by Ian Mann
August 03, 2009
Enjoyable and surprisingly sophisticated big band sounds from this great Welsh institution
Wonderbrass are a community big band from South Wales, originally assembled in Pontypridd in 1992. Under the guidance of saxophonist and musical director Rob Smith they have achieved a remarkable degree of success over the years and having outgrown their Valleys base now operate out of Cardiff. The musicians in this large ensemble (typically 20-30 players) are not paid to play but all profits are ploughed back into the band to finance further projects.
With a horn section led by Smith and a rhythm team anchored since 1997 by top South Wales drummer Mark O’Connor this essentially amateur band achieves an enviably professional sound. Their live performances are well drilled but are simultaneously great fun as their recent performance in the Saturday night “party slot” at the 2009 Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz and Blues Festival showed. That performance is reviewed in our coverage of the festival and it was here that the band kindly let me have a copy of this, their most recent release (2007) for review.
“Jive At 5” is a tantalisingly brief snapshot of the band’s MO and sums up their approach very well. Wonderbrass habitually blend jazz, pop, funk, ska, latin and soul into an eclectic and eminently danceable mix that crosses musical and geographical boundaries. Their chosen material derives from a wide range of sources and rarely includes the obvious choices. Sometimes their performances include originals from the pen of Smith who is also a member of long standing Cardiff cult band the Heavy Quartet. Both the Heavies and Wonderbrass have been long term fixtures at the Brecon Jazz Festival with both outfits turning in some memorable performances over the years. In fact to me Wonderbrass initially seemed like an offshoot of the Heavy Quartet but these days Wonderbrass very much has a life of it’s own.
Wonderbrass’ legendary Brecon shows have helped to gain the band an international reputation. They have also appeared at festivals in Cork, Vienne, Paris and Barcelona and played with internationally known musicians such as Claude Deppa, Jason Yarde and King Django. One of their most celebrated collaborations was with the South African musicians Amampondo who played with Wonderbrass at Brecon and appeared with them on the album “Ubuntu”, one of several self financed and self released recordings Wonderbrass have issued over the years. I’ve not heard “Ubuntu” but I do own a live Wonderbrass EP dating back to 1998 plus the later “A Special Brew” album. Both, like this most recent release are hugely enjoyable.
“Jive At 5” features no less than thirty players,with a broad range of brass, reeds and flutes being augmented by a full rhythm section incorporating guitar, bass,keyboards, drums and percussion. The programme kicks off with “Sopresa” with the flutes initially taking the lead over a percolating percussion undertow. Dave Weston’s mighty sousaphone anchors the bottom end as the rest of the band joins in for some joyous unison horn passages. The mood is celebratory and joyous and the music highly danceable but there is genuine musical sophistication in the arrangement and a real understanding of the voicings of a big band.
Abdullah Ibrahim’s lazily lilting South African melody “Water From An Ancient Well” is also hugely enjoyable in the Wonderbrass format. Soloists are not credited but it’s almost certainly Rob Smith’s soprano taking the lead here. It’s a gorgeous tune, with material of this calibre Smith and his colleagues can’t go far wrong.
Next comes an irresistible version of Lennon and McCartney’s “Day Tripper” arranged by Wonderbrass’ very own Derek Howells. Swinging and grooving in equal measure it blends guttural sax vamps, hand claps and swirling Hammond with a blaring full on horn section. There are some nifty uncredited trumpet and saxophone solos too. The band cram a lot of ideas into a five minute arrangement. This piece proved a huge crowd favourite at the group’s recent Lichfield RAJB performance and rightly so. Howell’s inspired arrangement is clever and inventive but also great fun. In it’s own way this is as an enjoyable a Beatles “jazz cover” as I’ve heard.
The title track is an old Count Basie number arranged here by Rob Smith and initially featuring his own bass clarinet. A contemporary rock based groove runs throughout the piece contrasting nicely with the brassy, jazzy horn ensemble playing. Solos come from saxes,synthesiser and guitar as if to emphasise the juxtaposition of styles. It’s not dissimilar to something the Heavy Quartet might have attempted.
The closing “Hamba Nami” is a breezy, brassy romp through an old Cannonball Adderley tune with solos from flute,guitar, tenor sax and organ. Rhythms again veer towards rock but there is a lot going on here again, the mood sometimes recalls township jive and at others sixties soul jazz. Like most Wonderbrass arrangements it’s fun but not without sophistication.
Wonderbrass are best appreciated in a live context where their exuberant playing and enormous sense of fun really comes across. Catch them at the 2009 Brecon Jazz Festival if you can. Nevertheless their recordings stand up well in the home environment both as concert souvenirs and, with their distinctive arrangements, as surprisingly accomplished records in their own right. Smith and his colleagues have created not only a great Welsh institution but one that the rest of the world can happily enjoy. Long may they continue.