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Brass Mask



by Ian Mann

April 25, 2017


"Live” works well as a gig souvenir but is also an effective piece of work in its own right substantially, different from, but equally valuable to, the band’s 2013 studio début “Spy Boy”.

Brass Mask


(Babel Records BDV15137)

Tom Challenger, George Crowley – tenor saxes

Rory Simmons, Alex Bonney – trumpets

Nathaniel Cross – trombone

Theon Cross – tuba

Dan Nicholls – keyboards, percussion

John Blease- drums

Jon Scott - percussion

This live recording by the group Brass Mask, led by the saxophonist and composer Tom Challenger was recorded at the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival.

Brass Mask’s performance was part of a double bill with Loop Collective stable-mates Snack Family and was recorded at the Servants Jazz Quarters venue in Dalston.

It just so happens that I was at that particular gig and I can confirm that the recording fully encapsulates the sweat drenched excitement of a Brass Mask live performance.

In a shameless piece of cutting and pasting, the process that I like to refer to as “Jazz Will Eat Itself”, I’m reproducing my November 2014 review of the gig below as it still captures the essence of this recommended recording and brings it to your attention.

However the album, recorded by Alex Bonney, one of the band’s twin trumpeters, is not just a straight reproduction of the gig. The spirit of the performance remains but Challenger has done a significant amount of post production work stating that he “wanted to present the live show or gig in a different way, certainly compared to how live gigs are normally released i.e. just a plain recording of a concert. I intended to create a different base to colour the listener’s perception of the gig itself”.

Inspired by youtube footage and on line “live bootlegs” Challenger’s post production work incorporates loops made from treated samples of Brass Mask in rehearsal and performance as the band bring their own “Jazz Will Eat Itself” aesthetic to the release. The resultant effect is intended to evoke both the ancient and the modern, on one hand the process recalls the process of field recording while at the other extreme the often dub like electronic effects give the album even more of a cool, contemporary vibe as they enhance keyboardist Dan Nicholls’ work on the night. The running order has been adjusted too, with “Shallow Water” now part of the album’s opening track, segued together with “Francilia”.

The full track listing is;

1. Francilia + Shallow Water

2. Lil’ Liza Jane

3. The Bague

4. Indian Red

5. I Thank You Jesus

6. Nyodi

7. The Merman

8. Francis P

Brass Mask’s gig back in 2014 was a hugely enjoyable event as you will read shortly but the album not only captures the highly charged atmosphere of the night in question but also adds to it. “Live” works well as a gig souvenir but is also an effective piece of work in its own right substantially, different from, but equally valuable to, the band’s 2013 studio début “Spy Boy”. The two recordings share a number of pieces but the interpretation is substantially different – different enough to make both recordings equally significant.

Extracts from my review of the original show which took place on 14th November 2014 are reproduced below;

Subtitled “Brass vs. Amps” this intriguing Loop Collective double bill teamed saxophonist Tom Challenger’s nine piece ensemble Brass Mask with Snack Family, a highly amplified three piece featuring guitarist/vocalist Andrew Plummer, saxophonist James Allsopp and drummer Tom Greenhalgh.
The event took place at the servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston, one of three jazz clubs to be found within a short distance of each other in this increasingly fashionable part of North London. I’ve been to the others, The Vortex and Café Oto, before but this was my first visit to SJQ and I was keen to check it out. The venue houses a trendy and popular cocktail bar upstairs and an intimate performance space in the basement. We were there early enough to get a seat which greatly enhanced our enjoyment of the music.

I was equally keen to check out Brass Mask whose 2013 Babel label release “Spy Boy” was a refreshing and innovative take on the contemporary brass band sound that updated the street music of New Orleans and filtered it through a 21st century London prism, the colourful arrangements and textures giving the album a far greater stylistic and emotional depth than most brass band projects. 

Speaking to the affable Challenger before the gig he warned me that the music would be “less considered” than that to be heard on the record. Live Brass Mask just like to blow and have a good time in the best New Orleans tradition - and of course there was that element of good natured competition with Snack Family to be considered.

The band Challenger brought to SJQ was essentially the same as the one heard on the album with the leader and George Crowley on tenor saxes, Rory Simmons and Alex Bonney on trumpets and the Cross brothers, Nathaniel and Theon on trombone and tuba respectively. Dan Nicholls was on keyboards (he plays reeds on the album) and the line up was completed by drummer John Blease with Jon Scott providing additional percussion. Scott was effectively shadowing Blease and learning the drum parts before taking over the kit the following day for a Brass Mask show at the Free Stage at the Barbican, a gig for which Blease was presumably unavailable. In any event Scott was a welcome addition to an already powerful group sound, the noise generated by the all acoustic front line of brass and reeds was almost overwhelming in such a small space.

The material was mainly drawn from the “Spy Boy” album, a mix of Challenger originals and traditional New Orleans spirituals and street songs. Tune announcements were sporadic so rather than a blow by blow account I’ll try to give an overall impression. As I’ve said Brass Mask is capable of generating an awesome collective sound but there were also some scorching individual solos, particularly from trumpeters Simmons and Bonney and saxophonists Challenger and Crowley, these two sometimes operating in garrulous tandem. Nicholls’ bubbling synthesiser added a contemporary touch and Theon Cross’ earth shuddering bass lines found me jotting a reference to “the Geezer Butler of brass”. 

The band were no less powerful when temporarily stripped back to a sextet of two tenors, tuba, keyboards, and twin drums with Challenger really coming into his own. The trumpeters got in on the act elsewhere in the set with a squalling duet and there were also occasional features for keyboards, trombone and tuba with Theon Cross’ contribution particularly well received by the mainly standing crowd squeezed into SJQ’s tiny basement.

The set included new tune “The Merman” in which Challenger and Crowley traded tenor solos and ended with the second line sounds of the traditional “Shallow Water”. This was a performance of great energy and joy, at times a little ragged around the edges and certainly “less considered” than the album. Crowded onto a tiny “stage” the musicians were dripping sweat by the time they’d finished but their enthusiasm and energy certainly communicated itself to the crowd. This performance was substantively different to the album (highly recommended) but there’s no doubting that Brass Mask live is an exciting and life affirming experience.

I was also surprised by just how much I enjoyed Snack Family but in terms of both audience numbers and sheer volume it has to be said that with regard to Brass vs. Amps it has to be a points victory for the former.

All in all an interesting and enjoyable start to the festival week.  


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