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Sid Peacock & Surge Orchestra

Sid Peacock & Surge Orchestra, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, 07/02/2015.

Photography: Photograph of Steve Tromans, Sid Peacock and Mark Sanders sourced from [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

February 09, 2015


Peacock celebrates life and all its absurdities and somehow channels that into music that is both chaotic and disciplined, rowdy but thought provoking, and on occasion capable of great beauty.

Sid Peacock’s Surge Orchestra, Midlands Art Centre (mac), Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, 07/02/2015.

Originally from Bangor in Northern Ireland Sid Peacock has lived in Birmingham for many years and has become an important cultural figure in the city for his work across a variety of disciplines. Peacock is a guitarist, composer, band leader, educator and poet and these strands all come together in Surge Orchestra, a development of Peacock’s long established Surge big band.

The first edition of Surge was formed in 2003 to perform a commission Peacock had written to mark the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Birmingham.  Always an/off configuration Surge performed to great critical acclaim at the Cheltenham Jazz Festivals of 2005 and 2010 and in 2011 released the excellent album “La F?te”, a work influenced by jazz composers such as Frank Zappa, Carla Bley and Django Bates plus the contemporary classical composer Brian Irvine. Indeed Bates did Peacock the honour of appearing with Surge as a guest soloist at a memorable concert at “the mac” in 2011, a performance reviewed elsewhere on this site - it’s frightening to think that this happened nearly four years ago!

The extended Surge Orchestra is the result of Peacock’s period of tenure as an Associate Artist at the mac, a programme supported by Arts Council England and the Feeney Trust. Tonight’s performance represented the culmination of this tenure and included a series of pieces composed specifically for this project. The new music comprised the whole of the second half of the concert and I’ll be taking a closer look at that later. The first set featured a varied programme of other items including a number of pieces that originally appeared on the “La F?te” album. 

Surge has always included strings with the violins of Ruth Angell and Kiki Chen but for the Surge Orchestra Peacock has added a third violin plus two violas and a cello to create a six piece string section. Tonight’s performance also featured two special guests, pianist Steve Tromans and drummer/percussionist Mark Sanders, two of the most respected musicians to have emerged from the jazz and improvised music scene in Birmingham and players with national reputations. The rest of the orchestra were playing from written scores but these two gifted improvisers were given free rein to complement and embellish the music as they saw fit, often with thrilling and remarkable results.

For the record the Surge Orchestra lined up as follows;

Kiki Chen, Ruth Angell,  Sarah Farmer - violins
Richard Scott, Helen Lancaster - violas
Emma Capp -cello

Max Gittings - flute and whistles
Lluis Mather - alto sax, bass clarinet
Huw Morgan - alto sax
Chris Morgan - tenor sax
Nick Rundle- baritone sax

Mike Adlington - trumpet
Aaron Diaz- trumpet, electronics
Richard Foote -trombone

Simon King - guitar
Ryan Trebilcock - acoustic & electric bass
Jason Huxtable - tuned percussion
Tymoteusz Jozwiak - drums

Steve Tromans - piano

Mark Sanders drums, percussionist

Sid Peacock - conductor, voice

From La F?te the opening “Kora Tune” was a good introduction to the sound of the Surge Orchestra. Peacock spoke of the traditional musics of West Africa and Ireland being linked by the sounds of the birds that migrate between the two land masses, a pleasing poetic image. The lilting melodies recalled the sounds of Irish folk music, Huxtable’s marimba evoked the African influences and Gittings’ flute mimicked the trill of bird song. With its insistent rhythms and harmonic swells the whole piece was pleasingly exotic with the string players making use of both arco and pizzicato techniques. An excellent start.

Peacock has described the music of Surge as being ” a hallucinogenic, uplifting, chaotic, exciting and emotionally charged musical landscape”. From “La F?te” the piece “Hallucinogenic Garden” had all these qualities in spades. Peacock has described the piece as being about the hidden violence within the apparent tranquillity of the country garden - nature red in tooth in claw, in other words. A quiet opening featuring strings and muted trumpets quickly gave way to exuberant, brassy big sounds followed by a garrulous tenor sax solo from Chris Morgan backed by the rhythm section only, including Trebilcock on electric bass. A quieter, but still unsettling passage featured Gittings’ flute, Angell’s ethereal wordless vocals, Tromans’ interior piano scrapings and the eerie sounds of Sanders’ small percussive devices, this topped by an atonal big band climax. Great stuff and typical of the Peacock ethos. He is a creative composer who is always looking for the hidden meanings in things, ones often located just outside the realms of day to day to consciousness. It’s a theme that runs through much of his work his work and one that he was to return to more than once before the end of the evening.

A new piece, “Uillean Pipes”, was the setting of a poem by the Irish writer Mary O’Malley which featured Peacock’s recital of her words above the atmospheric sounds of Tromans’ piano and Sanders’ bowed cymbals and small percussion. The text described a new father cradling his son in his arms and “playing” the infant like a musical instrument. It’s a theme particularly relevant to Peacock and Angell following the recent birth of their young son. The pay off line “the thing about musicians is that they respond to glory” seemed to reference both the Surge Orchestra and the musical community in general.

An offshoot of the Surge project has been the Surge Saxophone Quartet for which the piece “Here” was originally written. “Any given place, any given time…you’re alone” said Peacock enigmatically as he introduced an expanded version of the piece but with the focus still very much on the reeds and brass. 

The first set closed with “Pixel Carnage” , the opening track of the “La F?te” album. The piece was inspired by the street artist Invader and his prediction that the alien invasion of the Earth will begin in Paris. Tonight Peacock informed us that the piece was a follow up to an earlier work entitled “Intergalactic Flyby”, let’s add Sun Ra to that list of influences. The music was as manic as the title might suggest, the depiction of an alien invasion represented by furiously busy orchestral/big band passages supplemented by Diaz’s electronic effects, a blistering trumpet solo from Adlington and a rousing drum battle between Sanders as Jozwiak as Peacock marshalled his extra resources. These two were followed by Tromans’ wildly percussive, Cecil Taylor like piano solo as he re-captured something of the tumultuous and torrential intensity of his performance on the album. An exhilarating conclusion to an excellent first set.

The longer second half was largely composed of Peacock’s freshly commissioned compositions, presented under the umbrella theme of “Bog Gothic” and drawing substantially on his upbringing in a small town in Northern Ireland. The theme of altered consciousness was never away and informed the opening “Molly’s Disco Biscuit” (alternative title “Donaghadees in Donaghadee”). This was a fascinating mix of Celtic melody and jazz improvisation as the strings jousted with Tromans and Sanders in the early stages, a beguiling mix of the structured and the free. With the whole band added more conventional jazz soloing came from Huw Morgan (brother of Chris) on alto sax.

Having invited Tromans and Sanders along to the party Peacock handed over to them exclusively for an improvised duet that saw Tromans producing a fascinating array of sounds from the interior of his instrument as Sanders complemented him with bell like chimes from small gongs and cymbals, the rustle of sticks or brushes on skin and the warm sound of the woodblock. Tromans briefly sat at the keyboard, busily swarming all over it before standing once more and re-directing his attention to the piano’s innards. Totally compelling, both aurally and visually, this was a spell binding performance by two master improvisers.

Introducing the next piece Peacock thanked Paul Murphy, poet in residence with the Birmingham band The Destroyers who was influential in getting Sid that St. Patrick’s Day commission all those years ago and was thus indirectly responsible for Surge. The story behind “Valley Of The Angels” also evoked St. Patrick with Peacock asking whether the glue induced religious visions of his mate Tatty were equally worthy of veneration and beatification - that theme of altered consciousness again. As the music unfolded Peacock’s narrative was earthy, salty and humorous but evoked serious spiritual questions, does this make Sid a kind of Brummie/Irish Jah Wobble? The music itself incorporated lively Celtic melodies on the strings and Gittings’ various whistles, archetypal jigs and reels stuff, interspersed with Peacock’s narration, before a brief trumpet feature from Adlington and a longer tenor sax solo from Chris Morgan steered the music in more of a jazz direction. This was gloriously exciting intoxicating music.

The mood became more sombre with Peacock’s introduction of the piece “Chinese Flowers” which was dedicated to the memory of Vince Sipprell, the violist of the Elysian Quartet who recently died at a tragically young age following a short illness. Sipprell appeared on the album “Juntos” which teamed the Elysian Quartet with the duo of pianist Andrew McCormack and saxophonist Jason Yarde.
The music itself was inspired by Peacock’s visit to Chongquin in China to work with members of the Sichuan Opera. It was essentially a feature for the strings and included some excellent interplay between first violin (Chen) and first viola (Scott). The rhythm section also made a substantial contribution to this atmospheric piece, particularly Tromans and Sanders plus Simon King on Bill Frisell like guitar. The fragile beauty of the music made the earlier dedication seem particularly poignant.

Peacock thanked many people from the Birmingham music scene including leading figures at the mac plus Tony Dudley Evans of Jazzlines who introduced the performance even though it wasn’t an official Jazzlines gig. Another to be acknowledged was Peter Bacon of The Jazz Breakfast blog who had helped with the organisation and publicity for the concert. It was Peter who invited me along to cover the event so he is also the recipient of my gratitude. Thanks, Peter.

The final piece was “The Maniacal Heroics of No. 13”. a dedication to Peacock’s recently deceased uncle and his gloriously chaotic house at number 13 Croft Street. I seem to remember a piece titled “Croft Street” being played at the show with Django Bates four years ago. Peacock described his uncle as being “totally bonkers” - but in a good way - and his wildness and freedom of spirit was captured in the music, a swirling mix of strings, reeds, brass and rhythm with an idiosyncratic alto solo from Lluis Mather and more piano pyrotechnics from Tromans as the evening ended with a good natured bang.

An enthusiastic and gratifyingly large audience, which included many faces from the Birmingham music scene out to support one of their own, shouted vociferously for an encore. Sadly this was not to be although several of the Orchestra members seemed up for it. However I believe the performance was being recorded by Ben from Muthers Studio in Digbeth so there may be the possibility of an album release at some point.

In my review of the Surge/Django Bates show in 2011 I spoke of the “controlled chaos” of Peacock’s music and this quality was very much present again tonight. In his writing Peacock celebrates life and all its absurdities and somehow channels that into music that is both chaotic and disciplined, rowdy but thought provoking, and on occasion capable of great sensitivity and beauty. “Spanning the delirious to the disturbed” as the mac brochure puts it. 

In the Surge Orchestra Peacock has a collection of excellent young musicians who all acquitted themselves superbly with the additional presence of the more experienced Tromans and Sanders helping to notch the performance up another gear. Both guests made superb contributions and I’d also like to single out Jason Huxtable who didn’t get to solo as such but whose playing on tuned percussion, principally marimba, is such a vital and distinctive part of the Surge sound.

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