by Ian Mann
September 30, 2020
There’s a visceral power about the performances on “Hidden in Plain Sight” that is hugely exciting, and an intensity and commitment that is highly convincing.
“Hiding in Plain Sight”
Dave Morecroft – keyboards, vocals, Ben Powling – saxophones, Arthur O’Hara – bass, vocals, Luke Reddin-Williams – drums
plus guest Kieran McLeod – trombone
“Hiding in Plain Sight” is the fifth full album release from WorldService Project, the band led by keyboard player and occasional vocalist Dave Morecroft. It’s their third album for RareNoise Records, following 2016’s “For King & Country” and 2018’s “Serve”.
It’s hard to believe that WSP have been around for a full decade, their first recording, “Relentless”, having first appeared in 2010. This was followed by the excellent “Fire in a Pet Shop” (2013), which firmly established the band on the musical map, both in the UK and in Europe as a whole.
Morecroft and WSP are also founders of the innovative Match & Fuse programme which facilitates ‘cultural exchanges’ between young jazz and improvising musicians from various European countries. This sees similarly inclined young bands from all over Europe touring each others’ countries in a series of musical ‘double bills’ (the Match) with each concert climaxed by a two band ‘mash-up’ (the Fuse). WSP have released a series of EPs featuring themselves in conjunction with a number of European artists and the scheme has also resulted in an annual festival with London, Oslo and Rome among the cities to have hosted the event. Naturally, the Brexit referendum result has had an adverse effect on the Match & Fuse programme, something further compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.
WSP is a band that has featured on the Jazzmann web pages many times over the years, with reviews of other albums and EPs and a number of live club and festival appearances to be found elsewhere on these web pages.
Over the course of the last decade I’ve seen the band mutate and develop, changing personnel along the way with Morecroft now the only surviving original member. Over the years WSP has become increasingly politicised, a process encouraged by the Match & Fuse programme and particularly by the Brexit debate. There were hints of this on “Fire in a Pet Shop”, but it was the move to RareNoise and the release of “For King & Country” that brought this tendency into sharper focus, as WSP adopted a harder edged, more direct ‘punk jazz’ sound and featured vocals for the first time. The album was produced by guitarist Chris Sharkey, once a member of the bands Acoustic Ladyland and Trio VD. This established a pattern for using ‘guest producers’ with bassist Liran Donin, of Led Bib and 1000 Boats fame, producing both “Serve” and “Hiding in Plain Sight”.
WSP’s eclectic music has invited many comparisons with Morecroft famously describing his group’s music as being “like a cage fight between Weather Report, Stravinsky, Meshuggah, Frank Zappa and Monty Python”.
I always felt that early WSP, with its constant stylistic shifts, owed much to the compositional style and philosophy of Django Bates, but as the music has become more politicised that early whimsicality has been largely superseded by a more abrasive ‘punk jazz’ sound that shows the influence of the bands associated with its producers i.e. Acoustic Ladyland and Led Bib, plus other contemporary acts such as Melt Yourself Down, The Comet is Coming and Sons of Kemet.
Of the band’s political, ‘punk jazz’ stance Morecroft has said;
“We’ve adopted ‘punk jazz’ because, for us, the ‘punk’ represents an adjective rather than a genre. We are the punky, underground, do or die, DIY sound of UK jazz for sure, and the music and the live show is also becoming increasingly more political/anti-establishment, so there is that too”.
Morecroft’s response to the Brexit result has been to re-locate himself in Rome, a city with strong links to the Match & Fuse movement. Thus “Hiding in Plain Sight” finds him viewing the UK from an ‘outsider’ perspective for the first time. Having previously described his band as a bunch of ‘renegade soldiers’ he now re-positions them as ‘underdog heroes’, a role also fulfilled by fellow Match & Fuse acts.
“We’ve always been here” explains Morecroft, “we’ve always been trying to promote a message of compassion and togetherness. We’ve always been eager to celebrate our differences but also to highlight the disproportionality that is only increasing in the world. Maybe that message has been hidden, so now we’re planting our flag in the ground, which is something that’s become more and more important to me as I grow older and stronger in my views, as well as bolder in what I’m prepared to say”.
“For years now WSP has become increasingly political – necessary to reflect the times we are in and to push back against and fight the apathy of this world. WSP is increasingly anti-establishment, as we see disproportionality in every step of life, and worsening as the years go by. Musically, we’ve crafted our anthems into more recognisable shapes, hammering home those emotive aims on the album, which will then naturally evolve and unfold in live contexts. As punk jazz veterans (by now) and as one of the UK’s most exported ‘jazz’ acts we’ve always been there, and we’re not going away”.
“Hiding in Plain Sight” introduces yet another edition of the band with Morecroft and O’Hara (who first appeared on “King & Country”) joined by saxophonist Ben Powling, who was part of the “Serve” touring line up, and drummer Luke Reddin-Williams, best known as a member of Roller Trio. Trombonist Kieran McLeod also appears on four of the album’s nine tracks.
The new album introduces itself with “Deeper”, launched by the echoing blasts of Powling’s tenor sax, reminiscent of Pete Wareham with both Acoustic Ladyland and Melt Yourself Down. O’Hara and Reddin-Williams then establish a pummelling electric bass and drum groove, which forms the backdrop for Powling’s aggressive sax wailing and Morecroft’s spacey keyboard texturing. Loosely structured sax led episodes alternate with soaring anthemic passages featuring the wordless vocalising of Morecroft and O’Hara as energy levels remain high throughout.
There’s no respite on “Pomped-Up Freddie”, the title apparently a reference to former Queen front man Freddie Mercury. As unlikely as it sounds a comparison was made between Mercury and Morecroft, presumably as a result of the costumes WSP donned as part of the “Serve” tour. The remark was meant disparagingly but Morecroft laughs it off; “I didn’t take it as an insult at all, I couldn’t ever have dreamed of being compared to Freddie Mercury”. O’Hara and Reddin-Williams again combine to create a walloping groove, wordless voices soar once more and Powling’s sax cuts through like a scythe. A riotous free jazz episode features in the middle of tune, with guest Kieran McLeod joining in the fun, his trombone braying among the crashing drums and squalling saxes, a ‘Fire in a Pet Shop’ indeed. Then it’s heads down for the finish as powerful grooves drive the raucous horns, surging keyboards and still soaring wordless vocals.
“Where Am I?” acknowledges the influence of producer Liran Donin and his band Led Bib, emerging out of a staccato introduction to feature an incisive sax melody allied to glitchy keyboards, earthy electric bass and the power and precision of Reddin-Williams’ drums. Morecroft relishes the opportunity to stretch out as he conjures some deliciously filthy sounds from his keyboards.
“Sex, Lies, Lies and Lies” features a monologue in Italian, presumably spoken by Morecroft, but perhaps sampled from another source. The press release describes the piece as “the most explicit intermingling of the personal and professional, its Italiano ravings lashing out at both the political and personal circumstances that led to Morecroft uprooting his life and settling in Rome”.
Certainly the spoken delivery is fiery and impassioned and unmistakably angry – even though I could hardly understand a word of it. These qualities are reflected by the power of the accompanying music, with the blend of sax and keyboards again reminding me of Van Der Graaf Generator, something encouraged by Morecroft’s deployment of a church organ sound at one juncture.
The title of “The Kipper And The Pork Pie” references the lies told by now PM Boris Johnson during the Brexit campaign. Here Morecroft’s anger finds expression purely instrumentally, courtesy of a searing keyboard solo, that evokes both Bernie Worrall and Django Bates at his most manic, this followed by an equally excoriating sax attack from Powling. Meanwhile O’ Hara and Reddin-Williams stoke the fires with a tempestuous groove as wordless vocals soar anthemically before coalescing into a chorus, of sorts.
The sinister, child eating clown character Mr. Giggles has been a running theme through recent WSP albums and here emerges via the demoniac dance of “The Higgly Giggly Wiggly Woo”, a brief but intense merging of the whimsical and the grotesque.
“Vendetta” gives expression to the social media fuelled polarisations of what now passes for political debate.
“This fragility hovering just below the surface suddenly comes bursting upwards with the slightest push” observes Morecroft. “All over the world the cracks have deepened. They were there the whole time but we’ve really become aware of them because of social media and everything has become more polarised. Politicians used to have to at least pretend to be statesmen, to pretend that they were trying to do things for the good of the entire population. Now the whole thing is blown wide apart, and it doesn’t seem to matter any more”.
Morecroft’s disillusionment finds expression in the tune’s bludgeoning riffing, with O’Hara’s monstrous, but virtuoso, electric bass combining with Reddin-Williams’ dynamic drumming, Powling’s visceral sax shredding and the leader’s filthy, glitchy keyboards, all this punctuated by shouted vocal slogans.
“Europhiles” emphasises the band’s stance on the Brexit debate. Spoken episodes in various languages combine with anthemic melodies and powerful soloing, with the horns of Powling and McLeod also combining effectively.
The closing “Onward” continues the anthemic, optimistic mood, and represents a kind of hymn dedicated to some sort of future unity. Here Morecroft deploys a gentle, almost celeste like electric piano sound, Powling removes his bug mic to play acoustically, again combining effectively with the warmly rounded sounds of McLeod’s trombone. Reddin-Williams picks up brushes for the first time, albeit temporarily, before the music gradually develops an anthemic momentum, in a final expression of anger filtered through a prism of optimism.
Despite its political inspirations “Hidden in Plain Sight” doesn’t come across as an overly ‘preachy’ record despite its occasional spoken word episodes. Instead its the music itself that best expresses WSP’s righteous anger, the power of the playing leaves the listener in no doubt as to the inspirations behind the album. But as John Lydon famously sang “Anger is an Energy” and there’s plenty of that here in a series of performances that are also exciting and readily accessible, particularly for existing WSP devotees (such as myself) and fans of the ‘punk jazz’ genre in general. If you like some of the other bands mentioned in this review – Led Bib, Acoustic Ladyland, Trio VD, Melt Yourself Down, Sons of Kemet etc. the chances are you’ll probably like this too, and the album may also hold some appeal to curious rock listeners.
Dyed in the wool jazz fans raised on swing and bebop will probably dismiss WSP as loud, shrill and unsubtle, but despite the group’s undoubted jazz credentials I suspect that this is not really the audience they are currently looking for.
I’ll admit to sometimes having doubts about WSP’s current approach, particularly the elements of showmanship and the use of vocals, but there’s a visceral power about the performances on “Hidden in Plain Sight” that is hugely exciting, and an intensity and commitment that is highly convincing.
Morecroft is hopeful of taking the music on the road again once circumstances allow;
“We’ve always been here” he repeats, “and the ultimate message is we’re not going away. We’ll continue to tour despite difficulties, and we’ll continue to spread our collaborative and compassionate mission.”
Meanwhile Match & Fuse continues to thrive and held its 2020 Festival in Zurich in January, before the pandemic took hold. For further information please visit http://www.matchandfuse.co.uk/
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