Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

July 24, 2018


Beats & Pieces remain a hugely exciting and vital presence on the UK jazz scene. They have lost none of their youthful energy, irreverence and verve and on this evidence are playing better than ever.

Beats & Pieces Big Band


Efpi Records FP029)

“Ten” is a special release issued to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Manchester based Beats & Pieces Big Band.

The ensemble is directed by composer Ben Cottrell who explains the raison d’etre of this album thus;
“On 27 January 2008 I asked thirteen friends and fellow students to a rehearsal room at Manchester’s Royal College of Music to play through some tunes I’d written for big band. Beats & Pieces Big Band emerged. Exactly ten years on from that first meeting we invited an audience of friends, family and key supporters to the same RNCM rehearsal space for a special anniversary gig, documented here. On behalf of all the Beats & Pieces musicians past and present thanks for a fun first ten years; we hope there’ll be many more to come”.

The Jazzmann has always been a champion of the band since the release of its eponymous début EP back in 2010, my review of the recording being the first one they’d received outside the city of Manchester. I was impressed by the band’s youthful energy and dynamism and by the punk like attitude they exhibited, releasing the album on their own independent EFPI label and packaging the EP in a cool cardboard sleeve made entirely from recycled materials.

B&PBB were already an exciting live prospect and the rest of the jazz world quickly started to catch up with the group and their music. In 2011 they were awarded the prize for European Young Jazz Artists of the Year at the Burghausen Jazz Week in Germany. The resultant prize money helped to finance the recording of the band’s first full length album, the aptly named “Big Ideas”, which was released in 2012.

Despite the ironing out of a few rough edges this was still a hugely exciting recording that brought the band to the attention of the national jazz audience and saw B&PBB taken under the wing of the London based Serious organisation. The band became regulars on the UK festival circuit appearing at London and Manchester Jazz Festivals, the Mostly Jazz Festival in Birmingham and the Hay literary festival among others.

In 2015 B&PBB released their second full length album “All In”, the title of which emphasised their collective ethos. Another excellent recording prompted a further batch of touring including more festival appearances. More recently the band have been on tour in North America as part of their tenth anniversary celebrations.

In addition to following the progress of B&PBB the Jazzmann has also been supportive of the individual projects of some of its musicians, including guitarist Anton Hunter, saxophonist Sam Andreae and trumpeter Nick Walters, and of the EFPI label in general.

Musicians have come and gone within the B&PBB ranks over the years but the majority of the founding members are still present. For the performance documented on this disc the line up was as follows;

Ben Cottrell – director
Anthony Brown, Oliver Dover, Tom Ward – saxophones
Richard Foote, Simon Lodge– trombones
Rich McVeigh – bass trombone
Owen Bryce, Graham South, Nick Walters – trumpets
Anton Hunter – guitar
Richard Jones – piano, Rhodes
Stewart Wilson – bass
Finlay Panter – drums

Essentially this is a live album, recorded in front of a supportive audience, and it’s clear from the outset that ten years on the band have lost none of their youthful zest and vitality. The energy levels start high and remain there, it must have been one hell of a night, wish I could have been there.

B&PBB have never sounded like an orthodox big band -”we’re just a band that happens to be big”, as the group themselves say. They have always drawn on many influences including jazz, rock (notably Radiohead), contemporary classical and electronic music. They’ve been described as a ‘21st century Loose Tubes’ but despite similarities of attitude and approach Cottrell plays down the comparison citing instead the influence of big band composers and arrangers such as Matthew Herbert, Colin Towns, Maria Schneider and even Gil Evans.  However of all the big band composers and arrangers it’s the Canadian born, New York based Darcy James Argue who has been the most inspirational, another musician with highly contemporary sensibilities.

With this being both a live recording and something of a career retrospective it comes as no surprise to find that some of these pieces have already appeared on previous B&PBB recordings. However this in no way lessens, or detracts from, the excitement of his hugely vibrant and enjoyable recording – and there’s a fair amount of brand new material too. Cottrell favours snappy one word tune titles, a reflection of B&PBB’s punk/indie rock aesthetic. Indeed Cottrell has been quoted as stating that another key influence on the band was Pete Wareham’s pioneering punk jazz outfit Acoustic Ladyland who cut a swathe across the UK jazz scene back in 2005 or so. B&PBB began as an attempt to reproduce the Ladyland aesthetic on a bigger scale.

With the exception of one piece written by Panter the entire repertoire is composed and arranged by Cottrell commencing with the new tune “Nois”. I seem to remember that the title is a Portuguese word meaning “Us”, which sums the B&PBB ethos very nicely. In any event the tune comes roaring out of the blocks courtesy of the powerful riffing of Hunter’s cranked up electric guitar. He’s quickly joined by Panter’s dynamic, brutal drumming before the rest of the band pile in with clipped horn phrases augmenting Hunter’s ongoing sonic assault. The guitarist’s taut riffing is a constant almost throughout the piece but the only orthodox jazz solo comes from Walters who exhibits an admirable power and fluency with a bravura trumpet solo. Taken all together it makes for a terrific, and hugely exciting, start.

“Jazzwalk” first appeared on the “Big Ideas” album and features a broadly similar arrangement to the studio recording. Wilson’s electric bass starts things off and his patterns help to shape the structure of the piece. The combined horns make an impressively big sound and their collective power is a significant factor throughout the album. Following a short dialogue between Wilson’s bass and Panter’s drums the first solo comes from Dover on alto sax (the recorded version featured founding member Sam Healey) who whinnys incisively against a powerful horn and drum driven backdrop. Hunter then takes the opportunity to cut loose on electric guitar, exhibiting a strong rock influence and veering close to heavy metal at times.

“Three” also appeared on “Big Ideas” and retains its natural and obvious place in the running order here. It’s not quite as high octane as the first two items but still packs a punch with its brooding, unsettling arrangement augmented by searching solos from Walters on trumpet (he also features on the studio recording) and Ward on baritone sax. The band then ramp up the energy levels with a frenetic closing section.

“Rain” reveals a contemporary classical music influence, notably that of minimalist composer Steve Reich. Cottrell’s piece is inspired by Reich’s pioneering composition “It’s Going To Rain” and is centred around Jones’ mesmerically recurring Rhodes motif. It’s a more forceful rendition than the studio version with a harder and more propulsive groove. Wilson’s electric bass pulse frees up Jones to take an extended Rhodes solo that is variously spacey and funky. He’s effectively shadowed by Panter’s busy drumming.

“Time” is a new piece written by Panter and arranged by Cottrell that begins with the sound of the composer’s drums which usher in a brooding, vaguely unsettling arrangement paced by Panter’s skittering, hip hop influenced grooves. Rich horn voicings both augment, and contrast with, the contemporary rhythms and electronic textures (presumably generated by either Jones or Hunter), while the solo honours go to trumpeter Graham South with a skilfully structured feature that gradually builds in intensity.

“Broken” appears on both the début EP and on “Big Ideas”. The two versions are substantially different but each features guest female vocals and electronics from two different sets of invitees. The 2018 version of “Broken” is equally atmospheric with Hunter’s guitar soundscaping shaping the piece while Brown reprises his plaintive tenor sax solo from the “Big Ideas” version, his playing slowly growing in intensity on this slow burning, lighter-waver of a tune.

Panter’s drums launch “Pop”, a Cottrell composition apparently inspired by Quincy Jones’ string arrangements for Michael Jackson. The drummer maintains a buoyant, highly propulsive groove throughout and the horn arrangements are simultaneously both lush and powerful with Walters again the featured soloist on trumpet, playing both with a mute and with an open bell.

“Toan” was the first piece that Cottrell ever wrote for B&PBB and appeared on the début EP. Naturally it just had to feature here and is introduced by Jones with an extended passage of broodingly lyrical solo acoustic piano. The pianist then sets up a groove that forms the basis for the longer second section with its rousing big band style horn charts and rumbustious rhythms. There’s a hint of klezmer about Brown’s incisive soprano sax solo, this followed by an absorbing passage featuring just the three trombones in an animated exchange of interlocking lines and phrases; a stunning set piece that includes McVeigh’s tuba like rasps.

The new tune “Banger” is urged in by Hunter’s turbo-charged guitar and features a typically propulsive bass and drum groove. This helps to fuel a dirty sounding Rhodes solo from Jones that combines sci-fi sounds with an underlying funk. Meanwhile the horns race each other breezily on a relentlessly upbeat tune that is surely destined to become a favourite in the B&PBB canon.

Finally we hear “Hendo”, the tenth and final track on this hugely enjoyable album. The piece first appeared on “All In” and is introduced by Wilson’s electric bass which is soon joined by carousing horns; but it’s Wilson’s groove that shapes the flow of the piece and helps to fuel the biting soprano sax solo from Dover and the gloriously rousing ensemble passages in which Hunter’s guitar remains a vital, if unruly presence.

“Ten” reveals that after a decade of existence and despite several changes of personnel Beats & Pieces remain a hugely exciting and vital presence on the UK jazz scene. They have lost none of their youthful energy, irreverence and verve and on this evidence are playing better than ever. More importantly the quality of the newer material suggests that composer Cottrell still has much to say in the context of B&PBB and the band should be around for a few more years yet, maybe for a second decade if we’re lucky.

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