by Ian Mann
June 12, 2017
This is a group that is willing to stretch itself and take musical risks. Distinctive and highly creative music that explores the intriguing hinterland between the written and the spontaneous.
(Luminous Label LU005)
“Shapeshifters” is the second album from the quintet Sloth Racket, led by London based saxophonist, composer and improviser Cath Roberts.
The group first performed at the 2015 Gateshead International jazz Festival as the result of a commission by Jazz North East. They established an immediate rapport and the success of that event convinced Roberts that Sloth Racket should become a semi-regular working band. Further festival appearances plus a UK tour followed and a début album, “Triptych”, was released to considerable critical acclaim in 2016.
Like its predecessor “Shapeshifters” appears on the Luminous label established by Roberts and her fellow saxophonist Dee Byrne as an outlet for the music of the artists loosely gathered under the collective name LUME. Co-founded by Roberts and Byrne LUME was originally conceived as a weekly platform for jazz and improvised music at various venues around London. The organisation is now based at Iklectik Art Lab in Waterloo where it hosts regular monthly events and will stage the second annual LUME Festival on the weekend of 24/25 June 2017.
Sloth Racket features musicians from the London, Manchester and Leeds music scenes with Roberts, specialising here on baritone sax, joined in the front line by tenor saxophonist Sam Andreae, now resident in Berlin but once of Manchester’s Beats & Pieces Big Band. The group also includes the Mancunian brothers Anton Hunter (guitar) and Johnny Hunter (drums) and the line up is completed by Leeds based bassist Seth Bennet who has previously appeared on these web pages as part of the group Metamorphic, led by pianist Laura Cole.
“Triptych” impressed with the way in which the group blended freedom with structure and composition with improvisation. For that album Roberts provided the quintet with written fragments incorporating graphic notations, these acting as the frameworks for collective improvisation. It was an approach that worked particularly well and resulted in some distinctive and highly creative music that explored the intriguing hinterland between the written and the spontaneous.
“Shapeshifters” was recorded over the course of a single day at Blueprint Studios in Salford in October 2016 at the end of a short, five date UK tour. Roberts had again supplied the group with thumbnail compositional sketches and these had been explored and further developed on the tour. As they did on the road the band dissect the written starting points and frame them in improvisations ranging from duets to full on group explorations. It’s different again to the live performances immediately proceeding it and is very much a snapshot of the group at one particular moment in time. The press release describes the process as “evolving from speculative marks on the page into full musical statements by the collective”.
LUME espouses an almost punk like DIY aesthetic and the album comes packaged in a cardboard sleeve adorned with prints fashioned by Roberts herself. The material consists of four lengthy pieces and to these ears the emphasis seems to be even more firmly on improvisation this time round.
The opening piece, “Edges”, emerges from Bennett’s bowed bass motifs and he soon finds himself in a thoughtful, unhurried improvised conversation with the reeds. Lovers of low frequency sounds will particularly enjoy the combination of Bennett’s grainy arco and Roberts’ baritone sax. Gradually the sound becomes edgier with pecked saxophone sounds and furtive guitar shadings and percussive scrabblings as the Hunter brothers gradually find their way into the discussion. There’s then a degree of coalescence involving the horns and Anton’s shadowy guitar as fragments of what sound like written melodies fleetingly appear. But we’re soon firmly back in improvised territory with drums and guitar fulfilling a greater role as the piece progresses by means of a genuine whole group exploration. One senses that Sloth Racket is very much about the collective statement, there are no jazz solos per se and the role of the ‘rhythm section’ is fluid and loosely defined. “Edges” resolves itself in dramatic fashion with ominous percussive rumbles, flamboyantly bowed bass and powerful saxophone blasts as the carefully controlled tensions that have been gradually ratcheted up throughout the piece finally come to a head.
Bennett switches to pizzicato bass for the next piece, “Tracking”, which he again introduces, this time in conjunction with the guitar and drums of the Hunters. The mood is more urgent from the beginning with the horns of first Andreae and then Roberts quickly added to the ferment. There’s a real sense that the musicians are ‘tracking’ each other as their instrumental lines inter-mesh. Eventually the group breaks down into a duo for a lengthy but animated exchange between Roberts and Johnny Hunter, the saxophonist more than justifying her decision to focus on the ‘big horn’ (other projects such as her Quadraceratops have featured her playing alto). The return of the other group members signals a lengthy, less frenetic but more atmospheric closing passage. The now vaguely gothic, melancholic air of this is enhanced by Bennett’s reversion to the bow, the keening of Anton’s guitar and the long, woozy sax melody lines.
At a little under eight minutes “Bark” is the shortest track on the album. Bennett, still flourishing the bow, is again the instigator as he launches a spiky dialogue with the reeds augmented by the rustle of Johnny Hunter’s percussion. But this “Bark” isn’t all about bite as Sloth Racket present a gentler side to their music with Bennett’s melancholic arco pointing the way for the reflective sax and guitar meditations that follow, these augmented by the busy but unobtrusive percussive commentary generated by Johnny Hunter.
Writing about “Triptych” I commented “Sloth Racket are far from slothful - the music never stays in one place for too long, it is consistently evolving and developing with a good balance between form and freedom”.
With this quote in mind both the new album and its title track “Shapeshifters” are well named. The way in which each piece evolves is particularly impressive with one section morphing organically into another with very little obvious signposting.
The track “Shapeshifters” is a thirteen and a half minute epic that begins in rousing fashion with plangent, threatening sounding saxophonic figures augmented by dramatically bowed bass and the rumble of percussion. Bennett’s doomy arco bass then takes over for an extended passage of solo bowing before he’s joined by Anton Hunter’s needling guitar and brother Johnny’s busy and forceful percussive accompaniment. Bennett switches to vigorously plucked bass as he and the Hunters establish a groove above which the twin saxes variously slur, shout and finally whisper as the tumult subsides. The music embarks upon a more abstract and impressionistic passage before gradually building again towards a furious riff based climax as Sloth Racket finally allow themselves to rock out in the manner of King Crimson or Van Der Graaf Generator.
As an album “Shapeshifters” isn’t quite as immediately accessible as its immediate predecessor, although having said that “Triptych” was far from being an ‘easy’ listen. However it was a very rewarding one, as is “Shapeshifters” if one is prepared to immerse oneself in Sloth Racket’s soundworld. This is a group that is willing to stretch itself and take musical risks. Many of the musicians have previously played together in other line ups and this is reflected by a shared sense of adventure and a cohesive and collective group dynamic.
Sloth Racket are about to undertake another round of UK dates in support of the album. The music that will be heard on the tour will no doubt be different again. It will be interesting to see if a third album emerges from the forthcoming series of engagements.
Sloth Racket - “Shapeshifters” UK tour, June 2017;
24th June London: IKLECTIK (LUME Festival 2017)
26th June Leeds: Wharf Chambers (presented by Sproggits)
27th June Bristol: The Old England (presented by Pull The Strings)
28th June Brighton: The Verdict (presented by Safehouse)
29th June Norwich: York Tavern (presented by Plink Plonk)
30th June Cambridge: Unitarian Church (presented by Listen!)
More info: http://www.slothracket.co.ukblog comments powered by Disqus