Thursday, May 24, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
“Big Ideas” is an essential listen, this is big band music for the 21st century.
Beats & Pieces Big Band
The Manchester based Beats & Pieces Big Band first burst onto the UK jazz scene in early 2010 with their eponymous EP released on the Manchester independent Efpi Records. The Jazzmann is proud to have been an early champion of the band (we gave them their first review outside of Manchester) and is pleased to note the progress they have made since, including successful appearances at Ronnie Scott’s and the London Jazz Festival. In 2011 they also won the European Young Artists Jazz Award at the annual Burghausen Jazz Week in Germany where they opened for Chick Corea and Gary Burton, an appearance that was aired on national TV (can you imagine that happening here?).
Since being adopted by the influential Serious organisation B&PBB have become a vital part of the national jazz scene in the UK and have acquired quite a reputation for their exciting live appearances, particularly at festivals. I finally caught up with them live at the 2011 Mostly Jazz Festival in Birmingham (see our festival coverage elsewhere on this site) and I’m looking forward to seeing them again at Hay Festival very shortly (4.00 pm Saturday, June 2nd 2012).
B&PBB’s initial release, like others on the Efpi label, spoke of a DIY, almost punk ethos, and the youthful vitality of the band’s playing was gloriously reminiscent of the wonderful Loose Tubes. Like the Tubes anything is grist to the band’s musical mill with contemporary rock (particularly Radiohead who they cover in their live sets complete with the sampled voice of Thom Yorke) and dance music exerting a considerable influence. The band are led by musical director Ben Cottrell who composed all but one of the eight pieces to be heard here. Cottrell is a skilled saxophonist and clarinettist but doesn’t actually play with the ensemble, nevertheless the band is packed with strong soloists and the standard of musicianship is excellent throughout.
The band’s first full length album still appears on Efpi but is more “professionally” packaged than previous recordings on the label which offered handmade cardboard packaging reminiscent of the punk era. Mercifully this “cleaning up” process has not affected the youthful vitality of the band’s music and the improved sound (the album was recorded in London by producer Tony Platt) actually represents a considerable benefit. The album revisits some of the pieces that originally appeared on the EP but the arrangements are significantly different and in no way compromise the integrity of the album. In any event this current incarnation is likely to be the only opportunity for fans to own these tracks as the original EP was a limited edition of 100 that sold out long ago.
The album begins with “Bake”, which originally appeared on the EP and is something of a live favourite. It explodes out of the blocks with a fanfare of horns before adopting a funk vibe powered by the rock influenced guitar of Anton Hunter and the solid drumming of Finlay Panter. Patrick Hurley’s Rhodes is central to the sound of the piece and he takes the first solo here. Next up is Sam Healey on incisive alto sax, building to an impassioned climax that immediately segues into a ferocious drum barrage from the impressive Panter. These solo interludes are punctuated by bright, punchy horn arrangements played with passion and precision by this highly talented young band. The EP version featured the electronics of guest George Dennis and it’s nice to see the influence of his “patches” getting a mention in the album’s notes.
“Yafw (part II)” is also sourced from the EP and is another popular stage number. Opening with Hurley’s Latin flavoured keyboard vamp it’s a little less frenetic but no less interesting and incorporates imaginative horn arrangements plus a fine trumpet solo from Nick Walters who also starred on the previous version.
Walters also features on “Three” alongside tenor saxophonist Ben Watte, their fluent solos underscored by Panter’s muscular, angular drumming. Elsewhere there are some stirring ensemble passages, B&PBB make a big sound in every sense.
However it’s not all blood and thunder. The group are actually capable of covering a wide dynamic range as evidenced by the opening of “Anymore” featuring Harrison Wood on bass. Rousing big band passages contrast well with the sensitive soloing of Wood and Graham South on flugelhorn. This piece is a particularly good example of the way in which Cottrell’s compositions and arrangements take the listener on a journey, often visiting several different moods in the course of a single tune.
“Jazzwalk” takes it’s cue from Wood’s bass pattern and features yet more punchy ensemble passages with the three trombones producing an impressive low end roar. Featured soloists are Sam Healey, once again impressing on alto and guitarist Anton Hunter, a distinctive presence in so many of the arrangements, who finally gets the chance cut loose.
“Elf” incorporates hip hop beats with classic big band textures with tenor saxophonist Ben Watte the featured soloist as he soars above the massed ranks of the band. It’s another piece that covers an impressive range with lyrical interludes punctuating the more full on passages.
“Sisterhood”, composed and arranged by Ben Watte has been in the band’s set list for some time. It’s an intriguing tune that ebbs and flows in the best B&PBB manner, calm and contemplative one minute, fairly steaming along just moments later. It’s in the latter mode that Sam Healey delivers a scorching alto solo but Watte’s own tenor feature is more pensive at first before graduating to something more powerful and r’n'b influenced as the music gathers pace once more.
The album concludes with the atmospheric “Broken”, a song which also appeared on the EP. Here George Dennis’ electronics are replaced by those of Tullis Rennie with Najia Bagi taking over the role of vocalist from Esther Swift.
Among a list of other jazz and rock influences the band mention Bjork as an influence and her inspiration can be heard in the vocals here. Anthony Brown’s tenor saxophone is the primary instrumental voice soloing plaintively, then more assertively, on a slow-burner of a tune that has developed into something of a “lighter waver”. It’s certainly different to how I remember the EP version.
Beats & Pieces combine youthful brio with a high degree of musical sophistication to produce big band music that combines jazz, rock and electronica in a very exciting way. Like Loose Tubes they cross musical boundaries at a whim and although less obviously and wantonly eclectic (there is, after all, only one Django Bates) they take many of the Tubes’ best characteristics (attitude, adventurousness, great musicianship) and make them their own. “Big Ideas” is an essential listen, this is big band music for the 21st century.
The full line up of the band is;
Ben Cottrell : director
Anthony Brown, Sam Healey, Ben Watte : saxophones
Tim Cox, Simon Lodge, Paul Strachan : trombone
Owen Bryce, Graham South, Nick Walters : trumpet & flugelhorn
Anton Hunter : guitar
Patrick Hurley : piano/Rhodes
Harrison Wood : bass
Finlay Panter : drums
Najia Bagi; vocals on “Broken”
Tullis Rennie; electronics on “Broken”
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.