by Ian Mann
August 01, 2019
An interesting and highly satisfying listening experience, the sound of a young band forging an increasingly distinctive group identity.
(Ubuntu Music – UBU0031)
Rory Ingham – trombone, Dominic Ingham – violin, vocals, Toby Comeau – keyboards
Joe Lee – bass, vocals, keyboards, Jonny Mansfield – drums, vibes, percussion, synths
Bonsai is the band that used to be known as Jam Experiment. The quintet has changed its name following a decidedly radical change of line up with violinist / vocalist Dominic Ingham, brother of the group’s trombonist Rory Ingham, replacing saxophonist Alexander Bone.
Bone was part of the quintet that appeared on the album “Jam Experiment”, released in 2017, a recording that attracted a good deal of critical acclaim for this new, exciting young band. The group toured the album extensively and I was privileged to catch them at a performance at The Hive Music and Media Centre, one of the monthly gigs promoted by Shrewsbury Jazz Network.
My review of that performance, plus my impressions of the Jam Experiment album can be read here;
Bone, the 2014 winner of the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year award , has since left to concentrate on a solo career. Dominic Ingham comes to the group thanks to his familial relationship with Rory and through his work with Mansfield’s innovative eleven piece ensemble Elftet.
Guest contributor Trevor Bannister reviewed the new line up, at that time still using the Jam Experiment name, at the Progress Theatre in Reading in August 2018. Trevor’s account can be read here; http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/elftet-progress-theatre-reading-berkshire-28-09-2018/
As Jam Experiment the group always liked to emphasise their collective spirit, with all members of the quintet contributing compositions to the band’s repertoire. As Bonsai they have taken this a stage further and have begun to write collectively as Rory Ingham explains;
“Bonsai is a group where everyone is the leader, and the music is written to be played by each other, with each other. The long standing relationships mean that Bonsai are able to work cohesively and freely as a collective, resulting in total synergy. With this shared leadership we find the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts”.
The group’s members met when they were studying at Chetham’s Music School in Manchester and they remain proud of their Northern roots, despite since making the move to London.
The change of both name and personnel has seen a change in musical direction with the group deploying lyrics and vocals for the first time. There’s also a greater reliance on electric instrumentation, a process that began in the Jam Experiment days with Comeau’s electric keyboards and Bone’s use of the electronic wind instrument, or EWI. On “Bonsai Club” Comeau, Lee and Mansfield are all credited with synths and these instruments represent an important component of the music.
Funk and fusion still remains a key part of Bonsai’s music while the introduction of Dominic Ingham’s voice sometimes steers the music into more of a neo soul direction. Meanwhile his violin gives the renamed group a more unusual instrumental configuration and introduces folk and classical elements. The result is an increasingly distinctive and personal music that embraces a variety of styles and genres.
“We wanted to explore how five musicians with extremely deep and long-standing connections can communicate with a shared artistic vision, while having a variety of musical backgrounds, influences and experiences” says Ingham.
He continues “’Bonsai Club’ is about the joy of returning to a place where you feel content and accepted, no matter how much it transforms, it always feels like home. We translate this into accessible, inviting music that welcomes the listener”.
The arrival of Dominic Ingham has led to the group’s music becoming more obviously song like, a characteristic that also has its roots in Mansfield’s Elftet band.
Opening track “Bonsai Club” is one such example, a song with a buoyant funky groove, uplifting melody and a simple, haiku like lyric, written and warmly delivered by Dominic Ingham. The main instrumental solo comes from Lee on melodic electric bass, his Jaco like explorations underpinned by swirling synths and Comeau’s insistent piano vamp. The music as a whole is richly layered with those synths a vital presence alongside the violin, piano, drums and trombone.
“The Crescent” is essentially an instrumental offering but still features the use of Dominic’s wordless vocals, influenced perhaps by the work of the Pat Metheny Group. The synths and other electric keyboards are right in the busy mix too, but the centrepiece of the tune is a rousing trombone solo by Rory Ingham that is straight of the jazz tradition as ancient rubs shoulders with modern. Meanwhile Mansfield doubles on both drums and vibes and a dazzling, overdubbed vibraphone solo takes the piece storming out.
“Tin” blends jazz with chilly eighties synth pop, conjuring up an atmosphere similar to Ultravox’s “Vienna”. Mansfield’s succinct, atmospheric lyric, which again possesses the skeletal elegance of a haiku, is delivered by Dominic with a Thom Yorke (Radiohead) like plaintiveness.
Dominic Ingham’s unaccompanied violin introduces “BMJC”, which combines hard driving passages with more atmospheric interludes. Dominic’s mercurial violin playing is the stand out feature here, his sound sometimes reminiscent of Christian Garrick when the latter is in contemporary jazz mode. Meanwhile Mansfield’s powerful drumming borrows from both rock and hip hop.
The languid, drifting “Quay” is a gentler proposition with a rich instrumental palette incorporating violin, trombone, electric keyboards and vibes. There’s a one line lyric, written by Dominic Ingham but sung by bassist Lee, the latter also adding piano and synths to this track. The singing and words are all but absorbed into the musical fabric, yet the piece retains a distinctly song like structure, a kind of jazz infused power ballad.
“Hop – The Hip Replacement” is the only track not to contain any vocals at all, even wordless ones. It does however boast a series of scintillating trombone / violin exchanges between the Ingham brothers, with the siblings skilfully supported by Comeau, Lee and Mansfield.
“Itchy Knee” features fruity trombone and soaring violin plus Comeau releasing his inner Rick Wakeman as he delivers dazzling solos on both Fender Rhodes and synth, with acoustic piano featuring in the mix too. Dominic Ingham’s violin solo is a similarly show stopping affair as he moves through the gears, and there’s a closing vibraphone flourish from Mansfield. Apparently the title is a play on the Japanese words for “one” “two” and “three”.
The album closes with a brief reprise of the opening “Bonsai Club”.
I have to admit that I didn’t quite know what to make of this album when I first heard it. The departure of Bone and his saxes and his replacement by violin and vocals ensures that Bonsai sound very different to Jam Experiment, and initially this took some getting used to.
However with subsequent listens “Bonsai Club” has very much grown on me. In my review of the Jam Experiment show at Shrewsbury I commented “ it’s refreshing to hear a young band playing a music that they obviously love rather than recycling the kind of neo-bop and post bop licks that they learnt at college”.
This observation seems even more appropriate when applied to Bonsai. This first recording under their new band name sees the group expanding on their jazz and funk base to incorporate rock, hip hop, classical and folk influences. With the addition of vocals it’s inevitably more song orientated than before with the music of Mansfield’s similarly inclined Elftet, in which the Ingham brothers both play, becoming a more significant influence.
Instrumentally (and vocally) the playing of the Ingham brothers is the first thing to catch the attention of the listener, but deeper examination suggests that it’s Comeau who is probably the glue that holds it all together with Mansfield becoming an increasingly significant composing presence.
In its Bonsai incarnation the music of the quintet is increasingly difficult to categorise, and although they may lose a few hardcore jazz listeners along the way the group’s new approach has the capacity to appeal to a much wider audience, particularly adventurous rock and pop listeners. Bonsai’s combination of youthful enthusiasm allied to superb musicianship has the potential of appealing to a similarly young demographic.
“Bonsai Club” reveals an increasingly distinctive group sound and skilfully combines acoustic and electronic elements, with the group making particularly effective use of what the press release describes as a ‘plethora of synthesisers’, expertly stitching these into the overall fabric of the music. They are helped in this regard by the crack engineering team of Alex Killpartrick, Matt Williams and Peter Beckmann.
If there’s a criticism of “Bonsai Club” as an album it’s that at thirty seven minutes in length it’s rather short, CD running times are normally far more generous these days. But it’s an interesting and highly satisfying listening experience, the sound of a young band forging an increasingly distinctive group identity.
However I have to admit that I’m still not entirely convinced by the band name. Jam Experiment was bad, but, for me, Bonsai offers little improvement. Still having a naff name has never been much of an obstacle in the rock world. Some of the biggest acts have had absolutely terrible names, take The Beatles and Oasis just for starters. Didn’t do either of those two much harm did it?
Bonsai are currently touring the album with forthcoming dates as follows;
13/09 Fleece Jazz, Colchester
15/09 Hermon Chapel Arts Centre, Oswestry
16/09 The Whiskey Jar, Manchester
17/09 PARRJAZZ, Liverpool
18/09 The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh
19/09 The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen
20/09 The Blue Arrow, Glasgow
22/09 Scarborough Jazz Festival, Yorkshire
06/10 Seven Jazz, Leeds
08/10 The Stables, Milton Keynes
31/10 Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall, London
More information at;