by Ian Mann
September 25, 2019
This is music that is simultaneously sophisticated and earthy, musically complex but terrific fun.
(Pokey Records PR001)
Chris Batchelor – trumpet, cornet, Liam Noble – piano/keyboards, James Allsopp – baritone sax, bass clarinet, Paul Clarvis – drums, percussion
“Pigfoot Shuffle” is the second album from the band Pigfoot, a welcome follow up to their 2014 début “21st Century Acid Trad”.
Named after the Bessie Smith song “Gimme a Pigfoot” the band was formed in 2013 by Batchelor, Noble, Clarvis and tuba player Oren Marshall, and it was a performance by this quartet that I enjoyed at that year’s London Jazz Festival.
In 2014 the same foursome released “21st Century Acid Trad” on Clarvis’ Village Life record label, the album receiving considerable acclaim for its radical adaptations of classic early jazz material associated with Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and others.
The début saw Pigfoot giving their chosen material a fiercely contemporary twist, casting the old chestnuts in a new light by updating harmonies, rhythms and textures, but still leaving enough of the original melodies intact for the pieces to be instantly recognisable.
Pigfoot’s approach was a welcome reminder that early jazz was both subversive and wildly joyous. Their music is both rowdy and intelligent, sophisticated in its knowing adventurousness but most importantly great fun, albeit in a post modern sort of a way. Nonetheless Pigfoot’s obvious love of their source material shines through, despite the sometimes outrageous musical liberties that they take with it. The title of that first album encapsulated their sound at that time perfectly, and it’s arguable that the recording helped to spark the current ‘Vintage Revival’ that has become such a feature of the current London jazz scene.
In the intervening years Pigfoot have moved on, with reeds player James Allsopp replacing Marshall. The group have also expanded their stylistic palette to bring the Pigfoot sound to other genres of music. A regular series of ‘Pigfoot Play’ gigs at London’s Vortex Jazz Club has seen them dedicate entire performances to their interpretations of Opera, Motown, Elvis Presley, Burt Bacharach and The Hits of 1972. Highlights from this repertoire are included on the band’s new studio album, in this instance released on Batchelor’s own Pokey Records imprint.
It’s fitting that the album should appear on Batchelor’s label as the trumpeter is the unofficial leader of the band, selecting, transcribing and re-arranging the material and transforming, re-constructing and revitalising it as part of the process.
Of course it takes four exceptional musicians to deliver all of this convincingly, and that’s exactly what Pigfoot are. Musical skill combines with sly humour and a general irreverence, qualities that in Batchelor’s case date back to his Loose Tubes days.
Pigfoot’s approach is broadly similar to that of the younger and more wilfully iconoclastic New York based group Mostly Other People Do The Killing, but generally less arch. Much as I love them I’ve always harboured the nagging doubt that MOPDTK are sometimes a little too clever for their own good. It’s not a feeling I get from Pigfoot’s music, which sounds more organic, less forced and less affected. They genuinely do sound as if they’re having fun and enjoying every minute of it.
The broad range of music being given the Pigfoot treatment helps to give the new album its title, the genre hopping track listing looking something like a particularly eclectic i-pod shuffle.
We start with Elvis and a particularly rumbustious version of “Heartbreak Hotel” that takes the song back to New Orleans via Batchelor’s growling, vocalised trumpet (or maybe cornet) and Allsopp’s equally raucous baritone sax. Clarvis slams out marching band rhythms, aided and abetted by Noble whose slippery piano lines slide in and around the piece. A rousing start.
However it’s not all swagger and bluster. Noble’s solo piano introduction to Richard Strauss’ “Dance Of The Seven Veils” displays a genuine tenderness and lyricism. The arrival of Clarvis steers the music in a more playful direction with the Middle Eastern inflections of Batchelor on cornet and Allsopp on bass clarinet, the pair combining very effectively above the quirky, and sometimes jerky, rhythmic accompaniment from drums and piano. Adrian Pallant’s liner notes compare the second half of the tune with Ellington, whilst also informing us that on this piece Batchelor plays his cornet through a bassoon reed to help create a singularly distinctive sound.
From the “Hits of 1972” repertoire comes the band’s arrangement of the Curtis Mayfield song “Pusherman” from the “Superfly” movie soundtrack. Noble plays electric keyboards, thus capturing something of that 70s vibe, while skilfully combining with the inventive Clarvis as well as trading ideas with Allsopp on bass clarinet. Batchelor frequently ‘sings’ the vocal melody lines of song based material on trumpet, as he does here. The second part of the tune introduces a kind of sinister funk as Pigfoot pay homage to the brilliant but tragic Mayfield (1942-99).
It’s back to the Presley related material for a segue of “Jail House Rock” and “Hound Dog”, with Batchelor describing his arrangement of the latter as “the blues in all keys at once”. The segue commences with a live New Orleans styled dialogue between Noble on piano and Clarvis at the drums, a reminder of their fruitful partnership as a stand alone duo. Rasping baritone and bluesy, vocalised trumpet then strike up the familiar tune, carousing above a powerful rhythm. At the close they shade off into an even more raucous rendition of “Hound Dog” with Batchelor’s horn again ‘singing’ the melody line in exaggerated fashion. It’s a timely reminder of rock’s roots in jazz and blues in an arrangement inspired by the ideas Ornette Coleman!
Pigfoot display their gentler side on their first Bacharach song, “The Look of Love”. A spacious arrangement features the breathy, intertwining lines of Batchelor and Allsopp, a dash of lyrical but gently subversive piano from Noble, and the sound of Clarvis deploying brushes throughout.
Perhaps the most dramatic musical transformation here is of the Mozart pieces “Isis & Osiris” and “Dove Sono” which are melded together and treated to a joyous Township Jazz arrangement that makes them sound as if they might have been written by Abdullah Ibrahim. Batchelor’s trumpet takes flight against a backdrop of piano, drums and Allsopp’s circling baritone motif. Subsequently Noble also gets the opportunity to spread his wings.
Next we come to the track that has probably garnered the most attention, a powerhouse romp through the Led Zeppelin rock classic “Black Dog”, featuring Batchelor on biting wah wah trumpet, Allsopp on growling baritone and Noble on filthy sounding vintage synth. Meanwhile Clarvis unleashes his inner John Bonham. The power of the performance matches that of Zeppelin themselves and it has also been favorably compared to the punk jazz chutzpah of Acoustic Ladyland at their peak. Incidentally Pallant’s liner notes inform us that Batchelor is playing “vintage buzz wah trumpet mute, a quirky item complete with kazoos, one of several in his armoury”. Batchelor appears to be holding one such on the inside cover photograph, as does Allsopp incidentally. Brian Homer’s pic, taken after a gig in Birmingham, features all four members cradling various types of trumpet/cornet.
A lively, but less menacing, arrangement of the Stevie Wonder hit “For Once In My Life” features Batchelor ‘singing’ the vocal melody line and also replicating the famous harmonica solo on soprano cornet. Allsopp also gets the opportunity to dig in on gruff baritone and Clarvis drums with great panache throughout, a precursor to the tongue in cheek ‘bring on the dancing girls’ style finale.
Next up is an unusual gospel style arrangement that splices the song “Love Letters” with Richard Wagner’s “Song to the Evening Star” and makes it all sound perfectly logical. At times the piece resembles a New Orleans funeral march, the ideal backdrop for soulful and powerful solos from Allsopp on baritone and Batchelor on trumpet, with Noble acting as the wild card on piano.
Finally we hear the second of the Bacharach pieces, “Wives & Lovers”, which transcends the now rather dated lyrics by way of a McCoy Tyner inspired jazz arrangement that incorporates fluent solos from Allsopp on baritone, Batchelor on trumpet and, of course Noble on piano.
Once again the critical response to “Pigfoot Shuffle” has been overwhelmingly positive and rightly so. This is music that is simultaneously sophisticated and earthy, musically complex but terrific fun.
Batchelor’s ingenious arrangements make something new from his chosen material, transforming his sources but without belittling them. It’s a neat trick, and one that is made even more impressive by the skill and vivacity of the performances, with all four musicians acquitting themselves superbly.
It’s been nearly six years since I last saw Pigfoot play live. Let’s hope that the favourable reaction accorded to “Pigfoot Shuffle” will enable the band to venture out on the road again sometime soon.
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