by Ian Mann
April 15, 2019
Peacock has succeeded in creating a convincing musical world of his own, and for me the fact that it’s rooted in the everyday life of Bangor & Birmingham makes it all the more relevant and satisfying.
“Valley of Angels”
“Valley of Angels” is the third album by the Birmingham based Surge Orchestra, led by composer, conductor and all round renaissance man Sid Peacock.
Originally from Bangor, Northern Ireland Peacock has been based in Birmingham for many years. He has become an important cultural figure in his adopted 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 Fête”, 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 Midlands Arts Centre, or mac, in Birmingham in 2011, a performance reviewed elsewhere on this site .
In 2017 Peacock instigated the first Surge In Spring Festival, held at Birmingham’s ‘mac’ and featuring musical performances by the Surge Orchestra plus numerous other acts across a variety of genres.
The success of the inaugural Surge Festival saw Peacock repeating the event in 2018, but unfortunately I was unable to attend on that occasion due to a previous commitment.
The Surge In Spring Festival will return to mac again on Saturday, April 27th 2019 and will be headlined by the Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra, the Kadialy Kouyate Band and, of course, Surge Orchestra. These three acts will perform in the main theatre space but there will also be a full programme of music and other events in the bar and other performance spaces at the mac. Tickets are available from the mac website http://www.macbirmingham.co.uk
The third Surge Festival will also act as the official launch for “Valley Of Angels”, a work that Peacock describes as being;
“driven by the understanding that music can bring about fundamental shifts in our perception of reality. Hallucination, visions, outer space alien invasions whilst gardening along with many other tales of everyday madness.”
He dedicates the album to “Bangor, County Down and all its crazy characters”. Despite his many years in Birmingham Peacock remains proudly Irish and draws much of his inspiration from the land of his birth.
Surge stands for “Sidist Utopian Revolutionary Groove Ensemble” and is regarded by its creator as an “intercultural Orchestra” incorporating elements of free jazz, traditional folk, contemporary classical, spoken word and rap plus a growing interest in various ethnic musics. The folk and classical components ensure that Surge has half a dozen string players in its ranks, thus ensuring that it sounds very different to the conventional jazz big band or jazz orchestra. For Valley Of Angels” the Orchestra lines up as follows;
Sid Peacock – composer, conductor, vocals
Ning-ning Li – violin
Ruth Angell – violin, vocals
Aria Trigas – violin
Richard Scott – viola
Sarah Farmer – viola
Emma Capp – cello
Mike Adlington – trumpet
Aaron Diaz – trumpet, FX
Richard Foote – trombone
Xhosa Cole – tenor sax
Lee Griffiths – alto sax
Huw Morgan – alto sax
Alicia Gardner-Trejo – baritone sax, bass clarinet, flute
Dan Spirrett – tenor & baritone saxes
Max Gittings – flute, whistle
Steve Tromans – piano
Simon King – guitar
Chris Mapp – bass
Jason Huxtable – marimba
Alpha Elema – congas
Tymek Jozwiak – drums
Juice Aleem – guest vocals
The Festival performance on April 27th will also see the Orchestra augmented by Eimar McGeown on Irish flute, Niwel Tsimbu on Congolese guitar and Darren Milligan on bagpipes. Intercultural or what?
“Valley Of Angels” features five Peacock original compositions, some of which have been in the Surge repertoire for some time.
The album commences with the infectious jazz/funk grooves of “Sit the Vampire in the Sun” which features a vocal by guest artist Juice Aleem, a Birmingham based rapper with a solo career dating back to 1997. The lyrics express a righteous anger as they tackle social injustice and inner city racism, taking aim at various ‘vampires’. Aleem’s bile is balanced by Ruth Angell’s sweetly soaring wordless vocal mid tune. Musically the piece is archetypal Surge, treading a fine line between discipline and chaos. The rhythm section keep the groove tight and funky while the unusual sounds of flute and strings add an agreeably exotic wooziness to the more conventional jazz sounds of the horns. Individual instrumental solos aren’t credited, but there’s an appealing cameo from one of the saxophonists here.
The title track sees Peacock taking over the vocals, narrating in his distinctive Ulster accent as he transposes the story of St. Patrick to a contemporary setting, complete with references to modern day hallucinogens. Here the strings and flute bring the flavour of Irish traditional music to the sound, but there are still strong elements of jazz and funk, including some rousing big band passages and a couple of individual sax solos, by Gardner-Trejo and Cole at a guess.
As its title suggests “Molly’s Disco Biscuit” explores similar themes. I recall this piece being played live as long ago as 2015 and again at the 2017 Surge Festival. This begins quietly, with the gentle droning of the strings subsequently augmented by snatches of Celtic melody in a kind of contemporary classical / folk hybrid. The addition of the rest of the Orchestra results in a mutation into a rolling funk groove, augmented by jabbing strings and brass. Eventually this provides the backdrop for another Peacock tale of drink, drugs, criminality and violence in small town Ulster. Essentially it’s a rap, but in a Northern Irish accent and with references British audiences can understand. From previous sightings I’ll stick my neck out and credit Huw Morgan with the saxophone solo.
In 2008 Peacock travelled to Chongquin in China to work with members of the Sichuan Opera. This visit inspired “Chinese Flowers”,, an arrangement of a traditional Chinese folk tune that represents one of the gentler and more reflective items in the Surge Orchestra repertoire. The piece was performed at the 2017 edition of Surge In Spring and was also featured the following year. The 2018 version was documented by the esteemed sound engineer Peter Maxwell Dixon and it’s that live recording that can be heard here. Lush strings feature on the introduction, leading to another suitably angelic wordless vocal performance from Ruth Angell, who combines effectively with violinist Li, guitarist King and pianist Tromans.
The album closes on an energetic note with “Maniacal Heroics of Number 13” a rousing instrumental piece that evokes memories of the inspired craziness of Bates and Zappa. Huxtable plays an important role here, his distinctive marimba playing being a key component of the Surge sound. Cole solos fluently on tenor sax, cutting a swathe through the rhythmic ferment surrounding him. Elsewhere there are some terrific odd meter unison passages - this is an ensemble that can tackle complex written passages and make it sound easy. Elema and Jozwiak, Huxtable’s colleagues in the percussion section, also show up strongly as the piece wends its merry way.
“Valley Of Angels” represents an enjoyable addition to the Surge canon, perhaps not quite as satisfying as “La Fête”, but nevertheless impressive enough. Besides Bates, Bley and Zappa the Surge Orchestra has also been compared to the Sun Ra Arkestra and to Mak Murtic’s London based Mimika Orchestra. Like these last two Peacock has succeeded in creating a convincing musical world of his own, and for me the fact that it’s rooted in the everyday life of Bangor and Birmingham makes it all the more relevant and satisfying.
I appreciate that some listeners may take issue with the rapping and narration on the first three pieces, but for me these are far preferable to their American counterparts. Peacock doesn’t take himself too seriously; his left field, left wing, Anglo-Irish eccentricity being mirrored by cartoonist Hunt Emerson’s suitably quirky album artwork.
But it’s probably in the live environment that the Surge Orchestra experience is best appreciated. Get yourself down to the mac on April 27th for a stimulating, thought provoking and, above all, enjoyable day of contemporary genre crossing music.
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