Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019



Somersaults, Hermon Chapel Arts Centre, Oswestry, Shropshire, 06/10/2019.

Photography: Photograph by Pam Mann.

by Ian Mann

October 09, 2019


"Creative, stimulating, unique". Ian Mann on the music of the improvising trio Somersaults featuring Olie Brice (double bass), Tobias Delius (tenor sax, clarinet) and Mark Sanders (drums, percussion).

Somersaults, Hermon Chapel Arts Centre, Oswestry, Shropshire, 06/10/2019.

Olie Brice – double bass, Tobias Delius – tenor sax, clarinet, Mark Sanders – drums, percussion

This performance by the freely improvising trio Somersaults was the latest event in the N-Ex-T series of events curated by Hermon Chapel promoters Barry Edwards and Claudia Lis.

Standing for ‘New Experimental Tones’ the N-Ex-T series has seen a number of the UK’s leading improvisers visiting Oswestry. It’s a genre of music that is close to the heart of Edwards, a guitarist who has recorded with such improvising musicians as Crux Trio members drummer Ed Gauden, bassist Colin Somervell and saxophonist Mark Hanslip.

Somersaults released their eponymous début album in 2015, a studio set featuring three extended improvisations, one of these lasting over half an hour. In 2019 they released a follow up, “Numerology of Birdsong”, a live recording documented in June 2018 at the Iklectik venue in Waterloo, London.

Brice and Sanders have both been regular presences on the Jazzmann web pages in a variety of musical contexts. The bassist’s extensive discography includes two albums as the leader of his own quintet.  “Immune To Clockwork” (2015) and “Day After Day” (2017) are superb recordings that expertly straddle the boundaries between composed and improvised music.

Sanders’ back catalogue is even more exhaustive and he is a musician with an international reputation who has worked with leading British, American and European improvisers. He and Brice frequently perform together as a rhythm team and have worked with musicians such as saxophonists Paul Dunmall, Rachel Musson and Ken Vandermark and guitarist / clarinettist Alex Ward.

I’ve been fortunate enough to witness both Brice and Sanders performing live on several occasions, often at that bastion of free jazz in the Welsh Borders, the Queens Head in Monmouth.

Delius however was a new face to me. Born in England  to an Argentinian father and a German mother, he made his name on the Amsterdam improvised music scene working with musicians such as drummer Han Bennink and cellist Tristan Honsinger.  He has been a key member of the Dutch improvising collective the Instant Composers Pool, or ICP,  originally founded in 1967 by Bennink, pianist Misha Mengelberg and saxophonist Willem Breuker.  Like Sanders Delius is a player with an international reputation who has worked with leading improvisers from a variety of different countries.

It was discussions between the rhythm pairing of Brice and Sanders that led to the formation of Somersaults. Both musicians agreed that Delius was one of their favourite saxophonists and that they would like to attempt a collaboration with him. Their first gig was so successful, with the trio immediately establishing a mutual rapport,  that Somersaults has now become a semi-permanent unit with tonight’s event forming part of a short series of British tour dates.

For the past two years Barry and Claudia have been steadily building an audience at the Hermon with their folk programme proving to be particularly successful in terms of attendances. Jazz has generally proved to be a harder sell and free jazz the hardest of the lot. Tonight’s attendance was barely in double figures but the stay-at-homes missed a night of challenging, but always creative and stimulating, music making.

Despite its emphasis on ‘freedom’ and ‘no rules or boundaries’ this brand of jazz has almost inevitably become idiomatic. Improv die hards (and despite tonight’s turn out there are more around than you might think,  with comedian Stewart Lee being the most famous example) would be sorely disappointed if musicians like Brice, Sanders and Delius turned up and decided to play a set of jazz standards or pop covers on the spur of the moment, just because they felt like it. Paradoxically even in the rarefied world of free improvisation there are still certain ‘expectations’.

I write this not as a criticism but as an observation. The improvised world is one I’ve grown into over the years, learning to appreciate its creativity, its subtleties, and ultimately it limitations. I’ll admit that I’ve had to work it, and I’m grateful to one time Jazzmann contributor Tim Owen of the Dalston Sound website, a great champion of experimental and improvised music, for helping to guide me down the path. Also to Tim’s namesake Lyndon Owen, himself a skilled saxophonist, who co-ordinates the improvised music programme at the Queens Head in Monmouth and who has brought many leading figures of the genre to this outpost in the Welsh Borders, among them Sanders, Brice, Paul Dunmall,  Alex Ward,  bassist Dominic Lash, drummer Paul Hession, saxophonists Alan Wilkinson and Tony Bevan and international figures such as guitarist Joe Morris, Necks drummer Tony Buck and saxophonist Hans Peter Hiby. These days I genuinely enjoy this highly demanding style of jazz, I wouldn’t have made the 120 mile round trip to Oswestry otherwise.

All this is by way of saying that tonight’s event was a ‘typical’ free jazz performance with two sets consisting of a single lengthy unbroken improvisation of around forty minutes duration, plus a shorter improvised encore. Despite the small attendance the quality of the first two sets drew such an enthusiastic response from the select few lucky enough to witness them that an encore became inevitable.

Besides being one of the favourite saxophonists of Brice and Sanders Delius also plays the clarinet, and his work on that instrument is just as distinctive as his remarkable saxophone playing.

But it was the sounds of Sanders’ drums that ushered in the first set, subsequently joined by Brice’s bass. Sanders augmented a conventional drum kit with an array of small cymbals, gongs and other small percussive devices, among them a woodblock. These were sometimes deployed on the skins to help create an often staggering panoply of percussive sounds, generated by a myriad variety of sticks, mallets, brushes, beaters and bare hands. Eschewing conventional rhythms and meters Sanders’ drumming was an ongoing polyrhythmic flow, highly inventive and creative, and rich in terms of tone, nuance and colour - but at the right moments also capable of generating an enormous, and undeniably impressive, power.

Meanwhile Brice’s bass was at the heart of the trio, the fulcrum around which the music revolved. His highly physical and powerful pizzicato playing provided both the anchor and the counterpoint to Sanders’ constantly evolving drum commentary and Delius’ explorations on tenor sax and clarinet. His creative use of the bow provided additional colour and texture at various junctures of the performance, as did his judicious use of various extended techniques.

Delius proved to be a highly distinctive and creative player on the two reeds. Less intense than Alan Wilkinson his playing on tenor retained a strong melodic quality throughout, no matter how deeply or far out he probed, I was reminded of Mark Hanslip in this regard. That said Delius’ sax playing was far from conventional, his use of overtones and his habit of punctuating his improvisations with vocalisations, a la Wilkinson, was highly distinctive and it’s fair to say that I’ve never heard anybody play quite like him. Although capable of playing with great power there was no sense of bombast or bluster about Delius’ playing.
His work on the clarinet was no less distinctive, again eschewing the conventional and sometimes adopting an unexpectedly harsh and guttural tone on the instrument. At other times there were hints of the Middle East and North Africa in his sound. Acker Bilk it most certainly was not.

The first of the trio’s improvisations ebbed and flowed, embracing extremes of dynamic contrasts as the first section developed out of the introductory drum and bass improvisations to embrace whispered shards of tenor sax melody, with Delius’ playing gradually becoming more assertive as the music gradually built to an apparent climax, albeit one punctuated by numerous asides and diversions along the way. A passage of unaccompanied bowed bass provided the link into the next section, which saw Delius taking up the clarinet, his sound soft and fluttering at first, before he evoked the sounds of the muezzin as he improvised in strident fashion, fuelled by Brice’s percussive bowing and Sanders’ volcanic drumming. Having peaked the next section, which eventually saw Delius moving back to tenor, evoked a fragile beauty before the trio began to stoke the collective fires once more, building to boiling point through a combination of wailing tenor, powerfully plucked bass and roiling drums. The power generated by Sanders’ solo drum feature took on a certain poignancy on the day that the death of Ginger Baker was announced. The final passage saw Delius moving back to clarinet and Brice picking up the bow, but this wasn’t quite the gentle coda that the listener might have anticipated as Delius’ playing became increasingly animated and guttural before climaxing with some almost impossibly long sustained notes. Astonishing stuff.

The second set was to prove no less intense as it grew out of an introductory passage featuring pecked tenor sax, bowed bass and brushed drums. This led into a passage of solo drumming from Sanders that was stunning in terms of both power and technique. If a rock drummer, like Baker, had delivered this at a stadium gig ten thousand people would have gone absolutely apeshit - we did our best to emulate them. Sanders’ feature helped to pave the way for some of Delius’ most forceful playing of the night as he rattled out a series of rapid tenor sax phrases, giving the volleys of notes an urgent, guttural edge. A passage of solo pizzicato bass provided the link into the next section with Delius taking up the clarinet to deliver high pitched, bird like noises as the trio injected an element of humour into the proceedings. This is music that can turn on a dime, and soon Delius was using his clarinet to deliver foghorn like blasts above a backdrop of monstrous bass and rolling drums, developing to a climax with a series of piercing high register squeaks. Next a more abstract passage featuring Brice’s use of the bow and his deployment of extended techniques. This provided the link into a final ‘freak out’ section that saw Delius moving back to tenor and playing with an incredible power as he contorted his body into improbable shapes, finally unleashing his inner Wilkinson and Brotzmann.

The small, but highly select, audience gave the trio a terrific reception and Barry Edwards was able to tempt them back for a well deserved encore. This began with the duo of Brice and Delius, I suspect Sanders may have been availing himself of the Hermon’s facilities! The opening bass / tenor dialogue was subsequently augmented by the sound of Sanders’ gongs. Delius then began to stretch out on tenor, ululating above Brice’s grounding bass and the softly rolling thunder of Sanders’ drums, a combination of mallets and bare hands on toms and the sound of softly shimmering cymbals. Concise and atmospheric this was an excellent way to end an evening of consistently creative, and, by its very nature, unique music making.



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