by Ian Mann
December 11, 2017
An absorbing and intriguing evening of uncompromising music making at the interface where the composed and the spontaneous conjoin to rewarding effect.
ANTON HUNTER’S ARTICLE XI / CATH ROBERTS’ FAVOURITE ANIMALS,
DOUBLE BILL, THE HEXAGON THEATRE, MIDLANDS ARTS CENTRE, BIRMINGHAM, 05/12/2017.
This performance was part of a short series of events during autumn organised by Tony Dudley-Evans under the banner of TDE Promotions. Working in conjunction with the Birmingham based Fizzle organisation and with financial support from the Arts Council Dudley-Evans has presented a series of events on which the focus was very much on improvised and experimental music.
Tonight’s presentation featured a double bill comprised of two large-ish ensembles, Article XI led by guitarist Anton Hunter and Favourite Animals led by baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts.
The two leaders, although based in different cities, Hunter in Manchester and Roberts in London, have close links and indeed work together as the improvising duo Ripsaw Catfish. Their familiarity with each others’ working methods ensured that there was an overlap of musicians between the two bands on this, the first night of a short national tour of double bills featuring the two groups. The personnel included musicians from the London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds jazz and improvised music scenes, the players coming together in a healthy spirit of cross fertilisation and co-operation..
Tonight’s performances took place in the Hexagon Theatre, the smaller performance space, or ‘studio’ if you will, at the MAC. Its intimate, semi-circular layout makes it ideal for improvised music and the venue is regularly utilised for such performances, notably at the much missed Harmonic Festival and more recently at Sid Peacock’s Surge in Spring Festival.
Introducing the event Tony Dudley-Evans remarked upon how expertly both bands straddle the boundaries between structure and improvisation, seamlessly moving between the two, and this was a quality that was to characterise the evening as a whole.
In a genuine double bill it was Hunter’s group that took to the stage first. As well as leading his own groups and collaborating in numerous other small ensembles, including Roberts’ quintet Sloth Racket, Hunter is also well known as the guitarist with the acclaimed Manchester based big band Beats & Pieces, led by director and composer Ben Cottrell.
Hunter’s own ‘big band’ came about as the commission for the 2014 Manchester Jazz Festival and takes its name from Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights which states;
“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests”
Appropriately tonight’s line up featured eleven players, a first XI if you will, comprised of;
Anton Hunter – guitar, conductor
Graham South, Nick Walters – trumpets
Cath Roberts – baritone sax
Simon Prince – tenor sax, flute
Sam Andreae, Olly Dover – alto saxes
Richard Foote, Tullis Rennie – trombones
Seth Bennett – double bass
Johnny Hunter – drums
The programme consisted of two pieces from the ensemble’s forthcoming eponymous début album on Efpi Records plus two newer, as yet unrecorded pieces, all of them written by Anton Hunter.
The ensemble commenced with “Retaken”, the piece that also opens the forthcoming album. A gentle introductory horn chorale was subsequently joined by bass and drums as the piece continued to develop. The configuration of the horns reminded me somewhat of the bands of Mike Gibbs and Carla Bley, particularly with regard to the textural possibilities. Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and Elton Dean’s Ninesense might provide other convenient reference points. The first bona fide solo of the evening came from trumpeter Nick Walters, a member of Beats & Pieces and also the leader of his own Paradox Ensemble. Hunter largely concentrated on his conducting duties, taking an ego-less approach to his guitar playing, his six string acting as a member of the ensemble rather than a solo instrument. Bennett was the next to feature with an impressive passage of unaccompanied bass playing that led into a scrawled dialogue between the two trumpets and the two trombones in a more freely constructed section. In turn the brass players were joined by the rest of the band, the massed horns mounting a blazing assault in a finale that was reminiscent of the ragged gloriousness of the first edition of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.
Next came a new tune, “Always A Fox”, a much more open piece that actually exists in three different versions. Hunter called “Version One” and the piece began with a freely structured intro featuring pecked saxes and rushes of breath together with arco bass with Roberts’ gruff baritone sax providing an element of structure and punctuation. A raucous, more obviously written, riff based section followed, the eleven musicians making a big sound in a small space despite playing entirely acoustically. Hunter himself was the only player with amplification, but even he was almost drowned out by the stridency of the horns. A more subdued coda featured long, dolorous horn lines and doomy arco bass as the piece ended on a more sombre and atmospheric note. This was the most loosely constructed item in the set, the title a football reference. Hunter has friends in Leicester, most of them armchair football fans, who assured him “Always a Fox, mate” after Leicester City’s unlikely Premiership title triumph in 2016.
“Peaceful Assembly” was the first piece written for the Manchester Jazz Festival commission and is included on the forthcoming album. More obviously through composed than “Fox” the piece commenced with the sounds of the twin trumpets, Walters playing with a mute, South with an open bell. South then took the first solo, still playing the open horn, his tone plaintive and lyrical and supported economically by guitar, double bass and brushed drums. The following trombone solo from Birmingham based Richard Foote was less introspective and far more confrontational and ‘full on’ as he joyously explored the full range of the instrument. In general this was an impressive piece of work, a piece that made effective use of the dynamic contrasts offered by such an ensemble.
Article XI concluded their set with the new Hunter tune “Municrination” which commenced with a bass and drum dialogue between Bennett and Johnny Hunter leading in turn to solos from Prince on tenor and South on trumpet. Next came a freely improvised dialogue between Roberts and baritone and Rennie on trombone that evoked memories of their aptly named duo recording “Blurts & Growls”, perhaps “Scribbles and Scrawls” would have been more appropriate here. The pair were eventually accompanied by a backdrop of twin alto saxes and twin trumpets as the piece climaxed with a written, riff based section but with ample scope provided for the individual horns to scream and blare as the rhythm team maintained the groove in a classic, glorious collision of freedom and structure.
This was an enjoyable and thought provoking set from Hunter and his band. The forthcoming album was recorded in 2014 at performances at Manchester Jazz Festival and at the Vortex in London and features a slightly different line up. The Hunter brothers, Walters, South, Roberts, Prince and Andreae are all present and correct while Bennett is featured on trombone. The album line up is completed by alto saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and bassist Eero Tikkanen, the latter once a member of HAQ, the quartet co-led by Hunter and Andreae.
The Article XI album will be officially released on February 9th 2018 on Efpi Records but is already available at gigs. It contains seven pieces and arguably places a greater emphasis on composition than tonight’s performance. In any event it’s a compelling and thoroughly engaging listen that will be readily accessible to most adventurous listeners and as such is highly recommended.
Cath Roberts’ large ensemble Favourite Animals is an extension of her regular working quintet Sloth Racket which features Roberts, Anton and Johnny Hunter, Bennett (on double bass) and Andreae (on tenor sax). In this format Sloth Racket have released two albums “Triptych” (2016) and “Shapeshifters” (2017), both of which appear on the Luminous record label founded by Roberts and fellow saxophonist Dee Byrne.
Like Article XI the Favourite Animals project also came about as the result of a Festival commission when Roberts was invited to write music for a larger ensemble, an extension of Sloth Racket, by Lancaster Jazz Festival in 2016. A crowdfunding campaign then led to the music being recorded at City, University of London in 2017. In a remarkably quick turnaround the resultant album, titled “Favourite Animals” was released on the Luminous label on December 4th 2017, perfectly timed to coincide with the tour.
The ten piece line up that Roberts brought to the Hexagon featured all of the album personnel and comprised of;
Cath Roberts – baritone sax, conductor
Julie Kjaer – bass clarinet, flute
Tom Ward – bass clarinet, flute
Dee Byrne – alto sax
Sam Andreae – tenor sax, penny whistle
Graham South – trumpet
Tullis Rennie – trombone
Anton Hunter – guitar
Seth Bennett – double bass
Johnny Hunter – drums
Whereas Hunter’s group read sheet music Roberts prefers graphic scores given even greater scope for improvisation. It’s the method she deploys with Sloth Racket with the scores often little more than sketches, or perhaps signposts on the journey.
Thus the opener “Confirm Or Deny”, which also introduces the album, juxtaposed chunky, written, riff based passages with squalls of free jazz improvisation featuring flutes, trombones and saxes. Roberts took the first solo on baritone, her feature contained within the ‘free’ section and with her muscular blasting forming an effective dynamic and tonal contrast with the piping of Andreae’s penny whistle. Towards the close the killer riff re-emerged, with Favourite Animals, like Article XI, generating a fearsomely big sound within the intimate confines of the Hexagon.
Another piece from the album, “Boiling Point” began with a passage of growling vocalised muted trumpet from South, accompanied by the sounds of pecked bass clarinet and double bass both bowed and plucked. Alto and tenor sax, guitar, flute and trombone were gradually added to the equation on a piece that was far more freely structured than the opener had been. One could sense the musicians really listening to each other and responding accordingly in a multiple group conversation. Smaller units would surface periodically among the whole, with Roberts at one point linking up with the Hunter brothers, but it was the fascinating combination of the horns with the roles of the individual instruments swimming in and out of focus as the music built towards the ‘boiling point’ of the title that really fascinated. And the sight of Rennie deploying a 12” vinyl record to mute the sound of his trombone presented an unforgettable visual image.
The as yet unrecorded “If A Tree Falls” was ushered in by a passage of unaccompanied bowed bass from Bennett, this followed by a dialogue between Roberts on baritone and Rennie on trombone, the latter again making effective use of extended techniques. It was then the turn of Byrne, herself the leader of her own projects (including the excellent quintet Entropi), to impress with a powerful alto solo.
Roberts counted in the closing number with a shout of “1-2-3-4” as the piece announced itself with a rousing riff based salvo, this quickly shading off into a passage featuring the intertwining bass clarinets of Kjaer and Ward with Johnny Hunter providing colourful, but succinct, drum commentary. Kjaer and Ward tended to double up throughout the performance, both tending to play flute or bass clarinet simultaneously rather than playing different instruments. An exuberant ensemble riff then emerged, building to a climax before fading away into something more quiet, textured and impressionistic. In turn this developed into an increasingly vigorous alto sax/trumpet dialogue between Byrne and South, this then emerging into a rousing, soaring passage featuring all the horns. In a final twist the piece resolved itself with a slow, gentle fade. The piece wasn’t announced but I’m almost certain that it must have been “Shreds”, the closing piece on the “Favourite Animals” album.
Like its parent group Sloth Racket the music of Favourite Animals is consistently mutating, never remaining in one place for long and taking great delight in stylistic and dynamic contrasts. “Shapeshifters” the title of the second Sloth Racket album, would also have made a great band name and sums up the approach of both ensembles very neatly, and that of Article XI too.
The “Favourite Animals” album also represents a highly worthwhile listening experience with the composed elements representing a base from which the adventurous listener can enjoy the more spontaneous group explorations. The five track recording also includes two pieces not heard tonight, “Unspeakable” and “Off-World”.
My thanks to Tony Dudley-Evans for providing press tickets for myself and my wife. Also thanks to Cath Roberts, Anton Hunter, Dee Byrne and also Andy Woodhead of Fizzle for speaking with me afterwards.
This was an absorbing and intriguing evening of uncompromising music making at the interface where the composed and the spontaneous conjoin to rewarding effect.blog comments powered by Disqus