by Ian Mann
April 26, 2018
"The music is hard edged and uncompromising and the playing universally excellent". Ian Mann enjoys a performance by WorldService Project and takes a look at their new album "Serve".
WorldService Project, The Flute & Tankard, Cardiff, 24/04/2018.
WorldService Project, the quintet led by keyboard player and composer Dave Morecroft have long been Jazzmann favourites thanks to their irreverent blend of ‘punk jazz’ which has evoked comparisons with Frank Zappa, John Zorn and Django Bates among others. Indeed Morecroft has described his group’s music as being “like a cage fight between Weather Report, Stravinsky, Meshuggah, Frank Zappa and Monty Python”.
To date the group has released four albums commencing with 2010’s “Relentless” this followed in 2013 by the excellent “Fire In A Pet Shop”. The band subsequently moved to RareNoise Records for whom they released 2016’s hard hitting “For King And Country”, produced by guitarist Chris Sharkey (Trio VD, Acoustic Ladyland, Shiver, Roller Trio).
The group’s second album for RareNoise, the soon to be issued “Serve” (release date May 4th 2018) also features a celebrity producer, in this instance Led Bib bassist Liran Donin. The new album very much picks up where its predecessor left off and continues Morecroft’s depiction of the group as a band of ‘renegade soldiers’ over the course of eight new original compositions. This time round there’s greater use of vocals with the singing voices of both Morecroft and the group’s trombonist Raphael Clarkson being heard. Post Brexit WSP have become increasingly angry and political. This, after, all is the band that instigated the Match & Fuse programme which brings together similarly inclined young bands from all over Europe to tour each others’ countries, a series of musical ‘double bills’ (the Match) with each concert climaxed by a two band ‘mash-up’ (the Fuse). With this brilliant and inventive movement, which has produced so much good music, now under threat thanks to the Brexit vote it’s clear that Morecroft and his colleagues have plenty to be angry about.
Likewise in Cardiff corporate greed (shame on you Brains Brewery) last year saw the closure of the much loved Dempsey’s venue in Castle Street, an excellent place to listen to music and equipped with a grand piano generously loaned to the resident jazz club by Cardiff based pianist Jim Barber. Happily Brenda O’ Brien and Alastair McMurchie, the co-ordinators of the jazz programme at Dempsey’s, have subsequently found a new home for their promotions in the upstairs room at The Flute & Tankard in Windsor Place.
Tonight was my first visit to the venue (shame on me, it’s been hosting jazz for nearly a year) and although it’s smaller and even more intimate than Dempsey’s it’s still a good place to listen to music. The grand piano won’t fit in the new room but Brenda and Alastair have recently acquired an acoustic upright which will represent a considerable improvement in comparison to electric substitutes. The ‘Flute’ looks set to be the regular home of cutting edge jazz in Cardiff for some time to come and I wish Brenda and Alastair well in their new venue. On the evidence of Tuesday night one bonus is the improvement in the beer quality following the move. For once I wasn’t driving and therefore enjoyed a couple of pints of Leviathan Pale Ale from the recently established Brew Monster brewery from Cwmbran, a considerable step up from the rather bland and inconsistent offerings from Brains at Dempsey’s.
With Morecroft playing electric keyboards exclusively the new upright wasn’t needed tonight as he and Clarkson were joined by Arthur O’Hara on electric bass and Harry Pope at the drums plus Ben Powling on tenor saxophone. WSP have undergone a number of line up changes since their inception with O’Hara and Pope joining for “King and Country”. The pair also form the rhythm section of Skint, the powerful trio led by saxophonist, keyboard player and composer Phil Meadows. Tim Ower is the group’s regular saxophonist and appears on “Serve” but is currently engaged on a lucrative ‘money gig’ as part of the touring band of pop singer Gary Barlow. His place has been taken on this WSP tour by the young Leeds based saxophonist Ben Powling, himself the leader of his own band Mansion Of Snakes. Powling fitted in just fine with the WSP aesthetic and has already forged an excellent twin horn alliance with Clarkson.
In their present incarnation WSP sit rather uneasily within the jazz camp. Like Pete Wareham before him (Acoustic Ladyland, Melt Yourself Down) one senses that Morecroft is aiming for a different, younger audience. He says of the ‘punk-jazz’ tag;
“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”.
Of the group’s live performances Morecroft has said;
“WorldService Project is a very intense, high energy live show. We throw ourselves into it and hope to come out alive at the other end. And if you’re not bleeding by the end of it you haven’t tried hard enough”.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see WSP perform live on numerous occasions over the years including a lunchtime Festival show at Brecon Jazz Festival in 2011 which saw the then very youthful band totally ‘going for it’. Then there was March & Fuse triple bill at The Vortex, alongside Pixel, from Norway, and Roller Trio as part of the 2012 London Jazz Festival, a standing only affair that had the energy and feel of a rock gig. In 2014 I saw the band as part of a Match & Fuse double bill at Dempsey’s which teamed them with Germany’s excellent Zodiac Trio.
Tonight’s event also had something of the feel of a rock gig with WSP electing to play one ninety minute set rather than the usual jazz club format of two fort five minute slots with an interval. Given the energy and ferocity with which WSP perform it’s probably difficult for the band members to psyche themselves up twice to those levels over the course of an evening. Or, more prosaically, perhaps it was due to the prospect of the long drive back to Minehead, the group’s base for a series of Welsh / West Country dates, afterwards.
Over the years I’ve witnessed WSP’s gigs become increasingly theatrical. Tonight the band donned military jackets and even sported make up, a WSP performance is definitely a “show”. Musically things have changed too, there’s less switching between different musical styles a la Django Bates and a greater focus on a more direct and aggressive sound in the style of Acoustic Ladyland and, particularly with Donin as producer, Led Bib.
Tonight the bulk of the programme was sourced from the new album beginning with a ferocious salvo of “To Lose The Love” segued with “Ease”. With Morecroft playing a Nord Stage electric keyboard and with both Clarkson and Powling equipped with bug mics and pedal-boards the sound was loud and uncompromisingly electric. At one point Morecroft came to the front of the stage to solo on a synth axe, part Herbie Hancock, part the bastard son of Edgar Winter. That said WSP aren’t really about solos in the orthodox jazz sense, it’s the sound of the entire band that really counts, a juggernaut driven by the powerful and impressive new rhythm section of Pope and O’Hara, two young musicians who clearly relish playing together but have also bought in fully to the WSP concept. So too, Powling who linked up well with Clarkson and also delivered his solos with considerable aplomb. The absence of Ower was hardly noticed. This opening segue also encompassed powerful, but often complex, punk jazz riffing, an engaging keyboards and bass dialogue between Morecroft and O’Hara and the first solo statement from Powling.
Of the reasoning behind the title “Ease” Morecroft remarked; “Nothing great is ever easy. Ease is a far greater threat to progress than hardship”.
The quintet returned to the title track “Fire In A Pet Shop” for a number that mixed jagged punk jazz riffing with outbursts of free noise that saw the band members approximating the sounds of sirens and animal noises as Morecroft invited the audience to join in. The members of a small but appreciative audience responded with gusto. Musical highlights included the horn dialogue between Powling and Clarkson and the subsequent solo from the trombonist.
The composition “False Prophets” closes the new album but was delivered mid set here, Pope’s military drum patterns combining with Morecroft’s spacey keyboards, FX treated horns and the hummed vocals of the band to haunting effect. The music gradually grew in intensity, led by a slow burning tenor solo from Powling, finally bursting into full anthemic bloom topped by Morecroft’s soaring wordless vocal.
The sinister clown character Mr. Giggles has been around since the band’s second album and also appeared on “ For King And Country”. His previous appearances have been primarily instrumental but Morecroft has now written a song for him, performed here with the keyboard player singing the lyrics in between donning a grotesque Mr. Giggles mask. The instrumental honours went to Clarkson with a rasping trombone solo that was delivered with considerable aplomb despite the soloist being molested by Morecroft as Mr. Giggles. The lyrics of the piece warn against the inhumane treatment of outsiders, something that turned Giggles into a child eating monster . Live it was all great fun but the piece is less convincing on record and the serious point of the lyrics is rather lost amidst the silliness. The ‘Bitches Brew’ column in the May 2018 edition of Jazzwise magazine gave the whole concept a thorough savaging and as much as I love and admire WSP and their work I have to say that its author probably has a legitimate point.
Back on safer ground the band dipped back into the “King & Country” repertoire for a couple of pieces whose titles I managed to miss but which highlighted the instrumental skills of Powling and O’Hara amongst others. Naturally there was little let up in the intensity.
As the performance drew towards a close Morecroft thanked Cardiff’s ‘jazz soldiers’, Alastair McMurchie, Brenda O’Brien and Roger Warburton, as the band tackled “Plagued With Righteousness”, the opening track from “Serve” . This featured a thrilling series of exchanges between Clarkson on trombone and Powling on tenor plus a second outing from Morecroft on synth axe as Clarkson filled in on Nord, a role previously fulfilled by Powling.
The deserved encore was a brief romp through the punky, shouty “Dai Jo Bo”, which the crowd loved.
This gig was advertised as promising “precision anarchy” and that’s a neat encapsulation of what WSP do. All these guys are superb technicians but they play with fire, passion and energy too. WSP remain a vital and exciting live experience.
The Jazzwise article suggests that WSP’s punky, anti Brexit stance is something of a pose but that isn’t really something I can agree with. The group’s work ethic and the success of the Match & Fuse movement surely debunks that argument.
However as a long time fan of the band I do have some concerns about their musical direction. The band’s shows have always been exciting, entertaining affairs, even without the costumes and the make up, and I’m not totally convinced by the increasing reliance on vocals, none of the band is a singer as such. Some of the wordless stuff works well but “Serve” includes two items with lyrics, “The Tale Of Mr. Giggles” and the furious “Now This Means War” but neither is totally convincing in the home listening environment, however well meaning their intentions.
Nevertheless there is still much to enjoy about “Serve”. The music is hard edged and uncompromising and the playing universally excellent. In some senses it’s more of a democratic band these days with Morecroft no longer as dominant as a soloist, although WSP remains primarily his concept. But I do have reservations, I don’t want to think of the theatricality detracting from the music and the very serious message behind it.
Finally it was great to go back to a jazz event in Cardiff and meet up with old friends from Dempsey’s including Brenda, Alastair and Roger plus sometime Jazzmann contributors Martin Healey and Sean Wilkie. I’ll try to return more quickly next time, guys.
WSP are still on tour. Remaining dates as below;
April 25 - MINEHEAD, UK: The Regal Theatre, 2A The Avenue, Minehead TA24 5UQ
April 26 - BRISTOL, UK: The Canteen, Hamilton House, 80 Stokes Croft, Bristol BS1 3QY
April 27 - NEWCASTLE, UK: Colbalt, 10-16 Boyd Street. Newcastle upon Tyne, England, NE2 1AP
(with Taupe - http://www.taupetaupetaupe.com/)
April 28 - HUDDERSFIELD, UK: Small Seeds, Castlegate, Huddersfield HD1
April 29 - LEEDS, UK: Wharf Chambers, 23-25 Wharf St, Leeds LS2 7EQ
(with Zeitgeist Trio https://www.facebook.com/ZeitgeistUK/)
May 2 - LONDON, UK: ALBUM LAUNCH @ The Cockpit Theatre, Gateforth St, London NW8 8EH
(with Skint - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIwWKdIGGn0)
May 3 - GLASGOW, UK: Glad Cafe, 1006A Pollokshaws Rd, Glasgow G41 2HG
(with Taupe - http://www.taupetaupetaupe.com/)
May 4 - EDINBURGH, UK: The Jazz Cafe, 1 Chambers St, Edinburgh EH1 1HR
May 5 - HULL, UK: Kardomah 94, 94 Alfred Gelder St, Hull HU1 2AN
(with Lightspeed Lover - https://soundcloud.com/lightspeed-lover)
May 6 - CLITHEROE, UK: Ribble Valley Jazz Festival, Castle Gate, Clitheroe BB7 1AZ - 3.30pm