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by Ian Mann

December 27, 2009


Combining fun and musical sophistication in equal measure Wonderbrass look set to thrill audiences for many years to come

The history of the South Wales based community big band Wonderbrass was covered in the review of the band’s previous release 2007’s “Jive At 5” EP and in our feature from the Saturday of the 2009 Lichfield Real Ale Jazz and Blues Festival.
This time round the band have come with a full album length recording that captures many of the strengths of the band’s distinctive and enjoyable sound. It’s a sound that has made them festival favourites all over the UK and Europe and for what is essentially an amateur band it is remarkably polished and professional. At the helm are two of South Wales’ leading jazz musicians, saxophonist and musical director Rob Smith plus drummer Mark O’Connor. 

The band’s material is an eclectic collection of originals (mainly by Smith) and inspired covers, all of which draw on jazz, rock, funk, reggae, world music and whatever else the band can get their hands on. The line up here is a turbo charged twenty three players with instruments including trumpets, trombones, the full range of saxophones plus electric bass and drums and even the mighty sousaphone at the extreme bottom end.

First up is Smith’s “Dunkin’ With Rich T”, a tribute to one of Wonderbrass’ many members. Rico like trombone combines with chunky reggae style guitar and O’Connor’s sturdy drum grooves. Massed flutes stir an Andean flavour into the pot. It’s exotic, rhythmic, highly danceable and above all great fun. In other words all the great Wonderbrass ingredients for having a great time, but musically interesting to boot. 

“Nigun Atik” is Smith’s arrangement of the traditional Israeli dance tune, fast and furious and another festival crowd pleaser. Uncredited trumpets and flutes jostle for the instrumental honours and the use of electric guitar gives a contemporary rock edge. But really this is a fine piece of ensemble playing driven from the back by the dynamic rhythm section of O’Connor and bassist Derek Howells. 

Howells takes the composing credits on “Groovin’ With The Aztecs” a tune in the best Wonderbrass tradition with a loping groove and an attractive horn led melody. 
Smith’s good natured arrangement of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” also proved a popular item in the band’s repertoire during their summer festival appearances. I caught up with them at Pontypool as well as at Lichfield and thoroughly enjoyed both shows.

The lively, eastern flavoured “Tao Driving” was initially written by Smith for his other outfit, cult Cardiff band The Heavy Quartet. It’s a piece that works just as well for close musical relatives Wonderbrass and is a perennially popular item in the repertoire of both groups. Here harmonica (also featured on “Dunkin, With Rich T”) adds yet another voice to the eclectic musical palette. 

Smith’s “Daisy Roots”  is another old favourite, long established in the Wonderbrass repertoire. It has something of a “cop theme” feel about it, or maybe even “Batman”. Low register horns vie with frothy flutes and even Hammond organ as the whole piece verily storms along. Another proven crowd pleaser.

The full cast of horns lead off the closing “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Shout!” before the drums kick in. Co-written by Smith the piece is part New Orleans pastiche, part something much more contemporary. With it’s joyfully rasping horns this is thoroughly enjoyable and invigorating and a great way to end an album that mixes fun and musical sophistication in equal measure. Wonderbrass look set to thrill audiences for many years to come.

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