Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Old Hat Jazz Band

The Sparrow


by Ian Mann

July 25, 2016


A thoroughly enjoyable listening experience as this young group find something fresh and original to say within the trad jazz format.

Old Hat Jazz Band

“The Sparrow”

The Old Hat Jazz Band is a collection of young, London based musicians inspired by the jazz styles of the 1920s and 1930s. They were founded in 2012 by the drummer and composer Elizabeth (Lizzy) Exell who was then studying at Trinity College of Music. The inspiration for the group came from Exell witnessing a performance by the Nevada Street Four, comprised of moonlighting members of the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, at a bar venue in Greenwich.

Initially the OHJB played swing tunes from the established repertoire but in 2014 the individual members began writing their own original tunes in that style and it’s this aspect of their music that is presented on this album with the composing credits shared around the members of the group.

The OHJB dip into a myriad of styles from their chosen period and cite Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday as key influences with ragtime, jazz, blues and the biguines of Martinique all contributing to their contemporary take on the jazz styles of the past.
The OHJB’s writing reflects the development of jazz in New Orleans, Chicago and New York with the notes in the press release accompanying this album offering valuable insights into the inspirations behind each individual tune.

The core group on this album features Exell at the drums alongside Michael Soper (trumpet), William Scott (clarinet & saxophones) and Louis Thomas (bass) with Joe Webb and Andrew Oliver sharing piano duties. The final two pieces, presented as ‘bonus tracks’ see the band expanded to an octet with the addition of James Kitchman (guitar), Simon Marsh (alto sax) and Ewan Bleach (baritone sax).

The album commences with the title track written by bassist Louis Thomas and meant to represent a bird fluttering about and swooping around the composer’s window. Introduced by Oliver at the piano it’s an appropriately lively and vivacious piece with pithy solos from Scott on saxophone, Thomas on double bass, Soper on trumpet and Oliver at the piano as Exell’s subtly brushed grooves help to provide the requisite propulsion.

Trumpeter Mike Soper wrote “Passion Wings” inspired by the jazz songs of the 20s and 30s and the playing of saxophonist Lester Young. Less energetic and frenetic than the opener it swings gently and easily and features some excellent interplay between the composer on trumpet and Scott on tenor sax .There’s an elegant piano solo too, this time from Webb I believe, although there is a degree of confusion between the album cover and the press release as to who actually plays piano on certain pieces.   

Oliver wrote “Beguine de Vieux Chapeau”, so it’s probably fair to assume that he plays on this particular performance. It’s inspired by the music of Eugene Delouche, a clarinet player from Martinique who composed several pieces in this style during the 1930s. Oliver’s composition is made even more exotic by the inclusion of some additional tango tinges. Oliver himself is the featured soloist with a jauntily percussive, Latin flavoured and outing and there’s also some excellent joint interplay and individual soloing from Soper on trumpet and Scott on clarinet. The group’s recording engineer Nick Taylor plays cowbell in addition to Exell’s already exotic drums and percussion.

Exell wrote “Treasure”, a gently bouncing tune inspired by the songs of Billie Holiday and the playing of Lester Young. Scott introduces the song on tenor as he reprises his earlier “Prez” role. Thomas takes the first solo on double bass, subtly underscored by the horns. Scott then takes over on tenor and is succeeded in turn by Soper who enters a series of exchanges with the pianist, this time almost certainly Webb. The piece then resolves itself with some exuberant ensemble playing as the band revisit the theme.

Thomas’ “Blue Town” is named after the former Navy fort on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. It’s a beautiful ballad with poignant solos by Soper on trumpet and Scott on breathy, warm toned tenor.  There seems to be little doubt that it’s Webb who provides the gently lyrical piano solo but perhaps the finest moments come in the tune’s closing stages with Exell’s melodic mallet motifs gently rumbling above the melancholy backdrop of Thomas’ bowed bass, a musical depiction of fog drifting atmospherically over the Thames estuary.

Will Scott’s “Balance Blues” increases the energy levels again with its syncopated rhythms and jaunty clarinet melody. The first solo is played on piano, but again there’s a discrepancy between the album and the press release. Scott is easier to identify on clarinet as is Exell behind the drum kit with a series of lively breaks.

Exell’s “Cable Street” is another piece inspired by the bitter-sweet qualities of the songs of Billie Holiday with the major 7th note acting as the focal point of the melody. The title is derived from the band’s one time residency at Jamboree on Cable Street at Limehouse (rather than Oswald Mosley and the famous ‘Battle of Cable Street’ ). There’s a nostalgic glow about the band’s playing which incorporates solos from Scott, Webb and Soper plus an engaging series of tenor sax / double bass exchanges between Scott and Thomas before a spirited group outro.

Also by Exell “Boatyard Blues” is a New Orleans style tune modelled on a combination of ragtime and multi strain blueses. It begins with a perky clarinet/trumpet duet and quickly gathers a jaunty momentum. Oliver is the pianist here and solos in bluesy fashion followed by brief bit vigorous cameos from the other members of the band including Thomas on bass and the temporary return of the horn duo.

Scott’s “Feverish Blues” adds an element of Greek Rubetika to the music, something inspired by the six months that the composer spent living in Cyprus. The most distinctive component here is the arco bass solo by Thomas, a wonderfully distinctive and evocative piece of playing. Scott’s writing has also been influenced by that of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus and there are elements of both of these here. Further solos come from the composer on clarinet and Oliver at the piano prior to a passionate closing ensemble passage on a piece that was recorded in a single take.

Oliver’s “Sancy Strut” is named after the French town in which the composer was performing when he wrote the tune. Musically its inspired by the music of Jelly Roll Morton and the energy of the group’s performance captures much of the earthiness and urgency of Morton’s music with its ragtime rhythms and investigations into what Morton referred to as the “Spanish Tinge”. There’s some bright, colourful and vivacious ensemble playing plus a Morton-esque piano solo from Oliver and further features for Soper on trumpet and Scott on clarinet.

The press release describes Exell’s “Eternal Sunshine” as a ‘blues dirge’ but don’t let that put you off. It’s structured along the lines of a New Orleans funeral march with a lugubrious opening section featuring bluesy trumpet and clarinet and more of that distinctive arco bass. Oliver solos at the piano, his feature leading to an increase in momentum but with the expected ‘second line’ never quite erupting as the piece drifts gently to a close, tantalisingly hinting at future possibilities.

The two bonus tracks are sourced from the groups eponymous début EP from 2014. Exell’s “Grandma Iris” is a warm and loving tribute variously inspired by the music of Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington. Played by an octet it’s gently introduced by Kitchman at the guitar with Scott subsequently fulfilling the Bechet role on soprano sax. Soper’s trumpet solo is thoughtful and tender and the contributions of Webb (or is it Oliver?) at the piano and Kitchman on guitar are similarly gentle and lyrical.

The additional punch that one would expect from an eight piece band is saved for Scott’s brief but colourful, exciting and energetic “Ledra Street Stomp” which makes effective use of the extended dynamic and textural possibilities offered by the expanded line up.

“The Sparrow” is a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience with some first rate playing from all the musicians involved. The writing is also convincingly authentic as this young group find something fresh and original to say within the trad jazz format. Reports suggest that their live shows are highly exciting affairs and I certainly wouldn’t be averse to giving one a try should they ever venture into my neck of the woods.

It’s interesting to find new young musicians becoming fascinated by this style of music and playing it so well. Long after the trad v modern wars of the 50s and 60s music of this vintage now comes free of any cultural ‘baggage’ as far as musicians of Exell’s generation are concerned. Like that other much maligned musical genre prog rock it holds no fear or embarrassment, the musical snobbery is gone, everything is fair game, the music there to be dipped into and learned from. 

It’s interesting to note that Exell is also part of the all female ensemble Nerija (whose members met of part of the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme), a musical environment in which she embraces a far more contemporary sound. This group has attracted a compelling amount of critical praise for the quality of its live performances – I was lucky enough to catch one myself at the Green Note in Camden Town as part of the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival, but unfortunately Exell was unavailable and was replaced by a male dep! Nerija have yet record but when they do their début release is going to be one of the most keenly anticipated recordings of the year.

blog comments powered by Disqus