by Ian Mann
February 20, 2017
The quartet's performance combined strong written themes with adventurous improvisations and included some muscular riffs and grooves.
Word of Moth, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 17/02/2017.
Word of Moth is a new quartet co-led by London based saxophonists Cath Roberts and Dee Byrne who are joined by double bassist Seth Bennett and drummer Johnny Hunter.
Roberts and Byrne are dynamic presences on the London jazz scene and are the co-ordinators of LUME, a platform for jazz and improvised music that began in 2013 as a series of weekly gigs for creative musicians curated by the pair. In the intervening years LUME has had a variety of homes at various London venues but is now firmly established at the Iklectik Arts Lab in Waterloo where the first LUME Festival was held in 2016, a hugely successful all day event that featured performances by musicians from the jazz and experimental music scenes in London, Manchester, Leeds and even Vienna. The success of the LUME project has also led to the formation of the Luminous Label, a recording outlet for the music of Roberts and Byrne and their numerous musical associates.
Besides being great organisers and general movers and shakers Roberts and Byrne are also highly creative musicians who play in a variety of groups. Both are skilled composers as Roberts has demonstrated with her septet Quadraceratops and Byrne with her quintet Entropi. However each is equally at home in more freely improvised territory as demonstrated Roberts’ Ripsaw Catfish, a duo with guitarist Anton Hunter, brother of Johnny. Byrne has her own duo Deemer, an electro-improvising collaboration with drummer and sound artist Merijn Rooyards. Roberts’ other credits include work with the Madwort Saxophone Quartet led by saxophonist Tom Ward, sax octet Saxoctopus (also featuring Byrne) and Anton Hunter’s large ensemble Article XI. Both saxophonists work prolifically with other musicians in ad hoc collaborations and each makes a vital contribution to the music scene in the capital and beyond. I’ve got a huge admiration for the work of LUME as well as for the music generated both individually and collectively by Roberts and Byrne.
Word of Moth brings together musicians from the London, Manchester and Leeds jazz scenes. Based in Manchester Hunter leads his own quartet featuring members of the Beats & Pieces Big Band as well as being part of the Blind Monk Trio featuring saxophonist Bob Whittaker and bassist Hugo Harrison. He was also worked with brother Anton’s trio and with saxophonist Nat Birchall’s groups.
Meanwhile Leeds based Bennett is probably best known to jazz audiences as a member of the now defunct If Destroyed Still True and as a member of pianist and composer Laura Cole’s group Metamorphic. Bennett and Cole have also collaborated in a trio with drummer Peter Fairclough and co-lead the eighteen piece Bennett Cole Orchestra. A versatile musician Bennett has also worked with musicians from the rock, folk and classical fields on a diverse range of projects.
In 2016 Roberts released the album “Triptych”, credited to Sloth Racket, a quintet featuring Bennett, the two Hunter brothers and tenor saxophonist Sam Andreae, the latter another product of the Manchester jazz scene. A ten piece version of Sloth Racket, dubbed Favourite Animals, subsequently appeared at that year’s Lancaster Jazz Festival where Roberts was acting as Artist in Residence.
“Triptych” consisted of three lengthy pieces with Roberts providing the band with written thematic fragments incorporating graphic notations, these acting as the frameworks for improvisation as the quintet explored the balance between freedom and structure. The results were hugely successful and surprisingly accessible, with the album attracting considerable acclaim, not least from the Jazzmann.
Given the number of shared personnel it’s tempting to think of Word of Moth as a variation on Sloth Racket but despite the similarities this is a significantly different band with a greater emphasis on composition with Roberts, Byrne and Bennett all bringing pieces to the table. Hunter composes for his own quartet but we weren’t destined to hear any of his pieces this evening.
The Word of Moth tunes were shorter and more tightly focussed than the Sloth Racket pieces but still examined the interface between the composed and the improvised in a chordless setting that inevitable invited comparisons with the music of Ornette Coleman. Roberts plays both alto and baritone saxes but seems to be focussing increasingly on the bari these days, thus freeing Byrne up to play her usual alto sax in this band. As if to emphasise the fact that improvised dialogue is essential to the Word of Moth aesthetic Hunter’s drums were set up so that he was facing Bennett and the two saxophonists in a kind of semi-circle, thus ensuring a high level of group interaction at all times.
The 2017 Jazz @ Wolverhampton programme at the Arena has seen the organisers deliberately focussing on young UK jazz talent with Julian Arguelles, who visits in May, the only really ‘established’ name in the first half of the year. It’s a laudable policy and one that keeps costs down but it’s a sad fact that audiences are likely to be smaller as a result despite the reduction in ticket prices – jazz audiences can be disappointingly conservative sometimes. Thus around thirty to thirty five adventurous souls were scattered around the the theatre for Word of Moth’s performance, but to my ears the ‘stay aways’ missed something of a treat. The quartet’s performance combined strong written themes with adventurous improvisations and included some of the muscular riffs and grooves that also distinguish Sloth Racket’s output.
Byrne and Roberts shared the announcing duties and the evening kicked off with Byrne’s composition “On The Other Side”, ushered in by Bennett whose bass quickly combined with Hunter’s drums to create a fluid but propulsive groove upon which Byrne and Roberts could drape their sax playing, sometimes playing individually, at others coming together in bleary saxophonic coalescence. Apart from some modest amplification for Bennett’s bass this was essentially an all acoustic performance, the horns were unmiked, but the power that the four musicians were able to generate was undeniably impressive. Tellingly all were reading sheet music, a signifier of the importance of the composed element within the group’s music.
Early on in the set Byrne attempted to make the announcements without resorting to the vocal mic but this didn’t really work for listeners towards the rear of the hall and she soon abandoned the idea. However it did mean that I missed the title of the next tune, written by Roberts but which saw Byrne pushing her alto to the limit as she soloed. Interestingly on these first two numbers the composer didn’t act as the featured horn soloist but instead let her counterpart take the limelight, Roberts had taken the main solo on Byrne’s opener.
Bennett’s “Great Artists Steal” commenced with an extended solo bass intro, presumably fully improvised, which made impressive use of the space between the notes but also included some flamboyant flamenco style strumming. The two horns then combined breathily to state the melancholy theme before Hunter’s belated entry increased the momentum and helped to steer the music into more Coleman-esque territory as Byrne soloed on alto and Bennett added dramatic David Izenzon style arco bass.
Roberts’ “Small Fry” began with an improvised dialogue between the composer’s baritone and the impressive Bennett on double bass, the latter occasionally deploying extended techniques such as playing pizzicato below the bridge and striking the strings forcibly with the bow. A look at Bennett’s website reveals that he’s something of a multi-instrumentalist having played trumpet, trombone and electric bass in the past – he’s also an acclaimed music educator. Eagle eyed viewers may also have spotted him on the TV quiz programme Fifteen to One in 2016. He got to the final three but didn’t win the episode outright despite acquitting himself very well. However I digress.
After the low end feast of an intro Byrne’s alto sax took over for the written theme, her incisive, song like melodicism supported by Bennett’s dramatic arco bass drone and Hunter’s rapidly brushed drums., the latter switching to sticks and then back again as the music passed through a series of dynamic variations.
An impressive opening set ended in energetic fashion with Byrne’s tune “Jump” which began with an insistent double horn attack, the squalling saxes soon joined by a hard hitting, rock influenced bass and drum groove. The twin sax riffage rivalled the mighty Led Bib in intensity and Hunter turned in an effervescent drum feature as the quartet brought a well paced first half to an exciting conclusion.
Despite the occasionally challenging nature of the music the audience members responded well to Word of Moth’s input and everybody seemed to enjoy it. There were no defections during the brief interval and soon we were all back in our places for an equally impressive second set which began with the Roberts composition “The Panda’s Thumb”, the title perhaps a reference to the artwork for the Sloth Racket album. The composer described her tune as being “quite silly” but there was much to enjoy as she and Byrne traded solos above a typically flexible bass and drum groove. Bennett played the Charlie Haden role to perfection and Hunter’s crisp, pin sharp drumming was full of delightful details as well as being subtly supportive and propulsive. The judicious use of small items of percussion only served to sharpen its focus.
The title of “This Number Is Unique To You” was inspired by Byrne’s annual struggles with her tax return, usually filed on 31st January with just hours to spare. The notes were based on the composer’s HMRC identification number and resulted in a complex twin sax intro, doubtless also part inspired by the horn players’ experiences in multi-saxophone groups as the rhythm section temporarily sat it out. Byrne’s halting alto solo seemed to express trepidation and Roberts’ powerful baritone rasp a corresponding frustration as Bennett supplied a muscular underpinning bass groove. The piece concluded on a nicely humorous note with Hunter’s percussion replicating the ringing of alarm bells.
The temporary fragmentation of the group into smaller units was a consistent factor throughout the evening and Roberts’ “Mantis” began with an improvised dialogue between Byrne’s alto and Hunter’s drums before the composer’s insistent baritone hook steered the music into more riff based terrain leading to a punchy baritone solo.
Bennett’s “Osden” was more atmospheric, melancholic and ruminative with its eerie arco bass and alto intro leading to layered double horns and Hunter’s cymbal shimmers and mallet rumbles as the drummer adopted the role of colourist in conjunction with the composer’s bass. Byrne’s incisive, acerbic alto, joined in conversation with Bennett’s bowed bass, had something of the feel of Tim Berne’s playing about it.
Roberts introduced her composition “Look It In The Eye” with a rallying shout of “1, 2, 3, 4” which did the required job of rousing her colleagues into action on the kind of “tightly scored, big booted riffs” that Wire Magazine’s Daniel Spicer praised when reviewing Word of Moth’s performance for the 2016 LUME Festival. Certainly the sound of the twin horns of Roberts and Byrne working in tandem was hugely impressive as were the subsequent variations, solos -particularly Byrne on alto - and group dialogues that stemmed from the main theme before the quartet finally coalesced again to riff mightily at the close.
The evening concluded, perhaps rather ironically, with Byrne’s “It’s Started” which saw the quartet maintaining the energy levels with a bass and drum intro, some more powerful sax riffage and solos from Roberts on baritone sax and Hunter at the drum kit.
Given the sparsity of the audience it came as no surprise that no encore was forthcoming, even though the group’s performance more than merited it. However nobody could complain that Word of Moth hadn’t delivered value for money over the course of two fairly lengthy sets. The short interval entailed an early finish that probably suited both band and audience alike but nobody could claim that they had been in any way short changed by the quartet’s efforts.
For myself Word of Moth’s position in the hinterland between freedom and structure and composition and improvisation is a good place to be. There are enough fixed points to hang an anchor on but also plenty of adventurous, frequently thrilling, improvised excursions to keep both the musicians and the listeners on their toes.
The day before the Wolverhampton performance the members of Word of Moth had been in the studios in London recording music for their début album due to be released on Luminous Records later in the year. On the evidence of tonight’s performance it’s going to be a recording well worth looking out for.