by Ian Mann
October 25, 2018
“Murmur” represents their most multi-faceted album to date. This is music that you want to go back to over and over again.
(Impossible Ark Records)
“Murmur”, not to be confused with the R.E.M. album of the same name, represents the fourth full length release from the Bristol based ensemble Dakhla Brass, the group currently a sextet following the addition of bassist Riaan Vosloo. It is available on twelve inch vinyl and as a digital release.
Dakhla Brass was formed in 2011 by saxophonists Sophie Stockham (alto) and Charlotte Ostafew (baritone) plus trumpeter Pete Judge and drummer Matt Brown. This line up featured on the band’s first two albums “In the Land of Milk and Honey” (2011) and “The Eye of Icarus” (2013). Trombonist Liam Treasure had been added by the time of 2015’s “Gorilla Gorilla” and the band have expanded their sonic palette even further with the recruitment of Vosloo, who joined during the recording of “Murmur”.
Dakhla Brass have attracted a considerable degree of critical acclaim and have enjoyed national exposure by way of festival appearances and regular radio play from a very supportive BBC. One of their biggest champions is pianist, vocalist and radio presenter Jamie Cullum who invited Dakhla Brass to appear at his 2016 BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, an event that was broadcast on both Radio 3 and BBC 4 television. As a result of the Cullum connection they also played at the Montreal Jazz Festival in the same year.
I first recall enjoying Dakhla’s music on a Radio 3 broadcast from Manchester Jazz Festival a few years ago, when they were still a four piece. That performance was the result of the band being chosen as one of the acts representing the “Best of New Jazz”, the selections having been made by the influential broadcasters Jez Nelson and Giles Peterson.
In September 2017 I enjoyed witnessing a live performance by the five piece Dakhla Brass at The Hatch in rural Worcestershire, the venue run by guitarist Remi Harris, whose trio had also appeared at the Cullum prom and Montreal. My account of that occasion can be read here;
“Murmur” was recorded at the Fish Factory Studio in London with Ben Lamdin, Vosloo’s bandmate from the group Nostalgia 77 producing. Under Lamdin’s guidance Dakhla’s core brass sound has been supplemented by additional instruments including synthesiser and vibraphone, both played by Vosloo, and the zither like Marxohone, played by Brown. New recruit Vosloo plays both acoustic and electric bass, integrating his parts into the already existing compositions during the recording sessions. The result is the most varied and wide ranging Dakhla album to date with the new elements adding extra colour and texture to the music.
The six members of Dakhla Brass bring a broad range of influences to the music and their sound is very different to the high energy ‘get up and dance’ approach of New Orleans brass bands such as the Hot 8. Instead Dakhla embrace a wide range of influences including jazz, rock, folk, world and contemporary classical music. It’s a more ‘serious’ or ‘European’ approach if you will, offering greater subtlety, complexity and musical and emotional variation, especially on disc. Nevertheless Dakhla remain a highly rhythmic unit who are capable of generating considerable excitement in the live environment and who are more than capable of tailoring their performances to the setting in which they find themselves.
“Murmur” features ten new original compositions, the majority of them by Charlotte Ostafew, several of which featured in that performance at The Hatch.
The album opens with Brown’s “One Wicker Wisp” with Vosloo’s bass immediately making its presence felt with an underpinning groove that frees up the horn players to provide rich colours and voicings as Brown provides inventive and colourful drum commentary. The piece undertakes numerous twists and turns during its duration with sure footed changes of mood and pace and with solo cameos from Stockham on alto and Judge on trumpet. The latter is arguably the highest profile name in the band, known to many listeners as a member of Bristolian cult heroes Get The Blessing. Judge also performs as one half of the duo Eyebrow, alongside drummer and percussionist Paul Wigens.
“Lotus” opened the performance at The Hatch and develops from Ostafew’s opening bari riff to embrace complex but invigorating rhythms with succinct but incisive solos coming from Treasure, Stockham and Judge.
“5000 What?” adopts a vaguely North African / cop show feel with punchy horns coalescing above a propulsive, rolling groove. But this being Dakhla Brass it’s not quite as straightforward as that. There are more reflective moments too, featuring sombre low register sounds from bari, trombone and bass plus a fluent trumpet solo from Judge.
“Murmuration”, co-written by Ostafew and Brown, presumably helped to give the album its title and sees the band embracing elements of free improvisation and expanded technique, particularly from Vosloo’s bass. Historically Dakhla’s horn arrangements have been very precise and structured with Brown being given a degree of improvisational freedom behind the kit. The introduction to this piece is probably the free-est thing Dakhla have ever recorded, although they return to more conventional territory later on, including some beguiling melodic flourishes before another semi-free episode leads to a thumping closing riff that nevertheless incorporates further elements of the avant garde.
“Silver + Gold” was one of the pieces played at The Hatch and is introduced here by a delightful horn chorale with Brown’s subtly colourful drumming subsequently underpinning the intertwining melody lines of the horns. Dakhla don’t really do jazz solos as such, and although various instruments take turns at taking the lead these are rarely big ‘sign posted’ features or solos. In this regard Dakhla adopt more of a ‘chamber jazz’ approach and its one that works very well, even in the band’s more energetic moments.
Also played in Worcestershire “Insomnia Somnia” with its staccato rhythmic patterns encapsulates the feel of a sleepless night and the disturbance that comes with it, this expressed via the growling, vocalised horn sounds from various members of the ensemble. However it all seems to resolve itself melodically as a modicum of peacefulness is ultimately achieved.
“The Last Host” is sombre and almost hymnal with long, solemn horn lines accompanied by Brown’s economical drum patterns. It seems to have evolved since the beautiful performance I witnessed at The Hatch with a brief avant garde episode featuring bass and drums mid tune now leading into an anthemic finale.
“Zenith + Nadir” is lighter in tone and combines an almost classical use of counterpoint with more orthodox jazz grooves, with Judge emerging as the featured soloist.
As its title suggests “Heartache + Loneliness” is another composition that emphasises the more reflective side of the band, this finding expression in the melancholy beauty of the opening horn chorale. The subsequent addition of drums and bass adds colour momentum but the essential mood of the piece remains.
“Quicksand” closed the show at The Hatch and concludes the album also. Driven by Brown’s dynamic drumming and featuring the staccato riffing of the horns it’s one of Dakhla’s most exuberant and crowd pleasing pieces. The addition of Vosloo’s bass brings additional rhythmic impetus and he even adds some Dan Berglund type arco bass to compete with featured horn soloist Ostafew.
Dakhla may now be less obviously a ‘brass ensemble’ than they once were but the addition of Vosloo has broadened their sonic horizons and “Murmur” represents their most multi-faceted album to date. Each of these ten compositions represents a journey with no one piece remaining in one place for long. It’s music that’s frankly difficult to write about but immensely rewarding to listen to. There’s so much going on here, making Dakhla’s music far more interesting and satisfying than all that one dimensional “let’s party” stuff that proliferates elsewhere. This is music that you want to go back to over and over again.
As for the future Ostafew has stated that the addition of Vosloo will free up her baritone sax to play more melodically, with the bass parts now being covered by the new arrival. This will indeed be an interesting development, but Vosloo has already demonstrated that he’s a musician capable of doing so much more than just holding down the ‘bottom end’ so it will be very interesting to see which direction Dakhla Brass take next. In the meantime “Murmur” is highly recommended.
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