Large and Loose – Manifesto

While it’s been twenty years since the influential British big band Loose Tubes last congregated to play their off kilter and proudly idiosyncratic music together, original bass player Steve Berry now resides in the North West where he leads a fluid and impromptu orchestra of students from Liverpool’s Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) in the mould of his old band.

Having seen Large and Loose play a storming gig in Liverpool earlier this month, I had high expectations for this album when it dropped through my post box last week, and I haven’t been disappointed. Although Manifesto is played by a different set of students from the one I saw live – due to the revolving annual nature of university music departments, this album certainly captures the same joyous and elegantly chaotic feeling that the original Loose Tubes records are so fondly remembered for.

The 12 tracks contained on this record are made up of a range of tunes, including several of Berry’s own compositions, and some choice standards including, Monk’s ‘Round Midnight, and one of the best versions of Fairy Tale of New York that I have ever heard (I’m not exaggerating). From Rachel Gladwin’s (now a permanent fixture of Matthew Halsall’s excellent band) flowing opening harp to Paul Coupe’s explosive final solo, this tune is as rousing as an a hot shot of brandy on Christmas eve.

The inclusion of the Django Bates’ Yellow Hill, from Loose Tubes eponymous debut, is a welcome nod to the old days, as well as a reminder that the standard of playing from these emerging LIPA students is outstanding. Marco Bernardis puts in a particularly good appearance on the tenor here alongside Jesus Portilla whose accordion playing adds a continental textural wash over the whole record.

Perhaps it’s because of my own personal craving for all things Loose Tubes recently, or the fact that this Large and Loose big band make such great together noise together, but I have been playing this record non-stop since I got a hold of it. With its carefully juxtaposed Ellingtonian sophistication and densely packed Latin rhythms, Steve Berry’s influence is all over this; and it really is a joy. This is a unique album from a promising set of musicians.


The Magic Hat Ensemble – This Conversation is Over

This Manchester based group was forged out of the city’s healthy jamming scene and by the sound of this, their debut recording; their chops are all the sharper for it. ‘This Conversation is Over’ is an album of standards that manages to achieve the difficult task of maintaining a distinctive voice throughout. Quirky metres and off kilter arrangements are the deal of the week here, with classic tracks such as Monk’s Epistrophy being given the Magic treatment with some extreme syncopation and playful phrasing. Guitarist Tony Ormesher steps forward with a particularly fluid delivery on this occasion, but the truth be told, there seems to be no one player in this group that gives any slack.

The pace and tone of the record varies throughout with injections of energy being applied on tracks such as Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Up Jumping Spring’, or ‘This Song is You’, in which trumpet player Steve Chadwick opts for a more muscular approach than Chet Baker’s classic envisioning of the song.  Interspersed with these moments of straight ahead adrenaline, there are some wonderful pit stops where the band are able to slow things down and show that they are capable of delivering elegance and poignancy  too. Kenny Barron’s Voyage is given a particularly sophisticated going over with bassist Nick Blacka delivering shades and shadows of film noir inflections throughout.

Due to both the dynamic choice of tunes and the high level of playing that is delivered without, this is very likeable a debut CD that is bursting with ideas.

Beats & Pieces Big Band EP

From its explosive opening bars until its final lingering hum, the Beats & Pieces Big Band’s first EP is nothing less than a bombardment of the senses. The brainchild of Manchester based composer Ben Cottrell, this sizable affair unites the cream of Manchester’s emerging jazz talent, including Sam Andreae (t. sax), Fin Panter (dr), and Graham South (trp).

At its core the ensemble is traditional big band, but by cross-stitching a multitude of genres to its already rich tapestry of sound, something both unique and fresh has emerged. On tracks such as Yafw (part iii) there are reminisces of Quincy Jones’ more malevolent 1970s blaxploitation soundtracks; the underlying latino groove being almost chased along by the dangerously edgy horn section.

Elsewhere, the compositions also show a real elegant restraint, with classy arrangements that show the record’s maturity. This is most notable in the EP’s final track, Broken, which also manages to combine subtle electronic elements successfully. Bjork is evidently an influence, and here the highly lyrical playing is matched with an almost Nordic chill, which acts as calming digestif after some of the more frenzied earlier tracks.

This is a rich and colourful first CD that comfortably combines Hendrixesque guitar riffs, Herbie Hancock style funk, and even inflections of Eno’s ambient music. While for many groups this osmosis of ideas would produce a conflicting overall sound, Beats & Pieces Big Band have created something that’s both catchy and original.

For more information or to purchase this CD visit:

Bourne/Davis/Kane featuring Paul Dunmall at RNCM – 30th July 2009

Bourne Davis KaneThere is now doubt about it, this trio is one of the most adventurous and challenging groups in the UK at the moment. Based in Leeds these three exceptionally talented musicians all play a major part in the city’s ever prolific LIMA collective. Although separately they all have successful recording careers, together their telepathic skills as improvisers truly shine.

This was free music in every sense of the word with each member of the group giving and taking spontaneously throughout their performance. On this occasion British free jazz hero Paul Dunmall also joined them on stage for a cross generational meeting of minds that was simply explosive. 

The set comprised of four lengthy improvisations which mostly worked by taking a small idea and building upon it a layer at a time; like a helium ballon being filled breath by breath until it eventually implodes in on itself giving way under the pressure.

Paul Dunmall

These musical passages were like mini dramas unfolding in front of our eyes and portrayed a mixed bag of emotions. Too often free improvising groups lack the dynamic variety to keep an audience engaged, but in this case they were able to affect a whole range of emotions using pace, energy and interaction. At times it was difficult to keep up with the intensity of all four players who at their most chaotic sounded almost painfully violent. In complete juxtaposition their were times when a playfulness crept into the performance, especially in Matthew Bourne’s case, who at time virtually climbed into the piano to manipulate it with his hands – at one point even using a empty cup from the tea he had just finished drinking.

An unexpected highlight of the set came during the final piece when the intensity and atonality of previous sections were put to one side. This was replaced by a beautiful drifting piece instigated by Bourne, who slowly floated chords from his piano as Dunmall complemented them with some enchantingly beautiful lines. After the violence of the previous works this came as a surprise but the footnote only emphasised the contrast and proved that free improvisation can be equally as powerful, without necessarily travelling at one hundred miles per hour.

Alata at the RNCM – 28th July 2009

Francis Le BrasThis year’s Manchester Jazz Festival has certainly got a strong international flavour to it with groups from Spain, Italy, and Norway all being flown in to play. Along with this, the French group Alata were over this Tuesday to perform at the RNCM in what was their debut in the UK.

Led by Fancis Le Bras on Rhodes piano the quartet has a unique sound that mashes together a range of influences from Europe and Africa. Although Olivier Py provided some bold and distinctive colour on both the tenor saxophone and at times flute, this is an outfit very much driven from the back.

Bass player Thierry Colson looked very much the part with his drooping moustache and did a great job of locking his fellow band members together with his muscular riffs on the upright. This backbone was a well needed source of stability when considering the collective rhythmic counterpoints that both drummer Guillaume Dommartin and Le Bras chose to throw at one another throughout. This was often busy and frantic music with open cymbal crashes raining down on top of spiky cascades of notes from the overdriven keyboard. Knowing that these compositions were penned following time in Africa and they do a good job of painting a colourful picture of vibrant and chaotic life there.

Guillaume Dommartin

That being said the French influence was never far away and on several tunes the pace was brought right down conjuring up  the feeling of a hot and rainy Parisian night. La Bras lethargically poured glutinous chords from his piano and Dommartin subtly utilised small chimes and cymbal scratches  to produce textures that were sensual and cinematic.

The only small problem with the concert was La Bras’ decision to use samples during several pieces. These indigenous songs and soundscapes were there in an attempt to emphasise further the African influence but they simply clashed with the direction of the music. Rather than being a fully integrated part of the compositions, they seemed like a bit of an afterthought; and in several cases the technology sadly didn’t work at all. Instead of adding to the already complex arrangements of sound these beats and samples jusr acted as a distraction.

Regardless of this minor quarrel, Alata were a welcome addition to this year’s festival with their shadowy  music for midnight, thick with dark romance and frantic danger.  

Phil Meadows Quartet at the Festival Pavilion – 28th July 2009

Phil Meadows This enigmatic young player totally blew the cobwebs out of the Festival Pavilion during his afternoon slot this Tuesday. Playing here with Finlay Panter on drums, John Sandham on bass and Chris Illingworth on piano, the audience were treated to easily one the best free gigs so far this week. Meadow’s style manages to equally embrace an effortless beauty, as well as delving into the darker stuff, mixing up some ear-bending time signatures with a freer style that left many aghast and exhilarated.

Meadows does not shy away from his obvious love of John Coltrane and finished his set by playing a exquisitely warped version of My Favourite things that was pumped full of adrenaline and deservedly received one of the largest applauses of the day. But this is a player with his own style and obviously isn’t afraid to be his own man. With a great stage presence and unforgettable instrumental style this is a local player to watch out for in the future.

If you want to see Phil Meadows again then you don’t have to wait that long as he is also playing with Expo3, his drum and bass/electronic/jazz outfit. They are on with headliners Cats in Paris at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge from 7.30pm this Saturday.

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Unfurl – St Ann’s Church, Manchester

It’s always a pleasure to see music played live in St. Anne’ Church; a beautiful light baths everything as it pours through the stained glass windows. On occasions such as today, when the music has a certain majestic quality to it as well, audience members can end up being privy to something quite special; Stuart McCallum’s Manchester Jazz Festival commission here a couple of years ago was one such time, and there are high hopes for Neil Yates’s antiphonal performance this coming July too. But today it was the turn of Olivia Moore and her Unfurl group to inject some splendour into the lazy Manchester Sunday afternoon.

Moore has been an active part of the city’s alternative music scene for some years now, and her approach to music is one well worthy of admiration. Having trained originally as a classical violinist her playing has a purity about it, that when mixed with her interests in Arabic, Indian classical and jazz forms too, and it becomes is a heady concoction of energy and serenity in equal measures.

Showcasing Unfurl’s relatively recent line-up revision this concert was eagerly anticipated by fans who had enjoyed previous live performances. Alongside Moore on violin were percussionist, and long-time collaborator, Adam Warne; Jim Faulkner who has taken over from Stuart McCallum on guitar; bassist Gavin Barras; and finally second percussionist John Ball, who has now become a full time member of the group following his successful appearance with Unfurl at last year’s Manchester Jazz Festival.

The group performed tracks from Moore’s debut outing Amaghasiddhi, as well as several of those compositions featured in at the the Manchester Jazz Festival commission. There were also a few new peices that went a long way in showing how the new members of Unfurl were influencing the groups overall sound. As usual Moore’s compositions were exuberant and poignant affairs; each section of music acting like miniature vignettes. This is music that is intricate and yet capable of telling a universal story, what that story is, is probably very different to each listener, but it is this ability to conjure vivid imagery that makes it hugely accessible. There is no doubt that this is serious music, but many of Moore’s compositions have a devious or off-kilter feel to them. This is particularly true of the infectious Amitabha; a track akin to the more joyful and melodic early period The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. ‘City’ too was a particular highlight, with guitarist Jim Faulkner and Moore diving and swirling around each other playfully. In contrast ‘Fire’ was an altogether more edgy affair with Gavin Barras taking the group down a trance-like path with his pulsing bass riff. Rhythm dominated melody in this instance, resulting in a frantic swirl of sound that was reminiscent of The Master Musicians of Jajouka from Morocco.

This group has a very personal sound that is truly unique. Obviously each member brings a vast array of global influences to the table, but this is not ‘world music’ or ‘ethnic music’; it is simply music – a fusion in the truest sense. Enriching and full of life, this was one Sunday event well worth getting out of bed for.

Real Book North West – Real Book North West

In 2005 when Mancunian keyboard player John Ellis first conceived the idea of creating a real book of tunes written solely by jazz composers from the North West, he couldn’t have guessed that things would have come this far. With Real Book North West successfully in circulation, a lengthy supporting UK tour, and now this Jazz Services funded CD available to buy, the project has been one the most successful and daring promotions of regional jazz for some time.

Competing with the tradition real book of standards that includes ‘Body and Soul’ and ‘Take the A Train’ is a tall order, but really anyone seeing it that way is kind of missing the point. Real Book North West is a complementary addition to any regional jazzers gigging repertoire, as well as being a way for national and even international players to hear more of the original music that has come out of the North West over the years.

On this CD we are presented with a selection of 15 of the publication’s best offerings and by its very nature it’s a mixed bag of ideas and moods that range from Ulrich Elbracht’s joyfully uplifting ‘Anything You Like’ to Simon Picton’s spiky, film noir inflected ‘Blue Chilli’. With a line up that includes Andy Schofield (saxs), Mike Walker (gtr), Les Chisnall (p), Steve Berry (bs) and Dave Walsh (dr), the standard of playing on this recording is predictably high. This quintet is made up of the region’s premiere instrumentalists and listening to this album it is evident that there is a long musical history and established empathy between all of them. Having seen this group play at the launch of the Real Book several years ago and last summer on the Manchester leg of their national tour, it is obvious that this project mean a lot to them. Throughout, the playing is passionate and considered, and highlights do come thick and fast. It is especially good to see promising emerging composers such as bassist Matt Owens on the track-list alongside the more established writers like Mike Walker or Les Chisnell, who both actually deliver some of recordings’ best writing and delivery. Chisnell’s ‘Shadow of a Dream’ stands out as being a particularly potent blend of melancholy and reverential beauty.

Overall this is an essential CD for anyone who has any sort of an interest in the North West’s ever growing jazz pedigree. Compositions are both broad in scope and encouragingly original, undoubtedly proving that they can hold their own on bandstands wherever the real book may find itself in the years ahead.

The Ribble Valley Jazz Club Band – Lunchtime Live at the Grand

Ahead of the first annual Ribble Valley Jazz Festival in Clitheroe this month, it seems apt to review a live recording of the one of the club’s popular lunchtime concerts. Only established in 2007, Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues have worked tirelessly to achieve what they have thus far. What began simply as a way for local players to get together and jam has resulted in a solid band that plays regularly, a series of jazz workshops for younger players, a youth big band competition and now an annual jazz festival. As well as establishing a healthy schedule of local gigs and events, the organisation has also attracted some of the country’s premier acts including Steve Berry, Alan Barnes and Eric Ainsworth.

Recorded at one of the Club’s lunchtime concerts at the Grand in Clitheroe, this CD does a good job of showcasing some of this region’s talent. Lead by Brian Taylor on saxophone, flute and harmonica, this particular unit play through 13 tracks of varying pace and mood. Taylor himself is on excellent form, especially on Autumn Leaves where his subtle flute playing dances above the Kevin Morris’ measured guitar. On other tracks though Morris digs deep and provides some of the best solos of the session. On Angel Eyes the group adopt an almost rolling blues backdrop for the guitarist to crunch through some muscular lines. Nick Mohan is an economic pianist who chooses his notes with care, and along with bassist Ed Harrison and Tom Rice on drums, he plays a major part in keeping this quintet knitted together well.

Atomic at the RNCM – 30th July 2009

AtomicThe intensity of Bourne/Davis/Kane’s set would have been a hard act to follow for most   groups but Atomic managed to ignite a fire at the RNCM with their chaotic and energised sound.

Combining both tight funky riffs and cacophonous collective improvisation Atomic created a truly unique sound. At times the band locked down a groove that was accessible and almost straight ahead (I do emphasise almost!), but any sniff of standard time was axed relatively quickly in exchange for a whirlwind of polyrhythmic melodies. Barely stopping for breath for an hour each player weaved in and out of each other in an organised chaos that was both disorientating and hypnotic all at the same time.

Drummers are usually the backbone of a band but Paul Nilsen Love was something quite different on this occasion. As one of the most sought after drummers in Europe his ferocious power and often jaw dropping lateral approach to the kit has made him hitman of choice for luminaries such as John Butcher, Ken Vandermark and German sax colossus Peter Brotzman. In this setting his dizzying attack was pivotal to the group dynamic; at times setting the group free and at others reining them in.

Paul Nillsen Love

Leading the group from up front was charismatic tenorman Fredrik Ljungkvist who was in charge of the leading this group one way or another with his seemingly abrupt battle cries. This was a highly entertaining gig by a group of improvisers that aren’t afraid to swing from time to time. Challenging and manic as much of the music was in this set, there was an overriding sense that we as listeners were being taken somewhere tangible, and that whoever was driving knew how to read the map… even if we didn’t.