by Ian Mann
November 26, 2014
Ian Mann enjoys the first day of the festival and performances by the Peter Edwards Trio, Brass Mask and Snack Family.
Photograph of Brass Mask by Alex Bonney sourced from http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk
EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2014
DAY ONE, 14/11/2014
I’m just back from a wonderful ten days at the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival soaking up as much music as I could in a programme that brought together musicians from all over the globe. The international flavour was particularly strong this year and I saw bands led by musicians from at least ten different countries with the British acts also representing the cultural diversity of 21st century London.
As ever I’ll start with a couple of thank yous, firstly to our hosts Paul and Richard for accommodating us for virtually the entire festival and secondly to Sally Reeves and Nicola Jell of Serious for the provision of our concert tickets. Without the help of these four people the Festival experience just wouldn’t be practicable, or affordable.
We arrived in London in the early afternoon on the first day of the festival. Unfortunately this was too late to catch the sets by groups led bassist Euan Burton and saxophonist Rachael Cohen, both of whom have had excellent albums released on the Whirlwind Recordings label (both reviewed elsewhere on this site). However this was the only disappointment in a week that exceeded expectations with some excellent performances at a wide variety of venues.
PETER EDWARDS TRIO
Upon arrival in the capital we headed straight for the South Bank to catch the free early evening performance by the Peter Edwards Trio in the Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall. The young pianist and composer released an excellent d?but album “Safe And Sound” earlier this year in the company of bassist Max Luthert and drummer Moses Boyd (reviewed elsewhere on this site). He is also the pianist, musical director and co-songwriter for the singer Zara McFarlane, winner of the Jazz Category at the 2014 MOBO Awards.
Edwards’ set at the QEH Front Room saw him drawing on the “Safe And Sound” repertoire and beyond in the company of a fresh rhythm team of bassist Rob Anstey and drummer Ed Richardson.
This new combination also proved to be a great team as they tackled Edwards’ material with conviction and aplomb in a highly interactive set that was warmly received by a large and enthusiastic early evening crowd with Edwards proving to be charmingly self effacing interlocutor between tunes.
“Triple Treat”, the opening piece on the album began the proceedings with Edwards soloing expansively above a backdrop of muscular bass and fiercely swinging, sometimes explosive drumming.
The new tune “Meta” began in more reflective style but quickly expanded to incorporate more exploratory piano soloing plus features for bass and drums, Richardson again taking the opportunity to demonstrate his imagination and power.
From the album “South African Sunrise” was highly melodic and positively joyous with uplifting solos from both Edwards and Anstey. The bassist is a product of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire and I remember seeing him in a number of Midlands based bands in 2010 and 2011. I assume he’s now based in London and today’s performance acted as a welcome reminder as to just how talented a musician he is.
A version of Thelonious Monk’s classic “I Mean You” represented the only non original on the “safe And Sound” album and was reprised here with Edwards introducing the piece with a passage of solo piano before entering into an engaging dialogue with Anstey’s bass. Moving from freely structured improvising to effervescent swing this was a playful take on the Monk repertoire that included further solos from Edwards and Anstey plus a series of exuberant drum breaks from Richardson.
“Safe And Sound” took the trio into more contemporary territory with its combination of piano arpeggios, hip hop style grooves and song like melody recalling bands such as Mercury nominees GoGo Penguin. This immediately accessible tune prompted a terrific reception from a now huge audience, many of them standing. Perhaps seating laid out in rows rather than cabaret style with tables would have allowed more people to sit down. A thought for the future perhaps?
The Cuban stylings of the album track “Meet You At El Malecon” maintained the energy levels and kept the audience very much onside. Edwards soloed with genuine joie de vivre and Richardson’s drum feature was rapturously received by the audience.
I was sorry to have to leave at this point as I had to get across town for my first ticketed gig. However the trio had been playing for an hour by then and I’d guess that they probably only had one more tune scheduled to play.
I thoroughly enjoyed this performance and it got my festival off to a terrific start. The playing of Edwards and his colleagues was a welcome reminder as to just how good an album “Safe And Sound” is. Listening to it again as I type only serves to confirm this opinion. “Safe And Sound” is highly recommended.
BRASS MASK / SNACK FAMILY
Subtitled “Brass vs. Amps” this intriguing Loop Collective double bill teamed saxophonist Tom Challenger’s nine piece ensemble Brass Mask with Snack Family, a highly amplified three piece featuring guitarist/vocalist Andrew Plummer, saxophonist James Allsopp and drummer Tom Greenhalgh.
The event took place at the servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston, one of three jazz clubs to be found within a short distance of each other in this increasingly fashionable part of North London. I’ve been to the others, The Vortex and Caf? Oto, before but this was my first visit to SJQ and I was keen to check it out. The venue houses a trendy and popular cocktail bar upstairs and an intimate performance space in the basement. We were there early enough to get a seat which greatly enhanced our enjoyment of the music
I was equally keen to check out Brass Mask whose 2013 Babel label release “Spy Boy” was a refreshing and innovative take on the contemporary brass band sound that updated the street music of New Orleans and filtered it through a 21st century London prism, the colourful arrangements and textures giving the album a far greater stylistic and emotional depth than most brass band projects.
Speaking to the affable Challenger before the gig he warned me that the music would be “less considered” than that to be heard on the record. Live Brass Mask just like to blow and have a good time in the best New Orleans tradition ? and of course there was that element of good natured competition with Snack Family to be considered.
The band Challenger brought to SJQ was essentially the same as the one heard on the album with the leader and George Crowley on tenor saxes, Rory Simmons and Alex Bonney on trumpets and the Cross brothers, Nathaniel and Theon on trombone and tuba respectively. Dan Nicholls was on keyboards (he plays reeds on the album) and the line up was completed by drummer John Blease with Jon Scott providing additional percussion. Scott was effectively shadowing Blease and learning the drum parts before taking over the kit the following day for a Brass Mask show at the Free Stage at the Barbican, a gig for which Blease was presumably unavailable. In any event Scott was a welcome addition to an already powerful group sound, the noise generated by the all acoustic front line of brass and reeds was almost overwhelming in such a small space.
The material was mainly drawn from the “Spy Boy” album, a mix of Challenger originals and traditional New Orleans spirituals and street songs. Tune announcements were sporadic so rather than a blow by blow account I’ll try to give an overall impression. As I’ve said Brass Mask is capable of generating an awesome collective sound but there were also some scorching individual solos, particularly from trumpeters Simmons and Bonney and saxophonists Challenger and Crowley, these two sometimes operating in garrulous tandem. Nicholls’ bubbling synthesiser added a contemporary touch and Theon Cross’ earth shuddering bass lines found me jotting a reference to “the Geezer Butler of brass”.
The band were no less powerful when temporarily stripped back to a sextet of two tenors, tuba, keyboards, and twin drums with Challenger really coming into his own. The trumpeters got in on the act elsewhere in the set with a squalling duet and there were also occasional features for keyboards, trombone and tuba with Theon Cross’ contribution particularly well received by the mainly standing crowd squeezed into SJQ’s tiny basement.
The set included new tune “The Merman” in which Challenger and Crowley traded tenor solos and ended with the second line sounds of the traditional “Shallow Water”. This was a performance of great energy and joy, at times a little ragged around the edges and certainly “less considered” than the album. Crowded onto a tiny “stage” the musicians were dripping sweat by the time they’d finished but their enthusiasm and energy certainly communicated itself to the crowd. This performance was substantively different to the album (highly recommended) but there’s no doubting that Brass Mask live is an exciting and life affirming experience.
The audience had thinned out a bit by the time Snack Family took to the stage. Nonetheless this is a group that has established something of a cult following and some members of the audience seemed to there specifically to see them.
I’d not heard the band before and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I’d heard Plummer before fronting the band World Sanguine Support (Allsopp and Greenhalgh were also in the ranks) and their 2009 album “Third One Rises” is reviewed elsewhere on this site. Plummer has also appeared as a guest vocalist on all three of Fringe Magnetic’s albums and has been part of the bands Bilbao Syndrome (alongside maverick pianist Matthew Bourne) and Minghe Mort, the latter described as a “thrash jazz” outfit.
Plummer has an extraordinary baritone voice that has been influenced by Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and others. Snack Family also reveals that he has considerable talent as a guitarist and their music is more rooted in rock and blues than that of World Sanguine Report and despite the commonality of the personnel I don’t think it’s really appropriate to consider Snack Family as a slimmed down version of the still ongoing W S R.
To date Snack Family have recorded two four song EPs, “Belly” and the soon to be released “Pokie Eye” (street date December 8th 2014 but already available at gigs). I’m assuming that most of tonight’s material was drawn from these although picking up lyrical content at a gig is always difficult and tune announcements were again scarce. In any event Plummer and his colleagues tore through a set of songs drawing on rock, blues and avant jazz with Allsopp specialising on baritone sax and also playing a Korg synthesiser as Greenhalgh laid a solid, rock influenced beat behind the two front-liners.
Snack Family’s material is co-written by Plummer and Allsopp and the latter’s monstrous baritone sax is a key part of the group sound. Allsopp has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages playing a variety of reeds including tenor sax and bass clarinet. His projects as a leader have included Fraud and Golden Age Of Steam and his numerous sideman credits include Aquarium, Fringe Magnetic and the Kit Downes Quintet.
But despite the excellence of Allsopp it’s hard to view Snack family as anything but Plummer’s band. His vocals tonight variously recalled Beefheart, Waits, Cave and Edgar Broughton and he delivered some scabrous slide guitar in addition to some chunky rock riffing. This was the sort of gig where it was best just to roll with the beat rather than making exhaustive notes and in general I found Snack Family’s music, a kind of twisted rock/blues with jazz overtones, a good deal more accessible than the more consciously arty World Sanguine Report.
After forty five minutes of nodding my head to the beat and marvelling at the leather lunged capacity of Plummer’s voice and Allsopp’s equally stentorian baritone sax bellow we suddenly found ourselves at the end of the set and with an audience calling for more, this proving to be a demoniacally twisted version of the old blues staple “Back Door Man”.
I treated myself to a copy of the new “Pokie Eye” EP which includes the evil swagger of “Lupine Kiss” the mutated blues of “Plastic Factory” and the atmospheric, Cave like “No Reason”. The closing “Pokie Eye Poke Ya” is a gleefully twisted evil romp. I’m pretty sure we probably heard all of these tonight.
I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed Snack Family but in terms of both audience numbers and sheer volume it has to be said that with regard to Brass vs. Amps it has to be points victory for the former.
All in all an interesting and enjoyable start to the festival week.