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Dakhla Brass

Dakhla Brass, Yardbird Arts Club, The Hatch, Eardiston, Tenbury Wells, Worcs. 19/09/2017.

by Ian Mann

September 21, 2017


Dakhla have brought something very original, very sophisticated and very British to the tradition of the brass ensemble.

Dakhla Brass, Yardbird Arts, Eardiston, Tenbury Wells, Worcs. 19/09/2017

Dakhla Brass are a Bristol based quintet featuring saxophonists Sophie Stockham (alto) and Charlotte Ostafew (baritone), trumpeter Pete Judge, trombonist Liam Treasure and drummer Matt Brown.

Originally a quartet featuring Stockham, Ostafew, Judge and Brown the group was started six years ago, releasing their début album “In the Land of Milk and Honey” in 2011 and followed this in 2013 with “The Eye of Icarus”. With the addition of Treasure the expanded quintet line up then issued their latest offering, “Gorilla, Gorilla, Gorilla” in 2015.

The band have attracted a considerable degree of critical acclaim and have enjoyed national exposure by way 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.

Also on the bill at the Cullum prom and enjoying similar benefits was the trio led by guitarist Remi Harris, whose wife and manager Dani co-ordinates the regular monthly music events at the Yardbird Arts Club in the heart of the Worcestershire countryside. Both acts had been ‘BBC Introducing’ artists and had been personally selected by Cullum for the prestigious Albert Hall event.

  The shared experience of the Cullum Prom fostered a deep friendship between Dakhla and the Harris Trio and it was almost inevitable that the Bristolians would one day make the journey to play at Yardbird Arts, the tiny, intimate, rural venue representing a complete contrast to the hallowed portals of the Royal Albert Hall.

I first recall hearing Dakhla’s music on a Radio 3 broadcast from Manchester Jazz Festival a few years ago, when they were still a four piece, and thoroughly enjoying it. I also saw their brief cameo at the Cullum prom and knew that this was a band that I just had to see.

Despite the anticipation myself and the other audience members had to bide our time. Upon arriving at the venue we learnt that although Brown had arrived early to set up his impressive looking drum kit the four horn players had broken down on the M5 near Worcester and were still on their way to Eardiston on the back of an AA patrol truck! Such are the vicissitudes of the touring musician.

The audience responded to this in sanguine fashion and with a commendable patience, topping up their glasses while they waited for the unfortunate musicians. After a while Remi Harris decided to get his electric guitar out and perform a brief set with Brown to keep the crowd entertained. Poor. Remi, a rare night off and he finds himself pressed into service as part of an impromptu support act.

Most of the crowd seemed to regard this as a bit of a bonus as Harris and Brown, who had rarely played with each other before, opened their unplanned set with a rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s ballad “Skylark”.  They followed this with a version of a more uptempo Carmichael song, “Honeysuckle Rose”, before finishing their brief performance by turning up the volume for a couple of high energy blues / rock jams.

The sound generated by the duo was surprisingly big with Brown conjuring a wide variety of sounds from his kit via a variety of sticks, brushes and mallets while Harris produced lead, rhythm and bass lines from his guitar in a characteristically virtuoso display that also underlined his versatility and adaptability. With no opportunity for a sound check the actual sound of the guitar was somewhat muddy and distorted but nobody seemed to mind too much. For many this set represented an unexpected additional delight.

By now the other members of the stricken Dakhla had arrived and were availed with cups of tea or bottles of beer according to taste. There was no need for sound checks as the band played totally acoustically and once the various horns had been unpacked and assembled we were quickly under way.

Brown handles the announcements and shares the compositional duties pretty much equally with Ostafew, which effectively makes him the leader, but one gets the impression that Dakhla Brass is a very democratic band with other group members having a say in the arranging process. And it’s arguably Pete Judge who is the highest profile name in the band due to his ten year tenure with Bristolian cult heroes Get The Blessing.

At the beginning of the performance Brown explained that the music was virtually all written and it has to be said that the arrangements are remarkably tight and complex. Astonishingly the band seem to have memorised them all as they played with an impressive cohesion without the help of sheet music.

One thinks of brass led bands as playing party music but Dakhla’s approach is generally more serious, despite the emergence of some memorable riffs and grooves. Their music has a complexity that draws on sources as diverse as modern classical composition, English progressive rock and various strands of folk and ethnic music. It’s a very contemporary and European approach, very different from the familiar New Orleans derived sounds purveyed by so many line ups with a similar instrumentation – and, to these ears, it’s all the more interesting and refreshing for it.

Most of tonight’s music, which was played over the course of two sets, was comprised of material either sourced from the “Gorilla Gorilla Gorilla” album or from a new recording, currently in the course of production, that should see release in 2018. The studio sessions for the new album have seen the group expanded to a sextet with the addition of Riaan Vosloo on double bass.

The opening “Lotus”, a piece destined for the new record, epitomised Dakhla’s approach with its rhythmic complexity and creative use of counterpoint. The group don’t do jazz solos as such but different instruments will take turns to assume the lead, as typified here by the opening baritone/drum dialogue between Ostafew and Brown and the subsequent cameos from Treasure, Stockham and Judge, the latter’s bravura trumpeting a brief but welcome reminder of his Get The Blessing alter ego.

When it comes to tune titles Dakhla embrace the great tradition of a very British eccentricity. For instance Brown’s “The Order Of The Elephant” is named after the “oldest chivalric order in the world”. “It’s in Holland” the drummer added, helpfully. Ostafew supplied some suitably elephantine baritone grooves but despite the Dutch inspiration the impression was of a pleasingly English quirkiness as the five musicians navigated their way through the complexities and dynamic variations of the piece.

The suitably sombre “The Last Post” revealed a more reflective side of the band. A solo drum introduction featuring Brown’s mallet rumbles led into a poignant lament featuring long, solemn intertwined horn melody lines. It was strangely beautiful and very moving.

A horn chorale featuring alto, baritone and trumpet introduced the new tune “Silver and Gold”, another piece intended for the new album. Drums and trombone were later added with trumpeter Judge later emerging as the principal instrumentalist with one of the few clearly defined solos of the evening.

The band went back to their first album for “Revalse”, the first piece that the original Dakhla quartet ever wrote together. Following a solo trumpet intro the piece was initially comprised of long unison horn lines underpinned by delicately brushed drum grooves. This was definitely a composition of two halves as the music abruptly changed direction, gaining energy and momentum as shorter horn phrases were barked out above a rolling, roiling drum groove that metamorphosed into a brief drum solo prior to a closing dialogue between Judge on trumpet and Stockham on alto.

The next piece was unannounced but brought the band into more conventional, upbeat brass band territory with Ostafew’s honking baritone at the heart of the proceedings. Two instrumental set pieces saw a series of fiery exchanges between Judge and Stockham before the low register team of Ostafew and Treasure enjoyed a similarly spirited dialogue. I suspect this may have been Ostafew’s “Dragon No Guard” from the “Gorilla” album.

Ostafew’s “Insomnia Sonia” then closed the first half with Treasure and Judge adding vocalised avant garde flourishes to their cameos. Stockham also soloed briefly as Ostafew’s baritone wandered in and out of the piece. 

I had thoroughly enjoyed this first set but some of the other audience members, more used to hearing gypsy jazz or standards based performances at this venue, were still somewhat non-committal at this point.

It took an even better second half to win everybody over as the band loosened and lightened up after their traumatic journey and the audience began to get their heads round the demands of Dakhla’s quirkily distinctive music.

Brown’s fluent and inventive drumming is essential to the Dakhla sound and his colourful playing shaded the honours alongside Ostafew’s baritone solo on the unannounced opening number of the second set.

From the “Gorilla” album Brown’s catchy and melodic “The Big Red” was named for a jellyfish found in the Marianas Trench, the deepest point in the world’s oceans. Buoyed by the composer’s fluid drum grooves it was Judge’s trumpet that featured most prominently here.

Ostafew’s “Spread Eagle Hill” was named after a geographical feature rather closer to home, her favourite hill in Dorset. Suitably pastoral in tone the piece featured a warm toned, occasionally brooding, horn chorale subtly underpinned by Brown’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers.

Another new tune, as yet untitled, featured infectious odd meter rhythms created by the combination of drums, trombone and baritone above which Judge’s trumpet and Stockham’s alto were given the freedom to soar. Ostafew’s baritone muscled in towards the close to refocus the attention on the team at the “bottom end”.

The audience responded strongly to this, and also to the segue of “Heartache and Loneliness” which began with an appropriately sombre and melancholy horn chorale with the lead shifting between Judge on trumpet and Treasure on trombone. Brown’s drums came to the fore on “Quicksand” which included something of a drum feature, with Brown’s typically colourful and inventive playing underscored by the staccato riffing of the horns. Again this was very well received.

The performance concluded with “Gorilla Gorilla Gorilla” which was fuelled by an infectious drum/baritone sax groove with Judge, Stockham and Treasure supplying melodic motifs and riffs on another piece in which Brown’s drums featured prominently. The title track of the most recent album it’s one of Dakhla’s most assertive and upbeat pieces and ended the evening on an energetic high note. Now thoroughly convinced and fully on side the audience responded with a very positive reaction.

Dakhla have brought something very original, very sophisticated and very British to the tradition of the brass ensemble and on the evidence of the “Gorilla Gorilla Gorilla” album, plus that radio broadcast from Manchester many years ago, their music stands up well in the home listening environment too.

My thanks to Sophie Stockham and Pete Judge for speaking with me afterwards. Hope you all got safely back home to Bristol, guys and enjoyed your visit to the glorious Worcestershire countryside despite everything.

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