Beats & Pieces Big Band, The Sound Castle, Hay-On-Wye, 02/06/2012 (part of Hay Festival).
Monday, June 04, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
Ian Mann visits the new Sound Castle Stage at Hay Festival and finds that Beats & Pieces have lost nothing of their trademark energy when it comes to live performances.
Beats & Pieces Big Band, The Sound Castle, Hay On Wye, 02/06/2012 (part of Hay Festival).
Now being looked after by the London based Serious organisation Manchester’s youthful Beats & Pieces Big Band (hereafter B&PBB) suddenly have a great deal of promotional clout behind them. They have come a long way in the last couple of years with their self released, self titled EP (2010) being superseded by a professionally produced, full length album “Big Ideas” (2012). Both releases appear on the band’s own Efpi label and thus something of the group’s earlier DIY/punk aesthetic remains, and as today’s concert proved the group have lost nothing of their trademark energy when it comes to live performances.
Efpi is a collective in all but name with B&PBB splinter groups and other friends recording for the label but it is the music of the big band that has caught the attention of both the jazz media moguls and the public alike. Dynamic London performances at Ronnie Scott’s and the London Jazz Festival have helped to earn the band a national reputation. I saw them give an exciting outdoor performance at the 2011 Mostly Jazz Festival in Birmingham and although today’s set was very similar it was equally as enjoyable.
The Serious connection has led to the band being booked for a number of prestigious festival appearances with Hay being followed by a trip to the Bath International Music Festival which boasts a well established and adventurous jazz programme. Although Hay is primarily a literary festival it has established a strong music strand and this year the programme of musical events was more numerous and wide ranging than ever, perhaps the result of Hay Festival relinquishing the franchise of the nearby Brecon Jazz Festival. Sarah Dennehy, who had programmed Brecon for the last three years was responsible for the new Sound Castle programme which saw the bulk of the musical events being moved away from the main festival site to an impressive state of the art marquee in the grounds of Hay Castle in the centre of the town. This has allowed music to be performed all day long without interfering with the talks,debates, lectures and book readings that form the bulk of the programme on the main festival site. A typical day at the Sound Castle features four well spaced concerts augmented by the occasional late night show at the main site. Previously music could only be programmed once the speech based events were finished for the evening. The decision to largely separate the music from the main festival seemed to be justified with more than 100 people turning up for this afternoon show (4.00 pm) from B&PBB. Big names such as Cerys Matthews have totally sold out the venue.
I was impressed with the new Sound Castle. For this performance the audience had a choice of cabaret seating close to the stage with tiered seating behind. I assume that for sold out events like Cerys it will be all bleachers, although I may be wrong.
In any event I positioned myself in the tiers just behind the mixing desk and was impressed with the sound quality of this comfortable new venue (certainly as comfortable as you could expect to be in a tent) and I’d also like to put in a good word for the courteous and common sense stewarding.
B&PBB are a fourteen piece outfit under the direction of Ben Cottrell who writes the majority of the material, conducts the band and makes judicious electronic enhancements to the arrangements via his on stage laptop. The rest of the line up of three trumpet/flugelhorns, three trombones, three reeds, guitar, keyboards, double bass and drums was the same as that featured on the album (the only change saw Richard McVeigh coming in on bass trombone). The sheer volume of noise the ensemble makes is impressive and one party fled the cabaret tables for the less exposed setting of the bleachers after the blistering opening number “Bake”. Significantly though they stayed for the rest of the set.
“Bake”, which also opens the album, certainly exploded out of the blocks with the remorseless thump of Finlay Panter’s bass drum and the roar of Anton Hunter’s heavily amplified guitar augmented by the rumble of Cottrell’s electronics. The horns made a glorious big band sound but there was nothing polite or dated about the arrangements. Indeed B&PBB’s youthful brio and willingness to mix and mesh musical genres has led to favourable comparisons with legendary 1980’s iconoclasts Loose Tubes (Django Bates et al) whose famously irreverent approach endeared them to audiences far beyond the regular jazz demographic. Times have changed but you never know…
Like Loose Tubes B&PBB has a number of outstanding soloists and the incendiary, funk fuelled “Bake” included vital contributions from mercurial keyboardist Patrick Hurley on Rhodes followed by fiery saxophonist Sam Healey on searing alto. The piece climaxed with a ferocious drum barrage from the impressive Panter. A storming, attention grabbing start.
Next came “Yafw (Part 2)” also sourced from the album and based around Hurley’s insistent keyboard ostinato plus the deep, rich voicings of the horns. The mellifluous trumpet of the startlingly hirsute Nick Walters was the principal solo voice here. This was less visceral than the opening salvo of “Bake” but no less enjoyable.
“Anymore” began with a further quietening of the mood, opening in ballad mode with supremely lyrical contributions from Graham South (who has recently performed in prestigious shows with singers Katherine Jenkins and Russell Watson) on flugelhorn and Harrison Wood at the bass. However part of the charm of Cottrell’s writing is in his use of dynamics, often changing direction in terms of moods and styles within the boundaries of a single piece. Here the lyricism of the ballad style solos was neatly contrasted and punctuated by rousing passages of strident big band crunch.
The celebratory “Jazzwalk” was based around Harrison’s infectious bass pulse, bright, punchy horn arrangements and exciting slash and burn solos from the spiky Healey on alto and Anton Hunter on cranked up guitar. Hunter’s turbo charged axe is an essential part of many of the group’s arrangements and he clearly relished the chance to slip the leash.
Although the sequence does not appear either on the album or on the earlier EP the band’s live sets have regularly included a segue of Radiohead songs, “Nude” and “15 Steps”, sourced from the 2007 album “In Rainbows”. The first of these included the sampled voice of Thom Yorke, reproduced by courtesy of Cottrell’s laptop. The imaginative big band arrangement included features for trombonist Simon Lodge, tenor saxophonist Ben Watte and pianist Patrick Hurley who spent the set switching between his Rhodes and the venue’s grand piano.
The all too brief set concluded with “Broken” which also closes the album. The deeply atmospheric recorded version features the voice of guest vocalist Najia Bagi and the electronics of Tullis Rennie. In this effective instrumental interpretation Cottrell took on Rennie’s role as the piece became a feature for the tenor saxophone of Anthony Brown, a constant presence as the music grew from minimalist electronic openings through to a widescreen big band magnificence.
Although many of the audience members had probably never heard the band before they gave them a great reception and they stayed on stage for an “encore” of “Elf” with Watte on tenor the featured soloist as Brown switched to soprano.
Post gig CD sales seemed to go well and Ben and the band seemed to be in good heart for their appearance at Bath the following day. This had been a highly enjoyable performance but at a little over an hour perhaps a trifle short. This was probably due to the constrictions of being in a festival slot as the album boasts a couple of other selections the band could easily have dipped into.
Earlier we had been entertained by two acts drawn from the ranks of the students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama based in Cardiff. The RWCMD “Jazz Time” strand is taking place at noon on each day of the festival. These free but ticketed events will showcase different student bands daily and are an extension of the free Friday evening “commuter jazz” Jazz Time sessions held weekly in the foyer at the RWCMD.
Today we heard first the duet of pianist/accordionist James Clark and saxophonist Jessica Bullen in an interesting set that included some of Clark’s compositions and arrangements. Initially we heard Noel Harrison’s “Windmills Of Your Mind” for tenor sax and accordion. This was followed by Clark switching to the piano and Bullen to soprano sax for Clark’s amalgam of tunes from Alfred Hitchcock movies and centred around the music from “Vertigo”. This was surprisingly effective and impressive.
Clark’s “Bull’s Song” was written for Bullen and was a beguiling piece played on piano and soprano sax. It featured an intriguing passage of solo piano for the right hand only. A further Clark original “This One’s For Loving” featured Bullen still on soprano and Clark switching between accordion and piano.
Finally came an innovative and highly effective arrangement of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” played by Clark largely under the lid of the piano and combining the techniques of plucking, scraping and string dampening as Bullen carried the melody on soprano, finally directing the bell of the instrument into the interior of the piano to gain a little extra resonance. Their version brought renewed interest to a hoary old item that had hitherto outstayed its welcome as far as I’m concerned.
They were followed by Polish born guitarist Arek Mazurek and his trio featuring Mark Trounson (bass) and Tony Robinson(drums) who played a short set of jazz standards among them “Stella By Starlight”, “My Romance” and Cannonball Adderley’s “Blue Daniel”. This was enjoyable and well received but ultimately was not as imaginative or absorbing as the Clark/Bullen set. Most of the tunes were in the head/solos/head format with each of the instrumentalists featured in turn. There was obviously potential here but for this festival set in front of a large, probably non jazz, audience the trio kept it safe. Nonetheless the more adventurous Clark/Bullen trio were equally well received.
I hope to enjoy further performances from the RWCMD Jazz Time series later in the week.
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