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Jonny Mansfield Quintet

The Air In Front Of You

by Ian Mann

June 16, 2023


A fascinating album that combines the delicacy of classical chamber music with the improvisational rigour of jazz. This is distinctive & adventurous music from a very unusual instrumental line-up.

Jonny Mansfield Quintet

“The Air In Front Of You”

(Resonant Postcards RP001)

Jonny Mansfield – vibraphone, Dominic Ingham – violin, Midori Jaeger – cello, Will Sach – bass, James Maddren – drums

I’m grateful to Jonny Mansfield for providing me with a review copy of his latest album “The Air In Front Of You”.  We met at the recent gig by violinist Dominic Ingham’s quartet at Shrewsbury, which featured Mansfield on vibes, and he presented me with an advance copy of his forthcoming CD. My review of the show by the Ingham quartet can be found here;

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 “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 the 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 (the group also features Dominic Ingham) at the Hermon Chapel in Oswestry is reviewed here;

During the first Covid lockdown Mansfield set himself the challenge of recording an entire album in a single day, playing all the instruments himself. The result was “Portrait” (2020), which is still available for purchase via Mansfield’s website

In addition to Elftet Mansfield has also led 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.

The quartet repertoire featured a mix of Mansfield originals and jazz standards by the likes of Thelonious Monk, George Shearing and Cole Porter. However his new quintet puts the focus solidly on original material and features an unusual ‘chamber jazz’ line up 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.

Mansfield says of this latest project;
“This music was composed specially for these artists to express themselves fully through their instruments. There is an underlying shared commitment to create beautiful, rich textures through the use of extended string and percussive techniques that allow for familiar folk-like melodies to guide the listener through sonic landscapes. 
Improvisation is at the core of the performances, which is emphasised by the contrasting musical perspectives each member brings, having grown up in different countries. 
Influences are drawn from Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen, Scottish fiddler Aiden O’Rouke and Chilean guitarist Camilla Meza”. 

In addition to his musical activities Mansfield has also been studying for a psychology degree, something that has informed his writing process;  
“Studying psychology resulted in me wanting to compositionally explore my physical surroundings as a release from self-analysis. As this process developed, the line between introspection and extrospection became blurred…”

There’s a similar blurring of the lines between composition and improvisation, resulting in some intriguing music making.

The album opens with the aptly named “Ripples”, which commences with the intertwining strings of Ingham and Jaeger, subsequently joined by Maddren’s percussive shadings and the shimmer of the leader’s vibes. Sach’s bass assumes the lead for a while before the music gathers momentum as he and Maddren create an odd meter groove that underpins the interplay between strings and vibes. It’s very much an ensemble effort, although Mansfield does eventually emerge to deliver a flowing vibes solo above the subtly propulsive rhythms laid down by double bass and brushed drums. Ingham and Jaeger subsequently provide additional colour and texture prior to some spiky interplay between the strings and the rhythm section in the closing passages.

What is effectively the title track, “(Organise) The Air In Front Of You” has been part of the repertoire of Mansfield’s jazz quartet and was given an airing at that Reading show reviewed by Clive Downs. It no doubt sounded very different to this recorded version, which features delicate improvised ensemble interplay combined with folk like melodies. The strings make use of both pizzicato and arco techniques, as they do elsewhere on the album. Maddren’s drumming is a thing of wonder, highly responsive and supportive and simultaneously extraordinarily detailed and subtly propulsive.

“Waves”, another title reflecting the watery imagery of the album cover, is a more vigorous affair with Maddren’s fidgety drumming underpinning the melodic interplay of the strings. Mansfield again features as a virtuoso vibraphone soloist on what is the most conventionally ‘jazzy’ piece thus far.

“Flicker” commences with the sound of unaccompanied strings, including bowed double bass, I’d say, and has a gently melancholic air about it. This is expressed via a combination of chamber music dynamics and gentle folk like melody. Maddren plays with great sensitivity as he adopts a colourist’s role and Sach delivers a thoughtful double bass solo before handing over to the leader, who maintains the overall air of melancholic delicacy at the vibes. Other commentators have suggested that this piece could be part of a movie soundtrack and there’s certainly something of a cinematic quality about much of Mansfield’s writing for this album.

The leader’s vibes introduce “Norwood”, which continues the prevailing mood. Sach again plays a leading role and Maddren is cast as a colourist once more. Pizzicato strings are again deployed intelligently before Maddren eventually establishes a subtle groove that underpins Ingham’s gently floating bowed violin solo.

Mansfield has written a number of solo vibraphone pieces and “Etude”, featuring the sound of unaccompanied vibes, is a twinkling, shimmering delight, acting as a brief but beautiful prelude to the closing piece, “Periphery”.

“Periphery” emerges from pizzicato strings, the shimmer of vibes and the tick of cymbals. As throughout the album one can sense the musicians listening to and watching each other. The establishment of a regular rhythmic pulse then paves the way for bowed string melody lines with the lead alternating between violin and cello, before the music eventually becomes more fragmented and abstract, with Maddren’s drums continuing to play a vital role. In many ways he is at the heart of the music, much as Seb Rochford was in his Mercury nominated collaborations with Basquiat Strings.

Although difficult to categorise or describe “The Air In Front Of You” is a fascinating album, one that combines the delicacy of classical chamber music with the improvisational rigour of jazz. The finely balanced rapport between the musicians is palpable and there’s a sense of dropping in on an intimate private conversation. The ensemble sound is paramount with Mansfield largely functioning as part of the overall collective. Conventional jazz solos are few and far between, although these do feature the leader’s exceptional vibes playing.

Semi-classical in feel, but very much jazz in spirit, this is distinctive and adventurous music from a very unusual (possibly unique) instrumental configuration. It may only suit so many ears but those that have enjoyed Mansfield’s playing in other contexts will hopefully appreciate this music also. It’s the kind of album that is likely to reveal new facets with each subsequent listening.

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