Andy Schofield & Jo McCallum Jazz Orchestra / Beats & Pieces Big Band
The tight-rope walk of success is often precarious for large jazz units; on one hand the players must be unified in presenting their group as a well oiled, tightly synced machine, but on the other, it is crucial that the individuality of each player be encouraged to shine through. Luckily, The Beats and Pieces Big Band manage to retain their balance with grace and poise with their forward thinking approach to the tradition.
A real showcase of young Manchester talent, the gig this Wednesday ranged from swooning film noir dripped ballads, to Mingusesque cacophonies that built layer upon layer before collapsing in on themselves like mini imploding supernovas. As well as blowing, beating and plucking fresh life into Radiohead’s ‘15 Step’ with some innovative new arranging from musical director Ben Cottrell, there were also signs of real writing talent in guitarist Anton Hunter; his spiky melodic style and heavy riffs reminiscent of John Zorn’s early downtown groups.
The calibre of musicianship was undeniable too with stand out solos throughout the set. Trumpeter Chris Snead may not have been visible, buried at the back of the stage, but he was certainly heard stepping forward for a blistering few bars. The horns too were on fine form with tenorman Sam Healey’s muscular style stealing the show and sitting in perfect juxtaposition to the more considered attacks of Jo McCallum, and Sam Andreae’s freer style.
With players from Beats and Pieces literally spilling off the stage, it wasn’t long before they were replaced with the even larger contingent that made up the Andy Schofield & Jo McCallum Jazz Orchestra. Comprising of 15 members in all, this was a truly cross-generational affair with players from the first band returning to join more established Manchester luminaries. As the name suggests the arranging and conducting duties were shared between saxophonist Andy Schofield and the increasingly impressive Jo McCallum, who still at only a tender age seems to be conquering the local scene with a quiet determination.
A highlight of the evening was a truly Manchester version of Herbie Hancock’s classic Wiggle Waggle. The brass and reeds were on excellent form with a Northern Soul swagger kicking in as Schofield led the orchestra through the changes. Sam Andreae returned from his earlier performance to trade some Evan Parker inspired fours with follow tenor player Suzanne Higgins who gave him tit for tat with her usual aplomb.
Although the rest of the band was great to watch, the night definitely belonged to the guitarists Mike Walker and Stuart McCallum. Continuing with the cross generational theme, Walker, who has been something of a hero on Manchester scene, seemed totally at ease next to the younger McCallum who has been carving out his own name for some time now. There was some friendly banter between the pair but ultimately they worked together wonderfully without ever fighting for musical space; their styles although completely different, seemed to gel perfectly.
A tune from McCallum’s Echo Architect album was given a fresh new arrangement by non-other than his sister Jo. The big band format gave the relatively ambient composition a serious shot of adrenaline, causing McCallum to unleash some energetic fretwork to counteract the tight punches of the brass section. With the added backing of McCallum’s effects orientated washes, Walker too was able to bring something new to his ‘Clockmaker’; an inquisitive track filled with his trademark melodic charm and wit.
Duke Ellington once compared his jazz orchestra to a microscopic society, with every generation of instrumentalist playing their part in his harmonious sound-world. This utopian vision of jazz was very much in force at the Mint Lounge this week with a focus on empathy, cooperation and the fostering of talent. All in all, the existence of not one but two forward thinking Manchester based big bands proves that this city’s jazz scene is as vital as ever.