by Ian Mann
July 20, 2017
"Pond Life" successfully synthesises several strands of music to deliver a distinctive group sound.
Big Bad Wolf
Big Bad Wolf are a new, young, London based band featuring a quartet of graduates from the city’s Royal Academy of Music.
Featuring rising star guitarist Rob Luft the group also includes trombonist Owen Dawson, drummer Jay Davis and Michael De Souza, more usually a guitarist, playing a Fender Bass VI electric bass.
Big Bad Wolf describe themselves as a democratic unit, one that is “consistently egalitarian”, and the eight compositions on this, their début album, are born out of open ended group improvisation with the resultant ideas subsequently developed and refined into something more intricate and substantial. It’s a process not dissimilar to the working methods of rock bands such as James and Talking Heads.
The musicians of Big Bad Wolf are becoming increasingly busy and familiar presences on the London jazz scene and between them play in a staggering number of different bands across a variety of jazz genres. Rock is also an influence on the group’s sound and they cite their influences as ranging from Derek Bailey to Bjork with contemporary bands such as 3 Trapped Tigers and Snarky Puppy also mentioned as sources of inspiration.
Winners of the Zealous X Music Award in 2015 the band have also been the recipients of the Peter Whittingham Music Prize awarded by the Help Musicians UK organisation. The Whittingham Award in addition to an Arts Council grant helped to finance the recording of “Pond Life” and the band have also been endorsed by the respected promoter and broadcaster Jez Nelson (Jazz in the Round, Jazz on 3).
In the tradition of former Whittingham Award winners such as Led Bib and WorldService Project the music of Big Bad Wolf seeks to blur the musical boundaries and much of “Pond Life” has something of an indie rock sensibility about it with several of the tracks including vocals and lyrics – although neither the album packaging or the accompanying press release make clear who is actually doing the singing. Photographs on the band’s website http://www.bigbadwolf.london suggest that it’s Luft, possibly aided by De Souza.
The unusual combination of guitar and trombone plus the broad range of influences helps to give Big Bad Wolf a distinctive group sound that borrows from many sources – elements of jazz, indie, prog and ambient all surface at various points over the course of the album.
Big Bad Wolf talk of their music in terms of “washy guitars, brassy hooks and deep grooves” and these elements are in evidence on the beguiling opener “Canary” with its intertwining guitar, trombone and six string electric bass lines underpinned by Davis’ sturdy, propulsive drumming. There’s a song-like quality about the piece throughout, something confirmed by the addition of vocals in the latter stages of the tune. The singing is vaguely reminiscent of early Pink Floyd or of a particularly fey brand of 90s indie. Nevertheless it works in the context of Big Bad Wolf’s music. One senses that though ostensibly a ‘jazz’ group they are attempting to reach out to a wider constituency in the manner of Acoustic Ladyland and other Pete Wareham led groups.
“Flats in Dagenham” is equally appealing and incorporates soaring wordless vocals and a lithe and fluent guitar solo from Luft that sees him skilfully utilising his various effects. The middle part of the tune with its widescreen guitar washes, rock rhythms and booming trombone recalls the Finnish group Oddarrang, possibly another source of inspiration.
The instrumental “Frog” explores similar territory with the intricate group interplay and the skilful layering of instruments at times suggesting the work of a larger band. This time it’s Dawson who features as the soloist and he impresses with his inventiveness and fluency on the trombone and his subtle use of electronic effects.
“Quiet Coach”, the album’s lengthiest track, begins with a warmly melodic theme statement from Dawson’s trombone. A subtle change of direction introduces a more wide-screen sound plus the addition of vocals, the escapist theme of the lyrics briefly reminding me of vintage prog rockers Caravan. Dawson then blows a gently effusive solo over a delicate lattice of intertwining guitar and bass. Another brief round of vocalising then acts as the trigger for Luft’s guitar to head for the stratosphere as the piece ends on an uplifting, celebratory note.
The instrumental “Hopkins’ Choice” develops out of Luft’s arpeggiated guitar motifs and races along briskly with Dawson soloing on trombone above the jaunty, interlocking rhythms. Luft also gets the chance to soar again, albeit briefly, prior to the tricky, but spirited conclusion.
“Grassfish” begins in almost ambient fashion before developing its melodic theme and introducing vocals and lyrics, these again reminiscent of early Floyd. The music then changes pace, gathering momentum as De Souza’s heavily treated guitar like bass heads for the outer limits. Finally there’s a quiet acoustic guitar led coda.
Title track “Pond Life” begins quietly, almost pastorally, but expands to embrace chunky, complex rhythms and rich, colourful electronically enhanced textures. Constantly evolving and mutating the piece epitomises Nelson’s description of “lazy trombone and darting guitar riffs”.
The closing “The Plight of the Typewriter” is similarly multi-faceted with its combination of broken beats, soaring anthemic choruses and ambient interludes with the wordless vocals again imparting a distinct song-like quality at times.
Expertly engineered by Alex Killpartrick and sporting distinctive artwork by Amy Browne “Pond Life” represents an impressive début from Big Bad Wolf. Jazz purists may sniff at the electronic elements and the rock sensibilities but this is music that is attempting to appeal to a younger, broader audience – but, crucially, not at the cost of the band’s musical integrity.
“Pond Life” successfully synthesises several strands of music to deliver a distinctive group sound. These are young musicians who are combining their jazz education and sensibilities with the music of their own time to create music that is fresh and personal.
Despite their avowed democracy it’s almost inevitable that Luft and Dawson should emerge as the most distinctive instrumentalists, something encouraged by the comparative rareness of the guitar/trombone configuration. However the intelligence and inventiveness of their work both in tandem and individually impresses throughout. They make a terrific team and play off each other very well, forming an effective combination throughout as De Souza and Davis offer similarly intelligent and imaginative support.
One suspects that Big Bad Wolf are likely to be a highly effective and exciting live band. For details of forthcoming performances please visit http://www.bigbadwolf.london/gigs/
2017 is shaping up to be a big year for Rob Luft. On 28th July he will release his début solo album “Riser” on Edition Records, a more obviously ‘jazz’ recording that I will be examining in due course.blog comments powered by Disqus