Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

August 06, 2018


Sometimes simple, sometimes complex, often playful but always interesting this is a well crafted selection of original songs and compositions that are superbly realised by Manington and his team.

Dave Manington’s Riff Raff

“Challenger Deep”

(Loop Records Loop 1030)

A somewhat belated review for this second album from bassist and composer Dave Manington’s sextet Riff Raff. “Challenger Deep” was released in May 2018 and represents the long awaited follow up to 2013’s “Hullabaloo”.

The personnel remains the same with the leader joined by vocalist and lyricist Brigitte Beraha plus the instrumentalists Tomas Challenger (tenor sax), Ivo Neame (keyboards), Rob Updegraff (guitar) and Tim Giles (drums, percussion). All are long term collaborators and Neame and Giles were also part of an earlier Dave Manington Quartet (also featuring saxophonist Mark Hanslip) that released the album “Headrush” on the Loop label back in 2008.

Manington is one of the great unsung heroes of British jazz, a founder member of the both the Loop and E17 jazz collectives and a prolific, versatile and much in demand sideman who has worked across a variety of musical genres ranging from jazz to rock and pop to TV and film soundtracks.

His jazz credits include recordings with Neame, saxophonists Tori Freestone and Tommy Andrews and with the groups The Button Band (led by guitarist and composer Andrew Button)  and Solstice, a co-operative sextet featuring Beraha and Freestone. He has also performed with a string of other famous saxophonists including Julian Arguelles, Marius Neset, Mark Lockheart, Tim Garland, Iain Ballamy, Tony Woods, Peter King and Alan Barnes plus pianist Gwilym Simcock, trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and vocalist and songwriter Gwyneth Herbert.

“Challenger Deep” builds upon the success of the earlier “Hullabaloo” as Riff Raff continue to hone an increasingly distinctive group sound with Neame this time abandoning acoustic piano altogether and concentrating solely on electric keyboards (Fender Rhodes, mellotron and Hammond organ). Of the nine new Manington compositions five feature the adventurous wordless vocalising of Beraha while a further four tracks are more conventional songs featuring lyrics written by the singer with Manington remarking;
“I first collaborated with Brigitte in 2008 for a Loop Collective Festival and she has been a member of the group and a trusted co-writer ever since, contributing beautiful lyrics to many of my compositions”.

Of the album itself Manington says;
This is my third album as a leader and I feel it’s the ultimate expression of my music. Shaped and led by my compositions, but with plenty of freedom to explore, the band now plays so well as a unit after five years together that we can push each other to the limits of our energy and creative powers”.

He emphasises the group’s “strongly unified band sound” and “creative rapport” and references the fact that he, Giles and Updegraff all went to school together and have thus been a rhythm section for over twenty years, this unit forming “the heart of the band”. Of the guitarist and drummer he eulogises; “between them they have a rich and diverse textural palette, high energy and powerful, always empathetic, never overwhelming, they are musicians of exceptional quality”.
That last phrase also applies to Riff Raff as a whole, the sextet is a superbly balanced unit that more than does justice to Manington’s rich, imaginative and varied compositions.

The album commences with “Dr. Octopus”, Manington’s tribute to the late, great Joe Zawinul, keyboard player, composer and co-founder of Weather Report. Manington’s liner notes shine a light on the provenance of each tune and he cites Weather Report as “one of my favourite bands and a big influence on me in my formative years”. Of the title he says ”I still find it incredible that Zawinul could play so many keyboard parts at once so I decided that he must have eight arms – like the baddie from Spiderman”.
It’s left to Neame to fulfil the Zawinul role in this multi-faceted composition that successfully homages Weather Report without ever sounding like them. Slavish copying or pastiche is not Manington’s style but his piece still successfully navigates its way through a variety of styles, moods and tempos in a way that Zawinul himself would have been proud of. The focus is largely on the ensemble sound and Riff Raff is particularly well balanced in this respect as Neame and Updegraff provide rich colours and textures and Maington and Giles provide the snappy propulsion. Beraha’s soaring wordless vocals provide a particularly distinctive component, sometimes sharing the melody line with Challenger’s saxophone, at other times exchanging phrases with it. The tenor man takes the only real solo of the piece as he stretches out incisively.

The title track is named after the ocean trench in the Pacific rather than after the group’s saxophonist, although I’ve often suggested to Tom that he should adopt “Challenger Deep” as a band name. Now his mate seems to have beaten him to it by using it for a composition. Manington speaks of the composition as being “more of a mood piece, with the low bass riff and slow, otherworldly melody trying to capture the strange beauty and calm of the deep ocean. Imagine all the weird fish and creatures unknown to science swimming past in the darkness.”
The introduction is suitably atmospheric with Challenger’s breathy tenor sax allied to Giles’  brushes and mallet rumbles and the spooky, deep sea sounds of Neame’s keyboards and Updegraff’s guitar FX. Gradually that melody emerges, underpinned by the leader’s bass and featuring Beraha’s floaty, wordless vocals. The leader allows himself some solo space with a melodic bass feature underpinned by Neame’s shimmering keyboards and Giles’ subtle but exotic drum and percussion sounds. Challenger then takes up the reins on tenor before Beraha’s voice heads another ensemble section, this followed by the sounds of Updegraff’s FX drenched guitar. Collectively the musicians conjure up the mysterious, deep ocean feel that Manington was looking for. This is colourful, richly textured music that is almost orchestral in its scope as the five instruments plus voice conjure a rich panoply of exotic and fascinating sounds.

“I like to take the listener on a journey, to tell a musical story” says Manington as he describes the aptly named “The Iliad”, a piece he also refers to as “a bit of an epic, written in several contrasting sections.” The piece is, indeed, suitably episodic, developing out of a funky Rhodes driven groove to embrace the kind of breezy wordless vocalising that Flora Purim brought to the first edition of Return to Forever. Updegraff then embarks on an engagingly rambling solo, sketching melodies above a still funky underlying groove. Then it’s the turn of Neame to stretch out on Rhodes, dovetailing neatly with Beraha’s vocals. Manington himself comes briefly to the fore and Updegraff cranks his guitar up once more just before the close. The underlying funkiness is a constant throughout and the blend of voice and instruments also reminded me at times of the much loved and much missed (at least by me) group Turning Point, led by another bassist, the late, great Jeff Clyne and featuring vocalist Pepi Lemer. Oh, god, was it nearly forty years ago?

Following the complexities of the opening three pieces the first song of the album, “Free Spirit”, comes as something of a breath of fresh air. Manington describes it as “one of the most direct, uncomplicated songs I’ve written” and also praises Beraha’s “fantastic heartfelt lyrics”. The composer states that he “decided not to bow to the temptation to over-arrange it” and the result is a piece that communicates through its economy and simplicity. Beraha sings her own words with great feeling, this allied to a high level of technical expertise. The intentionally sparse backing at first features only the sound of guitar, later joined by double bass and eventually drums. Neame’s keyboards only enter when Updegraff takes a gently meandering guitar solo. In the context of the album as a whole it’s a song that makes a considerable emotional impact.

It’s back to the compositional nitty gritty with “Prime Numbers”, a piece that Manington describes as being “based on a sequence of seven bars of 7/8 – also containing plenty of threes and fives”. Muso-speak aside it’s a perky and infectious piece that positively relishes in its complexities with a percolating groove and underlying vocal drone allowing Challenger the opportunity to stretch out with some urgency on spiky, belligerent sounding tenor as Neame alternates between Hammond and Rhodes, soloing on the latter.

The second song of the album, “Random Acts Of Kindness” was inspired by the online blog of the same name. Introduced by Giles’ colourful and distinctive percussion in conjunction with Challenger’s smoky tenor sax the piece has something of a Brazilian vibe; but overall it’s more oblique than the earlier “Free Spirit”, the unusual subject matter giving the piece more of an ‘art song’ feel. Beraha also deploys wordless vocals, combining well with both Manington and Challenger, but the instrumental honours go to Updegraff with a spiralling guitar solo in which he exhibits an admirable inventiveness and fluency.

“Dangerpig” takes its name from the superhero alter ego of Manington’s young son, Freddie. Introduced by Beraha’s pure wordless vocals in conjunction with Challenger’s sax and Giles’ brushed drums the piece eventually veers off into choppier waters, Neame’s Hammond leading the way. Giles’ propulsive grooves are overlain with bursts of almost free jazz noise with Beraha sometimes deploying extended vocal techniques as Neame conjures up a variety of dirty, unconventional sounds from his keyboards and Challenger blows some earthy tenor sax. I bet it goes down a storm, live.

Manington’s children also inspired the song “Thagomizer”. Asked by his kids to write a tune about dinosaurs the bassist came up with this piece named after “the spiky bit on the end of a Stegosaur’s tail”. It was left to Beraha to “rise to the challenge of writing lyrics about this prickly subject matter”. Surprisingly the singer was able to come up with something that works surprisingly well, her words also acting as an allegory for the divisions in contemporary society. There are further free-ish passages with the musicians summoning up an intriguing array of sounds from their instruments, with solo honours going to Manington with a brief bass cameo and Neame with an extended passage on twinkling Rhodes.

The closing track sees Manington returning to simpler virtues with a beautiful ballad – albeit in 5/4.
“I wrote some simple bass chords, but the song really came to life when Brigitte added her beautiful melancholic lyrics, and Tom his fantastic quirky saxophone solo” explains the composer. It’s difficult to disagree with his assessment on another intentionally simple arrangement that mirrors the earlier “Free Spirit”. Beraha first sings her words - which have a timeless, folk like quality about them - above the sound of the leader’s otherwise unaccompanied bass. In truth Challenger’s subsequent tenor solo is ultimately lovely and lyrical rather than quirky, some of the most beautiful playing he has ever committed to disc. Meanwhile Neame and Updegraff offer highly effective and atmospheric soundscaping. One can imagine this piece being played as a calming encore, sending the audience home relaxed and happy, despite the apparent sadness of the lyrics.

This second Riff Raff album has been a long time coming but it’s been well worth the wait. There’s seventy minutes of music here but the inventive and colourful compositions and arrangements, allied to some excellent playing, ensure that the listener’s attention rarely flags. Sometimes simple, sometimes complex, often playful but always interesting “Challenger Deep” is a well crafted selection of original songs and compositions that are superbly realised by Manington and his team who bring a real orchestral quality to the music of the sextet, a trait shared by Weather Report. Yet despite the comparisons with WR and RTF Riff Raff’s sound is still unmistakably British, thanks in part to Beraha’s Norma Winstone like vocals and lyrics, Winstone surely being another touchstone for this band. With “Challenger Deep” Manington and friends have come up with another album to be proud of.

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