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Matt Owens

The Aviator’s Ball


by Ian Mann

May 21, 2015


Owens' début is an album to be proud of, a genre straddling record that manages to create its own uniquely distinctive sound world, evocative of both a century ago and now.

Matt Owens

“The Aviator’s Ball”

(All Made Up Records AMU0007)

Matt Owens is A Manchester based bass player and composer who has played with a number of Mancunian acts including Kirsty Almeida, Rioghnach Connolly, La Gran Descarga, Baked A La Ska, The Wagon Train and The Magic Beans. As a composer his work has been featured in the films “Pategonia” and “Albatross” and in the American TV show “Arrow”.

“The Aviator’s Ball” is his début album and is an ambitious project that features both his playing and his composing skills. It is a wide ranging piece of work that embraces several musical genres including jazz, folk, world, classical and pop. Much of the material was sourced from an earlier suite entitled “Ten” which was commissioned for the Manchester Jazz Festival to feature a jazz quartet, wind quintet and tuned percussion.

Many of the elements present in “Ten” have found their way onto the new record which features a large cast of Manchester based musicians and at various times includes a wind quintet, a string quartet, tuned percussion and vocals. Some of Manchester’s finest jazz musicians appear on the album including trumpeters Neil Yates and Steve Chadwick plus pianist John Ellis. All of the pieces feature relatively large instrumental line ups and the music is immaculately arranged throughout, full of colour, nuance and texture. As suggested by the album title there is a nostalgic feel to much of the music and yet it also manages to sound thoroughly contemporary. 

The programme consists of nine pieces, the majority of them written by Owens, and commences with “Raindrops On Our Rooftop”, a composition almost certainly retrieved from the “Ten” commission. This richly textured and sometimes playful piece includes a wind quintet featuring Amina Hussian on flute, David Benfield on oboe, Lucy Rugman on clarinet, Jon Harris on French horn and Simon Davies on bassoon. These five, and especially Davies, are fully integrated into an arrangement that also features Sophie Hastings on marimba, Owens on double bass, Ellis at the piano and Rick Weedon at the drum kit. The main soloist is Neil Yates who appears here on tin whistle to give the piece an airy folkish feel which combines well with the contemporary classical elements in a delightful ensemble performance. As a trumpeter Yates’ technique has been much influenced by Irish whistle players and this track finds him visiting the source of his inspiration first hand.

The inspiration for the title track came from Owens’ visit to Prague during that city’s ball season during which different civic societies host their own event. Owens attended the ball organised by the Aviation Society and the event gave him the inspiration for the composition “The Aviator’s Ball”.  The nostalgic feel of the piece comes from its waltz time signature and the rich timbres of a string quartet in which cellist Semay Wu features strongly alongside violinists Alison Williams and Naomi Koop and violist Aimee Johnson. The jazz components come from Owens on double bass,Danny Ward on drums, Edward Barnwell on piano and Steve Chadwick of the Magic Hat Ensemble on cornet. Both Chadwick and Barnwell provide delightfully lyrical solos cushioned by the rich string textures in an evocative and often beautiful ensemble performance.

Owens doesn’t even play on “Mouse Song” which features the voice and guitar of its composer Tom Davies accompanied by a wind quintet featuring Carla Sousa on flute, Philip Howarth on cor anglais, Jill Allen on clarinet, Jon Harris on French horn and Lucy Keyes on bassoon. It’s a charmingly whimsical piece with the instrumentalists gently weaving patterns around Davies’ disarmingly simple and direct guitar playing and vocalising. There’s a plaintiveness about his singing that is sometimes reminiscent of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. 

“Going Back To The Village” is centred around Owens’ double bass groove which locks in with Danny Ward’s drums to form the backbone of the piece. Co-producer Kirsty Almeida leads a small choir of vocalists (Caroline Sheehan, Orli Nyles and Cara Robinson) whose voice swoop and soar around the percussion patterns generated by Rick Weedon and Sophie Hastings. Steve Chadwick returns on trumpet and there’s some beautifully flowing piano from Ed Barnwell on this uplifting piece that even includes a delightfully melodic bass solo from Owens himself. 

“Every Wish Is For You” conjures up similar emotions but with a very different instrumental configuration. The Vintage String Quartet (Wu, Williams, Koop and Johnson) add depth and texture to the airy, nostalgic melodies with Atholl Ransome’s alto flute and Yates’ whispering, breathy trumpet the principal solo voices. Sympathetic support comes from a rhythm section of Ellis, Owens and Wheedon with Ellis also appearing briefly as a soloist. Again it’s an excellent ensemble performance with the strings a fully integrated and essential part of the music.

The much covered Irish traditional song “Black is the Colour” has been tackled by a wide variety of artists, among them Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Cara Dillon and Christy Moore. I also recall an instrumental version by Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires quartet featuring the twin guitars of John Scofield and Bill Frisell.
Rioghnach Connelly gives a distinctive and highly emotive vocal performance on Owen’s arrangement which also features dramatic trumpeting from Yateswith Ellis doubling on both piano and organ. Owens is on bass, Weedon on drums and the line up is completed by the Hussian/Benfield/Rugman/Harris/Davies wind quintet. 

The same wind quintet also features on “The Peanut Train”, a charming piece with a direct and simple melody and a gently shuffling locomotive-like brushed drum groove from Weedon. Billy Buckley’s keening and soaring lap steel guitar adds a distinctive and unusual new instrumental voice and he shares the solo honours with Yates’ squiggling, animated trumpet.

The song “Monsoon” was written by vocalist and guitarist Zoe Kyoti. Her winsome vocals and poetic lyrics are enhanced by a beautiful Owens arrangement that makes good use of the wind quintet, particularly Hussian’s flute. Hastings’ vibes twinkle appealingly and the line up is completed by Owens, Ellis and Weedon.

The album concludes with “Violet”, like the title track a piece redolent of a bygone era of society balls and tea dances. Rosa Capos-Fernandez plays a prominent role on clarinet alongside the axis of Hussian, Benfield, Harris and Davies. Hastings’ glockenspiel is another distinctive component with Owens, Ellis and Weedon completing the ensemble.

Despite the revolving cast of musicians “The Aviator’s Ball” has a finished, almost conceptual, aura, the result perhaps of its origins in a commission. Owens’ compositions and arrangements are atmospheric and evocative and its easy to see why he is in demand as a film composer - many of these pieces conjure up strong cinematic images.

The arrangements have been stitched together with the utmost care and although the focus isn’t on jazz soloing as such the standard of the musicianship is uniformly excellent throughout. The production by a team including Owens’ Almeida and Ellis brings out the nuances of both the playing and the writing with pinpoint precision.

On first hearing I’ll admit that I wasn’t too sure about the vocal pieces but these have grown on me and I now find them to be satisfying pieces of music in themselves as well as effective punctuations of the instrumental programme.

Owens’ début is an album to be proud of, a genre straddling record that manages to create its own uniquely distinctive sound world, evocative of both a century ago and now. It’s possible that some listeners may find it rather twee but I suspect that will hold considerable appeal to may more, fans of the Penguin Café Orchestra for instance will find much to enjoy here.   

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