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Overground Collective

Super Mario

by Ian Mann

January 13, 2020


I’m very impressed by the quality of Dias Duarte’s writing and by the colour and complexity of his consistently interesting & intelligent arrangements. Accessible, enjoyable and ultimately uplifting.

Overground Collective

“Super Mario”

(Babel Records BDV 19155)

Overground Collective is a large ensemble featuring eighteen of the London jazz scene’s leading jazz improvisers. It is led by the Portuguese born, London based guitarist and composer Paulo Dias Duarte.

As a composer Dias Duarte has written music for cinema, theatre and dance. His previous album release came in 2005 when he led the ten piece Portuguese band Ensemble Raum, performing a suite based on the concept of the “7 Deadly Sins”. This work has subsequently been performed live by Overground Collective.

“Super Mario” is an eight part suite that was originally commissioned by the LUME organisation, a musicians’ collective founded by the saxophonists Cath Roberts and Dee Byrne – indeed Roberts is part of the Overground Collective line up.

The music was premièred at London’s Vortex Jazz Club in August 2014, but it wasn’t until May 2018 that it was eventually recorded at Fish Factory Studios by a production team featuring Dias Duarte and engineers Nuno Fernandes and Gwyn Mathias.

Central to the eventual recording of “Super Mario” was Oliver Weindling, founder of the Babel label and a director of the Vortex. Weindling heard the Overground Collective on several occasions at the Vortex and came to regard himself as “enmeshed” in the music and in the processes that produced it. I’m indebted to Oliver for forwarding me a review copy of the finished album, which was originally released at the end of July 2019 and has been waiting in the “to do” file for far too long. Still, better late that never, cheers Ollie!

Regarding the music to be heard on “Super Mario” Dias Duarte explains;
“The idea was to create a piece that shares the compositional process with the listener. At the beginning the composer searches for a musical idea worth developing. By the final stages the idea has been looked at and re-assessed through so many angles by the musicians that it has evolved into having a life of its own, and the composer has been able to let it go”.

Aurelie Freoua’s cover image is intended to reflect this process, a spiral in which the movements of the music are depicted by the different colours, yet without straying too far from the music’s core theme, despite the length of the journey.

The music itself strikes a good balance between composition and improvisation and between freedom and structure. The musicians that Dias Duarte has selected are acknowledged masters of this musical hinterland and a truly stellar cast of players lines up as follows;

Chris Williams (Alto Sax / Soprano Sax / Flute)

Julie Kjær (Alto sax / Flute)

Rachel Musson (Tenor Sax / Flute)

Mike Lesirge (Tenor Sax)

Cath Roberts (Baritone Sax)

Tom Ward (Clarinet / Bass Clarinet)

Noel Langley (Trumpet / Flugelhorn)

Andre Canniere (Trumpet)

Chris Batchelor (Trumpet)

Yazz Ahmed (Trumpet / Flugelhorn / Electronics)

Paul Taylor (Trombone)

Raphael Clarkson (Trombone)

Olivir Haylet (Bass Trombone)

Ben Kelly (Sousaphone)

Paulo Dias Duarte (Guitar)

Dave O’Brien (Keys)

Jason Simpson (Electric Bass)

Jon Scott (Drums)

I assume that the band name, Overground Collective, is a knowing reference to the London Overground railway, with many of these musicians travelling on the line in order to play at the Vortex and alighting at Dalston Kingsland or Dalston Junction stations.

The recording features a total of eight pieces, a brief “Intro” followed by the “Super Mario” suite itself, which is divided into seven movements simply titled “Part I” to “Part VII”.

The “Intro” features Dias Duarte solo, sketching ideas on his guitar for a round a minute half and deploying extended techniques that make him sound a little like Derek Bailey, or maybe Mary Halvorson if you want a more contemporary counterpart. It’s the sound of an artist “searching for a musical idea worth developing” as Dias Duarte has said.

Having established the kernel of that idea Dias Duarte sets about developing it on the eleven and a half minute “Part I”, arguably the cornerstone of the album. Opening with a chunky electric guitar riff and the shimmering of electric keyboards the piece quickly gathers momentum as the rest of the Collective come on board, with Roberts’ baritone sax initially prominent, to create an authentically big, and very contemporary, sound. Unfortunately neither the album packaging or the rather rudimentary press release list the individual soloists but reviews of the Collective’s live performances suggest that it’s Musson we hear from first, her tenor soloing underscored only by the leader’s shadowy guitar. This is music that is constantly mutating, effortlessly shifting between moods, tempi and styles. Next up is a mass dialogue involving various horns, underpinned by Kelly’s parping sousaphone, from which a trumpet solo emerges, there are plenty of candidates here to take the plaudits, but Langley at a guess. Later on in the piece Ahmed is easier to identify as she manipulates the sound of her flugel via the use of electronics. Individual contributions aside the ensemble playing throughout is vibrant, colourful and razor sharp throughout, with the musicians responding to the considerable complexities of Dias Duarte’s writing with aplomb. The interplay between the various horns is brilliant and makes judicious use of extended techniques. Meanwhile the rhythm section offer dynamic support with Scott’s dynamic drumming really driving the band. He also gets to enjoy an extended drum feature at the close of the track, which provides the bridge into the next movement. Scott’s playing, allied to the use of electric guitar, bass and keyboards also brings a discernible rock influence to the music.

The remaining parts are shorter, with no movement lasting longer than four and a half minutes.

“Part II” opens with the sound of Kelly’s pulsing sousaphone underpinning the garrulous interchanges involving several other horns. O’Brien’s keyboards also feature on this spirited and dynamic slice of avant jazz that strikes a good balance between the composed and the improvised as racing, squalling horn lines jostle with powerful rhythms and spacey electronics. There are a couple of instances of trumpets becoming prominent in the arrangement, but it’s impossible to apportion credit.

“Part III” is more reflective and atmospheric, with the sound of O’Brien’s keys again prominent in the arrangement. Flutes and clarinets bring textural variety to this relatively brief (just over two and a half minutes) interlude between more dynamic pieces. There’s a sense of this movement representing a pause for reflection, something of a musical “palette cleanser” before the meatier fare to come.

The fourth movement commences with some chunky, but complex, baritone led unison horn riffing. The rhythm section then drops out as the horns exchange ideas between themselves, the broad tonal range stretching from flute right down to sousaphone. When the rhythm section comes back on board the ensemble as a whole surges forward with the power of a juggernaut, as an uncredited saxophone soloist (possibly Chris Williams) cuts loose.

“Part V” represents another moment for quiet reflection as the opening duet between Dias Duarte and O’Brien is subsequently augmented by brass and reeds, with flutes prominent in the arrangement. The press release cites Raph Clarkson as a major soloist so I presume that the unsettling vocalised trombone feature is his contribution.

The introduction to “Part VI” features celestial keyboards and frothy flutes above a skittering brushed drum groove. Additional brass and reeds add weight and depth but the piece is notable for its airy flute solo, from Julie Kjaer at a guess. There’s also another impressive passage featuring the horns in isolation as the rhythm players again drop out. There are a number of episodes like this scattered throughout the album, and all are subtle, colourful and genuinely impressive.

The soaring “Part VII” ends the suite, and the album, on an uplifting note as one of the trumpeters takes flight with a pure toned, upbeat solo. Williams is then heard on soaring soprano and the mood of this concise closing item is joyous and buoyant throughout.

Clocking in just shy of thirty five minutes “Super Mario” is another album that is comparatively brief by modern day standards, but it packs in far more musical information than some discs with double the running time manage to do.

For all its avant garde flourishes this is an accessible, enjoyable and ultimately uplifting record. I’m very impressed by the quality of Dias Duarte’s writing and by the colour and complexity of his consistently interesting and intelligent arrangements.

Overground Collective’s music is more structured than that of Cath Roberts’ Favourite Animals or guitarist Anton Hunter’s Article XI, although I can detect traces of both of those ensembles here. Meanwhile the electric elements give the music a rock inspired drive that reminds me of Beats & Pieces Big Band. Elsewhere I hear elements of Loose Tubes, Brotherhood of Breath / Dedication Orchestra, Darcy James Argue and more, right back through Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra to Charles Mingus.

But ultimately the music of Overground Collective is very much Dias Duarte’s own and his hand picked band of London based musicians perform it brilliantly, as dazzling musicianship is combined with a visceral excitement.

I appreciate that the economics of jazz dictate that this is a band whose opportunities for live performance are likely to be severely limited, but I’d love to see this music performed ‘in the flesh’.
Quite an experience I would imagine.

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