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Troyka / Pulcinella

Match & Fuse featuring Troyka and Pulcinella, Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 16/07/2014.

Photography: Photograph of Florian Demonsant and Ferdinand Doumerc of Pulcinella by Martin Healey.

by Ian Mann

July 18, 2014


A memorable evening of music making from two very different bands united by a common love of good music.

Troyka / Pulcinella, Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 16/07/2014.

I recently enjoyed and reviewed the album “Bestiole”, the third album from the extraordinary French quartet Pulcinella. The Toulouse based band combine archetypal Gallic eccentricity with an enormous technical facility to produce genuinely exciting music that defies genre and categorisation. Formed in 2008 by saxophonist Ferdinand Doumerc the quartet also features the astonishing accordion playing of Florian Demonsant, the propulsive, muscular bass of Jean Marc Serpin and the solid but colourful drumming of Frederic Cavallin. Other, more exotic instruments also provide additional colour to an already highly distinctive group sound.

Tonight’s event saw the madcap Frenchmen playing opposite the British trio Troyka on the second date of a short UK tour undertaken under the auspices of the Match & Fuse scheme. Match & Fuse was devised by Dave Morecroft of the London based band WorldService Project and brings together like minded groups of young musicians from a variety of European countries. Two bands are “matched” and undertake tours in each other’s countries in a series of genuine “double bill” dates. When each band has played its regular set all the musicians come together at the end of the night to “fuse”, often playing compositions written specifically for the tour - the aim is to play original music rather then the usual all stars standards jam. Most of the bands on the scheme embrace elements of both rock and contemporary experimental music and a typical Match & Fuse gig is likely to be bursting with ideas, it’s almost certainly guaranteed not to be dull.

Match & Fuse has proved to be huge success with tours taking place all over Europe and with all the bands involved getting their music across to international audiences. Musicians from right across the continent have also come together for the Match & Fuse Festival, this annual event having so far taken place in London, Oslo and Rome. 

Despite having supported Match & Fuse siince its inception and having attended an M&F night at The Vortex as part of the 2012 London Jazz Festival this was the first event I’d been to when the end of evening “fuse” or “mash up” actually took place. Logistics had prevented this at the London show as too many musicians were involved in a triple bill of Pixel (from Norway), Roller Trio and WorldService Project. 


Tonight it was the turn of Troyka to take to the stage first -  in this most democratic of set ups I’m sure the running order gets swapped around fairly frequently. The British trio of Chris Montague (guitar), Kit Downes (keyboards) and Joshua Blackmore (drums) have been a frequent presence on the Jazzmann web pages both in this incarnation and as Troykestra, the teaming of the core three piece with musicians from the Royal Academy of Music to create a turbo charged contemporary big band playing innovative arrangements of Troyka compositions. I actually prefer the large scale version of the group and the Troykestra album “Live At Cheltenham Jazz Festival” is highly recommended.  I was there when it was recorded and the music sounds just as good on disc as it did in the flesh. 

Meanwhile Troyka have recorded two albums as a trio, both for Edition records. Their eponymous début (2009) exhibited much promise and was very well received. The follow up, 2012’s “Moxxy” was even better and revealed the group to be sharper and more tightly focussed, something confirmed by a live show I attended at the Hare & Hounds in Birmingham in early 2013.

During the course of tonight’s set Montague revealed that the group have recorded a new album which is currently being mixed and mastered prior to release in February 2015. We heard some of the new material tonight, much of it untitled but exhibiting the Troyka trademarks of mind boggling time signature changes and tightly focussed ensemble playing. As musicians born in the 80’s (to paraphrase one of their tune titles) Troyka are prepared to reach into the grab bag marked “progressive rock” without fear of embarrassment, snobbery or ridicule, at times their music is reminiscent of Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and some of the Softs lesser known Canterbury cousins.
Downes even deploys two keyboards in the manner of a more thrifty Rick Wakeman, the modern equipment capable of generating a fascinating mix of organ, electric piano and synthesiser sounds with Downes exhibiting total command of the uses to which they can be put.

Troyka’s music is defiantly complex yet still exhibits something of a jam band mentality. They played at almost rock volume tonight and all around a pleasingly crowded Dempsey’s heads could be seen nodding to the most bizarre of time signatures.

Montague’s “Ornithophobia” opened the proceedings, the tune inspired by a grisly childhood encounter with a dead seagull, the guitarist making effective use of his FX pedals as he soloed around Downes’ keyboard stabs and Blackmore’s signature bending drumming. 

Typically tricky unison riffs defined an as yet untitled piece slated for the new album, a typically complex but catchy Troyka tune with Montague again the main soloist and with Downes providing everything from swirling / stabbing Hammond to spacey synth manipulations.

Downes’ “The General”, a tune recorded by both the trio and Troykestra, was a tour de force building from an moodily atmospheric introduction of swirling synths, FX drenched guitars and body percussion (Blackmore drumming on his thigh) to embrace apocalyptic guitar and organ riffing with Montague and Downes working in tandem and really “locking in” with each other above the barrage of Blackmore’s drums.

In a first for Troyka they tackled a piece of outside material, a fiendishly complicated piece by Petter Eldh, the bass player with Django Bates’ Beloved Bird Trio (“our first cover version” quipped Montague). I’m not sure whether it was written with Bates in mind but Downes’ keyboard parts certainly reminded me of the work of the Loose Tubes maestro. The complexities of the piece saw Montague deploying sheet music for the only time and by the end the trio seemed please to have navigated their way through this challenging but exciting new material.

Montague made use of two contrasting pieces of technology on the next item, a finger slide and a loop station, this blend of ancient and modern resulting in something that sounded a little like Bill Frisell’s vision of Americana. With Blackmore deploying brushes rather than sticks this piece offered a welcome change of mood and pace before the closing “Magpies” with its dizzying interlocking patterns and rhythmic complexities. 

Troyka’s blend of jazz and math rock is exciting but can be just a little too intense at times, there’s so much going on that it’s difficult for the listener’s brain to process it all. Nevertheless it’s clear to see why they’ve developed something of a cult following for their complex, challenging but ultimately exciting music - and they do have some killer riffs. The Cardiff crowd gave them a great reception with the students of the nearby Royal Welsh College of Music and drama particularly appreciative of their skill and daring. 


After hearing “Bestiole” I was expecting great things from Pulcinella and I’m pleased to report that they didn’t disappoint. Despite a nightmare journey down from the previous evening’s gig in Newcastle plus their collective horror at the standards of British cuisine Pulcinella were clearly “up for it” and delivered a set that combined brilliant musicianship with the wacky but sometimes macabre humour that makes their group name such an appropriate choice.

Formed by Doumerc in 2004 Pulcinella have released three albums to date, “Clou d’estrad” (Yolk Records, 2008), “Travesti” (Enja, 2011) and “Bestiole” (Enja, 2014). Most of tonight’s set was sourced from their most recent offering but I fancy that I also detected items from their début - I was so impressed that I actually PURCHASED the first two albums after the gig.

This won’t be a tune by tune account, not all the pieces were announced and the French titles most eluded me in any case but the show did start with the familiar sounds of “Garez vous chez vous dans l’allee vous emmerdez tout le monde”, the title meaning something rather rude and the opening track of the latest album. The four band members have worked in many genres of music and their collective CV includes frequent work with circuses, something clearly audible in their music. There was humour here plus stunning musicianship, Serpin quickly emerging as a monster bassist, a fluent soloist also possessed with a huge tone and a terrific rhythmic drive. Meanwhile Demonsant confirmed his status as a virtuoso of the accordion, deploying a huge chromatic button accordion. His playing was dazzling, I don’t think I’ve seen the instrument played as brilliantly as this, only Martin Green from the Anglo/Scottish folk band Lau has come close. It could just be that Demonsant has stolen his “Hendrix of the accordion” crown, especially after the display of wilful dissonance in this opening number.

Doumerc also impressed, utilising an array of saxophones (alto, tenor and baritone) plus an array of flutes. One piece saw him beginning on flute in an airy, folk inspired duet with Demonsant before moving on to baritone sax on which he blasted away in foghorn like fashion above increasingly hard driving rock rhythms. On record Doumerc’s playing can sometimes come across as rather simplistic, seeing him in a live context made one realise how skilled and versatile a musician he really is, his saxophone vocabulary embracing far more than conventional jazz soloing.

Pulcinella like to augment their sax/accordion/bass/drums core with other items of musical exotica. These are normally items of tuned percussion or flutes and although the metallophones that appear on all three album releases were absent Cavallin did deploy a glockenspiel and also abandoned his kit to play on two different varieties of slide whistle (flute a coulisse) with varying eerie and unsettling / whimsical and humorous effects. The use of the term “Swanee Whistle” implies something merely comic but Cavallin’s contribution on these instruments was far more than that.
As a drummer Cavallin was solid rather than spectacular but he locked in well with Serpin and handled the quartet’s frequent rhythmic and dynamic changes with ease. One piece saw him adding hip hop inspired grooves, a reminder that Pulcinella is a thoroughly contemporary band, post modern even, despite the retro folk and musette trappings.   

Familiar items from “Bestiole”, the title meaning “tiny creatures” included two of the animals of the title. “Raksi Chaparak” or “Dance Of The Butterfly” featured Doumerc and Demonsant on twin flutes and Serpin yelling out the title as he gurned and danced round his bass. Off stage Kit Downes could be seen “getting down” and generally getting into the spirit of things. 

Their set closed with the frantic, perpetually “La Tarentelle”, inspired by the Italian dance , itself inspired in turn by the bite of the tarantula spider. Doumerc’s marathon tenor sax solo was a further reminder of his considerable talent.

Pulcinella’s energetic set was a life affirming experience, albeit one leavened with a dark humour. The band name plus Demonsant’s Ron Mael like facial expressions intimated at what my brother in law, Glyn, described as an “underlying malevolence” behind the bon homie and craziness. For me all the best music has some hint of darkness at its core and Pulcinella have something of that black magic.

The group were ecstatically received by the Cardiff crowd and Lance Liddle’s Bebop Spoken Here website reports the same kind of reaction at a crowded Jazz Café in Newcastle. It’s good to that jazz audiences are so open to Pulcinella’s genre defying music which contains so many disparate elements - I detected jazz, folk, rock, tango, circus, hip hop, musette and modern classical just for starters - all woven together with a salty wit and tremendous technical skill and verve.

Dave Morecroft was present in the audience and introduced the end of evening “fuse” with Montague, Downes and Blackmore plus classical violinist Thea Spiers (who has recorded with saxophonist Trish Clowes and is Montague’s girlfriend) joining the members of Pulcinella for a performance of “Oliver Reed”, Montague’s tribute to the late actor and rabble rouser. With Serpin switching to electric bass the piece included solos from Downes on Hammond, Doumerc on tenor sax and Montague on guitar. One got the impression that this was primarily a Troyka tune but with space left for Doumerc to solo. I’d like to have heard a bit more from this impromptu octet but the delayed start was perhaps a factor in preventing this.

Nevertheless this was a memorable evening of music making from two very different bands united by a common love of good music. Both made a very good impression on the Cardiff audience, among them my twenty something nephew Andrew who’d never been to a “jazz” gig before. He was particularly impressed with Pulcinella and may now be persuaded to try something similarly adventurous and genre defying. 

A good place to start might be the double bill of Morecroft’s WorldService Project and Zodiac Trio, from Essen, Germany who will undertake a Match & Fuse tour in October 2014, calling at Dempsey’s on October 15th.

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