by Ian Mann
April 13, 2017
It's good to see a “cutting edge” festival returning to Birmingham again, especially one that is so supportive of young, up and coming musicians.
Surge In Spring Festival, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Birmingham, 08/04/2017.
The all day Surge In Spring Festival is the brainchild of musician, composer, band-leader, vocalist, poet and educator Sid Peacock, a key figure on the Birmingham music scene.
Originally from Bangor in Northern Ireland Peacock has been resident in Birmingham since the late 1990s following his graduation from the city’s Conservatoire, an organisation with whom he maintains close links.
Peacock also has close ties with the mac and has performed at the venue many times, often in the company of his brilliant jazz/folk big band the Surge Orchestra, of whom much more later.
A particularly open minded musician Peacock is dismissive of genre boundaries and is active across a broad range of musical and other artistic disciplines. Surge In Spring was conceived as a celebration of the Birmingham artistic scene and included four ticketed concerts in mac’s main theatre space plus free performances in the smaller Hexagon Theatre and in the venue’s bar areas. The sounds heard embraced jazz, improv, folk, world, gospel, electronica and more, with the Surge Orchestra seemingly tackling all of them at once!
Surge In Spring was part of a wider movement, Grow Your Own, an initiative of the Cultural Heritage and Improvised Music in European Festivals (CHIME) research project which has helped to instigate similar events in Sweden and The Netherlands. Peacock was quick to acknowledge the support of CHIME, the Arts Council of England, Birmingham City University and the mac venue.
On one of the sunniest days of the year the weather was perfect for the festival. Although the events were all held indoors neighbouring Cannon Hill Park was full of families of all ethnicities enjoying the unseasonably warm spring weather and that ‘feel good’ factor transmitted itself to the festival itself with almost all of the events being reasonably well attended and with a warmly supportive atmosphere prevailing throughout. The only downside was that the sun had tempted people out in such large numbers that car parking was at a premium – again more on that later!
GOSPEL REVISITED PROJECT with SURGE
Having got lucky in the car parking lottery I was in plenty of time to witness the first ticketed event of the day, a collaboration between Peacock and members of the Surge Orchestra with the Gospel Revisited Project led by Birmingham based drummer and band-leader Ray Prince.
Peacock and Prince have often worked together on community music projects over the years and today’s Festival offered Peacock to realise his long held ambition for Prince’s gospel singers and musicians to collaborate with members of the Surge Orchestra.
Prince’s band featured himself at the drum kit, his older brother Trevor on guitar, Justin on bass guitar, the enigmatically named CJ on keyboards and twin vocalists Claudia Prince and Deborah Brown. This line up delivered the opening number “God Has A Way Of Working Things Out”, the positivism of the lyrics given a strident and soulful emphasis by the voices of the two singers.
But the music sounded even better with the addition of many of the members of the Surge Orchestra. “Somebody Told Me” benefited greatly from the big band punch provided by the reinforcements in an arrangement by trombonist Richard Foote, during which saxophonist Huw Morgan took the instrumental honours with a Sanborn-esque alto solo.
As if to prove that this was a genuine collaboration Ray and Sid shared the announcing duties and the next song, “Don’t Pass Me By” was a joyously grooving arrangement by Surge guitarist Simon King powered by the organ sounds generated by CJ. King, still sounding remarkably fluent despite a damaged and bandaged right hand shared the solos with the New Orleans flavoured trumpet of Mike Adlington.
“I Just Want To Know You” was introduced by the Surge string section led by violinist Kiki Chen and featured soaring strings and soulful vocals floating above Ray Prince’s solid back beat in a joint arrangement by Chen and Peacock, the violinist dealing with the strings and Peacock the brass and other parts.
Steve Tromans was invited onto the stage to play the venue’s grand piano in an intimate arrangement of “Amazing Grace” featuring just the Surge pianist and the shared vocals of Claudia Prince and Deborah Brown.
Finally we heard another joint arrangement, this time by Peacock with the string parts written by violinist Ruth Angell, of the song “You Are My Saviour” with Angell’s violin and Max Gittings’ flute bringing a hint of Irish folk to the music.
I have to admit to not being particularly familiar with the world of gospel music but I rather enjoyed this, particularly with the additional heft of members of the Surge Orchestra behind the music. A supportive crowd, including many members of Birmingham’s gospel community gave the ensemble a great reception and one sensed that it was only time constraints that prevented a deserved encore.
With more than one interim event taking place simultaneously it wasn’t possible to enjoy all of the music on offer. I heard a brief snippet of the CharCole Collective, a young quartet led by saxophonist/flautist Xhosa Cole and featuring keyboardist Tom Harris, bassist Shirjav Singh and drummer Izzy Shibani. What I heard seemed to owe something to the classic Blue note sound but Cole has also stated that his band’s influences also include folk melodies, Afro-Caribbean and South Asian rhythms plus more contemporary urban genres. In retrospect I wished I’d stuck around to hear a bit more of this, but at least I was to witness Cole again later in the day when this talented and versatile young musician performed as part of a group paying homage to the Indo-Jazz Fusions of the late John Mayer.
Not finding the bar the most conducive space to listen to music I headed into the Hexagon for what was billed as a duo performance by the Gambian born, Birmingham based kora player Seikou Susso and his protégé Dan Wilkins.
I got there to find Susso playing solo and clearly filling in time until Wilkins arrived, singing improvised lyrics and ill-advisedly trying to jolly along a pitifully sparse crowd. As you may have suspected Wilkins had encountered difficulty in parking but eventually arrived and started setting himself up as Susso continued to play.
It was all rather distracting but eventually the duo got to perform a couple of numbers with Susso on kora and Wilkins on guitar. But Wilkins also plays the kora, and I recall seeing him give an impressive solo performance on this instrument at the Hare & Hounds in nearby Kings Heath in 2016 when he supported the group Vula Viel, led by percussionist Bex Burch. Wilkins is a pupil of Susso’s and today’s rather ragged performance concluded with a kora duet, the most satisfying item in a set that had to be truncated at this point to accommodate the next item on the festival programme.
Circumstances had combined to render this a rather disappointing event and all in all I found myself wishing that I’d hung around to hear more of the CharCole Collective, but such are the vagaries of festival life.
At this juncture I took a short break for food and conversation before making my way to the next ticketed event.
FREE JAZZ IMPROV with SID PEACOCK, PAUL DUNMALL, JOHN O’ GALLAGHER, MARK SANDERS, COREY MWAMBA
Birmingham has always harboured a thriving free jazz scene and this was celebrated in this concert featuring four different instrumental collaborations.
The event was introduced by Tony Dudley Evans, who continues to keep the free jazz flame burning in the city through his own TDE Promotions which hosts regular events at the Hexagon. Tony also offers support to the Fizzle series of improvised events curated by pianist Andy Woodhead at the Lamp Tavern in Digbeth.
Today’s event differed from the usual free jazz session not only due to its deployment of a variety of different line ups but also because of the use of spoken word, courtesy of Peacock, during the performances. This idea of combining poetry with freely improvised music had originally been explored by Peacock and pianist Steve Tromans in their “Hydrogen Jukebox” project.
The first of the four improvisations featured Surge String players Sarah Farmer (violin) and Richard Scott (viola) together with Peacock and drummer Mark Sanders. The eerie timbres of the droning strings were allied to Sanders’ mallet rumbles and cymbal scrapes to create an atmospheric backdrop for Peacock’s poetic incantations, which even included a touch of humour as he concluded his recitation by expressing a wish to “go to the moon in a fucking balloon”.
Peacock is a poet but I’m not certain if those words had been his, I thought I detected something of Charles Bukowski about them, but I may well be wrong. However the poem in the second improvisation featuring Sanders, Tromans, Nick Jurd on bass and Corey Mwamba at the marimba definitely featured the words of Allen Ginsburg as the music entered stormier free jazz waters. Mwamba struggled to make himself heard as he soloed on Surge member Jason Huxtable’s marimba rather than his own customary vibraphone. Meanwhile Tromans came over more strongly as he channelled his inner Cecil Taylor with a torrential, virtuoso outpouring at the piano.
The third improvisation featured the closing stanzas of Jack Kerouac’s classic beat novel “On The Road”, atmospherically intoned by Peacock to a musical backdrop featuring the twin saxes of Dunmall and O’Gallagher, later joined by Sanders at the drums plus the layered, textured strings of Farmer and Scott.
The final – and lengthiest – improvisation featured the quartet of Dunmall, O’Gallagher, Sanders and Jurd with the latter introducing the piece on dramatic unaccompanied arco bass. When Sanders subsequently joined the fray Jurd reverted to the pizzicato technique, combining with the drummer to create the framework for the ferociously intertwined saxophone improvisations and subsequent individual solos of Dunmall and O’Gallagher. The latter, American born, is a frequent visitor to UK and to Birmingham in particular thanks to a part time teaching post at the Conservatoire. A prolific improviser and composer O’Gallagher has also appeared on a number of albums on the Whirlwind record label. Propelled by Jurd’s muscular bass grooves and the relentlessly colourful polyrhythmic flow of Sanders’ drumming both saxophonists made distinctive and authoritative individual statements before coalescing again in garrulous fashion. Sanders then enjoyed an imaginative solo drum feature which saw him making inventive use of the numerous small percussive devices with which he habitually augments his drum kit. A short passage featuring the two unaccompanied saxes then ushered in a final group resolution featuring Dunmall’s guttural tenor, O’Gallagher’s high register alto screeches and squawks and finally the sound of Jurd with the bow as the piece almost came full circle.
Freely improvised music can sometimes represent a daunting proposition but I rather enjoyed this and the rest of the audience also responded with great positivity. The use of voice and words in the opening stages of the event made this performance stand out from the usual improv session and provided considerable additional interest with Peacock playing an unexpected but highly effective role in the process. And, of course, the longer final section incorporated many of the ingredients of classic improv. A highly worthwhile exercise that many people probably enjoyed far more than they might have anticipated .
Once again I made my way to the intimate environs of the Hexagon for an interim concert that proved to be far more successful than the earlier performance by Susso and Wilkins had been.
First to appear on an intriguing double bill were the all female quartet The Froe featuring three members of Surge Orchestra’s string section. This young quartet combined elements of folk, jazz and chamber music and a pleasingly substantial audience at the Hexagon responded well to both the beauty and intelligence of this consistently delightful music.
The Froe featured the voice and violin of Ruth Angell together with Charlie Heys on violin, Helen Lancaster on viola and Emma Capp on cello. The quartet recently released their eponymous début EP on Transition Records, from which much of today’s material was drawn.
I arrived during the course of the first song with Angell’s fragile but pure voice singing the shepherd’s ballad “I’d Rather Be Tending My Sheep” accompanied by the sounds of pizzicato violin and viola and the richly melancholic arco sounds of Capp’s cello.
Heys’ tune “Wolf And The Woodpecker” opens the EP and is essentially its title track. Here the four strings coalesced to deliver a beautiful blend of folk melody and chamber music dynamics, the music accelerating and adopting a more obviously folk direction in the lengthier second stage of the tune.
“The Four Angels”, the second song to feature Angell’s vocals boasted words by none other than Rudyard Kipling set to a folk melody composed by the guitarist, singer and songwriter Martin Simpson. This allegory, based on the Garden of Eden myth was both beautiful and highly effective and demonstrated the quartet’s mastery of both words and music.
Finally we heard a set of tunes incorporating Heys’ “Phoebe’s Return”, written for the return of a prodigal pet hamster, once missing and presumed dead. Here Froe delivered an impressive array of sounds from just four stringed instruments as they mixed arco and pizzicato techniques and occasionally deployed the bodies of their instruments as auxiliary percussion. The EP also deploys guitar, harmonium and percussion but essentially The Froe remains a contemporary, genre bending string quartet. I was very impressed with the controlled beauty and delicacy of this performance which worked very well in the context of the Hexagon and which clearly delighted a highly supportive audience.
The Froe were followed by another unusual quartet led by Aaron Diaz, one of the Surge Orchestra’s twin trumpeters. Performing under the group name Drawlight Diaz’s quartet boasted a highly distinctive instrumental configuration with Esther Swift on harp, Jim Molyneux on accordion and Jack McNeill on clarinet and bass clarinet.
The folk / chamber jazz aesthetic of the music, plus the unusual combination of trumpet, clarinet and accordion, reminded me of the quartet Flea Circus led by London based trumpeter Jack Davies who released their eponymous début album back in 2012. However where Davies made use of double bass Diaz features the even more distinctive timbres of Swift’s harp.
The quartet’s short set first featured their unique ensemble sound on Diaz’s Charlie Parker inspired “The Professional Composer Arranger” followed by a tune with a Swedish title meaning “The Lakes Are Singing”, a piece inspired by the composer’s time spent studying in Sweden. Finally we heard a tune inspired by the rhythms of dripping water in a cistern at a public lavatory in Sandwell!
Eclectic or what?
In Drawlight’s unique sound-world the ensemble sound is key but there were still moments of individual brilliance to enjoy such as the distinctive sound of the leader’s trumpet ‘whisper’, the dialogue between harp and bass clarinet and Swift’s unusual use of the strings of the harp as a kind of percussion. Besides the folk and jazz influences Diaz and Drawlight displayed an obvious love of the avant garde, appropriate perhaps for a man who once led a band called Moon Unit, named in honour of the late, great Frank Zappa.
Drawlight is still very much a work in progress but this short set was unusual and distinctive and exhibited considerable potential for future development. Once again it was well received by the Hexagon audience who had all stuck around for the second part of this intriguing double bill.
JOHN MAYER’S INDO-JAZZ FUSIONS
In the late 1960s the late Anglo-Indian violinist and composer John Mayer (1930-2004) pioneered a then unique fusion of jazz and Indian music featuring a ten piece band, described as a ‘double quintet’, which included musicians from both disciplines.
This exotic ensemble was co-led by the Jamaican born saxophonist Joe Harriott (1928-73) and the group’s two sixties albums have acquired a cult status. Original copies are worth hundreds of pounds but, of course, the material has been re-issued on both vinyl and CD in a number of different packages over the years.
Following Harriott’s tragically early death from cancer Mayer disbanded the group, only to reform it more than twenty years later, often deploying Birmingham based musicians, recruited as a result of Mayer’s tenure as a teacher at Birmingham Conservatoire. A series of later albums followed and in 2017 Indo-Jazz Fusions is led by John Mayer’s son, the sitar player Jonathan Mayer.
Today’s performance was given by an octet featuring Birmingham based pianist Steve Tromans, a member of John Mayer’s 1990s group and with Mayer Jr. a keystone of the current line up. Other members of the 2017 line up include Mohinder Singh (tabla), Xhosa Cole (flute, tenor sax), Mike Adlington (trumpet), Nick Jurd (double bass), Richard Scott (violin) and Tymoteusz Jozwiak (drums).
The performance began with a Tromans arrangement of “Chhota Mitha”, a John Mayer tune from the 1998 album “Ragatal” on which the pianist played. One was immediately impressed by the breadth of colour of the ensemble sound with regard to both texture and rhythm. Equally impressive were the individual features including solos from Mayer on sitar, Singh on tablas and Cole on flute in addition to the exchanges between Mayer and trumpeter Adlington plus the three-way discussion between Scott, Adlington and Cole. This represented a compelling and enjoyable introduction to the Indo-Jazz fusions sound of 2017.
IJF 2017 is more than just a ‘tribute’ band with members of the ensemble positively encouraged to bring something of themselves to the table. “Mela Mela” represented Cole’s ingenious bringing together of John Mayer’s “Mela Kiravani” from 2001 and Esperanza Spalding’s tune “Mela”. The arranger switched to tenor sax and shared the solos with Mayer Jr.‘s sitar as Adlington deployed the more rounded tone of the flugel horn. Singh’s mesmerising tabla feature acted as the segue between the two segments with Cole making the move back to flute and Tromans emerging as the featured soloist in the second section.
The closing “Multani Thirteens” represented an updating of John Mayer’s tune “Multani” from the 1967 début album featuring Harriott. Revived in the 1990s this complex but hypnotic raga based tune now deploys a thirteen beat cycle and included a compelling star solo from Jonathan Mayer plus a series of captivating exchanges between Mayer and Tromans. Also taking the opportunity of engaging in musical dialogue were Adlington, Scott and Singh with a triple discussion involving trumpet, violin and tabla.
There may only have been three numbers played but these lengthy, multi-faceted musical explorations represented rewarding and highly compulsive listening. Those who had been lucky enough to see the Harriott edition of the group in its 60s heyday (notably Peter Slavid who was reviewing the Festival for London Jazz News) were inevitably disappointed but for first timers like myself this was a fascinating aural experience and something of a festival highlight.
DAN SPIRRETT TRIO
In the bar area I caught a snippet of the trio set performed by the young saxophonist Dan Spirrett, a fourth year student on the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire. I remember being very impressed with Spirrett when he performed at the 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival as part of the annual “Trondheim Jazz Exchange” event.
A prolific composer Spirrett also leads his own quintet and nonet. I suspect that his colleagues today were bassist Sam Ingvorsen and drummer Gwilym Jones, who also constitute the rhythm team in Spirrett’s larger ensembles.
The mac bar represented a less sympathetic listening environment than the Parabola Arts Centre in Cheltenham and to be honest I treated the trio’s efforts as background music as I grabbed a much needed sandwich. Nevertheless Spirrett, aged twenty two, still looks like a name well worth looking out for in the future.
The next act to appear in the bar area was the young piano trio JuggeNaught led by pianist and composer Piera Onacko, a recent graduate from Birmingham Conservatoire. Deploying an electric keyboard Onacko was joined by bassist Ben Muirhead and drummer Max Tomlinson for a short set that drew on the E.S.T. / Neil Cowley / GoGo Penguin school of contemporary jazz pianism.
It would be good to hear the trio again in a more sympathetic context and with an acoustic piano. Their Soundcloud page features three tracks, including an instrumental interpretation of David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane”, and suggests that this a group with considerable promise.
The largest audience of the day was reserved for the final ticketed event, a performance by the mighty Surge Orchestra led and conducted by Festival curator Sid Peacock. The mac Theatre was almost full and the audience were hugely supportive of one of Birmingham’s favourite adopted sons.
For the record the Orchestra lined up as follows;
Sid Peacock – conductor, voice
Kiki Chen, Sarah Farmer – violins
Ruth Angell – violin, voice
Helen Lancaster, Richard Scott – violas
Emma Capp – cello
Max Gittings – flutes & whistles
Lluis Mather – alto sax, bass clarinet
Huw Morgan – alto sax
Chris Morgan – tenor sax
Nick Rundle – baritone sax
Mike Adlington – trumpet
Aaron Diaz – trumpet, electronics
Richard Foote – trombone
Steve Tromans - piano
Simon King – guitar
Nick Jurd – acoustic & electric bass
Jason Huxtable – tuned percussion
Alpahdino Elema, Mark Sanders – percussionist
Tymoteusz Jozwiak – drum kit
Surge, standing for Sidist Utopian Revolutionary Groove Ensemble, was formed in 2004 to perform a commission for Birmingham’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. This saw Peacock working with the recently deceased Paul Murphy, poet, activist and leader and vocalist of the eclectic Birmingham based band The Destroyers, a group that includes numerous members of the Surge line up.
Peacock dedicated today’s performance to Murphy’s memory and the band responded with some terrific playing as they tackled the complexities of Peacock’s material with aplomb and a great sense of fun.
Peacock has publicly acknowledged the influence of Django Bates on his composing and a similar sense of the absurd informs his writing, albeit one filtered through a unique Belfast/Birmingham prism. In 2011 Surge Orchestra released the excellent album “La Fête” which was launched by a memorable performance at the mac featuring Bates as a guest soloist.
The album still stands up well six years later and formed the basis for much of today’s set, beginning with “Hallucinogenic Garden” which combined well drilled ensemble playing with a Loose Tubes like sense of abandon, particularly on the solos, Chris Morgan here taking the honours on tenor. I love the fine line between order and chaos in the Surge sound, something that led to this quote from my review of a 2015 performance by the band at the same venue that seems to encapsulate Peacock’s approach quite neatly;
“Peacock celebrates life and all its absurdities and somehow channels that into music that is both chaotic and disciplined, rowdy but thought provoking, and on occasion capable of great beauty”.
Peacock is a great front man for the band, that sense of the absurd peppering his between tunes anecdotes and bantering, the humour balanced by a more serious political agenda celebrating cultural and musical diversity and the leader’s own left wing roots.
“Molly’s Disco Biscuit” has always included a vocal section and today Peacock incorporated the lyrics of Murphy’s “Shoplifter’s Talking Blues”, a plea on behalf of the downtrodden and oppressed, juxtaposed with joyously buoyant rhythms and invigorating folk melodies courtesy of the massed strings plus Gittings’ flutes and whistles.
“La Fête” itself was a marvellous piece of Bates inspired writing, full of stylistic and dynamic twists and turns and a general air of barely controlled chaos. Along the way we enjoyed solos from Huw Morgan on alto and the injured but still impressive Simon King on guitar.
In 2008 Peacock travelled to Chongquin in China to work with members of the Sichuan Opera. This visit inspired “Chinese Flowers”, one of the gentler and more reflective items in the Surge Orchestra repertoire with pianist Tromans making a particularly beautiful contribution.
By way of contrast “Pixel Carnage” more than lived up to its title with a ferocious electric bass groove courtesy of Jurd and blistering solos from Adlington on trumpet and Tromans on piano, again in Cecil Taylor / Myra Melford mode.
The deserved encore, which in truth was probably less spontaneous than Peacock would have had us believe, was “Bronze Bling”, another composition inspired by that trip to China but very different in mood to the earlier piece and generally more typical of Surge’s wacky output. Gittings soloed on some kind of Chinese flute, Diaz delivered an electronically enhanced trumpet solo (his use of electronics is a particularly distinctive element of the Surge sound) and Sanders, Elema and Jozwiak enjoyed an extended drum / percussion work out, aided and abetted by Tromans’ ominous low end piano rumblings. The piece closed with Peacock, Gittings and members of the string section all blowing Chinese flutes, a typically surreal end to a performance that exhibited all the Surge hallmarks of energy, excitement and eclecticism. It’s high time Peacock got this highly talented combo back into the studio to record another album.
Peacock must have been delighted with this final performance by his own band and by the success of the day as a whole. The majority of the events were well attended (by jazz standards) and the atmosphere was warmly supportive throughout.
Despite the often shared personnel the musical agenda was particularly wide ranging and creative and every performance that I witnessed offered something of interest. In many ways the Festival reminded me of the similarly structured Harmonic Festival curated by musicians Chris Mapp and Percy Pursglove that was last held at the mac back in 2011. I’ve missed Harmonic and it’s good to see a “cutting edge” festival returning to Birmingham again, especially one that is so supportive of young, up and coming musicians.
Funding permitting it’s intended that Surge In Spring will become an annual event. With a Harmonic shaped hole to fill let’s hope that that dream will become a reality. This inaugural event certainly got things off to a great start and I’d like nothing more than to be coming back to this venue at the same time next year for the second genre bending Surge In Spring festival.
Congratulations to Sid Peacock and his team for putting on such a successful and rewarding first event.