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The Jazz Defenders

The Jazz Defenders, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 19/05/2024.

Photography: Photograph sourced from the Black Mountain Jazz Facebook page [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

May 20, 2024


The quality of the playing was superb throughout and the music itself was bright, energetic, joyous and accessible. A great live music experience.

The Jazz Defenders, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 19/05/2024

George Cooper – piano, keyboard, Nick Malcolm – trumpet, Jake McMurchie – tenor sax, Will Harris – acoustic & electric bass, Ian Matthews – drums

On a swelteringly hot May evening, possibly the warmest of the year thus far, Black Mountain Jazz were again rewarded with a near capacity audience for the visit of the Bristol based quintet The Jazz Defenders.

The band, led by pianist and composer George Cooper, who writes most of the group’s material, features the cream of the Bristol jazz scene and includes Nick Malcolm on trumpet, Jake McMurchie on tenor sax, Will Harris on bass and Ian Matthews at the drums.

As the band name suggests the quintet is strongly influenced by the music of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and the classic Blue Note / hard bop sound, with Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard and Horace Silver also mentioned as sources of inspiration.

But the Jazz Defenders are far more than a mere tribute act and instead place the focus firmly on original material, albeit with much of it written within a readily recognisable hard bop template. That said they also bring other musical flavours to the mix, adding a dash of funk and hip-hop and generally updating the hard bop sound for the 21st century.

It’s an approach that has seen the quintet enjoying a high degree of critical acclaim for their most recent album “Memory in Motion”, which was released on The Leeds based label Haggis Records in April 2024.  The label was founded by Haggis Horns, with whom Cooper also plays.

“Memory in Motion” represents the Defenders’  third full length recording following “Scheming” (2019) and “King Phoenix” (2022). The new recording has even made waves in the US where it reached number 10 in the American jazz charts.

Leader Cooper is a versatile musician who has lent his keyboard talents to a wide variety of jazz, rock and pop acts, and even though his first love remains jazz his broad range of musical experience informs his writing for the Defenders and helps to give their music a very contemporary edge.

Tonight’s performance was the penultimate date on the “Memory in Motion” tour and although the band members may have confessed to feeling “knackered” there was nothing remotely tired about their performances. The majority of the material was sourced from the most recent album, although the band also dipped into their catalogue to unearth some earlier jazz nuggets. Tellingly, there were no standards or covers AT ALL.

It was totally appropriate that the quintet should be playing in front of the “Hard Bop” panel from BMJ’s mobile “Jazz Through The Ages” exhibition. They wasted no time setting their stall out with “The Big Man”, a Cooper composition released as a single in 2021. Introduced by double bass and drums this featured a punchy, incisive hard bop style head / hook tightly played in unison by the horns of Malcolm and McMurchie.  These two then converged to deliver their individual solos, McMurchie going first. The horn solos were followed by Cooper at the Melville Centre’s acoustic upright piano before Matthews rounded things off with a drum feature.

In addition to the upright Cooper also deployed a Nord Stage 3 electric keyboard, which was variously used to replicate the sounds of Hammond organ and Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos. It was the Wurlitzer sound that was to feature on the funky “Scheming” as Cooper shared the spotlight with Matthews, who was taking time out from his role as drummer with the hugely successful rock group Kasabian – although I suspect that the majority of tonight’s audience were probably blissfully unaware of this fact.

Of course Matthews wasn’t the only band member with musical commitments elsewhere, Malcolm leads his own groups, McMurchie is a member of Get The Blessing and also leads his own Michelson Morley group, of which Harris is also a member. Harris has also been a member of the Bristol based ensemble Moonlight Saving Time, featuring vocalist Emily Wright.

Harris was the writer of the next tune, “Fuffle Kershuffle”, the first piece to be sourced from the “Memory in Motion” album. This broadly adhered to the familiar template of a punchy unison horns theme statement followed by individual solos. McMurchie again went first, followed by Malcolm, their statements concise and hard hitting. Cooper’s acoustic piano solo then slackened the pace, only to ratchet the tension up once more, with Matthews’ drums becoming increasingly prominent.

“Costa Del Lol”, a tune from the band’s debut, was ushered in by an extended solo drum intro from Matthews, who was eventually joined by Harris on electric bass. Together with Cooper these two established a groove that provided the platform for the playing of Malcolm and McMurchie. A unison theme statement was followed by some arresting horn interplay and then by individual sax and trumpet solos. Cooper followed on piano, at one juncture interacting with drums only, prior to Harris’ electric bass re-joining the equation.

From the most recent album Cooper’s composition “Chasing Fantasies” featured the familiar unison horn melodies plus fluent solos from the composer at the piano and Malcolm on trumpet.

Also from the new album “The Long Haul” was co-written by Cooper and the group’s previous saxophonist Nicholas Dover. This included a dexterous double bass solo from Harris, linked via Cooper’s piano solo to a Brecker-esque tenor excursion from McMurchie.

An excellent, value for money first set concluded with the Cooper composition “Love’s Vestige”, the B-side (remember those) of the “Big Man” single. With its punchy horn lines and powerful rhythms it could just as easily have served as the A-side and included solos from Cooper on electric piano, favouring more of a Rhodes sound this time, and McMurchie on tenor sax. Matthews, an assertive figure throughout weighed in with a dynamic drum feature that brought an energetic and very enjoyable first half to a close.

My conversations during the interval revealed just how much the BMJ audience were enjoying this band. Everybody that I spoke to was greatly enthused by what they had seen and heard.

The second set contained less tunes but it did see an even greater increase in terms of energy levels and also saw the soloists stretching out more as the metaphorical shackles were gradually loosened.

Sourced from the “King Phoenix” album opening tune “Munch” took its title from Cooper’s decidedly unhealthy lockdown eating habits. This featured a punchy horn led ‘head’ and powerful electric bass and drum groove that ignited fiery solos from Malcolm on trumpet and Cooper on wailing, gospel flavoured Hammond. The leader’s organ solo would have reminded BMJ regulars of Club favourite John Paul Gard at his best. Finally Matthews rounded things off with a typically dynamic drum feature.

Also from the “King Phoenix” album came “From The Ashes”, both titles referencing the UK’s eventual re-emergence from the Covid lockdown. It was a period that had been particularly difficult for musicians and Cooper’s tune is an expression of new hope, voiced here through vibrant solos from McMurchie, Malcolm and the composer himself.

From “Memory in Motion” the Cooper composed album opener “Meanderthal” is a homage to the Blue Note sound and to me was strongly reminiscent of Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder”, arguably the most famous Blue Note track of all. This saw Cooper doubling on piano and organ and featured a molten, Morgan-esque trumpet solo from Malcolm. Cooper’s solo featured him on piano and McMurchie was also featured on tenor sax.

Also from the new album “Net Zero”, co-written by Harris and Cooper, introduced a strong hip hop element, the driving rhythms fuelling the opening solo from McMurchie on tenor. Cooper gravitated between piano and keyboard but delivered his solo at the Nord, favouring a ‘Rhodes’ sound.

The set closed with “Snakebite Playfight” another Cooper composition from the latest recording. This seemed to sum up just what The Jazz Defenders are all about, mixing classic Blue Note / hard bop virtues with more contemporary elements. Matthews’ martial rhythms and the punchy horn lines were straight out of the hard bop manual, the use of electric bass and Cooper’s doubling on piano and electric keyboard less so. This was exciting stuff, culminating in a barnstorming piano solo and a marathon drum feature.

With many audience members getting to their feet to applaud and cheer the band a richly deserved encore was inevitable. This proved to be “Hawkeye Jorge”, a tune from the band’s debut album. This introduced yet another jazz flavour to the mix with its fast paced, bebop style theme providing the platform for solos from McMurchie on tenor and Malcolm on trumpet, these propelled by Harris’ rapid double bass walk and Matthews’ crisp drumming. Cooper signed off with a final piano solo and Matthews with a series of dynamic drum breaks.

Cooper’s liner notes for “Memory in Motion” reference “the importance of being together and experiencing the joy that live music can bring”.

And that was exactly what tonight was all about as the energy of the band communicated itself to the audience, who absolutely loved it. The quality of the playing was superb throughout and the music itself was bright, energetic, joyous and accessible.

If one was being churlish one could observe that there was little variation in terms of mood and pace – basically it was all pretty full on – or that most pieces followed a similar pattern, with a unison theme statement followed by individual solos. But for all that this was a great live music experience, an EVENT bringing about that togetherness and joy of which Cooper speaks, with the band’s energetic performances fuelled by pure adrenaline. I think it’s fair to say that everybody went home from this gig feeling energised and feeling good.

My thanks to George for speaking with me after the show and to all the band members for signing my copy of the set list.

The Jazz Defenders acquitted themselves superbly in this conventional jazz club setting playing to a seated and mostly mature audience. But one also suspects that they are more than capable of presenting their music to a younger crowd in more of a ‘night club’ environment and really filling the dance floor. The new album features the song “Rolling On A High”, a collaboration with hip-hop artist Doc Brown. “King Phoenix” also included collaborations with Brown and with MC Herbal T. It’s easy to see why they’re creating a bit of a buzz both inside and outside the usual jazz circles.

But just in case anybody doesn’t think the band are capable of subtlety check out “Enigma”, the gentle and elegant final track on “Memory in Motion”. Recorded live at the Le Duc des Lombards jazz club in Paris this features an extended passage of unaccompanied piano from Cooper that evolves into a lyrical dialogue with Harris’ double bass. It’s a beautiful duo performance that demonstrates the versatility of these musicians and which also represents a delightful ‘chill out track’ in the context of the album as a whole.



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