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Uncanny Valley

Uncanny Valley, Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Birmingham, 28/03/2019.


by Ian Mann

April 01, 2019


Ian Mann enjoys the music of this new Anglo-German improvising trio featuring saxophonist Tom Challenger, bassist Phil Donkin and drummer Oli Steidle.

Uncanny Valley, Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, 28/03/2019.

Uncanny Valley is a new Anglo-German trio featuring the British musicians Tomos Challenger (tenor saxophone), Phil Donkin (double bass) and the German drummer and percussionist Oliver ‘Oli’ Steidle.

Tonight’s event was promoted by Tony Dudley-Evans as part of his TDE Promotions strand, presented as part of Birmingham’s Fizzle season of jazz and improvised music.

I was first attracted to this event by the presence of Challenger, the Huddersfield born, London based musician who has appeared many times on the Jazzmann web pages, whether leading his own groups, such as the electro-jazz quartet Ma and the contemporary New Orleans inspired ensemble Brass Mask, or as a prolific sideman, on the London jazz scene.

Challenger has been part of the bands Dice Factory, Outhouse, Porpoise Corpus, and Riff Raff, the letter led by bassist Dave Manington. He has also worked with pianists Bruno Heinen and Dan Nicholls, guitarist Hannes Riepler and fellow saxophonists George Crowley and Mike Chillingworth.

A particularly fruitful association has been with Kit Downes in the church organ /saxophone duo known first as Wedding Music and subsequently as Vyamanikal. Challenger has also worked in an improvising duo with Pierre Alexander Tremblay (bass and electronics). At the other end of the scale he has played large ensemble jazz as a member of bassist Callum Gourlay’s Big Band.

Sunderland born Donkin first established himself on the UK jazz scene working with pianists Gwilym Simcock and Ivo Neame, vocalist Brigitte Beraha, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and saxophonists Julian Arguelles, Evan Parker, Christian Brewer and Seb Pipe.

The Simcock connection was particularly profitable in terms of raising his profile and Donkin subsequently moved to Brooklyn, New York City, establishing himself as a musician with an international reputation and working with such jazz heavyweights as  guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel and John Abercrombie,  pianists Marc Copland, Edward Simon and Kevin Hays and drummers Bill Stewart, Ralph Peterson and Nasheet Waits.

Donkin’s début recording as a leader, “The Gate”, was recorded with a New York based band featuring saxophonist Ben Wendel, pianist Glenn Zaleski and drummer Jochen Rueckert and was released on Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings in 2015.

Donkin has since settled in Berlin, where he has become a major figure on that city’s jazz and improvised music scene, working regularly with drummer, composer and bandleader Oliver ‘Oli’ Steidle, among many others. There’s a healthy sense of cross-fertilisation between the London and Berlin scenes with Steidle also collaborating with Donkin, plus keyboard players Dan Nicholls and Kit Downes, in his band The Killing Popes.

Steidle was the one musician I hadn’t heard performing previously but a glance at his website reveals that he’s an astonishingly busy musician who is involved in more projects than you can shake the proverbial drum stick at. A highly versatile player he’s involved in both acoustic and electric music across a variety of genres; “I’m at home in jazz, bebop, free jazz, classical music, new music, hip hop, punk etc.” as the man himself says in the liner notes to his 2016 release “Euphoria” by his Oliwood trio featuring guitarist Kalle Kalima and alto saxophonist Frank Gratkowski.

Originally from Nurnburg but now based in Berlin Steidle is a serial collaborator who has worked with leading cutting edge musicians from all over Europe including such giants of the improvised music scene as saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and trumpeter Axel Dorner. Heavyweight company indeed. Check out the full range of Steidle’s activities at

Turning now to this new project Uncanny Valley, the group name derived from a series of band ‘in jokes’. The trio is a democratic unit, with all three members contributing material, but in essence it’s a ‘free jazz’ group.

Like may of the bands presented under the TDE Promotions banner Uncanny Valley explores music at the interface where composed and improvised music meet; previous examples include saxophonist Cath Roberts’ Favourite Animals and guitarist Anton Hunter’s Article XI.

Tonight all three performers were reading music but typically the compositions were ‘sketches’, blueprints or sign posts for improvising and typically comprising of one side or less of manuscript.
With only minimal amplification for Donkin’s bass and with Challenger playing without any form of mic the performance was essentially all acoustic, ideal for the intimate space that is the Hexagon.

Recent TDE gigs have commenced with Tony conducting a brief interview with the band and encouraging the musicians to explain something about their music. Uncanny Valley spoke about their love of extremes, both in terms of soft/loud dynamics and in terms of contrasting elements of sparseness and complexity, their aim being to open up creative spaces and create a tension in the music, particularly with regard to the dialogue between composition and improvisation. Like so many others before them the collective aim was to blur the borders between the two, so each is indistinguishable from the other.

The trio has yet to record an official album but examples of their work can be heard on Challenger’s website at and some of the material that can be heard there was to be performed tonight, albeit sometimes radically differently.

Uncanny Valley played a single unbroken set that included several examples of tunes being melded together to form a single piece. The opening segue of “Needles”, appropriately paired with “Scratches”, commenced with the lonely sound of Challenger’s tenor sax, this subsequently joined in dialogue by Donkin’s double bass as Steidle deployed a variety of small percussive devices to atmospheric effect. An example of Uncanny Valley’s love of dynamic contrasts came when Steidle picked up his sticks to commence a brutally explosive assault on his drum kit, entering into a garrulous debate with Challenger’s tenor as Donkin played the role of fulcrum. Following a blistering series of sax/drum exchanges Challenger took a well earned ‘breather’, handing the dialogue over to Steidle and Donkin, a relatively gentler exchange from which Steidle eventually dropped out to leave the sound of unaccompanied double bass. A revived Challenger then returned to the fray, the soft piping of his tenor sax, shadowed by Donkin’s bass and by the eerie sound of Steidle’s cymbal scrapes.  Gradually this three way conversation, gentle at first, became more animated and powerful, with snatches of melodic riffery suggestive of written material.

To these ears the intro to the next segue of “Scorpion” and “Doll Head” sounded pre-composed, this acting as the launch pad for a probing tenor sax solo buoyed by the constantly unfolding polyrhythmic flow of Steidle’s drumming, at times reminiscent of the great Jeff Williams. A passage of drum and double bass dialogue then led to to a further series of thrilling exchanges between Challenger and Steidle, the pair bouncing ideas off each other with Donkin again acting as the anchor. The trio then coalesced, building up a creative head of steam in this segue’s closing stages.

The lengthy “Anna”,commenced with a passage of unaccompanied tenor saxophone from Challenger, his sound initially in the instrument’s upper registers, sounding vulnerable and almost flute like. This led into a further section of solo playing, featuring an astonishing display of harmolodics and circular breathing techniques that even Evan Parker would have been proud of. Extended techniques were very much the order of the day here, Steidle again deploying small percussive devices, including kalimba or some other type of thumb piano, as Donkin produced deep, grainy bass sonorities with the bow as the rhythm team exchanged ideas. The return of Challenger on tenor then upped the energy levels once more, culminating in a powerful drum and percussion feature from the impressive Steidle. The gentle trio passage that followed represented ‘the calm after the storm’ , but Uncanny Valley were soon upping the ante once more with an incisive Challenger tenor solo fuelled by Donkin’s rapid bass figures and Steidle’s crisp drum beats.

The short final number was unannounced, but commenced with a dialogue between Challenger’s tenor and Donkin’s bowed bass, the saxophonist’s high register phrases answered by Donkin’s deeply sonorous arco counter melodies as Steidle provided subtly brushed drum commentary, this progressing to the use of mallets, then sticks, on cymbals to provide an anthemic chiming quality.

Having completed a short series of British dates Uncanny Valley are currently touring in Germany, where they will also record their début album. The results should be very interesting, especially in the light of tonight’s performance, where the music was more free and open ended than that currently available on Challenger’s website. Despite the presence of sheet music on stage, which was certainly referred to, tonight very much had the feel of a ‘free jazz’ performance, with the emphasis strongly on improvisation and spontaneous creation, an area to which Challenger and Donkin both seem to be increasingly drawn. With its emphasis on ‘extremes’ it was a demanding listen at times but the response of an audience best described as ‘small but select’ was highly positive.

I’ve long been an admirer of the playing of both these musicians but Steidle’s was a new name to me. The German is a fearless musical experimenter with healthy disregard for genres and an irreverent, almost punk like attitude. A highly accomplished technician he’s an energetic performer who delights in avoiding the obvious rhythms. His albums, such as “Ego Pills” by The Killing Popes, “Euphoria” by the trio Oliwood and “Ilog”, a duo set with turntablist Ignaz Schick, bristle with intention, energy and attitude and underline his uncompromising, non-conformist stance.

My thanks to Phil and Oli for speaking with me after the gig and to Phil for providing me with a review copy of his forthcoming album “Value”, by his international quartet Superfrown, featuring Joris Roelofs on bass clarinet, Wanja Slavin on alto sax and Martin France at the drums, an intriguing instrumental configuration to say the least. I plan to be taking a fuller look at this in due course.

Meanwhile the remaining dates on Uncanny Valley’s tour of Germany are listed below;

2. April 2019 Uncanny Valley w/ Tom Challenger, Phil Donkin @ Loft / Köln

3. April 2019 Uncanny Valley w/ Tom Challenger, Phil Donkin @ Übel & Gefährlich / Hamburg

5. April 2019 Uncanny Valley w/ Tom Challenger, Phil Donkin @ Aufsturtz / Berlin

6. April 2019 Uncanny Valley w/ Tom Challenger, Phil Donkin @ Saxstall / Pohrsdorf

7. April 2019 Uncanny Valley w/ Tom Challenger, Phil Donkin @ Dumont / Aachen

8. April 2019 Uncanny Valley w/ Tom Challenger, Phil Donkin recording at HfM Nürnberg
9. April 2019 Uncanny Valley w/ Tom Challenger, Phil Donkin recording at HfM Nürnberg
10. April 2019 Uncanny Valley w/ Tom Challenger, Phil Donkin recording at HfM Nürnberg

11. April 2019 Uncanny Valley w/ Tom Challenger, Phil Donkin @ Bar Betty / Nürnberg

13. April 2019 Uncanny Valley w/ Tom Challenger, Phil Donkin @ Knabenschule / Darmstadt

Further details at

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