by Ian Mann
January 05, 2022
They remain one of the jewels of the Birmingham music scene and this highly accomplished recording will only enhance their reputation further.
“We’re Young Pilgrims”
(Stoney Lane Records SLr1976)
Mike Adlington, Sean Gibbs, Sam Wooster – trumpets
Richard Foote, Kieran McLeod – trombones
Chris Maddock – baritone sax
Michael Owers – sousaphone
Jonathan Silk, Euan Palmer – drums
Guest; James Gardiner-Bateman – alto sax
Young Pilgrims is a brass and percussion ensemble featuring some of the leading players on the Birmingham jazz scene, many of them graduates of the Jazz Course at the city’s Conservatoire.
All are active in other bands and musical genres but have been coming together as Young Pilgrims for a number of years, honing their skills with a regular residency at the well known Hare & Hounds music venue in Kings Heath. This latest release represents their second full length album, following 2016’s “Little Things”, which was also issued on Sam Slater’s Birmingham based label Stoney Lane.
“We’re Young Pilgrims” first appeared in June 2021 so my apologies to Sam Slater and to the band for only getting round to writing about it now.
The new album finds Young Pilgrims working with the Bristol based alto saxophonist James Gardiner-Bateman, who acts as producer and also plays on one track. The recording also deploys the talents of a crack engineering team featuring Luke Morrish-Thomas, Alex Kilpartrick and Peter Beckman, who help to ensure that this is the band’s most mature and polished work to date.
That said the album retains Young Pilgrims’ essential excitement and energy. They tap into a brass band tradition that originated in New Orleans and includes such acts as the Hot 8 Brass Band and the Hackney Colliery Band. Comparisons have also been made with Tower Of Power, while the quality of the band’s original compositions, by Foote, McLeod and Silk, have led to parallels being drawn with Manchester’s Beats & Pieces Big Band. But the Young Pilgrims sound is more rooted in the New Orleans brass band tradition than B & PBB and the sheer exuberance of their live performances has won them an international following, both in Europe and the US, where the new album has been very well received by the American jazz press.
In addition to writing their own material Young Pilgrims also prove to be skilful and imaginative adapters of the works of others and the programme on “We’re Young Pilgrims” includes several innovative arrangements of a broad array of outside material.
The album announces itself with Foote’s brief but intoxicating, “Intro” a blazing fanfare of horns and interlocking drum rhythms.
This is followed by “Rufio”, also written by Foote, which announces itself with the sound of communal clapping, a reminder of the street origins of the brass band. There’s a burst of solo trumpet amid the hand-claps before the rest of the band charge in to create a brass and drum rhythmic juggernaut. Maddock emerges from this to deliver a rasping baritone sax solo, fuelled by the crisp rhythms of the twin drummers and Owers’ astonishingly mobile sousaphone bass lines. There’s another outburst of clapping and shouting before the band lurches into the next section, with one of the trombonists, presumably the composer, taking over the soloing duties. Individual soloists are not listed in the album credits, making this another album where it’s difficult to apportion full acclaim. It’s great fun, nevertheless.
The prolific Foote also contributes “Hall Of Meat”, which apparently takes its inspiration from the world of skateboarding – and there was me thinking that the title represented a skewed tribute to a well known jazz standard! Instead Foote speaks of “a tribute to all the skaters out there, taking slams, getting smoked, bouncing back up and making some serious tricks.” In fact this is a pretty accurate of Young Pilgrims’ approach to music making and their ‘street gang’ mentality, which finds expression in the humour of their album ‘thank you’ notes. The music here is appropriately punchy and hard hitting, full of collective skill and daring and with one of the band’s three trumpeters emerging as the featured soloist.
McLeod makes his début as a composer with the artfully syncopated “Kabuki Dance”. Trombone emerges as the first featured solo instrument, presumably being played by the arranger. There’s also a bright, skilfully constructed trumpet solo that gradually grows in intensity, while Maddock cuts loose on baritone once more towards the close. The rhythmic patterns of both drums and horns continue to fascinate throughout.
The first cover is Foote’s joyous, strutting arrangement of “Back Pocket”, a song written by Jack Stratton of the Los Angeles based R & B group Vulfpeck. Punchy brass and marching rhythms propel the tune, with trumpet featuring as the solo instrument.
Silk’s composition “Pilgrimage” honours the group’s residency at the Hare & Hounds and celebrates their unique brotherhood with a swaggering, funky groove and full blooded blowing, with trumpet again the featured solo instrument.
There’s a change of mood and pace with Foote’s arrangement of Elliot Smith’s indie ballad “Everything Means Nothing To Me”. This is ushered in by a gentle passage featuring the warm sound of accapella horns. The feel is more nuanced and textured, but nevertheless the performance is still imbued with the band’s trademark energy, with the music taking on an almost anthemic quality at times. It’s not often that a trombone solo gets to be described as ‘soaring’, but that’s what this gracefully arcing solo does here.
Foote’s “Dear Green Place” continues the more mellow feel with its elegant orchestrations and plaintive trumpet solo. I assume the title is a homage to the Scottish TV comedy of the same name, which aired in 2007/8. Despite being based in Birmingham for many years both Foote and Silk are both proud Scots, as is McLeod.
Anarchy returns with “Canal Tripping”, inspired by Foote’s plunge from his bicycle into a Birmingham canal, plus his subsequent rescue - bike, trombone and all. A squalling free jazz style intro captures the chaos of the moment, this superseded by a rollicking low end groove above which the other horns bray, with Gardiner-Bateman briefly joining the ranks of the band to solo alongside the trumpets and trombones.
McLeod’s “i of The Underground” is said to represent a “subtle nod to an oft-missed piece of design circulating around London since 1916. The lower-case ‘i’ designed by Uruguayan-born Edward Johnston, for the famous original London Underground typeface, represents all renegades and non-conformists, with the music conjuring images of typewriters, train noises and the many characters encountered on the Tube”
It’s a suitably quirky piece featuring rousing ensemble passages, complex rhythmic patterns and the composer’s rousing trombone, often in the company of the drummers alone. Silk and Palmer also get to enjoy something of a feature of their own with the horns now cast in more of a supporting role.
The album closes with McLeod’s arrangement of “Feel Like Making Love”, written by Gene McDaniels and recorded by Roberta Flack and later D’Angelo. Owers’ sousaphone plus the marching drum rhythms bring a New Orleans feel to the piece, counterbalanced by the seductive soulfulness of the other horns and a brief snippet of sampled vocals. Maddock eventually emerges as a featured soloist, alongside cameos from some of the other instrumentalists.
“We’re Young Pilgrims” has received almost unanimous critical acclaim for its blend of energy and sophistication. It’s certainly more multi-dimensional than many similar ‘brass band’ releases. Sure the band can whip up an audience, but they’re more than just crowd pleasers. Gardiner-Bateman’s production, which includes a judicious sprinkling of electronic effects, serves the band well and emphasises both the energy and intelligence of their compositions and arrangements.
On disc it can all get a little too ‘full on’ at times and the best place to catch Young Pilgrims would undoubtedly be in the live environment, be it at a street performance or in a slightly more formalised indoor setting. They remain one of the jewels of the Birmingham music scene and this highly accomplished recording will only enhance their reputation further.
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