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Patchwork Jazz Orchestra

The Adventures of Mr Pottercakes


by Ian Mann

March 04, 2019


An exceptional début from this highly talented collective and one that should put them firmly on the musical map, establishing the PJO as a force to be reckoned with

Patchwork Jazz Orchestra

“The Adventures of Mr Pottercakes”

(Spark Records SPARK007)

“The Adventures of Mr Pottercakes” is the long awaited début album from the young London based contemporary big band Patchwork Jazz Orchestra.

The band features many of the capital’s leading young jazz musicians but has no designated leader, with several of its members contributing compositions to the PJO repertoire.

Many, but by no means all, of the PJO members studied at the Royal Academy of Music and worked with that institution’s Big Band, an aggregation that also proved to be the basis for the acclaimed Troykestra, the big band that augmented the Troyka trio of Kit Downes (keyboards), Chris Montague (guitar) and Joshua Blackmore (drums.) Troykestra’s live album, recorded at the 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival is reviewed here;

The PJO name was adopted in 2014 and in 2015 the ensemble won the annual Peter Whittingham Award, which helped to finance this début recording. The band then ran their own “Patchwork Nights” at various venues around London, notably The Others in Stoke Newington.

I first encountered their music at the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival when PJO played an excellent Sunday lunchtime show at the 606 Jazz Club in Chelsea, a performance reviewed as part of my Festival coverage here;

The personnel was essentially the same as that featured on this recording and the majority of the compositions to be heard here also featured at “The Six”.

For “The Adventures of Mr Pottercakes” the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra lines up as follows;

James Davison, Adam Chatterton – trumpet, flugelhorn, piccolo trumpet

James Copus, Tom Dennis – trumpet, flugelhorn

Kieran McLeod, Tom Green, Jamie Pimenta – trombones

Yusuf Narcin – bass trombone

Matthew Herd – soprano & alto saxes

Sam Glaser – alto sax

Alex Hitchcock, Sam Miles – tenor saxes

Tom Smith – baritone sax, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet

Liam Dunachie – piano, Hammond organ

Rob Luft – electric guitar

Misha Mullov-Abbado – acoustic & electric bass

Scott Chapman – drums

Due to their youthfulness and their focus on original compositions sourced from within the band’s ranks it’s tempting to compare PJO with Loose Tubes, and indeed one suspects that some of PJO’s members may have even have been taught by former Tubes such as Mark Lockheart and Chris Batchelor. However the music is less wilfully idiosyncratic than Loose Tubes (after all, there’s only one Django Bates) and although the PJO’s brightly coloured “Patchwork” shirts give them a strong visual identity they can’t quite match the inspired zaniness and eccentricity of the Tubes in their 80s heyday.

Of PJO’s approach to the big band format trombonist and Spark! Record label owner Tom Green comments;
“Many of us grew up listening to and playing big band music, but opportunities to perform new material are few and far between. Patchwork Jazz Orchestra was born from a desire of a number of us to write and play new music in a regular group and the band has since evolved an identity of its own, both collaborative and totally diverse in musical styles. All eight tracks on the album have different stories and influences behind them and are the musical vision of seven different composers, but all share the same excitement and joy we get out of communal music making”.

The album’s notes give brief insights into the inspiration behind each individual composition, beginning with the title track, written by the ensemble’s keyboard Liam Dunachie, who talks of his piece representing “the antics of a bumbling Englishman who accidentally stumbles across a Caribbean festival”.
It’s an appropriately episodic and multi-faceted composition that moves through several distinct phases, the orchestration often reminiscent of that of Loose Tubes. Solos come from Herd on plaintive, lyrical alto and Luft on fluid, coolly elegant guitar before Chapman’s drums lead us into the final ‘Caribbean festival’ section with its rousing horn charts, vibrant rhythms and a tenor sax feature from Hitchcock. It all makes for an excellent, attention grabbing start.

Drummer Scott Chapman’s “Barcarole” is described as “a response to the folk songs traditionally sung by Venetian gondoliers”. Another compelling piece of contemporary big band writing the composition combines colourful textures with rich horn voicings, the first solo coming from Copus on flugel, whose playing combines a poignant expressiveness with an impressive improvisational fluency. Rising star Luft features again as his guitar takes brief, soaring flight, his solo followed by Miles’ slow burning exploration on tenor. A gentle ensemble coda then features the sounds of flugel and bass clarinet.

Green’s “Badger Cam” represents “a voyeuristic insight into the nocturnal activities of not-so-fluffy woodland creatures”. This is a rumbustious piece that mixes traditional big band sounds and rock rhythms with solos coming from Luft on guitar and Smith on baritone sax with Dunachie featuring on Hammond. The prominence of Luft’s guitar in many of PJO’s arrangements suggests the influence of composer and bandleader Mike Gibbs, who frequently wrote for ensembles featuring guitarists, among them John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Philip Catherine.

Written by Davison and arranged by the composer and Mullov-Abbado “The Boy Roy” is a truly collaborative effort. Described as “a dirty funeral march inspired by a large stuffed tiger who found the path to righteousness after an aggressive drug addiction” it’s a New Orleans inspired piece that boasts a veritable string of soloists. Mullov-Abbado, a composer and bandleader himself, starts things off with an unaccompanied acoustic bass feature which leads us straight to the Crescent City and that promised gut-bucket funeral dirge, from which emerge the solos, led by Pimenta and Marcin on delightfully filthy sounding trombones, while Smith’s baritone ensures that things remain deep within the lower register. By way of contrast Chatterton’s trumpet and Glaser’s alto then emerge from the gutter to reach for the stars.

Mullov-Abbado’s own “Hi Wriggly!” tells “the story of a young worm who experiences a psychotic episode after a long evening of mayhem”. The piece is introduced by the mournful sound of Davison’s lone trumpet but subsequently gains momentum, again delighting in the sound of low sonorities and the dialogue between Davison’s trumpet and Narcin’s bass trombone. There’s an appropriate air of quirkiness about an arrangement that also includes some superlative ensemble playing.

Herd’s “The Complete Short Stories” is “a homage to the tales of Raymond Carver who illuminated the darkness in the everyday”. Despite some rousing ensemble passages the mood of the piece is essentially melancholy and includes solos from McLeod on subtly vocalised trombone and the composer on softly incisive, oboe like soprano.

Chapman is the only composer to feature twice, his “Mind Palace” being “an ode to the cognitive labyrinths of Sherlock Holmes”. A freely structured intro is superseded by Mullov-Abbado’s electric bass groove, with Chapman himself locking in to help to fuel a typically colourful big band arrangement with rousing solos coming from Green on trombone and Hitchcock on tenor. The majority of the band drop out for Dunachie’s rollicking solo which sees the PJO briefly become a piano trio, but with no loss of overall momentum. Chapman himself features at the kit before a barnstorming collective finale.

The album closes with McLeod’s “Vixen” (“the tale of an inquisitive fox, occasionally in peril”), which emerges from the gentle, classically inspired horn chorales via a piano and guitar dialogue into a vaguely unsettling arrangement that evokes the nocturnal world of the tune’s protagonist. Luft’s skilful deployment of his various FX does much to set the noirish atmosphere as he features as a soloist alongside Dennis on trumpet and Hitchcock on tenor. The brass evokes the sound of hunting horns and that ‘occasional peril’ in a typically intriguing, multi-faceted composition and arrangement.

The album even boasts a ‘secret track’, a brief snippet of studio fooling around that comes half a minute or so after the conclusion of “Vixen”.

“The Adventures of Mr Pottercakes” more than delivers on the promise of that 606 performance from 2016. “This is music that very much deserves to be documented on disc” I remarked at the time and it’s certainly been worth the wait. I enjoyed hearing this album almost as much as I did seeing the live show and praise should go to engineer John Prestage of the famous AIR Studios for a mix that brings out all the vitality richness, colour and nuance of these supremely inventive compositions and arrangements. The playing is superb throughout and the writing intelligent, quirky and imaginative with plenty of variety in terms of style and dynamics.

The album has been well received by other commentators and the comparisons with Ellington and Mingus are thoroughly deserved, particularly in the case of the latter.

Despite its wilfully whimsical title “The Adventures of Mr Pottercakes” represents an exceptional début from this highly talented collective and should certainly put them firmly on the musical map, establishing the PJO as a force to be reckoned with, even if the near mainstream exposure that Loose Tubes enjoyed back in the day seems unlikely.

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