by Ian Mann
November 16, 2009
"Hardware" reveals this cult Cardiff outfit to be as inventive and irreverent as ever
Incredibly this is the cult Cardiff band’s thirteenth album and is due for official release on Friday November 20th 2009 with an album launch party being held at Dempsey’s in Cardiff that same night.
First things first, the Heavy Quartet has never had four members. Formed in 1983 by saxophonist Rob Smith and drummer Jess Phillips the group has had a floating membership but the line up has usually comprised of eight or more members. The current HQ comprises of Smith (Phillips left some time back) together with long standing stalwarts Brian Yule and Nils Andersson (trumpets), Neil Pedder (keyboards) and Neil “Keyo” Langford (guitar) plus more recent additions Gareth Roberts (trombone & euphonium), Ashley Long (bass) and Steve Roberts (drums).
A legend on the Cardiff scene The Heavies have reached out to a wider constituency through their numerous festival appearances. The band played for twenty five consecutive years at Brecon Jazz Festival winning many new fans (myself amongst them) in the process. Regrettably with the Festival under new management they were conspicuous by their absence in 2009, although their close musical relatives Wonderbrass did appear. Hopefully the Heavies will be back in 2010.
Although rooted in jazz the Heavies sound includes elements of rock, funk, reggae, ska and blues. They are not afraid to mix genres and over the years have established a signature sound based on riffs and grooves with jazz solos riding this powerful rhythmic undertow. It’s a sound variously described as “left field” or “iconoclastic” but despite the fact that the Heavies occupy a hinterland of their own somewhere between jazz and rock (plus all the other elements they throw in) there’s nothing “difficult” about their music. Indeed the band are huge crowd pleasers at festivals with their irreverent approach. Although they concentrate in the main on original material they are not averse to throwing the odd inspired cover into their repertoire. The band were playing Nirvana tunes such as “Lithium” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” long before Cobain and his colleagues went global.
I’ve not heard all the Heavies output but I’d hazard a guess that “Hardware” is their best release since 1995’s “Carnivore”. The arrival of Gareth Roberts has given a new lease of life to the band. Historically they’ve never made that much use of the trombone so Roberts brings a new solo voice to the band plus a major new composing presence (he is responsible for four of the new album’s ten tracks). Roberts is a bandleader in his own right-his quintet album “Attack Of The Killer Penguins” has already been favourably reviewed on this site.
Although the Heavies utilise rock elements and frequently deploy rock rhythms there is a good deal of colour and variety among these ten original compositions. The first three selections come from the pen of Gareth Roberts who brings some of the quirky humour of his own quintet to the band. The other HQ members bring similar qualities to their own writing, a sense of fun has always been central to the Heavy Quartet/Wonderbrass ethos over the years.
The opening “Bailey Dan y Bws” is a spirited opening salvo dominated by Roberts’ trombone, an instrument on which he exhibits a huge tone and a remarkable fluency and agility. There is bright, high register trumpet and a scorching rock influenced guitar solo from Langford who also adds distinctive rhythm parts elsewhere on the track.
“Go Stop-Go-Man” also features Langford’s powerful guitar plus the bright punchy, attack of the horns. Solos come from Smith, probing on tenor sax, the more exuberant Roberts on trombone, and finally Langford wigging out on guitar. Pedder’s synths whistle and bubble throughout the track and Long and Steve Roberts display both power and flexibility in the rhythm section.
The shapeshifting “Urban Trad” sees Smith soloing on soprano above a steady, loping grove before the piece sidesteps into a faux trad section that helps to explain the choice of title. The “urban” side of the equation comes from Langford’s guitar scratchings in a “free” section that perhaps alludes to the New York “Downtown” scene. In a final shift of gear it’s back to a lively dose of “trad” to close. With it’s mix of styles and wry sense of humour not to mention the musical sophistication to make it all happen convincingly this is typical Heavy Quartet.
Smith takes up the compositional reins for “Bone Medicine” opening with a solo passage for the horns. The piece is all about the building and release of tension with impressionistic “avant garde” style passages alternating with theme statements. Gareth Robert’s trombone is again an important component alongside the composer’s saxophones.
From trumpeter Nils Andersson comes “Debbie’s Blues”, a slow burning blues that features some haunting trumpet (presumably that of the composer) and some stately horns only interludes. Bassist Long features early on, this young man has a phenomenal technique and has been playing gigs since he was a teenager. I remember seeing him at Pontypool Jazz Festival some years back, he must have been about fifteen then, and already he was doing things that when first introduced by Jaco Pastorius were considered revolutionary. Roberts (G) weighs in with some bluesy, gutbucket trombone and Langford produces a soaring blues guitar solo.
Pedder’s composing credit is “A Fistful Of Traveller’s Cheques” which begins with a horn cadenza and shifts into a kind of skewed Balkan dance. It’s quirky and fun and features solos from trumpet (Yule, this time at a guess) and trombone over a snare tattoo as the piece mutates into a march before finally building to a climax incorporating a drum feature for Roberts (S).
The folk and world elements continue on Smith’s “Arabesk” where the mood is now sombre and Middle Eastern. Low register horns predominate with Smith doubling on bass clarinet and there haunting, unsettling solos from guitar, trumpet and soprano sax. The piece serves notice that the Heavies can do atmospheric as well as exuberant, they’re not just about irony and irreverence.
That said “Walking Home At Midnight”, Gareth Robert’s final composing credit is great fun. Robert’s growling euphonium vamp underpins the piece with the rest of the horns blowing joyously over the top, both unison and solo. There are features for saxophone, trumpet and trombone and the whole thing is great fun. Gareth says his main influences are Charles Mingus and Brain’s Bitter- both probably had a part to play in the writing of this one. Enormous fun, and destined to be a great favourite at gigs I should think.
Pedder and Smith combined to write “One Under The Eight” which opens with fruity, rasping trombone offset by Smith’s jaunty saxophone before the whole band steam in. Solos come from soprano, trumpet but the thread of Smith and Roberts’ counterpoint runs throughout the tune punctuated by uproarious full on band passages. Again it’s all hugely enjoyable.
It’s noticeable that Langford has been pretty quiet on the last couple of tracks but he makes up for this by contributing “Heugh!” a barnstorming closer led off by rock drums and very electric guitar.
Massed horns then take over the attack and Smith blows some dirty tenor over a driving beat .A slow building trumpet solo lowers the tempo only slightly before a rousing horn led climax culminates in a band shout of"Heugh!”. Live it becomes an audience participation number.
I’ve always liked the Heavies and have enjoyed many of their festival performances over the years. More importantly I’m certainly well impressed by this album. There are some very strong tunes here and the band’s genre straddling is consistently interesting. Jazz purists may sniff at the use of rock rhythms but in the Heavies’ hands it’s all skilfully and interestingly done. This is a group that combines excitement with sophistication, irreverence with subtlety.
Being based in Cardiff has probably prevented the band from getting the acclaim they deserve. The influence of their very British approach to the jazz/rock interface can be detected in the music of more feted outfits, such as (among others) Get The Blessing from the other side of the Bristol Channel. More than twenty five years since their inception “Hardware” proves the Heavies to be as inventive and irreverent as ever. They should be around to entertain audiences for a long time to come.