by Ian Mann
October 17, 2014
Ian Mann enjoys this double bill of WSP and their guests Zodiak Trio from Germany. He also looks at Zodiak's latest album "Acid".
Match & Fuse featuring WorldService Project and Zodiak Trio, Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 14/10/2014.
Following the hugely successful Match & Fuse event at Dempsey’s in July featuring Troyka and the French band Pulcinella I was determined to catch this second instalment which teamed the instigators of the whole Match & Fuse movement, the UK’s own WorldService Project with the exciting German group Zodiak Trio.
Conceived by WSP’s keyboard player/composer/leader Dave Morecroft Match & Fuse pairs up young bands of adventurous musicians from different countries in a kind of cultural exchange. Prior to this short UK tour featuring WSP and Zodiak the same two bands had played a set of dates in Germany. Each performance is a genuine double bill and at the end the two bands “fuse” as a single entity to round off the evening. It’s an exciting and successful formula that has seen British bands “matched” with their counterparts from France, Germany, Norway, Italy and Ireland for tours and an annual festival that has featured dozens of bands from all over Europe has been held in London, Oslo and Rome with a “mini festival” also taking place in London each year. Match & Fuse is an exciting, innovative and highly worthwhile project that is close to my heart and I’m more than happy to give it my full support through the pages of the Jazzmann.
At first it looked as if we were in for a quiet night at Demspey’s -at least in terms of audience numbers. The crowd was sparse at 8.30 pm, the announced starting time, but had grown considerably by 9.00, the usual start time at Dempsey’s, and the crowd, including the usual crop of students from the nearby RWCMD, got right behind the two bands.
The music itself certainly wasn’t quiet, as exemplified by WSP who played first, bounding on stage sporting the bowler hats they posed in for a Jazzwise magazine photo shoot a couple of years back
- the suits, ties and hats presumably a satire on the corporate excesses of the City and the banks. WSP’s music is cut from the same “punk jazz” lineage as Partisans, Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland, Led Bib etc. and includes elements of rock and funk, the latter courtesy of Conor Chaplin’s electric bass grooves allied to the bright, punchy horn interplay of tenor saxophonist Tim Ower and trombonist Raf Clarkson. The music is powered by the drumming of Liam Waugh who replaced Neil Blandford in 2012 and who is now an essential component of the WSP sound. At the heart of it all is Morecroft’s keyboards which act as both focal point and wild card.
WSP’s music has been compared to that of Frank Zappa but for me the closest reference point has always been the UK’s Django Bates, a composer and performer who has had an enormous influence on a generation of young musicians throughout Europe. Morecroft’s compositions have the tendency to jump about all over the place, mixing musical genres while leaping from one time signature to another. It’s fiendishly complex stuff but leavened with a healthy dose of irreverence and good humour. WSP’s music may dazzle you with its technical expertise but it will also make you laugh out loud.
Like Bates Morecroft is also an inspired keyboard soloist, coaxing a wide array of sounds out of his Nord keyboard with the help of a distortion pedal and an array of other gizmos - from the classic electric piano sound to the whoosh and whistle of a synthesiser it’s all here. Not that the other musicians are in any way sidelined, WSP’s music is closer to conventional jazz than that of some other punk jazz outfits in that amongst the seeming chaos there are clearly delineated solos and when it comes to this Ower and Clarkson don’t disappoint, and the writing finds room for features from Chaplin and Waugh, too. The interplay between the musicians, particularly the two horns, is also impressive as the quintet handle the complexities of Morecroft’s music with aplomb, executing the sudden twists and turns with a “turn on a dime” precision.
To date WSP have recorded two albums, “Relentless” (2010) and “Fire In A Pet Shop” (2013), both of which feature Blandford at the drums. Most of tonight’s material was sourced from the latter and included old favourites “Defrienders”, “Villain Of The Aeroplane” (dedicated as ever to Ryan Air) , “Fire In A Pet Shop”, “Change The Fucking Record” and “Barmy Army”, the latter dedicated by Morecroft to Reading Football Club, perhaps not the wisest thing to do in a pub in Cardiff but I think he got away with it! Elements of the band’s humour and acknowledgement of popular culture can be gleaned from those titles and this is something that is reinforced by the music which veers from circus music to cod New Orleans jazz pastiches, funk grooves, squalling free jazz episodes and bang on the nail rock drumming, all this peppered with rousing instrumental exchanges and solos. It was exhausting just trying to keep up, especially with Morecroft exhorting us to clap along during a rare excursion into a straight 4/4 and to make animal noises during “Fire In A Pet Shop”
Best of all was “Flick The Bean Stalk”, a new tune that included more circus music, staccato sax riffing, fruity trombone rasping and eventually a melody that sounded like it had been stolen from Irish traditional music, some kind of bastardised jig or reel.
The Cardiff audience responded well to the group’s blend of energy, superior musicianship and madcap humour (Monty Python has been another comparison) and they were very well received. However one or two comments were passed during the break about a lack of variety which I could understand, having raised the point in my review of “Fire In A Pet shop”. While it’s true that the individual pieces are packed with incident and include plenty of “variety” with regard to the frequent stylistic changes they are all delivered with an onrushing intensity. I think what the critics were getting at was a lack of EMOTIONAL variety, of mood, rather than of style or pace. You can’t imagine WSP ever doing a ballad, or at least not without sending it up or messing about with it in some way. It’s a valid point, but I guess that’s not what WSP are all about. I still love this band and love their sense of energy and irreverence but I guess there is a danger that they might risk becoming pigeon holed despite their obvious intentions to be anything but. An intriguing conundrum. That third album should be interesting.
WSP’s latest Match & Fuse partners are Zodiak Trio from Essen, Germany. Slightly older than WSP they have playing together for eight years and comprise of trumpeter John-Dennis Renken, guitarist Andreas Wahl and drummer Bernd Oezsevim. Both Renken and Wahl deploy an arrange of electronic effects and collectively the trio create an impressively big and expressive group sound. To date they have released three albums, “Zodiak” (2008), “Q Train” (2010) and “Acid” (2012), these last two on the Traumton record label.
Tonight the focus was on music from the latest release “Acid”. That’s acid as in “corrosive” rather then the “summer of love” or “acid jazz” or the “acieed!” of late 80s/early 90s rave culture. Both Renken and Wahl write for the group and the album also contains a number of pieces credited jointly to all the members of the trio, presumably group improvisations that emphasise the chemistry the group has generated during its eight years together. The majority of the thirteen tracks on the record are under five minutes in length, indicative of the trio’s tightly focussed energy. In live performance the group stretch out more, extemporising on the themes in a manner that combines the improvisatory qualities of jazz with the power and urgency of rock.
Zodiak hit the ground running with Wahl’s “Strich Zwolf” (translating as “Slash Twelve” and named for its use of slash chords) a tightly meshed amalgam of jazz and math rock. A listener hearing Zodiak for the first time and with no prior knowledge might assume that the trio were from New York rather than Germany. I’d expected them to sound something like British trumpeter Rory Simmons’ Monocled Man trio (with guitarist Chris Montague and drummer Jon Scott) but in truth they were very different, more influenced by avant rock and minimalism than electric era Miles Davis.
Renken handled the bulk of the announcements (in good English and with good humour) and appeared to be the leader but in reality this was a highly interactive trio with each member fulfilling a vital role with Oezsevim’s solid but colourful drumming forming the backbone of the group sound as Renken and Wahl either intertwined tightly or embarked upon exciting solo excursions.
Renken’s “Down The Road” showcased his trumpet skills in a fiery, freely structured dialogue with Oezsevim before a hooky riff kicked in and Wahl took off with an effects laden solo that made extensive use of his foot pedals and tremolo arm.
“April” featured Renken’s trumpet alternately floating and soaring above a chunky rock guitar riff and a solid drum groove. This was a piece that was structured like a rock song and deployed the classic grunge soft/loud dynamic and one could imagine a set of lyrics being added and the piece being performed by somebody like Foo Fighters or Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
A Wahl piece translating as “Arguing Roosters” saw the trio making use of sheet music to negotiate the exceptionally tricky unison passages before Renken and Wahl took flight with thrilling slash and burn solos.
Not quite every piece was announced and the trio’s penultimate number (on reflection I think it may have translated as “Night Owls”) represented something of a pause for breath as Zodiak slowed things down with a spacey, impressionistic number as Wahl looped and layered his sound, creating impressive washes of sound through the use of foot pedals, tone controls and tremolo arm as Oezsevim’s cymbals shimmered atmospherically. Renken’s trumpet solo maintained the fragile atmosphere accompanied by the sound of brushed drums as Zodiak demonstrated their capacity for subtlety.
They closed with Renken’s “Dry Heat” which included some monster guitar riffing and more of the densely knit ensemble playing and instrumental interplay that defines the Zodiak sound. Although Zodiak were probably unknown to most of the audience they went down a storm with the Cardiff crowd and doubtless won themselves a whole lot of new admirers - and that surely is what Match & Fuse is all about, spreading the word for exciting new minority music.
The evening ended with the now customary “Fuse”, a mash up between the two bands with the hastily assembled octet powering their way through one of Zodiak’s compositions with Oezsevim and Waugh sharing a single drum kit. The eight piece was a mighty juggernaut as it romped through the hard riffing piece with three horns blazing and Chaplin doubling up with Wahl’s raw sounding guitar. Morecroft was the free agent in all this, delivering a crazed synthesiser solo over an already impressive wall of sound. Terrific stuff, and a second great Match & Fuse night at Dempsey’s.
It probably goes without saying that I love WSP’s music. But I was also hugely impressed with Zodiak Trio, a band that really deserves to be better known. “Acid” is a hugely impressive album, immaculately recorded and with a sharp, steely sound. There’s plenty of riffage to keep rock fans happy but moments of subtlety and contrast too and the conciseness of most of the tracks ensures that the listener is kept engaged and alert throughout. This is urgent, intelligent music that also packs a visceral punch and it deserves to be widely heard. Highly recommended.
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