modulations provide an otherworldly canvas for Tom Challenger to roam (shades of Garbarek, but with loftier freedom). Tremulant, hurdy-gurdy-like Sa becomes extraordinarily industrial, Tromba stops blustering with incredible density (far removed from any hymnary) before floating heavenwards with harmonic tenor beauty; and moorhen cheeps and cawing ravens enhance the breathy textures of Vistri in a soundtrack for windswept wheat fields and marshlands.

The flapping organ resonances and tenor sax melancholy of one of the album’s longer movements, Jyotir, might suggest desolate, chilled panoramas as an impressive, sustained swell rises symphonically to imply the glorious warmth of sunrise… eventually returning to afterglow birdcall mimicry. Also suggesting midwinter solitude, Maar-ikar‘s de-tuned, fading registrations ebb and flow to a background of tweets and gravel-path treads (an organ solo, unless Challenger’s timbres are perfectly integrated); and Nya-aya‘s subtle, dark-sky drone closes the sequence with a peculiar sense of anticipation and apprehension.

As an improvisational experience, this is an offbeat yet distinctive recording which requires a clear mind and an open spirit. Turn the lights low and let your imagination take you……

Vyamanikal is available from Bandcamp.

Watch Aldeburgh Music’s video about the project.

 

Kit Downes organs
Tom Challenger saxophone

Recorded, mixed and mastered by Alex Bonney

*Recorded at:
• All Saints Church, Darsham
• Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh
• St Michael’s Church, Framlingham
• St Edmund’s Church, Bromeswell
• St John’s Church, Snape

Wedding Music is also available

kitdownes.com/Vyamanikal
aldeburgh.co.uk

Slip Imprint – SLP042 (2016)

‘Scratch and Sift’ – Michael Chillingworth

Scratch2

THE CURIOUS ASSORTMENT of characters above conceals a delicious preponderance of reeds in Michael Chillingworth’s debut septet album, Scratch and Sift.

Saxophonist and clarinettist Chillingworth is a mainstay of London’s contemporary jazz scene, working with artists such as Stan Sulzmann, Julian Siegel, James Maddren and Kit Downes. So it’s fascinating to discover the free thinking of his own writing, realised with colleagues Tom Challenger (tenor, clarinet), Josh Arcoleo (tenor), George Crowley (bass clarinet), Lewis Wright (vibes), Sam Lasserson (bass) and Jon Scott (drums).

Here is an album which rasps and sizzles so hard and so densely that it’s hard to ignore. Contrastingly sweet and sour, many of these eight, original compositions somehow seem to convey the arresting wit, irony and dark mischievousness to be found in classic, monochrome Ealing comedies. Right from the off, stealthy vibraphone and spicy horn ta-dahhs in Butterman lure the senses into an unusual world of theatrics and drollery, its agile melodies and close, spiky arrangements shadily tiptoeing around each corner; and Mint‘s syncopated blarings are matched by Jon Scott’s perky percussion, with some delightful individual improvisations widening into more open landscapes.

Yes, there’s a certain, honest Britishness to Chillingworth’s musical imagination. Overlaid tumblings in Brian Kuh give way to rapid, exuberant sax anarchy as the leader’s swirling alto is taunted by his assailants amidst challenging, irregular riffs (unpredictable, scampering unison passages here, which break into harmony, are especially effective… nay, smile-inducing). The furtive bass clarinet, double bass and vibes of clock-ticking The Wait (not to be listened to, alone, on a dimly-lit railway platform!) eventually screech to jittery alto and a cacophony of wailing sirens; so it’s quite likely that lumbering, irascible Capture is the resultant, bumpy, Black Maria journey!

Politely funky Grateful Lady is a joy, Lewis Wright’s repeated vibraphone chromatics providing the notorious ‘sax and clarinet boys’ with an opportunity to knock seven bells out of each other – so much vim and vigour, encouraged by Lasserson and Scott in the propulsive rhythm section, and concluding with wonderfully wheezy, out-of-breath textures in the reeds department. Through the opening flick of one eye, Numbers‘ initial quietude becomes utterly mischievous, its inquisitive alto extensions and trills breaking into communal boogie; and closing Righteous fools no-one – a chuffing, squawking hullabaloo which, though microscopically arranged, is as tireless and wild as the album’s earlier, madcap adventures – and Chillingworth’s hard-blown improv just as audacious.

Awright, mate [nudge, wink]… go get it!

Released on Two Rivers Records on 1 July 2016, Scratch and Sift is available from Bandcamp.

 

Michael Chillingworth alto saxophone, clarinet
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone, clarinet
Josh Arcoleo tenor saxophone
George Crowley bass clarinet
Lewis Wright vibraphone
Sam Lasserson bass
Jon Scott drums

michaelchillingworth.com

Two Rivers Records – TRR 010 (2016)

‘Can of Worms’ – George Crowley

CanOfWorms

Y’SEE WHAT ‘APPENS when y’open a Can of Worms?!…

Overflowing with writhing, jostling spontaneity, but with sufficient compositional structure to keep a lid on things, London-based saxophonist George Crowley’s new two-tenor quintet recording is a veritable powerhouse of creativity. His debut release, Paper Universe (Whirlwind, 2011), remains long in the memory as a jazz quartet recording of mature, unfettered exploration. Now, together with sparring tenor partner, the ever-chipper Tom Challenger, he constructs the formidable and foreceful front line of an energetic five-piece completed by Dan Nicholls (piano/Wurlitzer), Sam Lasserson (double bass) and Jon Scott (drums).

Crowley reveals that this band came into being for the purposes of a 2013 live gig, leading to the desire to develop and document the project’s clear success in a studio album – a shrewd and worthwhile decision, given the resulting sense of excitement, anarchy and strong musicality on show here. As composer of all seven substantial pieces, the leader never settles for the obvious, nor any half measures – he and his colleagues go all out for unwavering improvisation whilst recognising the strength of tight ensemble playing. And it’s fabulously earthy, ‘unputdownable’ stuff.

The Opener‘s agitated ten-minute expanse bristles to Jon Scott’s trademark clattering-yet-incisive drum rhythms, bolstered by Sam Lasserson’s babbling bass and Dan Nicholls’ typically brash, animated piano; and in amongst all this, tenorists Crowley and Challenger (one in each ear!) breathlessly duel it out – the combination of the written and the abstract quite thrilling. Nicholls’ uneasy ‘music box’ Wurlitzer announces Whirl, a broad, impudent affair featuring Challenger’s gruffness and Crowley’s screeching – yet the precise framework is always apparent.

Ubiquitous Up Tune in 3, with tricksily-timed sax riffs, is certainly ‘up’, and it’s a tribute to the directness of the engineering/mixing that its raw, live feel translates so well into recorded sound. The jarring major/minor blues of Rum Paunch is a joy, the two tenors either in unison (or thereabouts) or otherwise taunting each other, whilst Nicholls’ sneering, rippling piano almost encourages them in their outrageous discord.

Hard-swinging but nevertheless anarchic I’m Not Here To Reinvent The Wheel rolls deliciously to Lasserson and Scott’s fast pace, the reedsmen clearly revelling in its abandon (confirmed by the group cackles that follow its abrupt finish!). Terminal shuffles mysteriously to Scott’s intricacy at the kit and Nicholls’ magnificent Wurlitzer weavings, Lasserson’s relentless bass underpinning the broadness of the tenors’ extemporisations – such a glorious (and at times, cheeky) sound world; and, to close, T-Leaf rumbles particularly freely, though the fractured improvisations finally come together in absolute unanimity… lid well and truly sealed!

A triumph for George Crowley and his team. Released on 23 March 2015, further information, audio samples, promo video and purchasing can be found at Whirlwind.

 

George Crowley tenor saxophone
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone
Dan Nicholls piano/Wurlitzer
Sam Lasserson double bass
Jon Scott drums

georgecrowleymusic.com

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4666 (2015)

‘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)