by Ian Mann
May 24, 2011
Loud, brash, irreverent and unfailingly entertaining, but more subtle than they are sometimes given credit for, GTB have developed a sound of their own and are a very welcome presence on the UK music
Get The Blessing
Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny. 22/05/2011
Persuading the Bristolian quartet Get The Blessing to play at the Kings represented quite a coup for BMJ’s Mike Skilton. The band exploded onto the scene back in 2007/8 with their hard hitting début album “All Is Yes” scooping the prize for best album at the 2008 BBC Jazz Awards.
From the beginning the group courted controversy. Originally simply The Blessing they named themselves after the title of an Ornette Coleman tune but were later obliged to adjust their moniker following a challenge from a similarly named indie rock outfit from the States. As Get The Blessing they released the darker hued follow up “Bugs In Amber” in 2009, a successful album that retained the essentials of the GTB template but at the same time exhibited clear signs of a growing maturity and a degree of artistic growth.
Not everybody was convinced however, jazz purists sniffed at the rock elements present in GTB’s sound and cited a lack of improvisational content. GTB certainly keep their compositions lean,mean and punchy but there’s a fair level of sophistication within their riff based framework-and they do have some killer hooks. I like the band and have seen them perform live several times. My initial encounter at Cardiff’s Jazz Café, when I didn’t know at all what to expect, was certainly an eye opener as the group clattered boisterously through most of “All Is Yes” to the bemusement of the Valentine’s Day diners in the restaurant section. Next came hugely successful festival appearances at the Brecon (2008) and Cheltenham (2009) Jazz Festivals. The Cheltenham show was particularly memorable, a hugely exciting late night gig complete with a pulsating light show that complemented the group’s music perfectly. Later in the year an appearance at Colston Hall in their home city saw them experimenting in a performance that also featured vocalist Tammy Payne plus a string section. The additional elements did seem to be rather grafted on and the venture could only truly be regarded as a partial success.
At BMJ the core quartet delivered two enjoyable sets of material drawn from both albums plus a handful of newer tunes scheduled to be recorded for a new album in 2012. As has been well documented the group’s rhythm section of Jim Barr (bass guitar) and Clive Deamer (drums) are founder members of the rock group Portishead and still collaborate regularly with the members of that band. Deamer is also a busy session and touring musician, working with Robert Plant amongst many others. If the engine room of the band comes from what is essentially a rock background then the jazz element comes from the two horn men, ex NYJO members Pete Judge (trumpet) and Jake McMurchie (tenor sax). Both play electrically hooked up instruments and treat their sound with a variety of foot pedals, buttons, switches and other gizmos. With their essentially chordless line up Get The Blessing take the instrumental configuration of Coleman’s classic “The Shape Of Jazz To Come” album and update it with a contemporary rock sensibility. If all that sounds a bit heavy and serious it’s tempered by GTB’s sense of humour. The group have an obvious love of pulp culture, their tunes borrow from cop show themes and Western movie soundtracks as well as from Coleman and rock song forms. Their surreal sense of humour also extends into their song titles as well as Barr’s deadpan but frequently hilarious song announcements, of which more later.
We arrived early and caught the band going through their soundcheck with BMJ’s regular sound engineer, Jim. Well done to all concerned because the balance was spot on, with each instrument clearly audible and well delineated. This is not always a given, at the Cardiff show Deamer’s drums had been overly dominant and rather drowned out the rest of the group. GTB have been somewhat off the radar for the last year or so and some of the initial buzz about the group seems to have died down. It’s not something I particularly want to mention but sadly I do have to report that the attendance at tonight’s gig was disappointing, especially in the wake of the large crowd drawn by Sarah Gillespie and Gilad Atzmon only very recently. Still it was better than the mere twenty or so who had seen the group at Trowbridge the previous evening. But GTB are professionals, they donned their black stage suits and duly delivered- those who stayed away missed something of a treat.
They stormed straight into “Suki’s Suzuki” from their first album, revving up through the gears via Barr’s rumbling bass, Deamer’s crisp drumming and the apocalyptic riffing of the two horns. Elsewhere Judge found time to tinkle a child’s glockenspiel and McMurchie provided the jazz content with a succinct tenor sax solo.
A new tune “Adagio”, featured Judge on Harmon muted trumpet and McMurchie on whinnying tenor sax. The horn solos were propelled by muscular bass and polyrhythmic drumming. The following “13”, also new, saw Judge treating his open horn trumpet sound with echo above the rolling thunder of Deamer’s drums.
From the first album “Another Brother’s Mother” was all about rapidly shifting soft/loud dynamics and the thrilling interplay between tenor sax and trumpet. Judge and McMurchie make an impressively big sound when they play in tandem but they are also adept at layering their sounds and also at bouncing ideas off each other in thrilling counterpoint.
It’s perhaps not strictly accurate to refer to GTB as a chordless group. Barr plays his bass guitar with a pick, not something that you very often, and is capable of playing chords on the instrument in the manner of Back Door’s Colin Hodgkinson. He also plays some guitar live (Portishead’s Adrian Utley guests on the records) and switched to the six string for the Western influenced “Americano” providing eerie tremolo arm induced soundwashes to accompany the solos of Judge on trumpet and McMurchie on electronically treated sax. Barr remained on guitar for “Equal And Opposite” , following the twin assaults of the horns with a fuzz heavy final solo.
The hypnotic grooves and electronically layered horns of “Waiting” then concluded an enthralling first set chock full of infectious hooks, riffs and grooves and punchy, razor sharp playing. The music was punctuated by Barr’s increasingly surreal tune announcements , largely based around a food theme that had developed at the soundcheck. As regards Barr’s verbiage no two shows are ever the same. Cynics might claim that more improvisation occurs here than in the music. The way some of his comments clearly creased his band-mates up, particularly long term associate Deamer who was chuckling away uncontrollably behind his drums, suggested that this was the first time they’d heard them too.
The food theme took us neatly into the half time tapas break after which the band emerged for an equally rumbustious second half, this time with Barr linking the numbers with a science theme. The urgent bass groove, skittering drum patterns and racing horn lines of “Thermos” got things off to a lively start with Judge’s wraith like muted trumpet shadowing McMurchie’s garrulous tenor solo.
From the “Bugs In Amber” album “Tarp” is one of GTB’s most atmospheric pieces with the twang of Barr’s guitar adding an other worldly sheen to the slow shuffle of Deamer’s drums and the elongated horn lines of Judge and McMurchie. It’s evocative of nights under the stars in the High Plains of the US, that old cowboy theme again, a surreal updating of Duane Eddy’s twangy guitar sound that becomes Get The Blessing’s own little piece of Americana.
New tune “Low Earth” introduced a subtle flavour of the Middle East to the proceedings through McMurchie’s tenor solo, the piece also notable for the sound of Barr’s fuzz bass. There’s often a hint of Hugh Hopper in his supple,sinuous bass lines.
“OCDC”, a homage to Australian heavy rockers AC/DC represented audience participation time as Barr urged us to “make percussive noises with the insides of your hands”. Not that this was your bog standard audience clap along, keeping pace with GTB’s rapidly fluctuating rhythms represented something of a challenge but it was one that the small but enthusiastic crowd gallantly negotiated.
From “Bugs” the tune “Speed Of Dark” (or “SOD” as it charmingly appeared on the set list) was an effects feast with both Judge and McMurchie unleashing a dizzying array of sounds as they crouched down on the stage, manipulating their sounds with an arsenal of floor mounted devices. Behind them Barr and Deamer provided a a suitably mesmeric pulse. As a psychedelic experience it couldn’t quite match the hypnotic, strobe assisted performance at Cheltenham, but courtesy of my fourth pint of Black Rat cider it came pretty close.
The band were on a roll by now and closed the second set with two of their most crowd pleasing items. First came “Einstein Action Figure”, the impressionistic intro eventually giving way to the tune’s killer circling sax hook. Then came the bass driven “Cake Hole” with its lurching dynamic shifts and belligerent sax solo.
Tempted back for a couple of encores the band displayed a wry sense of humour on something of a bass feature for Barr before rounding off the night with a barnstorming “That Ain’t It” with its walloping grooves, blazing solos and mighty unison horn riffs.
Get The Blessing are alive and well and as vital as ever. They’ll be out of action for a while as Barr and Deamer will be touring later this summer with Portishead but the delight they take in playing with this band is obvious. They’ll be back in 2012 with that new album, it will be interesting to hear how that sounds, many of the new pieces sounded very familiar, and to see if they can exhibit further signs of development. Let’s hope their enforced absence from the jazz scene doesn’t result in GTB losing momentum. Loud, brash, irreverent and unfailingly entertaining, but more subtle than they are sometimes given credit for, GTB have developed a sound of their own and are a very welcome presence on the UK music scene. Any fans of Led Bib, Polar Bear, Portico Quartet etc. who haven’t checked them out yet are strongly recommended to do so.
As usual - a great review - well done Ian.