by Ian Mann
December 15, 2015
Ian Mann on a live performance by Heavy Quartet and two EPs by Iron Eye, two bands featuring Cardiff based saxophonist, composer and educator Rob Smith.
Iron Eye is one of a number of groups led by the Cardiff based saxophonist and composer Rob Smith (pictured), a musician probably best known as a member of the long running Heavy Quartet.
Yesterday evening (13th December 2015) I was lucky enough to witness a performance by the Heavies at the Queens Head in Monmouth. As anybody who has ever seen or heard this band will surely know there have always been more than four of them. Typically they line up as an octet but at various times in the past there have been as many as eleven members.
Smith was a founder member of the Heavy Quartet which was first formed in 1983 and has continued to thrill audiences in South Wales and beyond for over thirty years including twenty five consecutive appearances at Brecon Jazz Festival dating from the inaugural year of 1984 onwards. During this time the group has recorded a series of excellent albums including “Short Stories”, “Carnivore”, “Machine”, “Hardware” and “ Prime”, the last two reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann. The focus has always been on original material, much of it penned by Smith, but the band has also won fame for its inspired covers of tunes ranging from Henry Threadgill to K.C. & The Sunshine Band by way of Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, as captured on the classic “Bootleg Tapes” cassette dating back to 1995.
I’ve seen the Heavies many times over the years at festivals (Brecon, Torfaen, Abergavenny) and at their regular visits to Monmouth. They never fail to deliver with their punchy, accessible tunes, good humour and superb musicianship. Their sound draws on many influences including jazz, rock, funk, reggae, ska and African music. But last night was the Heavy Quartet as they’d never been witnessed before with the inclusion of vibraphone in the group line up for the first time. Wielding the mallets was the band’s sometime bassist Ashley John Long who demonstrated a dazzling level of ability on his “second” instrument. Long is already acclaimed as a brilliant double bass soloist but his playing on the vibes, four mallet technique and all, revealed him to be an outrageously talented all round musician. A large and appreciative audience loved his contribution alongside Smith (tenor & soprano saxes), Gareth Roberts (trombone), Nils Andersson (trumpet), Neil Langford (guitar), Callum Duggan (double bass) and Christian John (drums). Most of the material was drawn from the two most recent albums and there was a real party atmosphere about the gig which was great fun for band and audience alike. Unfortunately the only person not to have a good night was the group’s keyboard player Neil Pedder, aka Neil the Synth, whose car broke down on the way to the gig. He was waiting for a breakdown truck while his bandmates were brewing up a storm on a cold and foggy night in the Welsh Borders.
Away from his work with the Heavy Quartet Smith runs the Valleys based community big band Wonderbrass, close musical relatives of the Heavies, and another hugely popular festival band who have also released a series of very high quality recordings for what is ostensibly an ‘amateur’ group.
Smith is also a member of the groups Occasional Brass Ensemble (OBE) and the gypsy jazz combo Belleville. He has written music for film, television and cinema and holds a teaching post at the University of South Wales in Pontypridd.
It was my enjoyment of that Heavies gig in Monmouth that prompted me to dig out these two EPs which were recently forwarded to me by Smith. “Cardboard Cities” (2013) and “System Street” (2015) are the work of Iron Eye, a trio featuring Smith together with Wonderbrass saxophonist Jenny Bradley, who mainly features on baritone, and Heavy Quartet drummer Christian John. Most of the writing is Smith’s and the music exhibits a similar rhythmic drive and vivacity to that of both Heavy Quartet and Wonderbrass. The group has appeared at Brecon Jazz Festival, but it wasn’t a performance that I actually witnessed.
“Cardboard Cities” commences with “JB Black”, which I’d like to think is a tribute to the great New York based drummer Jim Black who appeared at Brecon Jazz Festival in 2013 with Welsh musicians Huw Warren (piano) and Huw V Williams (double bass) at a superb gig billed as “Wales Meets Brooklyn”. Whatever the providence of its title “JB Black” possesses a tremendous rhythmic drive courtesy of Bradley’s rasping baritone sax and John’s busily propulsive drumming. It’s left to Smith to wail on tenor as a soloist and to link up thrillingly with Bradley’s baritone as John continues to urge his colleagues forward. There’s a punk like energy about this music that recalls bands such as Acoustic Ladyland at their most direct.
Smith and the Heavies’ obvious love of Hendrix is reflected in the segue of Jimi’s “Stone Free” and Smith’s “Iron Eye #2”, another hard grooving item with both saxophonists wringing some guttural sounds out of their instruments as John’s brutal but imaginative drumming continues to lash them onwards.
Smith’s “Wheatbeer” is a little less intense but is still full of energy with the two saxophones again dovetailing brilliantly and with Bradley enjoying a little more solo space. Her baritone playing is a key component in the Wonderbrass sound and she seems to relish the extra freedom offered by this pared down trio format.
The group name Iron Eye suggests an affinity with Jamaican music and its Bradley’s ska inspired baritone vamp that initially drives the closing “Cardboard City / Iron Eye #4”. Once again this is a high energy, hard hitting piece of music fuelled by Jamaican style vamps and grooves and John’s hyper-active drumming. Bradley’s relentless work on baritone is impressive both in terms of musical content and sheer physical stamina.
The group’s second EP “System Street” (subtitled “Fuck The System Street” - Amen to that) exhibits the same kind of energy and drive beginning with the staccato riffing of “Attack Kumquat” which includes some tight, precision horn interplay plus powerful solo statements from Smith on tenor and Bradley on baritone as John’s kinetic drumming once again keeps the cauldron bubbling.
“Iron Eye # 1 (System Street)” is effectively the title track, another baritone fuelled romp full of accessible riffs and hard driving grooves that again draws from the trio’s love of ska and reggae. Both Smith and Bradley enjoy the opportunity to solo with both adopting delightfully raunchy tones on their respective horns.
“Sod Shanty” opens with John at the drums, his hip hop influenced grooves and broken beats heralding a different approach as the trio throttle back a little. The music simmers rather than boils but the latent energy remains with both saxophonists delivering towering solos, Bradley going first.
I assume that the title of “Y Miss B” is a reference to Bradley whose baritone is again the backbone of the piece as she links up with Smith’s tenor to deliver some gargantuan riffs. Again there are powerful solos from both saxophonists with Bradley again leading the way.
The closing “Crusty Lumps” begins with a three-way discourse with John’s drums a key component. The drums remain prominent throughout in a piece that retains a strong collective feel yet sacrifices nothing of Iron Eye’s trademark energy and intensity.
I rather enjoyed these two EPs which both bristle with intensity throughout. The music is punchy and hard driving with some memorable hooks, riffs and grooves and the trio is likely to appeal to fans of both Heavy Quartet and Wonderbrass. There’s also a ‘punk jazz’ energy and drive that is likely to attract fans of such bands as Acoustic Ladyland, Led Bib and Sons Of Kemet.
If one were being hypercritical one could cite a lack of light and shade, there’s nothing even approaching a ballad, or even a lack of subtlety, but one senses that that isn’t what Iron Eye are about. Their music is is primarily about the adrenalin rush and they sound as if they’re having a great time playing it, the energy and attitude is palpable.
Of the two EPs “System Street” offers greater stylistic variety and is the work of a more integrated group with Bradley allocated more solo space and operating on a more equal footing, “Cardboard Cities” is largely dominated by Smith. Meanwhile John’s energetic but distinctive drumming style is the perfect fit for the trio, he really drives the band forward but without resorting to the obvious rhythms.
As a long term fan of the live shows of both Heavy Quartet and Wonderbrass I’d wager that Iron Eye are also a highly exciting live act and I would relish the opportunity of seeing them in this context at some future point. Unfortunately the trio’s on line presence seems to be almost non existent which may render this rather difficult. In the meantime there is a Youtube clip of the trio playing “Cardboard City” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NF6pFK6XAhM
In his multiple roles as musician, composer, bandleader and educator Rob Smith is a vital presence on the South Wales jazz scene and will hopefully remain a leading figure for many years to come.blog comments powered by Disqus