Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Oren Marshall

Time Spent at Traffic Lights


by Ian Mann

November 09, 2006


Marshall is a something of an acquired taste but he is a remarkable technician with a fertile and eclectic musical imagination and a surreal sense of humour.

Tuba playing maverick Oren Marshall’s latest album “Introduction To The Story Of Spedy Sponda Part One; In A Silent Room” has been reviewed elsewhere on this site. It is a remarkable piece of work and the same could also be said about this earlier release recorded in 1993/4 and re-released in 2003.

Unlike “Spedy Sponda” which is played entirely solo “Traffic Lights” features other musicians under the collective name of “The Charming Transport Band”. Marshall’s colleagues consist of Dean Brodrick on melodica and clavinet, Steve Buckley on bass clarinet plus percussionists Simone Haggiag and Davide Giovanni.

Marshall has also collaborated with Buckley in the band “Big Air”. This was an Anglo-American aggregation commissioned by BBC Radio 3 in 2001. Alongside Marshall and Buckley were fellow Brit, the trumpeter Chris Batchelor plus Americans Myra Melford on piano and drummer Jim Black. The resulting music “Ten Tall Tales” went on to win the prize for “Best New Work” at the BBC Jazz Awards.

As far as I’m aware it’s not available on CD, which is a pity, although it has of course been broadcast on Radio 3 on more than one occasion.

Buckley has also been a long-term associate of Django Bates a highly eclectic keyboard player and composer. Bates’ compositions have a decidedly English air of eccentricity about them and he is very much a musical risk taker. Many of these qualities appear in Marshall’s work too.

Like Bates, Marshall also likes an element of humour in his music and he is also quick to embrace modern technology. Bates’ innovative use of synthesiser was a major feature of his work with the big band Loose Tubes and also with his own small group Human Chain. For his part Marshall transforms the sound of his instrument via the use of electronics, loops and effects pedals with quite astonishing results.

Besides the traditional well rounded bass sounds of the tuba he embraces ambient noise and can even the mutate the sound into something similar to that of a highly amplified electric guitar.

The music on “Traffic Lights” covers all Marshall’s bases. It is by turns whimsical, ambient, humorous, irreverent, experimental and on occasions bloody loud!

The opener “Harry’s Pain” features Dean Brodrick’s doodling melodica over Marshall’s rich tuba undertow. It is gentle, whimsical and hauntingly effective.

“Bush Baby” (part 1) is a short passage for solo tuba that takes us into “Skybow”. This can only be described as ambient as Marshall’s looped and sequenced tubas and recorders generate a shimmering celestial backdrop that conjures up visions of deep space, endless nothingness, the echoing void. It sounds more like Tangerine Dream than a tuba but once again it is a haunting and incredibly atmospheric piece of music.

The title track features the entire cast of the Charming Transport Band. It also introduces an element of musical humour as it commences with Marshall’s lugubrious tuba accompanied by whistling recorder sounds that sound for all the world like the children’s TV characters The Klangers.

Throw in the sounds of car horns, silly voices and a referee’s whistle and the mood of inspired barminess is complete. Things then become more serious with the introduction of Giovanni and Haggiag’s racing percussion which underpins a fleet footed recorder solo from Marshall followed by Buckley’s earthy bass clarinet and Broderick’s funky clavinet. Finally the car horns return in time for a deliciously bonkers ending. Great fun, great music.

“City In Chaos” is another short bridge played on solo tuba and featuring a comparatively orthodox tuba sound. It leads us into “Alarming Numbers” which features a heavily treated tuba whose amazing electronic burblings are punctuated by those car horns again. Strange but enjoyable.

Marshall comes up with some bizarre titles. “Swami Disappearing Up His Asana” is another excursion into ambient territory but this is nothing compared to “Satan’s Penis”. I bet your average death metal band wish they’d come up with that title for a track or even a band name. This is Marshall in heavy metal tuba mode. He really gives it some, distorting the sound with pedals and electronics and getting a wonderfully loud and dirty sound sometimes reminiscent of a synthesiser but more often of a guitar cranked up to the max. It is both intriguing and invigorating.

“Bush Baby” (part 2) is a brief demonstration of Marshall’s abilities at vocal overtones and tongue slapping.

Finally Giovanni and Haggiag return for the albums brief closing track. Their clattering percussion supports Marshall who is credited with “Atenteben”. I must confess that I have no idea what this is. It sounds like one of the recorders used elsewhere on the album but is presumably some other type of whistle or flute. Whatever it is it makes for a charming way to conclude the album.

Marshall is a something of an acquired taste but he is a remarkable technician with a fertile and eclectic musical imagination and a surreal sense of humour.  As a whole the album seems to consist of a number of big musical set pieces framed by a series of vignettes and it’s appeal grows on repeated listenings. It is remarkable stuff and certainly turns the traditional image of the tuba on its head. “Time Spent At Traffic Lights” is not an album that would suit everybody but the musically curious should find plenty to enjoy in this charmingly eccentric piece of work.

blog comments powered by Disqus