by Ian Mann
November 10, 2021
Ian Mann enjoys the music of the improvising duo Bianco Brackenbury and the Ornette Coleman inspired John Pope Quintet at this double bill forming part of the Birmingham based Fizzle series of events.
Bianco Brackenbury / John Pope Quintet, Fizzle, Centrala, Minerva Works, Birmingham, 07/11/2021.
Tony Bianco – drums, Faith Brackenbury – violin, viola
John Pope – double bass, percussion, voice, Faye MacCalman – tenor sax, clarinet, Tom Ward – alto sax, bass clarinet, flute, Graham Hardy – trumpet, Johnny Hunter – drums
Two of the albums that I have enjoyed reviewing during 2021 have been “Rising Up”, by the improvising duo of drummer Tony Bianco and string player Faith Brackenbury, and “Mixed With Glass” by the quintet led by bassist and composer John Pope.
The prospect of seeing both acts performing as part of a double bill was too good resist and my thanks go to Faith Brackenbury for arranging press tickets for my wife and I for this event, presented by the Fizzle organisation.
Fizzle is a regular series of jazz and improvised music events held at various venues around Birmingham and is co-ordinated by pianist Andrew Woodhead and saxophonist Lee Griffiths, the pair also working closely with promoter Tony Dudley-Evans of TDE Promotions. Between them Fizzle and TDEP provide a valuable platform for the more adventurous strands of jazz and improvised music in Birmingham and the wider West Midlands area.
Fizzle stages regular Sunday afternoon events at Centrala, a café bar and exhibition space serving Birmingham’s Central and Eastern European communities. It is situated in a former industrial unit forming part of the Minerva Works complex in Fazeley Street to the east of the city centre. Centrala proved to be a small, friendly and intimate venue, perfectly suited to the performance of jazz and improvised music.
I have to admit that I don’t attend many gigs in central Birmingham any more, the stress of driving in a city where large scale construction work appears to be happening on a permanent basis is becoming less and less appealing to this small town dweller as I get older. Factor in the expense of parking and the newly introduced congestion charge and no matter how tempting the music might be most of the time I just can’t face the hassle. I’m happy to go to the Midlands Arts Centre (mac) in the suburbs of Edgbaston, which is much easier to get to, but that’s about it these days.
Given that this was an afternoon event we decided to drive to Droitwich and complete the journey by train – rail travel isn’t an option in the evenings as the trains back to Hereford have stopped running by the time most gigs finish. This all went smoothly enough but we still managed to get lost on foot due to the numerous street closures – to both road traffic and pedestrians – surrounding the HS2 construction site, a project that in the wake of the pandemic and the advent of working from home is shaping up to be a bigger ‘white elephant’ than ever – and a frighteningly expensive one. Don’t get me started!
All this meant that we missed around ten minutes of the opening set from the Bianco Brackenbury duo, so my apologies to Faith and Tony for that.
My review of the album “Rising Up”, which includes biographical details of both Faith Brackenbury and Tony Bianco can be found here;
Emerging out of the strictures of lockdown the music on “Rising Up” features three lengthy improvisations focussing on the combination of kit drums and violin (or viola), with Bianco later filling out the sound by overdubbing some double bass parts. The digital version of the album also includes a radical interpretation of the Jimmy Webb song “Wichita Lineman”.
Today we arrived to find Bianco and Brackenbury in full flow with the latter’s violin swooping and soaring above the polyrhythmic free jazz rumble of Bianco’s drums, generated at first by mallets and later by sticks.
Brackenbury is a highly versatile musician, and sometime instrument maker, who first trained as a classical violinist before branching out into the worlds of folk, jazz and improvised music. Flashes of folk inspired melody found their way into her playing here, counter balanced by harsher passages featuring jagged bowing as Bianco continued to unleash his one man percussive whirlwind.
As on the album the music unfolded organically, consistently morphing and changing shape in the true spirit of improvised music. More reflective passages found Brackenbury effectively deploying the pizzicato technique above Bianco’s combination of mallet rumbles and hand held shaker.
Drums and violin may sound like an unlikely combination but in the hands of these two talented improvisers it makes perfect sense. Brackenbury plays with a muscularity rarely associated with the violin and the power of her playing is more than a match for Bianco’s drums. The result is music with real vitality and energy, as expressed through Brackenbury’s percussive bowing during the course of a rousing closing section that saw Bianco generating an almost rock like power at the kit.
The combination of Brackenbury’s fluent, inherently melodic violin improvising and Bianco’s fluid but powerful rhythms is a highly effective one. This opening salvo must have lasted around half an hour in total and was similar in feel to the title track of the “Rising Up” album.
Their second, much shorter, improvisation saw Brackenbury taking up the viola and deploying the pizzicato technique throughout, accompanied by the soft bustle of Bianco’s brushed drums. This second item was more reflective and melancholic in tone, more akin to the introduction to “Gypsy Softbread”, the second track on the duo’s album.
Although I missed the start I quickly found myself becoming immersed in Bianco Brackenbury’s sound world, much as I do when listening to the album. As I predicted in my album review the duo did indeed represent “an intriguing and exciting live proposition”. They have established a remarkable musical rapport, one that is capable of making this most unusual of instrumental combinations work, skilfully combining “energy with beauty and challenging improvisation with instinctive melody”, to quote my good self.
An excellent start to a superb afternoon of music making.
JOHN POPE QUINTET
There are close musical ties between the Bianco Brackenbury duo and the John Pope Quintet.
Pope and saxophonist / clarinettist Faye MacCalman are both members (with drummer Christian Alderson) of the Newcastle based electro-jazz trio Archipelago, with whom Brackenbury has previously worked.
In October 2018 Brackenbury collaborated with Archipelago as part of the band’s ‘Between Waves’ project geared to promoting women in music. Brackenbury’s compositions “Earth” and “Tidal” can be heard on the “Between Waves” compilation album, which also features works from three other female artists, Rosie Frater-Taylor, Lisette Auton and Fran Bundey.
In addition to his work with Archipelago Pope leads his own acoustic quintet and in early 2021 released the excellent album “Mixed With Glass” on the Newcastle based New Jazz and Improvised Music label. Review here;
The album presents a beguiling mix of written and improvised music, performed with “an essential energy and joyousness”.
All of these qualities were in evidence today as the quintet delivered an exceptional group performance largely centred around the album material. There was one change to the line up on the recording with Tom Ward deputising for the unavailable Jamie Stockbridge. It was a tribute to Ward’s skills that he fitted in seamlessly, playing flawlessly during the ensemble sections and also impressing as a creative soloist on both alto sax and bass clarinet.
The quintet commenced their performance with a lengthy segue of three of the pieces from their début album, “Misha, A Miner”, “The Right Hand Path” and “Mixed With Glass” itself. True to the jazz tradition the running order was not the same as on the recording as Pope and the quintet navigated their own way through the sequence.
“Misha, A Miner” represents a homage to the Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg (1935-2017), founder of the Instant Composers Pool and one of Pope’s musical heroes. It also honours the late British bassist and composer Graham Collier (1937-2011).
This was introduced by a blazing horn fanfare featuring trumpet, alto sax and clarinet, this morphing into a freely structured passage out of which the first genuine solo emerged, with MacCalman featuring on clarinet. Anchored by the leader’s powerful, Mingus like bass lines Pope’s pieces shift shape effortlessly, moving between composed ensemble passages and freely improvised episodes. It’s a fascinating combination and the next passage featured a dialogue between Ward on alto and Pope on bass, with the leader deploying both arco and pizzicato techniques. Eventually the main melodic theme re-emerged, with the three horns combining with the power of a ‘mini big band’.
A passage of unaccompanied pizzicato double bass, with Pope sometimes using the body of the instrument as a form of percussion, ushered in “The Right Hand Path”, the second segment of the segue. Hunter added mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers and the rhythm team eventually established a more recognisable groove cum motif. MacCalman had moved to tenor sax and Ward to bass clarinet, these two instruments blending effectively before handing over to trumpeter Hardy for the first horn solo. Ward followed on bass clarinet, demonstrating an admirable fluency and agility on the instrument. The consistently impressive Hunter added a hard hitting drum feature, before the piece ended on a softer note with Ward returning to alto sax to deliver a gently piping outro above a drone generated by the other horns and the leader’s bowed bass.
Described by Pope as “an anthem for peace” the album title track features one of his most arresting melodies and was introduced by a gentle horn chorale featuring the blend of alto and tenor saxes plus trumpet, with the rhythm team briefly sitting out. Bowed bass and mallet rumbles were subsequently added, with Pope eventually putting down the bow to play unaccompanied pizzicato bass as part of a more freely structured passage. Eventually the horns returned to restate the elegant, melancholic theme, a beguiling blend of melody, colour and texture.
Pope revealed that his composition “Ing” is named for another of his musical heroes, the great Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten. This was introduced by a dialogue between the leader’s bass and Hardy’s vocalised trumpet, this eventually leading to a hard driving bass groove worthy of Haker-Flaten himself. This formed the platform for another astonishingly nimble bass clarinet solo from the admirable Ward. MacCalman’s tenor solo added a more reflective aspect, combining with the breathy sounds of Hardy’s trumpet in a more freely structured passage. The return of the earlier groove saw Ward’s bass clarinet growling in the manner of a baritone sax, this section followed by another dynamic Hunter drum solo punctuated by the stabbing of the horns. Finally Pope and the quintet teased the audience with a series of false endings. This is a band that likes to have fun, despite the intensity of their music.
Next came an as yet unrecorded piece, an arrangement of “In Heaven” aka “The Lady in the Radiator”, a song composed by Peter Ivers with lyrics by David Lynch for Lynch’s film “Eraserhead”. The most famous cover of the song is by The Pixies, with Pope’s arrangement being inspired by this recording. Muted trumpet combined with tenor and alto sax on the theme statement with the impressive Hardy adopting a bluesy tone on muted trumpet for his solo. Ward’s alto excursion combined fluency with incisiveness, with MacCalman exhibiting similar qualities on tenor. Meanwhile Pope wailed along vocally as he and Hunter laid down the platform for the horn soloists, the sound of Hardy’s vocalised trumpet helping to bring something of a New Orleans feel to a performance otherwise brimming with a very contemporary punk inspired energy.
This excellent set was concluded by the opening track from the recording, the powerful “Plato”, which combined the near big band swagger of the horns (tenor, alto, trumpet) with the fierce rhythmic drive generated by Pope and Hunter. Ward delivered a blistering alto solo before briefly switching to flute during a passage featuring the horn section only. The return of ‘the groove’ took the music blazing out, culminating in a volcanic drum feature from Hunter.
I was hugely impressed with this performance by the John Pope Quintet, which actually built on the success of the album. Deftly straddling the cusp between the written and the improvised this was music that was admirably tight during the written sections but was equally commendably free, loose and spontaneous during the improvised episodes, a magical combination enhanced even further by the sheer energy of the performances. Today’s show came after a short run of other quintet performances, including appearances at the Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music and the Marsden Jazz Festival. There was a sense that this was a band that was very much at home with itself and which had thoroughly ‘played in’ its material, giving today’s performance a sense of confidence, swagger and self belief.
Pope, who also plays electric bass in other contexts, brings an indie / punk sensibility to his brand of jazz. He has described his quintet’s music as “a joyous racket”, which sums it up quite neatly. To borrow a phrase of my own I’d call it “serious music that doesn’t take it itself too seriously”, which seems to encapsulate something of the band’s uncompromising attitude, offset by their delight in their own playing and their obvious sense of fun
Originally inspired by the music of Ornette Coleman the quintet sometimes include arrangements of Coleman tunes in their sets and one suspects that the ghosts of both Coleman and Charles Mingus would approve of Pope’s rumbustious approach to jazz and improvisation.
A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon of music despite the trials and tribulations of navigating one’s way through the streets of Birmingham.
My thanks to all the performers today for delivering some terrific music and for speaking with me afterwards. Thanks also to Tony Dudley-Evans, Andrew Woodhead and Lee Griffiths for continuing to promote cutting edge jazz and improv in Birmingham.
For details of future Fizzle events please visit http://www.fizzlebirmingham.com
The John Pope Quintet will perform on November 20th 2021 at the Purcell Room as part of the Take Five presentation at the EFG London Jazz Festival. Details here;
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