by Ian Mann
January 19, 2020
Mansfield’s compositions skilfully fuse together diverse musical elements into a seamless whole. This is warm, vibrant, intelligent music that is rich in terms of colour, texture and nuance.
(Edition Records EDN1130)
Here’s another release from 2019 that’s been lurking in the ‘to do’ file for far too long.
I’m indebted to Jonny Mansfield for personally forwarding me a copy of his leadership début, an ambitious recording featuring his original music played by his eleven piece group Elftet, plus a smattering of special guests.
Huddersfield born Mansfield studied at Chetham’s Music School and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 2018 he was the recipient of the Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize, a prestigious award that helped to finance the recording of this ambitious début album.
Equally proficient on vibraphone and kit drums Mansfield’s career to date has been divided between the two instruments. He is the drummer with the quintet Bonsai, the band formerly known as Jam Experiment, but doubles up on vibes on the group’s recordings, “Jam Experiment” (2017) and “Bonsai Club” (2019).
Mansfield also leads, from the vibes, a quartet featuring the talents of pianist Will Barry and the Elftet rhythm section of bassist Will Harris and drummer Boz Martin-Jones. This group is sometimes augmented by tenor saxophonist Tom Barford, a bandleader in his own right.
The Elftet line up includes two of Mansfield’s Bonsai colleagues, the Wakefield born Ingham brothers, musicians Mansfield has worked with since his Chetham’s days. For the purposes of this recording Elftet lines up as follows;
Jonny Mansfield – vibraphone
Ella Hohnen-Ford -vocals, flute
James Davison – trumpet & flugel
Tom Smith – alto & tenor saxes, flute
George Millard – tenor sax, bass clarinet, flute
Rory Ingham – trombone
Dominic Ingham – violin
Laura Armstrong – cello
Oliver Mason - guitar
Will Harris – double bass, electric bass
Boz Martin-Jones – drums
Chris Potter – tenor sax
Gareth Lockrane – flute
Kit Downes – Hammond organ
At the 2018 EFG London Festival I enjoyed a live performance by a very similar line up at the 606 Jazz Club in Chelsea. The three guests weren’t present but the only other change was in the tenor sax chair with Sam Rapley replacing Millard.
Guest contributor Trevor Bannister was also bowled over by the band when they played a hugely successful show at the Progress Theatre in Reading earlier in 2018. His account of that performance can be read here;
Much of the material to be heard on this album was performed at those gigs.
Mansfield was also commissioned to write new music for a performance by Elftet at the 2018 Marsden Jazz Festival in West Yorkshire. This material, collectively gathered under the title “On Marsden Moor” included settings of poems by the acclaimed poet and academic Simon Armitage.
At Reading Mansfield was asked why he had chosen to write for an eleven piece band. “It gives me the chance to write for a broad musical palette and to create colours and textures beyond what’s possible in a small group”, he replied.
Mansfield is an ambitious composer whose pieces embrace a variety of musical styles as well as drawing inspiration from poetry and literature. In this sense his music is very much in the tradition of British jazz composers such as Michael Garrick, Mike Westbrook and, of course, Kenny Wheeler. But the youthfulness and vitality of his ensemble helps to give his music a very contemporary twist.
Both the Reading and London live performances commenced with album opener “Sailing”, a composition combining jazz, folk and classical influences and also featuring the vocals of Hohnen-Ford, delivering Mansfield’s lyrics extolling the “Gifts of song, poetry, joy, happiness and mystery”.
The Elftet sound is indeed rich in terms of both colour and texture as the strings of Armstrong and Dominic Ingham combine with the sounds of reeds, brass and rhythm. The featured instrumental soloists are Rory Ingham on fluent, warm toned trombone and Millard (I think) on incisive tenor. There’s also some exemplary ensemble playing, including some thrilling interplay between the various horns. At the 606 I recall Hohnen-Ford encouraging the audience to clap along with the closing chorus, featuring the acappella vocals of the band members, a device that is repeated here.
“M & M” introduces the first of Elftet’s illustrious guests, the great American saxophonist Chris Potter, who is currently signed to the Edition label. The strings are again prominent in another richly colourful arrangement. This is a particularly well integrated ensemble that makes no distinction between ‘jazz’ and ‘classical’ players. Potter solos with his customary fluency and inventiveness, really tearing it up on tenor as the rest of the band generate an authentically big sound around him. But there are gentler moments too, Potter’s solo is followed by a softer ‘choral’ passage featuring wordless vocals, before Martin-Jones establishes the odd meter drum groove that helps to underpin Mansfield’s shimmering vibes solo. This multi-faceted, episodic piece then shifts gear again with a second powerful excursion from Potter above driving rhythms and a rousing band chart, before a quieter coda.
The more concise “Falling” is an adaptation by Mansfield of poet Thomas Dekker’s “Cradle Song”. The piece is a feature for the pure toned, well enunciated vocals of Hohnen-Ford, who soars above the lush quasi-orchestral backdrop. By appropriating Dekker Mansfield finds himself in select musical company, The Beatles also borrowed extensively from Dekker for “Golden Slumbers” on “Abbey Road”.
The piece “T & C’s Apply” was written for Mansfield’s brothers, Tim and Chris. It acts as a feature for guest flautist Gareth Lockrane, who at one point forms part of a ‘flute ensemble’ alongside Hohnen-Ford, Smith and Millard. It’s a lively tune with a pronounced folk influence that features Dominic Ingham’s violin alongside Lockrane’s virtuosic, effervescent flute soloing. Lockrane has been something of a mentor to Mansfield, while the younger man has played vibes and marimba with Lockrane’s Big Band, appearing on the album “Fist Fight at the Barn Dance”. The closing passage of “T & C’s” finds Mansfield’s vibes and Lockrane’s flute in courtly duet, underpinned by Harris’ double bass.
“Mr. Boz” is a brief drum feature for Martin-Jones, written for him by Mansfield, which features the sticksman exploring a variety of different drum sounds.
“Silhouette” was the first tune that Mansfield wrote for Elftet and it’s a piece that has evolved over the years, with a greater emphasis being placed on improvisation as it has developed in live performance. A complex theme featuring Hohnen-Ford’s ethereal wordless vocals eventually paves the way for a powerful electric guitar solo from Mason, with a strong rock influence present in his playing. Mason then provides washes of colour and texture behind the engaging dialogue between Mansfield and Martin-Jones that lies at the heart of the tune. As the conversation gathers momentum, with Harris joining in on bass, I’m reminded of the Cloudmakers Trio, led by another of Mansfield’s mentors, the great Jim Hart, who also deserves credit for his role as the producer of this album. Davison’s trumpet flares briefly, as does Millard’s bass clarinet, but it’s Tom Smith who rounds off the solos with a blistering sortie on alto.
Davison’s unaccompanied flugel introduces “For You”, a piece written with a song-like construction of which Mansfield says; “I hope that this tune can be a song that anyone can listen to and feel that it was written for them”. Davison’s flugel is then joined in duet by Mason’s guitar before the introduction of Hohnen-Ford’s wistful wordless vocals. Mansfield’s aim was to create a piece with a strong, uplifting vibe, and with its lilting melody it’s a comparatively simple piece by Elftet standards. Further solos come from Smith on alto, Harris on double bass and a returning Davidson
“Flying Kites” is dedicated to Mansfield’s father, a figure he describes as being “dedicated and insightful”. The piece opens in ethereal fashion, with a passage featuring wordless vocals, muted brass and the ethereal shimmer of vibes and guitar. Subsequently a gently percolating groove is established, featuring the sounds of pizzicato violin and bass clarinet among others. This helps to give the piece a suitably quirky and whimsical feel, one that is later seceded by a heavier groove as the ‘kite’ really starts to fly, as described in Hohnen-Ford’s rendition of the economic, but descriptive, two line lyric. There are solo from passages for both saxophone and flute – hard to apportion credit here – and from Dominic Ingham on violin.
The closing piece, Sweet Potato”, introduces the final guest soloist, Kit Downes, another musician that Mansfield considers as a mentor. The tune itself is dedicated to Mansfield’s mother and opens with an extended horn chorale. The combination of Mason’s guitar and Downes’ Hammond brings a blues and gospel sensibility to the music, as do the saxophone solos. Downes later takes flight on Hammond, still very much in gospel mode, and sounding very different to his solo projects. Meanwhile Hohnen-Fords’s soaring wordless vocals allied to the joyous ensemble playing help to ensure that the mood remains buoyant and uplifting throughout.
“Elftet” represents a highly ambitious début from Mansfield and on the whole the album succeeds brilliantly. The eleven piece line up has remained remarkably stable since its inception and the trust and respect that the musicians have for one another’s’ playing is apparent throughout.
The three stellar guests all make exceptional contributions and their very presence represents a compelling endorsement of Mansfield’s talents.
Mansfield’s compositions and arrangements skilfully fuse together diverse musical elements into a seamless whole. This is warm, vibrant, intelligent music that is rich in terms of colour, texture and nuance, and not without a welcome touch of humour. This may be ‘serious’ music, but Mansfield isn’t a musician who takes himself too seriously.
Elftet’s music embraces elements of jazz, folk, classical and even rock yet never sounds contrived or forced. In addition to Garrick, Westbrook and Wheeler Mansfield’s writing has also been compared to that of Mike Gibbs, Maria Schneider (an acknowledged influence), Loose Tubes and even Duke Ellington.
The performances in Reading and London included material that doesn’t appear on this debut, so hopefully Mansfield will be able to record a second Elftet album at some point in the future. In the meantime this ambitious and brilliantly recognised debut will do very nicely, thank you.blog comments powered by Disqus