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350 Million Herring

by Ian Mann

December 08, 2023


Another impressive statement from MoonMot, an even more democratic recording that places a greater emphasis on collective improvisation,but which retains enough structure to keep the music accessible


“350 Million Herring”

(Enja Records ENJA 9834)

Dee Byrne – alto saxophone, effects, Simon Petermann – trombone, effects, Cath Roberts – baritone saxophone, Oli Kuster – Fender Rhodes, effects, Seth Bennett – bass, Johnny Hunter – drums

“350 Million Herring” is the second album from the Anglo-Swiss sextet MoonMot and follows their acclaimed 2020 debut “Going Down The Well”, which is reviewed here.

The MoonMot project began in 2017 when LUME collective founders Dee Byrne and Cath Roberts were invited to Bern, Switzerland to perform at the tenth edition of the Jazzwerkstatt Festival. The Festival’s artistic directors Marc Stucki and Benedikt Reising were keen to foster a spirit of co-operation between British and Swiss musicians and the sextet that eventually came to be known as MoonMot emerged from that collaboration.

Later in 2017 LUME returned the compliment when MoonMot performed at the EFG London Jazz Festival, supporting the Scandinavian free jazz powerhouse The Thing.

In March 2019 MoonMot undertook a six date tour of Switzerland and their performance at the BeJazz Club in Bern was documented and subsequently used as the basis for the début recording. “Going Down The Well” was not a “live album” in the conventional sense,  in that all the applause was edited out and the music underwent a degree of editing and post production on the day after the performance. Released on the Swiss imprint Unit Records “Going Down The Well” was a brilliantly realised debut that attracted a good deal of critical acclaim, and rightly so. Released just prior to the pandemic this was one of the best jazz / improv releases of 2020.

MoonMot’s second album sees them moving to the leading German jazz label Enja Records. The group line up remains the same with the four British musicians, Byrne, Roberts, Bennett and Hunter joined again by the Swiss duo of Petermann and Kuster. Once again the recording is supported by numerous Swiss cultural associations in a display of support for the creative arts that has now become almost unthinkable in the UK.

The members of MoonMot regard themselves as a collective with a manifesto to “only play true things”. They see their music as a blueprint for a more equal and just society, with improvised music forming an indispensable part of the arts scene in a fully functioning democracy.

“350 Million Herring” sees the band putting those ideals into action. It’s a resolutely democratic recording that sees each member of the sextet contributing one composition to the finished album and it’s fascinating to compare and contrast the various compositional styles. The album takes its title from Hunter’s composition and represents a satirical swipe at former British prime minister Boris Johnson and his spurious Brexit promises. Like so many jazz musicians of their generation the members of MoonMot are staunch Europeans, for reasons both ideological and practical.

Unlike its predecessor “350 Million Herring” is purely a studio recording with the music being documented at Studio 2 RSI, Lugano-Basso, Switzerland over a three day period in September 2021. Prior to recording the music had been worked on during a summer residency in Saanenland, a mountainous region to the south of Bern. For the British contingent this residency represented their first visit outside the UK for eighteen months.

The new album builds upon the success of “Going Down The Well” and represents another major statement from MoonMot. Once again the lines between composition and improvisation are blurred (as is always the best way) and the group members also make judicious use of electronic effects to expand the range of sonic possibilities available to them.

The album commences with Byrne’s composition “The Escape”, introduced by the sounds of Rhodes, bass and drums, with the horns later joining for a unison theme statement, the combination of alto, baritone and trombone helping to create a big, punchy sound. The theme provides the jumping off point for an incisive and expansive alto sax solo from the composer, who probes deeply, edging ever closer to the avant garde above an unfolding bass and drum groove as Kuster provides increasingly clangorous Rhodes accompaniment,  while also adding electronic textures. As the music becomes more abstract the storm eventually blows itself out, leading to a more melodic section, out of which Kuster emerges as the featured soloist.  The piece eventually resolves itself with a brief but rousing closing section featuring odd meter grooves and the bright and punchy chorusing of the three horns.  Described in the press release as a “Modern Creative” jazz composition this is a piece that moves through a series of distinct stylistic phases whilst retaining a strong sense of narrative and coherence.

Away from MoonMot Byrne and Kuster have collaborated with the Swiss guitarist Cyrill Ferrari on “Motherboard Pinball”, an electro-acoustic recording created remotely during the lockdown period. It makes for fascinating, if sometimes challenging, listening and is reviewed here;

Unaccompanied double bass introduces Kuster’s composition “Tombola”. Bennett’s bass is soon joined by the trill of the composer’s Fender Rhodes and then by Hunter’s drums, with Petermann’s trombone leading the horns to produce additional heft. Byrne again features strongly as her alto intertwines with Roberts’ baritone above an increasingly complex groove, with Kuster’s keyboards again a distinctive component in the music. The piece gradually builds in terms of energy and momentum and concludes with a final drum flourish. This is one of the shorter items in the MoonMot repertoire, but it manages to fit a lot of information into its four minute duration.

I assume that Bennett’s composition “For Harris Lambrakis” is dedicated to the Greek ney player of the same name. The piece is an eleven minute opus that gradually emerges out of eerily overlapping passages featuring reeds, brass and electronica. It’s the most consciously avant garde piece thus far with Roberts’ gnarly baritone sax prominent early on during a loosely structured passage that I assume to be largely improvised. An almost naive melody later emerges, sketched by Byrne on alto, with Kuster providing twinkling Rhodes accompaniment. Byrne’s playing subsequently becomes more sinuous and probing as the music again edges subtly towards the avant garde, before being reeled back in again once more. The composers double bass eventually emerges as a solo instrument, with Bennett’s melodic pizzicato playing cushioned by soft layers of reeds and brass, and then by ethereal electronica.

Hunter’s title track commences with the sounds of drums and bass, joined by keys and horns in a loosely structured introductory passage that acts as a kind of introductory fanfare. A more solid bass and drum groove subsequently emerges, surfed first by Kuster’s Rhodes and then by the horns, initially in unison, before Roberts breaks away to deliver a barnstorming baritone solo, supported by increasingly busy and energetic rhythms. Baritone and keys combine to create a wilful dissonance, this is avant garde jazz with a punk spirit, wordless protest music that continues into the dialogue between baritone sax and double bass and further discussions involving keys and drums. An attractive written theme eventually emerges, featuring the horns working in unison, and some sort of reconciliation is eventually reached. But there’s no mistaking the anger behind Roberts’ solo.

Petermann’s contribution with the pen is “Under Construction”. MoonMot may have no formal leader but Petermann acts as the group’s producer and at the time of “Going Down The Well” Roberts remarked that if anybody can be regarded as the leader it is Petermann, who organises the majority of the group’s activities  in addition to his engineering and production duties.
Unaccompanied double bass introduces his tune, subsequently joined by keys, drums and the leader’s trombone. The saxes provide additional colour and texture on a piece with a slightly sinister, nocturnal feel. Roberts takes a baritone solo, her dark grainy tone and her remarkable agility on the instrument sometimes making it sound almost like a bass clarinet. Hunter’s rolling mallet driven drum groove underpins both Roberts’ and Petermann’s solos, with Kuster’s keyboards also providing a dark and unsettling presence.

The album closes with the Roberts’s composition “Another Way”, which is described in the press release as a ‘concept improvisation’. As the leader of her own groups Sloth Racket and Favourite Animals Roberts likes to deploy graphic scores, providing her musicians with the most meagre of instructions and encouraging them to add their own ideas to her deliberately skeletal creative frameworks.  I suspect that this may also be what’s going on here. Bennett’s arco bass drones introduce the piece, shadowed by the saxophones, with Roberts baritone gradually emerging to play a more prominent role. Bass and reeds have the field to themselves during the early stages of this near ten minute piece, before Roberts establishes a motif / vamp that invites the other musicians to the party. Petermann’s trombone gradually begins to assert itself and Kuster coaxes some extraordinary sounds from his keyboards that sound almost guitar like at times. But it’s the group interaction and collective improvisation that are at the heart of this piece, treading that fine line between the composed and the spontaneous. Petermann eventually emerges as a soloist with a thrillingly rumbustious excursion that encourages the other instrumentalists to carouse in his wake. The piece resolves itself with a long, evocative fade featuring the spacey sounds of Kuster’s keyboards.

This second album represents another impressive statement from MoonMot, an even more democratic recording that places a greater emphasis on collective improvisation this time round, but which retains enough structure to keep the music relatively accessible, if not always easy to describe. I do hope I’ve managed to do it justice.

Striking the perfect balance between the written and the improvised,  the pre-planned and the spontaneous and between structure and freedom is the Holy Grail that unites all these musicians. It’s a search that defines not only the work of MoonMot but also the many other projects with which its individual members have been involved.

That cusp makes for thrilling music and for this listener it’s a good place to be, as characterised by the music of Sloth Racket, Favourite Animals, Johnny Hunter’s Quartet, Dee Byrne’s Outlines group and many more, including of course, MoonMot.

As with the debut I’m hugely impressed with this album. My only regret is that I couldn’t make any of the dates on the sextet’s recent UK tour. On the evidence of its two albums this is a band that I’d love to see performing live.

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