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Sid Peacock & Surge with Django Bates

Sid Peacock & Surge with Django Bates, Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, 24/03/2011

by Ian Mann

March 28, 2011


The controlled chaos that is Sid Peacock's Surge, a triumph both for the composer and the collective.

Sid Peacock & Surge featuring Django Bates

Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, 24/03/2011

Kiki Chen ?- Violin, Chinese flute Ruth Angell ?- Violin,vocals, Chinese flute Max Gittings ?- Flutes & whistles, Lluis Mather ?- ?Soprano sax, ?Huw Morgan - Alto sax, Chris Morgan ?- ?Tenor sax, Nick Rundle ?- Baritone sax, Mike Adlington - Trumpet, Aaron Diaz ?- Trumpet & fx, Rob Anstey ?- Trombone, Simon King ?- Guitar,  Jason Huxtable - Marimba, Percussion Ryan Trebilcock - Double bass, Steve Tchoumba ? - Congas, percussion, John Randall ?- Drums. Sid Peacock-director, Chinese oboe plus guests Django Bates-keyboards,grand piano, tenor horn Dan Wilkins-kora.

“La F?te” by Birmingham based composer Sid Peacock and his big band Surge has proved to be one of the best releases of 2011 thus far(see review elsewhere on this site). Peacock’s eclectic, genre hopping big band arrangements are a thrilling reminder of the glory days of Loose Tubes and their direct descendants Django Bates’ Delightful Precipice.

With this in mind it was therefore highly appropriate that Django Bates himself should answer the call and appear as guest soloist on this special night in Birmingham, a night that was effectively the album launch for “La F?te”. Bates replaced pianist Steve Tromans in the Surge ranks, otherwise it was exactly the same line-up that appears on the album.

A word first for the venue. The MAC has been extensively refurbished over the course of the last couple of years or so and this was my first visit to the revamped and extended venue. I was impressed, the food in the Bridges Café Bar before the show was excellent and good value and the re-appointed theatre extremely comfortable with its lush new seating. More importantly the acoustics were excellent too. The MAC now has a number of additional performance spaces thus ensuring that it should be the perfect venue for the second Harmonic Festival which is due to be centred there at the end of September.

Turning now to this evening’s performance the first set was a feature for the saxophone quartet at the heart of the Surge band, augmented on some numbers by drummer John Randall. Brothers Chris Morgan (tenor sax) and Huw Morgan (alto) were joined by Lluis Mather (alto/soprano) and Nick Rundle (baritone). All these young players are band leaders in their own right and are becoming significant figures on the Midlands jazz scene.

With Peacock conducting and handling the announcements the musicians played five Peacock compositions that took “Locations” as their theme. The first, “London E5”, featured the quartet plus Randall with the busy theme reflecting the bustling, urban nature of the location the music was depicting. The deployment of Randall ensured that Rundle on baritone was able to add to the colours and textures of the ensemble rather than having to concentrate on holding down a rhythm. Here, as elsewhere, this proved to be an astute judgement on Peacock’s behalf. The main solo here came from the excellent Mather on alto. This young musician is developing into a highly versatile and distinctive saxophonist, I’ve seen him before on tenor both as a sideman and as leader of his own group, but tonight he demonstrated considerable capability on both alto and soprano and was the stand-out player of the first set.

“Irish Sea” was written in honour of Northern Ireland born Peacock’s frequent ferry trips back home and was played by the saxophone quartet only with Mather now on soprano. Less urgent than the opening piece Peacock described the sea conditions as being “calm to moderate”.

By contrast “Broken Bicycles Of Paris” with Randall back on drums marked a return to urban angst with it’s choppy riffs and staccato phrasing.

Played by the saxophone quartet only “Croft Street"was written for Peacock’s grandmother’s house in Northern Ireland and went through three “movements” depicting various stages of occupation of the house. First came a slow movement reflecting the serenity of his grandmother and the warmth of childhood memories. Next was a faster section featuring Mather on biting soprano to represent the tempestuous period when Peacock’s drunken uncle occupied the house. Finally came a long lined, melancholic third section describing the clearance and eventual sale of the property. This was both a personal and social history movingly set to music.

The closing “Here” proved to be a rousing finale featuring solos from both altos plus Randall at the drums. It had been a brief but enjoyable and interesting first set, just about the right length, with some excellent playing and some illuminating comments from composer Peacock. A tasty appetiser for the main course to come.

Surge’s set consisted of a complete run through of the La F?te album with Peacock directing and Bates guesting on electric keyboard/synthesiser, grand piano and tenor horn. With the rest of the album personnel on board the playing was suitably tight with each member obviously confident in their role within the group. Peacock has studied composition with Bates and the music exhibited many of the characteristics Bates brings to his own writing. The playing is tightly disciplined yet the complexity of the arrangements makes it feel as if it’s constantly going to collapse into anarchy. The fact that it never actually does is a tribute to the skill exhibited in the writing plus the ability of the players. Both composers bring a sense of fun to their music, deftly juggling musical styles and giving their instrumentalists plenty to think about. This is challenging material for the musicians but it must also be great fun to play.

Album opener “Pixel Carnage” began the proceedings, a musical depiction of the alien invasion of the earth as visualised by Parisian street artist Invader. Mike Adlington took the first solo of the night, his trumpet blazing away in incendiary fashion. Bates followed on synthesiser, his trademark sound combining with Aaron Diaz’s FX to give an authentically other worldly feeling to the piece. Behind them the rest of the band blew up a hell of a storm on this rousing and invigorating opening salvo.

“Hallucinogenic Garden” was Peacock’s depiction of the hidden violence of nature within the superficial tranquillity and beauty of the English country garden. The mood barometer was constantly changing on this piece as the music restlessly shifted in feel and dynamics. Huw Morgan’s muscular tenor contrasted well with Ruth Angell’s ethereal wordless vocals and Max Gittings’ flute with Bates summoning some remarkably bird like noises from his keyboards. But it was Bates’ tenor horn solo that was the real highlight, a brilliant reminder of just how good he is on his so called “second instrument”. Having said that he once recorded a whole album playing the horn exclusively (“Debates”-geddit-by Danish pianist Soren Norbo).

“The Left Direction”, “Bit Of Peace” and “Kora” were presented as a segue with the latter featuring second guest Dan Wilkins on the instrument of the title. Described by Peacock as a “conduction piece” the first part of the segue represented a brief foray into the territory of free improvisation.
The ballad “Bit Of Peace” began with an extended feature for Bates at the grand piano which saw him build from lyrical beginnings to a thundering intensity full of dense clusters of notes and then back again. He subsequently acted as shadow to the soaring wordless vocals of Angell. The lilting “Kora” featured subtly African flavoured rhythms plus the solo kora of Wilkins which added a pleasingly authentic feel to the piece.

“La F?te” itself also takes its inspiration from another Parisian street artist, Vrbain, who also designed the album cover. Described by Peacock as “chaotic party music” this was proper “kitchen sink” music with the band throwing everything into the bubbling cauldron of the music. Honking saxophones, percolating marimba, trilling keyboards, more wordless vocals- it was all in there somewhere- and all topped off with a searing solo from Shropshire based guitarist Simon King.

The closing “Bronze Bling” was written for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and was based around major third intervals. The addition of Chinese flutes and oboes to the arrangement was a pleasing touch with Gittings soloing on the former. A sturdy rock back-beat provided the canvas for Diaz’s solo with the trumpeter treating his own sound. Bates continued the electronica theme by following on synthesiser, eventually handing over to drummer John Randall for a prolonged feature.

Memorable as some of the solos were Surge is about much more than that. Peacock genuinely uses the band as an instrument, and the constantly shifting moods and styles, colours, textures and rhythms are ultimately a triumph both for the composer and the collective.

For all that though it was still a thrill to see Django Bates play again, the first time I’ve had the opportunity to see him live for many years following his move to Denmark. Having said that I hope to catch him again soon both with his “Beloved Bird” trio and his specially commissioned “T.D.Es” project when he becomes an unofficial artist in residence at the forthcoming Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Tonight’s performance though was hugely enjoyable in its own right. It was a shame that Peacock hadn’t prepared an encore, either a version of one of his earlier pieces or even an arrangement of one of Django’s, the audience reaction certainly warranted it. However this was fully understandable, this had been fiendishly complex music that in the immediate aftermath evoked the following comments from audience members-” completely mental” and “I felt drunk just listening to that”. I think they were meant in a good way and make for a pretty neat summation of the controlled chaos that is Sid Peacock’s Surge.

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