by Ian Mann
November 02, 2023
Neoteric Ensemble’s fusion of jazz and classical music definitely works and the standard of both the writing and the playing is exceptional throughout. One of the most successful projects of its kind.
(Ulysses Arts – UA220001
Toby Street – trumpet, Adrian Miotti – tuba, Richard Watkin – trombone, Rob Buckland – saxophone, James Fountain – trumpet, Sarah Field – trumpet, saxophone
Neoteric Ensemble is a brass and woodwind sextet dedicated to the performance of newly commissioned material. It was co-founded by trumpeter Toby Street and tuba player Adrian Miotti with the latter describing the Ensemble’s mission statement as follows;
“Our rules are simple, we seek out and perform the most contemporary compositions that inspire both us and our audiences.”
The members of the Ensemble are primarily classical players and perform with many of the UK’s leading orchestras, opera companies and chamber music groups. However as freelance musicians they are also involved in many other areas of music, including recording and touring with variety of pop and rock acts and playing on numerous film, TV and video game soundtracks. Several of them also hold teaching posts at leading music colleges. The Ensemble’s debut album includes a highly informative booklet that provides comprehensive biographical details of all six musicians. All of them are astonishingly busy and time and space precludes me from going into any further individual biographical details here.
With the classical world now less hermetic than it once was the members of the Neoteric Ensemble are open to other musical influences, and particularly to that of jazz. “Volume 1” contains seven new works, some of them written by musicians whose names will be readily familiar to jazz audiences, bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado, saxophonist and flautist Andy Panayi and trombonist Mark Nightingale. Other pieces come from members of the Ensemble, with both Street and Buckland contributing new compositions. There are also new commissions from the musician / composers Charlotte Harding and Dan Jenkins.
The album was recorded at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, London over the course of two days in late March 2021, just as the world was emerging from the ravages of the Covid pandemic. The lockdown period informs some of the pieces, most notably Panayi’s four part “Pandemic Suite”. The album was engineered and produced by the musician Chris Traves, who is also profiled in the album booklet, with Neoteric effectively regarding him as a seventh member.
The album commences with Buckland’s three part work “Soundscapes”. The album booklet also includes liner notes from the composer of each work, these offering invaluable insights into the inspirations behind, and the mechanics of, each piece.
The three pieces that constitute “Soundscapes” were originally part of a series of ten saxophone duets that Buckland, a Professor of Saxophone at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, used to play with his students. The Neoteric project offered the opportunity for three of these to be re-orchestrated for a larger ensemble, with Buckland writing new arrangements specifically for the sextet.
Buckland says of the work;
“Each piece has a one word title that tries to capture the music’s essence and intent, to steer the listener’s imagination”.
The first part of “Soundscapes” is “Mojito”, which features what Buckland describes as an “oscillating sax riff” leading to a “warm and uplifting ensemble section before the music slowly fades away”. The desired effect is of “as if a band of musicians has paraded past the listener on a warm summer’s night, the music gently echoing in the air as they disappear over the horizon”.
The blend of brass and reeds is highly effective and genuinely uplifting, with soprano sax a particularly notable component. At a little under three minutes in length the piece is comparatively brief and there is no jazz soloing. Nevertheless the jazz influence is very much there and this is an excellent ensemble performance.
The second part, “Fjord”, is inspired by the folk music of Scandinavia and its adaptation as a vehicle for jazz instrumentation by artists such as the saxophonist Jan Garbarek. This is a gentler, more atmospheric piece with a folk inspired melody. Buckland describes the performance thus; “a simple folk melody passes around the group creating a haunting, almost choral, cinematic work”. It’s undeniably beautiful and evocative.
The final part is “Bosh”, which as its title might suggest raises the energy levels once more. Buckland references “interlocking rhythms bouncing around the group, pitting saxes and brass against each other in a dynamic interplay”. The sound is bright and punchy as the music does just that. There is a newly composed central section that “builds from a single line to a full ensemble climax”. Buckland also mentions “jazz inflections” and “rhythmic counterpoint” and there’s definitely something of a New Orleans element about the music here, albeit slightly sanitised. Nevertheless it’s an excellent way to round off this impressive three part work, with the lovely “Fjord” providing an effective contrast to the more exuberant sounds of “Mojito” and “Bosh”.
Misha Mullov-Abbado’s composition “The Effra Parade” is named after a road in Brixton and was written in early 2021. In his notes on the piece Mullov-Abbado reflects on the lockdown period, a difficult time for musicians. Being confined to his neighbourhood was difficult for the composer, “I realised how much I need inspiration from everyday life”, he remarks.
Musically the piece draws inspiration from traditional and contemporary jazz and African harmonies. There’s a playful quality about the music (the composer uses the phrase ‘tongue in cheek’) with Miotti’s tuba playing a prominent part in the arrangement. Rhythm and counterpoint again constitute key components and on this longer (eight minute) piece there are more clearly delineated solo episodes, particularly for trumpet and saxophone. The ensemble playing is tight and focussed and overall this piece has more of an obvious jazz feel.
Andy Panayi’s four part suite “Pandemic 19-20” begins with “Huanan Market”, named after the initial source of the infection. The composer describes the piece as “manic” and this is expressed by the sounds of darting melodic motifs, feisty collective interplay and a sinuous saxophone solo. It’s all underpinned by strong rhythms, with Miotti’s tuba again fulfilling a vital role in this regard.
The second part, “The Traveller is Named” depicts the spread of the virus, commencing with a muted trumpet fanfare signalling the danger,, but also featuring the low register sounds of both reeds and brass as the disease begins to spread, slowly and stealthily.
“The Traveller Goes Forth” is more urgent and energetic, perhaps depicting the now rapid spread of the virus to all corners of the globe. For an ensemble without bass or drums Neoteric pack a considerable rhythmic punch and this is in evidence here, along with further spirited instrumental interplay and another probing, and increasingly belligerent, saxophone solo. Driven by an insistent tuba vamp the march of the virus seems unstoppable.
The final part, “Lockdown Release” expresses the collective relief felt by the world when the crisis was finally over and things slowly began to return to normal. There’s a celebratory feel to the music and concise solos for trombone and saxophone.
Named for the band “Neo” is the commission from composer, orchestrator and saxophonist Charlotte Harding. In her liner notes she praises the Ensemble’s “fresh approach to classical and jazz fusion”. She describes her piece as “taking a shouty melody line and weaving it through punchy rhythmic statements and raspy textures”. She also speaks of “improvised solos contrasting with rich tutti passages, exploring the dynamics of this exciting new ensemble”. It’s an exciting piece of writing that does indeed contain all of these elements and is arguably the widest ranging piece thus far, the early instrumental fireworks followed by a solemn, almost hymn like, closing passage.
Co-founder Toby Street takes up the compositional reins for “Karatina Street Market”, named for a location in Kenya and partly inspired by the music of the Brecker Brothers. Street speaks of the piece fusing “smooth melodies with a busy bass line and choral melodies”. He describes the structure of the piece as being “like a regular song”, with a sax and flugelhorn melody acting as the bridge into the chorus. Things get more complicated on the outro, with varying rhythmic meters topped by soaring soprano sax. There’s a genuinely African feel about the harmonies of this charming piece.
“Bach in Barbados” is the commission from composer and trombonist Dan Jenkins. He was approached by Miotti, who asked for a piece that was variously “funky”, “eclectic” and “Zappa-esque”. The piece opens with a gentle, Bach inspired chorale, but this is eventually hi-jacked by what Jenkins describes as a “steamy tropical nightclub riff”, driven by tuba, trombone and uncredited woodblock and hand claps. There’s clearly other doubling up going on as there are solos for flute, trumpet and euphonium, prior to a “tutti climax”, leading to a reprise of the chorale section and finally a brief Caribbean final flourish.
Mark Nightingale is one of the UK’s leading trombonists and Neoteric approached him to write a piece that would be suitable for an encore. Nightingale describes his piece as “a succinct Latin American influenced tune with a flamboyant, happy vibe. I wanted to make it sound like a joyous carnival time”. He describes the piece as “technically demanding” and praises the Ensemble’s interpretation of it, including the “dovetailing triple-tonguing trumpets” and the “finger busting runs for saxophones and tuba”. Indeed the playing is dazzling throughout and the mood suitably exuberant and celebratory. It represents a great way to end the album and it is obviously destined to fill the encore slot at the Ensemble’s live shows.
I have to admit that when I first received this album I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to make of it. But despite the absence of bass, drums and any chordal instrument, the music is much more rhythmic than I thought it would be and the actual jazz content pleasingly high. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised with jazz musicians of the calibre of Mullov-Abbado, Panayi and Nightingale among the list of composers. But the other pieces are all excellent too, this is a very versatile collective of musicians and composers. Neoteric Ensemble’s fusion of jazz and classical music definitely works and the standard of both the writing and the playing is exceptional throughout, with Traves also worthy of much praise for the engineering and production, which captures the full depth and nuance of the music. I’m not always convinced by brass ensembles and saxophone quartets but this is one of the most successful and convincing projects of its kind.
“Volume 1” will be released on November 3rd 2023 and its telling that Neoteric Ensemble have decided to launch the album with a live performance at Pizza Express Live’s Pheasantry venue on November 8th. Ticket link here;
Neoteric Ensemble will also feature on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune programme on Tuesday November 7th 2023 at 5.00 pm.
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