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Led Bib

It’s Morning


by Ian Mann

October 11, 2019


"Just when you think you’ve got this group sussed they keep on surprising, always moving forwards". Ian Mann on a radical change of direction from Led Bib.

Led Bib

“It’s Morning”

(RareNoise Records RNR 108)

Mark Holub – drums, Chris Williams – alto sax, Pete Grogan – alto & tenor sax, Liran Donin- bass & backing vocals, Sharron Fortnam – lead vocals, Elliot Galvin – piano, keyboards

Guests; Jack Hues – vocals, Susanna Gartmayer – bass clarinet, Irene Kepl – violin, Noid - cello

Led Bib’s second album for the London based RareNoise record label represents a radical departure for the band with the first line up changes since its formation in 2004 and the first use of vocals and lyrics on a Led Bib recording.

Led by the American born drummer and composer Mark Holub Led Bib was founded at Middlesex University and the band have always relished their ‘outsider’ status on the British jazz scene. Strongly influenced by John Zorn their music has historically combined the power of rock with a passion for improvisation, resulting in a blend of ‘skronk’ or ‘punk’ jazz that invited comparisons with such bands as Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear and Get The Blessing and which resulted in an expanding cult following.

I’ve been following Led Bib’s music since 2006 after first discovering the band on a hot and sweaty night at the Vortex in North London. The enterprising quintet were curating their own mini festival dubbed the “Dalston Summer Stew”. The series was spread over three nights and I witnessed the first of these shows which featured sets from Led Bib themselves, a solo slot from that remarkable maverick of the piano Matthew Bourne and finally a second sonic attack from Nottingham noiseniks Pinski Zoo. Subsequent evenings featured the bands of Chris Batchelor and Iain Ballamy among others.

Led Bib themselves were loud and uncompromising but I enjoyed what I heard and purchased a copy of their début album “Arboretum”. I was most impressed by this and it remains something of a personal favourite.

In 2007 the band followed this with the equally impressive “Sizewell Tea”, which saw them broadening their range. Indeed every Led Bib album release has seen them building on their initial template and exhibiting clear signs of artistic growth. Initially Holub was the group’s sole composer, with the exception of the occasional inspired cover by the likes of David Byrne and David Bowie, and he has remained its principal writer. However later recordings have seen other group members bringing compositions to the table, expanding the range of the group, albeit within a well defined sonic framework. Interestingly enough “It’s Morning” is the first album to contain the credit “all music by Led Bib”, suggesting a radical change in the group’s working methods.

The first Led Bib album that I reviewed was the 2009 release “Sensible Shoes”, which received a Mercury Music Prize nomination and helped to raise their profile considerably. 2011’s “Bring Your Own” consolidated their position and was their most melodic record to date, while 2014’s “The People In Your Neighbourhood” saw them stretching out once more and placing a greater emphasis on the improvisational side of their music, an aspect explored even more deeply on the limited edition live recording “The Good Egg”.

Something of a hiatus followed with Holub re-locating from London to Vienna and concentrating on other projects, such as the trio Blublut (with Austrian guitarist Chris Janka and American theremin specialist Pamelia Stickney) and his duo with violinist Irene Kepl. The other members of the band also kept themselves busy, with Williams particularly active as a sideman with a broad range of jazz acts and the Israel born Donin forming his own 1000 Boats group, with which he released the excellent 2018 album “8 Songs”.

In 2017 Led Bib re-convened to release “Umbrella Weather”, their first album for RareNoise after a lengthy stint with Cuneiform Records. Suitably rejuvenated the band produced some of their best, and most dynamic, work on an album with a distinct political subtext. In the wake of Trump and Brexit Holub commented “there’s such a shit-storm outside it’s certainly Umbrella Weather”

Over the course of the last two years I’ve spoken to both Williams and Donin at gigs by other artists (Arun Ghosh, Sarah Gillespie, 1000 Boats) and both have told me that Led Bib have been working on something very special and that the next album was going to be very different to anything the band had ever recorded before.

On the evidence of “It’s Morning” one can hardly disagree with their assessment. The departure of the band’s original pianist and keyboard player Toby McLaren has seen the young, maverick talent of rising star Elliot Galvin added to the fold. Galvin had occasionally depped for McLaren and had obviously proved himself a good fit for the band.

Of even more significance is the expansion of the core line up to included singer and lyricist Sharron Fortnam, whose mezzo soprano vocals have been featured on recordings by the North Sea Radio Orchestra (of which she is a co-founder) and the bands Cardiacs and The Shrubbies.

Holub has said of his band’s change of direction;
“Led Bib has developed an identifiable improvisation language over the last fifteen years. After all that time we started to wonder what it might be like to take that language into a whole new area”.

This is a process that will be further expanded upon in the group’s forthcoming live appearances. The music of “It’s Morning” will be supplemented by a concert length film created by film-maker Dylan Pecora. This explores and expands upon the album and the cinematic images will be manipulated in live performances by VJ Oli Chilton.

“I want our shows to feel like Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests” explains Holub, “I’m hoping people will be transported somewhere else. The experience of just sitting down and being engrossed in something for an hour is a meaningful thing”.

The drummer has also mentioned the influence of ‘psychedelic’ bands such as Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead.  Although there’s little in Led Bib’s music that draws directly from those bands there still remains something of a conceptual link.

The album itself follows a strong narrative arc with a series of atmospheric miniatures punctuating lengthier, more obviously composed pieces. Opener “Atom Stories” falls somewhere between these two approaches with a passage of spacey, electronic sounds, presumably keyboard generated, leading to a more formal section featuring Fortnam’s fragile vocals.

This segues into “Stratford East”, a slice of inner city inspired dystopia that emerges out of a dirty, glitchy, fuzzed up synthesiser motif, this complemented by the primitive power of Holub’s drumming. Kepl’s violin dances lithely around these rhythms as the music gathers both momentum and complexity, sometimes lending an African flavour to the music. Fortnam sings Hues’ lyric, the sweetness of her voice providing an effective contrast with the bitterness of the words and the power of the music. One is also reminded of the Led Bib of old as the saxes break loose mid tune, one soloing incisively before entering into a thrillingly squalling dialogue with its companion.

There’s another segue into the thirty nine second title track, a fleeting but engaging dialogue between Fortnam’s breathy vocal and guest Susanna Gartmayer’s bass clarinet.

The album’s centre piece is the eleven minute composition “Fold”, which emerges from a spookily atmospheric extended intro featuring organ and synthesiser sounds. Other elements gradually join the fray, electric bass,  acoustic piano and finally the two saxes in an uncharacteristically gentle dialogue. Holub’s drums subsequently instigate a more forceful strand of sonic exploration on a piece that stays true to Holub’s ‘psychedelic’ theme while also embracing the world of free jazz. In the latter changes of the tune Fortnam’s ethereal vocals inform us that “time is a haunting memory” and implore us to “change the storyline” prior to an atmospheric outro featuring the crystalline tones of Galvin on acoustic piano.

If the lyrics of “Fold” help to emphasise the filmic nature of this project then “Cutting Room Floor” goes a stage further with Hues, once of the new wave band Wang Chung, adopting the role of director with his spoken exhortations to “let the film run backwards”. He and Fortnam combine to deliver the jointly written lyrics above a minimalist groove dominated by the ‘ratcheting’ sounds of Holub’s drums.

Fortnam’s lyrics for the wistful “To Dry In The Rain” evoke a cloud shrouded cityscape, her voice complemented by Galvin’s ever inventive keyboard shadings.  It’s perhaps the most conventionally ‘song structured’ piece of the set, growing from quiet beginnings to embrace an anthemic intensity as the rest of the band become fully involved. However there’s a twist in the tail as the piece resolves itself with a wistful, spacious passage of unaccompanied acoustic piano from Galvin that also acts as the link into the next piece, simply titled “O”. This is an atmospheric, slowly building composition that again tips its hat to minimalism, before evolving into something more obviously song like and building to an anthemic climax, then finally subsiding once more.

Fortnam’s lyrics for “Flood Warning”  (“forgot your umbrella, keep your eyelids tightly closed tonight”) seem to allude to Led Bib’s previous album. Musically the piece again cleverly offsets the sweetness of her voice with the harsh ferment of the music bubbling beneath.

The album concludes with the brief, but atmospheric and elegiac “Set Sail”, one and a half minutes of Fortnam’s pure, yearning, folk tinged vocals combined with eerie, wispy electronics.

Williams and Donin promised me “something very different” from Led Bib and that’s exactly what this radical new album delivers.  Thanks to what they had both told me I was kind of prepared for this, but nevertheless the album will still probably come as something of a shock to many of the band’s regular listeners.

Nevertheless I felt that the time had probably come for Led Bib to do something different. After six studio albums and two live recordings their sound had become very well defined, the twin sax attack, the powerhouse rhythm section, the technological wild card element of McLaren’s keyboards. Even allowing for the fact that each album offered a discernible artistic development and a subtle refinement of that sound the time was still ripe for change.

On the whole “It’s Morning” works very well. Fortnam’s voice brings a whole new dimension to the band and the mercurial and brilliant Galvin is the perfect replacement for the madcap McLaren.
The album is clearly a semi-conceptual affair with the cinematic element a key part of the work. In the main the composing is colourful, inventive and varied, introducing new aspects to the group’s music while still retaining something of the old Led Bib ‘bite’. That said I’d like to have heard a bit more from Williams and Grogan, who rarely get the chance to cut loose, but then even Holub maintains a low profile at times, occasionally sitting out altogether.

My promo copy of the CD didn’t include any transcripts of the lyrics, which is a shame, as I’m sure that the opportunity of a full reading of the words would have enhanced and heightened my enjoyment of the work.

I’m now looking forward to seeing the band performing the album in conjunction with Pecora’s film and Chilton’s video-manipulations at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, London on the afternoon of Sunday 24th November 2019 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Led Bib will also be performing at the Metronome in Nottingham on November 8th. Please visit for further details.

Following the success of this recording it will be interesting to see what Led Bib will do next and whether Fortnam will become a permanent member of the group. I still love the old five piece Led Bib but applaud their adventurousness and willingness to change. Just when you think you’ve got this group sussed they keep on surprising, always moving forwards.

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