by Ian Mann
June 11, 2015
The new album retains B&PBB's energy and enthusiasm but also adds a growing compositional and arranging maturity. It's good to see them back.
Beats & Pieces Big Band
(Efpi Records FP022)
It seems incredible that over five years have elapsed since I first heard the music of Manchester’s fourteen strong Beats & Pieces Big Band. They came roaring out of the blocks with a five track EP simply titled “Beats & Pieces” in early 2010 and for me their potential was blindingly obvious right from the start. I believe I’m correct in stating that I was the first person outside of Manchester to write about the band and its been a pleasure to watch their rise to national prominence in the intervening years. As we like to say at The Jazzmann “we know how to spot ‘em”.
B&PBB are led by their director Ben Cottrell who composes the majority of the band’s material. Nevertheless there is a strong collective identity about the ensemble and a wilful DIY, almost punk spirit and energy that has evoked comparisons with Loose Tubes. However although Cottrell acknowledges certain similarities between the two ensembles Django Bates and co. were never a direct influence.
Instead Cottrell has revealed that B&PBB were initially inspired the now defunct Acoustic Ladyland and the way in which they combined indie rock values with jazz sophistication in a manner that exuded both energy and attitude. Other cutting edge British bands of the noughties and beyond have also been cited as influences including Ladyland’s close musical relatives Polar Bear plus Troyka and Led Bib. Cottrell’s initial idea was to scale up Ladyland’s sound for a larger ensemble featuring a sizeable collection of horns which then invited the influence of composers 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.
Besides their jazz influences Cottrell and B&PBB also draw deeply from the world of rock and pop with Radiohead, Bjork, Michael Jackson and The Beatles also mentioned as key influences. Indeed B&PBB have regularly included innovative arrangements of Radiohead songs in their exciting live performances. I’ve been lucky enough to see the band twice at festival appearances at Birmingham and Hay On Wye and can attest as to just how exciting a live act they are. Their reputation as live performers has led them to appear at London Jazz Festival and at Ronnie Scott’s and in 2011 they won the European Young Jazz Artists Of The Year Award at a festival in Burghausen, Germany.
B&PBB’s burgeoning reputation plus the cash prize from the German award led to the recording of their first full length album “Big Ideas” which was released in 2012. Although it was more professionally recorded “Big Ideas” sacrificed nothing of the band’s youthful drive and enthusiasm and the album garnered considerable critical acclaim, not least from early champions The Jazzmann.
It’s taken a while but now B&PBB are back with their eagerly awaited second album “All In”. The title refers to the band’s collective ethos and once again appears on Efpi Records, the Manchester based label founded by Cottrell, guitarist Anton Hunter and former B&P saxophonist Sam Andreae. With its trademark cardboard sleeve there’s still something of the punk spirit about the record despite it being recorded at Peter Gabriel’s swish Real World Studios, the only place with a live room able to accommodate the fourteen strong band. The album seeks to capture something of the warmth, energy and vitality of the group’s live performances and once again it succeeds admirably in this regard.
Cottrell’s success with B&PBB has led to him becoming an in demand orchestral arranger and he has worked with artists as diverse as Laura Mvula, Esperanza Spalding, Goldie and the band Everything Everything as well as having his compositions played by a number of prestigious classical orchestras. As well as co-running Efpi he is also an acclaimed educator with teaching posts in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. With this in mind it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s been three years between B&PBB’s début and the follow up. However on the evidence of “All In” it’s been well worth the wait.
The new album features six new original Cottrell compositions plus a radically overhauled arrangement of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”. Some of the pieces have blunt, literal titles including the opener “rocky” which begins with a shout of “alright!” and an opening salvo from Finlay Panter’s drums. The piece certainly packs a punch with its roiling horns and churning rhythms and this is very much a collective performance with no highlighted soloists but with the band’s tightly focussed collective energy shining through at every turn. It’s very definitely an “all in” performance that brings a fresh new meaning to the discredited phrase “all in this together”.
Panter’s drums also launch “pop” (the lower case titles are Cottrell’s), the inspiration for which appears to be Quincy Jones’ arrangements for Michael Jackson. Panter maintains a whiplash snare drum groove throughout much of a piece that manages to sound simultaneously lush yet energetic and forceful, a very “urban” sound. Nick Walters emerges as the main soloist on muted trumpet but overall it’s another tremendous group performance that draws upon the band’s many influences.
“rain” reveals yet another influence, that of minimalist composer Steve Reich. It’s based around Patrick Hurley’s mesmeric recurring Rhodes motif inspired by Reich’s pioneering “It’s Going To Rain”. Less “in your face” than the opening two numbers the piece opens out to accommodate rich and colourful horn textures and finally frees up Hurley for a more conventional Rhodes solo as bassist Harrison Wood takes over the pulse. With Panter’s drums chattering around them the group is temporarily slimmed down to a trio before the re-introduction of layered horns and the eventual return of that insistent Reich inspired Rhodes motif.
“havmann”, meaning “the man from the sea” was inspired by an Anthony Gormley statue that stands in a fjord in Mo I Rana in Northern Norway. Efpi has strong links with Scandinavia and Cottrell initially wrote the piece for the Norwegian band Ensemble Denada. At over ten minutes in length it is arguably the album’s centre piece and represents one of Cottrell’s most sophisticated compositions with its rich colours and textures, dynamic contrasts and variations in mood and pace.
Graham South’s thoughtful and evocative flugelhorn solo is at the heart of the proceedings , gradually rising to a majestic peak followed by a powerful, surging ensemble passage. The piece resolves itself with the whisper of flugel horn and the shimmer of keyboards. Taken as a whole the piece is epic and impressive.
“hendo” begins with the sound of electric bass and subsequently develops into a cerebral funk groove that has helped to make it something of a live favourite. The propulsive rhythms are topped by a joyous and incisive soprano sax solo from Sam Healey. Following something of a mid tune lull the piece finishes with a rousing big band climax.
Cottrell’s heavily disguised, radically slowed down version of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” is a stunningly mature piece of arranging with noirish horns and fx laden guitar and keyboards cohering around Panter’s implacable slow drum groove. Cottrell, and by extension Panter, are never afraid to keep things simple, often with highly effective results. Only in the second half of the tune do the band finally cut loose - the effect is a bit like the second line at a New Orleans funeral but with added electronica. It’s a brilliant re-imagining, one senses that even Mr. Bowie himself might approve.
The album closes with the wistful, hymn-like “fairytale”, its rich horn textures seeming to allude to the Northern brass band tradition. Graham South, this time on trumpet, is the featured soloist.
“All In” is a worthy follow up to “Big Ideas”. The new album retains B&PBB’s energy and enthusiasm but also adds a growing compositional and arranging maturity on pieces such as “rain”, “havmann”, “Let’s Dance” and “fairytale”. The playing is excellent throughout and the band sound is well captured by engineers Alex Bonney, Jose Tomaz Gomez and Peter Beckmann. My only quibble is that I would have liked to have heard more from guitarist Anton Hunter who seemed to play more of a prominent role in the group’s early days but this is a very minor complaint. As a long term supporter of the band it’s good to see them back.
Cottrell has stated that it his intention for the band to appeal to listeners of all musical constituencies. “If you’re an old school big band fan then there’s enough of the jazz history in there that you can see the lineage. If you’ve never heard any jazz before and you’re into Radiohead or Bjork there’s still access points into it. Whatever you want to find in there you can find”.
Amen to that, and don’t forget that Pete Wareham had similar aims for Acoustic Ladyland too.
For the record the line up of B&PBB on this album is;
Ben Cottrell -composer, director
Anthony Brown, Sam Healey, Ben Watte- saxophones
Owen Bryce, Graham South, Nick Walters - trumpets
Ed Horsey, Simon Lodge, Rich McVeigh - trombones
Anton Hunter- guitar
Patrick Hurley - piano, Rhodes
Harrison Wood - bass
Finlay Panter - drums
Beats & Pieces Big Band have the following live performances scheduled;
TUE 7 JULY
Soup KitchenManchester, UK
WED 8 JULY
Ronnie Scott’s London, UK
SUN 9 AUGUST
Wilderness Festival Oxford, UK
SUN 27 SEPTEMBER
Scarborough Jazz Festival,Scarborough, UK
WED 30 SEPTEMBER
Colston Hall, Bristol, UK
WED 18 NOVEMBER
The Wardrobe, Leeds, UK
THU 19 NOVEMBER
Student Union, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
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