by Ian Mann
January 17, 2024
A remarkable performance from four very talented young musicians
Jonny Mansfield Quartet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 13/01/2024.
Jonny Mansfield – vibraphone, Will Barry – piano, Will Sach – double bass, Luke McCarthy – drums
Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s first event of 2024 featured a quartet led by the multi-instrumentalist and composer Jonny Mansfield, appearing here on vibraphone.
Huddersfield born, London based Mansfield is best known as a vibes player but also plays kit drums plus a variety of other instruments. His 2020 digital release “Portrait” was recorded over the course of a single day and features Mansfield playing all the instruments and also acting as recording engineer and producer. Made at the time of the pandemic it was the fulfilment of Manfield’s challenge to himself to create “an album in a day”.
Mansfield studied at Chetham’s Music School in Manchester 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 “Elftet” (Edition Records 2019), an ambitious and highly impressive album that featured his compositions for an eleven piece band featuring some of the UK’s finest young jazz musicians. Review here;
Prior to the album’s release I’d been lucky enough to catch Elftet at the 606 Jazz Club in Chelsea at the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival. My decision to go and check them out had been spurred by guest contributor Trevor Bannister’s glowing account of an Elftet performance at the Progress Theatre in Reading earlier that same year. I think it’s fair to say that neither of us was disappointed by this prodigiously talented young band.
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). A 2019 live performance by Bonsai at the Hermon Chapel in Oswestry is reviewed here;
In addition to Elftet Mansfield also leads a jazz quartet that has, at various times, included the talents of pianists Will Barry and Noah Stoneman, bassists Will Harris and Will Sach and drummers Dave Hamblett and Boz Martin-Jones. Guest contributor Clive Downs reviewed a performance by one edition of this group at the Progress Theatre in Reading in September 2022.
For his most recent recording “The Air In Front Of You” (2023) Mansfield introduced a ‘chamber jazz’ quintet featuring featuring two string players, violinist Dominic Ingham and cellist Midori Jaeger. Will Sach fills the bass chair and James Maddren is behind the drum kit, allowing Mansfield to specialise on vibraphone. This adventurous and intriguing recording is reviewed here;
“The Air In Front Of You” occupies a distinctive and innovative niche between the worlds of classical music and jazz. It’s a realm that is familiar to Mansfield who was commissioned to write a vibraphone and trombone duet for London Symphony Orchestra principals Neil Percy and Peter Moore. This was premiered at LSO St. Luke’s, London.
As a composer, he was also commissioned by Marsden Jazz Festival to write an hour-long suite featuring settings of poems by Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate. This was recorded for a BBC Radio 3 Jazz Now broadcast and has subsequently been nominated for an Ivors Award for ‘Best Large Ensemble Jazz Composition’.
As a jazz performer Mansfield has visited The Hive on two previous occasions. In June 2017 he was behind the drum kit with Jam Experiment and in 2023 returned to play vibraphone as part of a quartet led by Bonsai violinist / vocalist Dominic Ingham.
Mansfield has also performed in bands led by Dominic’s brother, trombonist and Bonsai member Rory Ingham. Other musicians with whom Mansfield has worked include flautist Gareth Lockrane, saxophonists Chris Potter and Stan Sulzmann, keyboard player Kit Downes, vocalist Ella Hohnen-Ford and fellow vibraphonist / drummer Jim Hart.
He was also part of Gecko, a trio led by saxophonist Tom Smith that also features pianist Will Barry. This line up released their eponymous debut album in a digital format for Basho Records in November 2020.
2023 sees Mansfield introducing a new quartet featuring regular associates Will Barry and Will Sach alongside nineteen year old drummer Luke McCarthy, still a second year student at the Royal Academy of Music. Like Mansfield McCarthy doubles on drums and vibraphone – “he’s phenomenal” Mansfield told me after the show, joking that “I only put him on drums to keep him off the vibes!”.
The Shrewsbury event was part of a short run of shows that had also included recent gigs in Leicester and Brighton. These have seen the group honing their approach in a series of largely unbroken performances that sees them linking several tunes together as parts of lengthy segues, these sometimes forming an entire set. “It’s fun to weave them together”, explains Mansfield.
This was the case this evening with Mansfield announcing the first tune as “Cologne”, adding “as in the city, not the perfume!”. This featured a stunning unaccompanied introduction from Mansfield at the vibes, deploying the four mallet technique. Bass, drums and piano were added, subtly shadowing Mansfield, before a lyrical, Metheny like melody gradually emerged, this providing the platform for a series of bebop inspired exchanges between vibraphone and piano. Mansfield and Barry were facing each other on stage, each responding to visual cues from the other. They have developed a high level of rapport and have also worked as a duo paying tribute to the ultimate vibes / piano duo of Gary Burton and Chick Corea.
As the momentum of the music began to build Mansfield delivered another dazzling four mallet solo, this time spurred on by McCarthy’s dynamic drumming. Barry followed on Nord keyboard, on an acoustic piano setting. To these ears the ‘acoustic’ sounds of electric keyboards seem to be getting better and better and ultimately more convincing, which is good news for both musicians and audiences alike.
Following Barry’s solo there was another passage of increasingly complex interplay between piano and vibes, with bass and drums also combining to help create a series of interlocking patterns and rhythms, with Sach’s bass becoming increasingly prominent in the group’s sound.
A gentle coda was followed by a passage of unaccompanied piano that seemed to provide the link into the next piece, with vibes, double bass and brushed drums subsequently added. A melodic double bass solo from the impressive Sach, a New Yorker now based in London, was followed by an increasingly dynamic vibes solo from the leader, with McCarthy very much responding in kind from behind the kit.
The drummer continued to play a prominent role as Mansfield temporarily stepped away from the vibes as the group went into piano trio mode for what was essentially a McCarthy drum feature.
With Mansfield’s return the music became more reflective and featured a second, more gentle piano trio episode.
The luminous shimmer of unaccompanied vibes heralded another bridging section, with piano, bass and brushed drums again added as the music continued to develop via solos from Barry at the piano and Mansfield at the vibes.
A further passage of lone vibes, followed by a dexterous bass solo from Sach presaged an anthemic closing section featuring the whole band.
This had been a thoroughly absorbing forty five minute (or thereabouts) segue of restlessly inventive music, constantly mutating and changing shape and featuring skilfully controlled changes of dynamics. The playing of all four individuals was excellent throughout and the quality of the soloing exceptional. Even more impressive was the overall group chemistry and the sense of shared adventure and purpose.
After a while I stopped trying to second guess where one tune ended and another began and just immersed myself in the music. After the show Jonny was kind enough to provide me with a set list and this opening sequence included the tunes “Cologne”, “25/11”, “Rival”, “Pages” and “Butterflies”.
But the quartet weren’t quite finished yet and eased us into the interval with their version of the Thelonious Monk tune “We See”, the only real ‘outside’ item of the night. Mansfield introduced the piece solo, with bass and drums later added to create a vibraphone trio, perhaps inspired by Jim Hart’s Cloudmakers Trio. The addition of Barry’s keys steered the music into more conventional jazz territory with solos for piano, double bass and a series of lively drum breaks as McCarthy traded fours with his colleagues. All in all an excellent and consistently intriguing first set.
The second set was to follow a similar format, this time a single sequence of tunes with some sourced from the “Air In Front Of You” recording, but sounding very different in this ‘orthodox’ jazz quartet context.
During lockdown Mansfield studied for a psychology degree at Huddersfield University, an experience that has informed his writing, including the title of the opening tune in this sequence, “Semantic via Somatic”.
Once again unaccompanied vibes introduced the set, with Mansfield subsequently joined by the other musicians. More conventional solos from piano and vibes followed, these superseded by a passage of unaccompanied double bass occasionally punctuated by the eerie, atmospheric sound of McCarthy’s cymbal scrapes.
A piano trio episode featured the soloing of Barry, who then combined with Mansfield for an atmospheric piano / vibes duet, shades of Burton and Corea again.
The addition of bass and brushed drums led to another trio episode and a lyrical piano solo from Barry complemented by McCarthy’s deft and sensitive cymbal work.
A celestial passage of unaccompanied vibes developed into a more orthodox vibes solo as the rest of the band joined in, with Mansfield and Barry exchanging solos prior to a quirky drum feature from McCarthy. This led into a high energy collective passage followed by a gradual diminuendo that promised to mark the close of this sequence after some forty five minutes of totally mesmerising music.
However Mansfield and his colleagues weren’t quite done yet as they delivered an anthemic, song like closing sequence that proved to be the title track of the “Air In Front Of You” album combined with elements of the Duke Ellington composition “Money Jungle”.
Even now there was time for a dazzling, high energy coda as this unbroken sequence brought the evening to an exciting close. An encore was most deserved, but this was a set that was almost impossible to follow and SJN chairman Mike Wright elected to call things a day at this point, with the second set having lasted close to an hour.
The tunes in this second extended sequence were “Semantic via Somatic”, “Logan”, “Joy Tears”, “Everything (Everywhere)”, “Colloquial” and “(Organise) The Air In Front Of You” plus a fragment of Ellington’s “Money Jungle”.
At around forty or so this wasn’t the biggest audience SJN has ever had but those that were present enjoyed a remarkable performance from four very talented young musicians. I was already familiar with the playing of Mansfield, Sach and Barry but McCarthy represented an exciting new discovery and is definitely a name to watch and is surely something of a star in the making. You read about him here first.
Thanks to Jonny for speaking with me after the show and providing with the set list. An excellent start to 2024 at The Hive.
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