by Ian Mann
January 31, 2023
A growing compositional maturity, but still exhibiting some of that old punk jazz fire. The spirit of B&PBB is very much alive and kicking in 2023. It’s good to have them back.
Beats & Pieces Big Band
(Efpi Records FP042)
Ben Cottrell – director
Anthony Brown, Emily Burkhardt, Oliver Dover – saxophones
Simon Lodge, Rich McVeigh, Phil O’ Malley – trombones
Owen Bryce, Graham South, Nick Walters – trumpets
Anton Hunter – guitar
Richard Jones – piano, Rhodes
Stewart Wilson – bass
Finlay Panter – drums
Tullis Rennie – sound design
Well, here’s something I thought we’d never see again, a new full length studio album from Manchester’s Beats & Pieces Big Band (hereafter B&PBB), their first release for nearly five years.
The band was first formed in 2008 by its director Ben Cottrell, who composes the majority of the material and also acts as an arranger and producer.
The Jazzmann has always been a champion of the band since the release of its eponymous début EP back in 2010, my review of that recording being the first one they’d received outside their home city of Manchester. I was impressed by the band’s youthful energy and dynamism and by the punk like attitude they exhibited, releasing the EP on their own independent Efpi label and packaging the recording in a cool cardboard sleeve made entirely from recycled materials. Review here;
Initially I was reminded of Loose Tubes, but although although Cottrell acknowledges certain similarities between the two ensembles it would appear that 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, Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, Keith Tippett, Carla Bley and 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, Everything Everything, 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.
Electronics have also played an important part in the B&PBB sound with sound artist George Dennis appearing on the début EP and Tullis Rennie on “Big Ideas”. Rennie also adds his input to this new recording, credited with ‘sound design’.
B&PBB’s reputation continued to grow throughout 2011, a year which saw them win the European Young Jazz Artist Award at the Burghausen Jazz Festival in Germany as well as delivering headline performances at London Jazz Festival and at Ronnie Scott’s.
They subsequently became regulars on the UK festival circuit appearing again at London Jazz Festival and also at Manchester Jazz Festival, the Mostly Jazz Festival in Birmingham and the Hay literary festival among others. I was lucky enough to witness the band live at Mostly (2011) and Hay (2012), plus a later club appearance at the Hare & Hounds in Birmingham in 2015.
The success of the band saw them being taken under the wing of the influential London based Serious organisation but B&PBB nevertheless retained a large degree of autonomy and released their professionally recorded début album “Big Ideas” on their own Efpi Record label in 2012. Efpi is as much a musicians collective as a record label and numerous other releases have also appeared featuring like minded musicians both from within (notably Anton Hunter) and beyond the band. Review of “Big Ideas” here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/big-ideas
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.
“Big Ideas” re-worked some of the pieces from the EP and consolidated the band’s reputation as one of the most promising and exciting jazz acts around. It took a while for the follow up to emerge with “All In” finally appearing in 2015, again on the band’s own Efpi label. The album was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, one of the only facilities with a live room capable of hosting B&PBB’s fourteen strong line up. “All In” demonstrated Cottrell’s growing compositional maturity but still retained much of the band’s old punk-jazz spirit, with the title specifically chosen to emphasise their collective identity. Review of “All In” here;
In 2018 B&PBB celebrated its 10th anniversary with the release of the ‘live in the studio’ album “Ten”, which was recorded in the same rehearsal space in Manchester at which the band had first convened back in 2008. With the exception of one or two brand new pieces it largely consisted of re-workings of tunes from previous recordings, as interpreted by the then current line up, which also included many of the players featured on this latest recording. Review here;
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, Ivo Neame, Mike Westbrook and the band Everything Everything as well as having his arrangements played by a number of prestigious classical orchestras.
From 2018 to 2020 he lived in Bern, Switzerland, where much of the material on “Good Days” was first formulated. Rather than bringing fully formed compositions to the band Cottrell encouraged the members of the ensemble to workshop his ideas collectively, helping to give the music a more spontaneous and collective feel. The music was then recorded in Scotland in January 2020 but post production and mixing was delayed until 2021 because of the pandemic, with the music now finally seeing the light of day nearly three years after it was first recorded.
The material features five new compositions from Cottrell, two from saxophonist Anthony Brown and one from drummer Finlay Panter. In the main the composers favour snappy one word tune titles, all in lower case, a reflection of B&PBB’s punk/indie rock aesthetic.
Album opener “wait”, composed by Anthony Brown, functions as a kind of overture as a field recording of bird song, made by Cottrell in Switzerland, mingles with the gentle twinkling. of Richard Jones’ Rhodes piano.
This brief but bucolic idyll is then punctured by the punchy sounds of massed horns as the full ensemble launches into Panter’s composition “op”, driven along by the composer’s crisp backbeat. It’s rousing, and much more urban in feel. Yet there’s still plenty of dynamic and emotional contrast, plus a link to the previous track courtesy of Jones’ acoustic piano solo, reflective and lyrical at first before becoming more expansive and finally gathering an impressive momentum as the horns kick in around him, eventually drowning out the piano as the piece builds to a dramatic climax. But even now there’s a twist in the tale, as having reached a peak the horns then gently exhale collectively in a coda that the press release describes as sounding like “as if from dying bellows”. The piece is also subtly shaped by Rennie’s sound design, never overt, yet always tangibly present.
Cottrell’s first contribution with the pen is “elegy”, an atmospheric piece that embraces post-rock influences and which features the gently brooding alto saxophone ruminations of Oliver Dover, these set amongst an almost ambient soundscape featuring the sounds of Hunter’s guitar and the softly rolling groove of Panter’s drums. Cottrell skilfully deploys the other horns to supply colour and texture and there’s a plaintive, melancholic quality about the arrangement as a whole, and of Dover’s increasingly emotive playing in particular, that is wholly in keeping with the title piece. Nevertheless, the music acquires an increasingly anthemic quality towards the close. It’s a piece that is both a lament and a celebration.
“db” is a brief flashback to the punk jazz days of yore, a brief thrash featuring the sounds of squalling horns, clangorous guitar and pummelling drums, all centred around a field recording captured by Cottrell at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof railway station.
The opening to “cminriff” sees a return to the gentle atmospherics of “elegy”, with Brown on tenor the featured sax soloist. Keys, guitar and double bass help to create a noirish ambience, with the other horns providing additional colouration around Brown’s saxophone meditations. Gradually the music begins to gather in terms of power and intensity, with Brown’s tenor leading the way and with Rennie’s sound design again playing an understated, but vital role in the finished product. Once a peak has been reached the piece fades out with the atmospheric jangling of Hunter’s guitar.
“(blues for) linu demonstrates a more playful side of the band as various individual instruments take turns to state a short instrumental phrase, underscored by a vaguely melancholic acoustic piano motif. Eventually the band coalesce around a Mingus like riff, the low frequencies of the trombones and baritone sax serving to encourage the Mingus comparison, Eventually trumpeter Graham South emerges as the featured soloist, blowing lithely around a propulsive bass and drum groove laid down by Wilson and Panter. The music gradually becomes more manic and the groove more fragmented as the collective horns blaze away, before returning to that introductory phrase, which now serves as punctuation for Panter’s crazily energetic drum feature – think Animal from The Muppets.
Introduced by Wilson’s bass “woody” is as close to orthodox big band jazz as B&PBB get, but even here there are plenty of twists and turns along the way, with plenty of variation in terms of moods and dynamics. Upbeat swinging passages contest with more reflective interludes with trombonist Phil O’Malley emerging as the featured soloist. Hunter’s savage guitar chording then leads into a ferocious final section featuring blazing horns and more thunderous drumming. There’s also nod to The Beatles with ‘A Day in the Life’ style final chord, this followed by a field recording of church bells documented by Cottrell in Bern.
The album concludes with a very brief reprise of Brown’s “wait”, this time performed as a horn chorale.
The title of “Good Days” references the time before the pandemic but there are more ‘good days’ on the immediate horizon as B&PBB will be touring the album in the UK with the dates listed below. Unfortunately I can’t make any of them this time round but other fans of the band will relish the opportunity of seeing them back in action.
“Good Days” demonstrates a growing compositional maturity, particularly on slow burners like “elegy” and “cminriff” and the sophisticated but irreverent “(blues for) linu”. Tracks like “db” and Panter’s “op” exhibit some of that old punk jazz fire and the spirit of B&PBB is very much alive and kicking in 2023. It’s good to have them back.
Album available via https://www.beatsnpieces.net/
More details at https://www.beatsnpieces.net/gigs
Fri 3rd Feb – Crookes Social Club, Sheffield
Mon 6th Feb – Ronnie Scott’s, London
Tues 7th Feb – Ronnie Scott’s, London
Weds 8th Feb – Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thurs 9th Feb – Band on the Wall, Manchester
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