by Ian Mann
February 29, 2020
This was music that slowly and subtly drew the listener into its web over the course of two excellent sets from an intriguing ensemble that is likely to get better and better as the tour progresses.
Chris Batchelor’s Zoetic, Richard Burton Theatre, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 27/02/2020.
Chris Batchelor – trumpet, flugelhorn, corneta, Margrit Hasler – viola, John Parricelli – guitar,
Steve Watts- double bass, Paul Clarvis – percussion
Tonight’s performance was the second date of a UK tour currently being undertaken by the quintet Zoetic, the latest project of trumpeter, composer and educator Chris Batchelor.
I first became aware of Batchelor’s playing in the late 1980s when he was a vital part of Loose Tubes, the anarchic big band who have, over the years, transformed from iconoclasts into icons.
Although not the most prolific composer in the band’s ranks Batchelor still wrote such Tubes classics as “Arriving”,“Sticklebacks” and “Would I Were”. He was part of the reformed Loose Tubes who played a series of festival gigs and even recorded a batch of new material in 2014.
Since the initial break up of Loose Tubes in the early 1990s Batchelor’s main creative projects have included a quartet with fellow ex-Tube Steve Buckley (reeds) and the Trans-Atlantic quintet Big Air, a stellar line up that also included Buckley plus tuba player Oren Marshall and the American musicians Myra Melford (piano) and Jim Black (drums). Big Air released an excellent eponymous album in 2009 and appeared at the 2011 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. He has subsequently worked with Melford in a trio that also includes drummer / percussionist Mark Sanders.
Batchelor later formed Pigfoot, a quartet that took a playful, post-modern look at the traditional jazz of the 1920s and 30s, updating the music but never disrespecting it. The title of their 2014 début album “21st Century Acid Trad” was both highly descriptive and something of a mission statement. The first version of the group featured Batchelor, Marshall, pianist Liam Noble and drummer / percussionist Paul Clarvis. Marshall was subsequently replaced by saxophonist James Allsopp and the 2019 follow up “Pigfoot Shuffle” featured the new version of the group, but retained all of the quartet’s trademark exuberance and irreverence, allied to a formidable musical sophistication. Loose Tubes and Pigfoot may sound very different but they share the same spirit of musical adventure.
Meanwhile the quintet Zone B re-unites the trumpeter with Buckley and also includes the talents of guitarist Rob Luft, bassist Tom Herbert and drummer Gene Calderazzo.
Elsewhere Batchelor has been a prolific sideman on the London jazz scene. Prior to Loose Tubes he worked with the exiled South African musician Dud Pukwana’s Zila group and Batchelor has always maintained a love of South African music, also working with the bands Township Comets, Dedication Orchestra and various editions of Brotherhood of Breath. He has also worked as a sideman in groups led by the pianists Liam Noble, John Taylor, Hans Koller and Simon Purcell and by ex Loose Tubes saxophonist Mark Lockheart. He also appeared as a guest on the Partisans album “Max”.
An acclaimed educator Batchelor has taught on the jazz courses of various London music colleges and enjoys collaborations with younger musicians, among them vocalist Lauren Kinsella and his former pupil, fellow trumpeter Laura Jurd.
When e-mailing to inform me about the forthcoming Zoetic tour Chris informed me that “Zoetic is a new band of old friends, in some ways a mirror image to Pigfoot - quieter and lyrical, and playing mostly original material”.
The line up alone convinced me that this was a band that I wanted to see. I was also intrigued by the unusual (possibly unique) front line of trumpet and viola. Bearing in mind what Chris had said about the band I was expecting some form of ‘chamber jazz’, particularly with the presence of the viola in the line up. However, having now seen the show the ‘catch all’ that now springs to mind is ‘world jazz’, with the largely original material embracing aspects of musics and cultures from all over the globe.
I was previously familiar with the playing of all the musicians in the line up with the exception of violist Hasler. It transpires that she is a highly versatile musician, working with various classical orchestras and opera houses, but who is also fully versed in many aspects of jazz and folk musics. In addition to her work with Zoetic she is also a part of the duo Rasa, with guitarist Pedro Velasco.
Hasler certainly blended in perfectly with Zoetic as she doubled up with Batchelor on the theme of the opening “Shanzu”, a piece with a distinctive African feel that was inspired by a trip that Batchelor made to Mombasa. The music seemed to embrace multiple aspects of the African continent, Parricelli’s guitar motifs and embellishments brought something of a South African vibe while Clarvis use of a type of basic frame drum and of qraqebs, the metal castanets deployed by the Gnawa musicians of Morocco, brought a more Saharan feel to the music. Batchelor took the first solo on trumpet, underpinned by the sound of the qraqebs, with Hasler’s viola later taking flight above the sound of hand-claps, plus guitar and bass. Finally we heard from Parricelli, his spiralling inventions supported by the sound of frame drum and Watts’ ever present bass.
For all the chamber style delicacy Zoetic also proved to be a highly rhythmic ensemble, albeit in a highly subtle and delicate way. When not engaged as a soloist Parricelli’s guitar lines merged with Watts’ bass and Clarvis’ various percussive items to create mesmerising, interlocking rhythmic patterns that both engaged the listener and fired the imagination of the front line soloists. Virtually all of Clarvis’ percussion was played by hand with sticks or beaters hardly deployed at all during the course of the evening.
Next up was “Telling The Tale”, another Batchelor original that its composer described as “Burt Bacharach Goes To Cairo”. This was introduced by the sounds of guitar, tabla and double bass with Batchelor and Hasler again doubling up on the melody lines, before the violist began to introduce intriguing counter melodies. This was music that was constantly unfolding, subtly shifting shape both rhythmically and melodically. Hasler took the first solo, soaring over the intertwining rhythmic patterns of guitar, shakers and double bass, with the immaculate Watts always at the root and heart of the music. Parricelli’s solo was underscored by resonant double bass and the patter of tablas, I was reminded here of John Abercrombie’s playing alongside bassist Dave Holland and tabla player Collin Walcott on Walcott’s “Grazing Dreams” album for ECM. Hasler’s viola counter melodies then steered the music in another direction before Batchelor’s whispered trumpet solo subsequently resolved the piece.
“Dromo”, the title the Italian word for “Palindrome”, offered something of a musical equivalent to that phenomenon with the music moving up and down the scale with Hasler initially taking the lead, before handing over to Batchelor, with the trumpeter’s fluency and eloquence sometimes reminding me of the late, great Kenny Wheeler. Parricelli’s guitar solo then added a subtle rock influence, that was sometimes reminiscent of Bill Frisell.
Meanwhile Watts and Clarvis continued to offer understated but sympathetic rhythmic support, with Clarvis making effective use of that much maligned instrument, the triangle.
“Huckster” was taut and rhythmic and exhibited a more energetic, almost New York feel with Parricelli’s guitar work again borrowing from rock as he delivered a soaring solo. Hasler then took over to solo above the guitarist’s jagged chording and the rattle of Clarvis’ tambourine. Batchelor took over to solo briefly before a percussion feature that saw Clarvis exchanging ideas with Parricelli. Batchelor eventually resolved the piece with a brief re-statement of the theme.
“Mariana” was the first of two pieces written by the Brazilian songwriter Eduardo de Góes Lobo, popularly known as Edu Lobo. After the urban urgency of “Huckster” this slowed things down with Batchelor moving to flugel, Parricelli to nylon strung semi-acoutic guitar and Clarvis temporarily vacating the stage. A tender, delicate trio passage featured the sounds of just warm toned flugel, plus subtle guitar and bass, with Hasler joining later to add a soft viola drone. This was a truly beautiful performance that saw the members of the quintet, and particularly Clarvis, demonstrating admirable composure and restraint.
The percussionist returned for the final number of the first set. This featured Batchelor playing the corneta, a one valved trumpet-like brass instrument from Southern Spain. “I bought in in Costcutters Marbella and now I’ve tried to write some Spanish music to go with it” joked the leader. Named for the instrument “Corneta” featured the emotive, clarion like call of the said instrument as the rest of the band, and particularly the shaker wielding Clarvis, offered vigorous rhythmic support. Batchelor later switched to conventional trumpet, but without losing any of the Spanish mood. Hasler later took over on viola, followed by Parricelli on guitar with another spiralling solo of great inventiveness, this complemented by the drone of the viola and the patter of percussion.
Set two began with the lilting melodies of “Snowdays”, written a couple of years ago when Batchelor had found himself snowed in and decided he might as well do some work composing. It was a particularly apt choice on a day that had seen snow over the Black Mountains as we drove down to Cardiff, with the Skirrid and Sugar Loaf looking particularly stunning. The sounds here included pizzicato viola plus the soloing of Parricelli on guitar and Batchelor on trumpet.
Batchelor wrote Carson McCullers in homage to the American author of the novel “The Moon is a Lonely Hunter” and the novella “The Ballad of the Sad Café”. This had an appropriate ‘Americana’ feel about it and was introduced with a passage of unaccompanied guitar from Parricelli that saw him making use of live looping techniques to layer the music in a manner once again reminiscent of Frisell, this subsequently enhanced by Clarvis’ percussive embellishments. Hasler’s warm toned viola solo displayed a distinct folk / country influence while Batchelor had moved to flugel to deliver a fluent, velvety solo. The piece was also notable for a rare solo outing from Watts on melodic double bass. I’ve seen Watts perform many times over the years, always as a sideman, and his impeccable time keeping has been an incalculable asset to every group he has played in, but it’s seldom that I’ve seen him feature as a soloist. Tonight’s outing was therefore particularly enjoyable.
The first ‘outside’ item of the second set was “Odessa”, written by the late alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe (1940 -2017). Whether it was written for the town of the same name in Russia or the one in Texas Batchelor wasn’t sure, but the composition was agreeably reminiscent of the style of the better known Ornette Coleman and offered the ensemble plenty to get their teeth into. Batchelor’s trumpet vocalisations on the intro were a reminder of the Pigfoot project and his subsequent solo was accompanied by Hasler’s wilfully dissonant viola and Parricelli’s intricate guitar patterns.
The Batchelor original “Washington Lyon” was written for a Victorian inventor and philanthropist and was a suitably whimsical piece out of the ‘ex-Loose Tubes school’. Deeply resonant viola combined with Parricelli’s sustain heavy guitar solo but with Hasler later bringing more of a folk influence to bear on her own solo; indeed the song concluded with a coda of the traditional tune “Cindy”.
Clarvis again sat out as the remaining quartet performed a second Edu Lobo piece, “Canto Triste”, literally “Sad Song”. “Get your hankies ready”, warned Batchelor. This was a true ballad, and a genuinely beautiful and moving performance featuring Batchelor on flugel and Hasler on suitably mournful viola.
The percussionist returned for the lively “Elephant Lane”, written for an illegal jazz club at the end of a dark alley in Rotherhithe that the youthful Batchelor used to play at in the pre-Tubes days. A vibrant and highly rhythmic piece this featured complex trumpet and viola melody lines with Batchelor and Parricelli eventually emerging as the main soloists. The stop-start rhythmic patterns offered a welcome humour to the music and this energetic closer brought an excellent evening of music to a conclusion.
The reaction of the audience really demanded an encore and indeed Batchelor had one prepared, a composition titled “The Road, Sky, Moon”. However the house lights came up with a rather indecent haste and the mood was broken and both band and audience were denied a deserved encore, which I suspect was disappointing for all concerned.
Nevertheless I don’t think anybody felt too short changed, these had been two excellent sets of music from an intriguing ensemble that is likely to get better and better as the tour progresses.
To a degree it did fit the ‘chamber jazz’ aesthetic, particularly in terms of volume, but the music crossed international and cultural boundaries with elements from Africa, India and North and South America all in the mix alongside European folk and classical influences.
All of the musicians were sight reading and Batchelor’s music was subtly complex, particularly with regard to the intricate rhythmic interplay between guitar, double bass and percussion. As front line soloists both Batchelor and Hasler impressed with the violist totally at home in this ‘world jazz’ context. One suspects that a greater improvisatory element may become more apparent as the tour progresses and the players become more familiar with the material. Hopefully Batchelor will be able to document the music on disc, too.
This was music that slowly and subtly drew the listener into its web. Superficially the lack of dynamic extremes made the music sound rather ‘samey’ with the normally exuberant Clarvis playing with unusual restraint. But careful listening brought its own rewards and the music was perfectly suited to the intimate surrounds of the Richard Burton Theatre, the smaller performance space at the RWCMD. It was my first visit to this particular space after having previously attended jazz events in the adjacent. Dora Stoutzker Concert Hall.
My thanks to Chris Batchelor for speaking with me at half time and for arranging my concert tickets. He also provided me with a set list which has proved invaluable in writing this review.
Zoetic’s music proved to be hard to pigeonhole. For me the Walcott / Oregon / Codona influence seemed to be paramount while sometime Jazzmann contributor Sean Wilkie suggested the influence of Dave Douglas and particularly the work of his Tiny Bell Trio, a very valid comparison, particularly with regard to the “Huckster” piece in the first set. Sean also spotted parallels with John Zorn and his ongoing Masada project. On my first visit to a gig in Cardiff for quite some time it was good to meet up with Sean and also with Martin Healey, whose photographs have previously graced the Jazzmann site. Cheers, guys.
The Zoetic tour continues with further dates as listed below;
March 13th - Verdict Jazz Club, Brighton
March 16th -Beeston Library, Notts.
March 17th - Worksop Library, Notts.
March 18th - Southwell Library, Notts.
April 24th - Listen!, Cambridge
May 9th - The Hive, Shrewsbury
May 14th - Lauderdale House, London
May 15th - Birmingham Jazz, 1000 Trades, Birmingham
May 20th - Jazz at The Lescar, Sheffield
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