Review: Brass Mask Spy Boy Launch (supp. Trish Clowes Quartet) at the Vortex

Brass Mask Spy Boy Launch, supported by Trish Clowes Quartet
(Vortex. 26 September 2013. Review by Matthew Wright)

Like prog rock or the vinyl LP, the jazz repertoire of the twenties and thirties is emerging from a period of fashionable disregard as an exciting and respected piece of musical heritage that we can reintroduce, freshly and enthusiastically, to the repertoire. Hot on the heels of Pigfoot, Chris Batchelor’s exhilarating reincarnation of early trumpet jazz, comes Brass Mask, reedsman Tom Challenger’s intoxicating homage to the Mardi Gras Indians.

Challenger’s new eight-piece, New Orleans-infused Brass Mask packed the Vortex on Thursday night to launch the group’s début album, Spy Boy. Brandishing their capacious brass instruments, the players looked slightly intimidating pinned onto the modestly-sized stage, as if they would rush the audience at any moment. In fact the only offensive was of the charming variety, as Brass Mask’s technically complex but immensely endearing and engaging take on New Orleans fired up the room.

The purists’ search for perfect historical authenticity is generally a fruitless one in a music as determinedly heterogeneous as jazz, especially where practicality as well as principle makes it difficult to establish a settled, consistent musical tradition. New Orleans wasn’t Vienna, and for her bands of the twenties and thirties, a settled line-up was neither possible nor desirable. So the most we can say is that with its clarinets and brass (though without the double bass and violin or guitar some New Orleans outfits used), this band has an approximately authentic line-up.

The extreme technical skill available to modern band-leaders is an important part of the reason for these bands’ divergence from traditional rhythm and harmony. If everyone in the band is capable of sophisticated improvisation, the leader has options that the original band leaders, with largely amateur forces, could only have dreamt of. So it was here too, with more improvisation, sometimes quite contemporary-sounding, than one would find in old New Orleans. There were superbly taken solos from all of the upper lines, with (and it hardly seems fair to choose) Rory Simmons’ trumpet perhaps the pick for sheer articulacy and panache.

The bass line (with Nathaniel Cross on trombone as well as Theon Cross on tuba) didn’t have quite the same opportunity to experiment as the higher registers, though in their case the quality of the sound was crucial. Tuba, in particular, was perfectly pitched between a sour, funereal march and a celebratory dance beat.

The interweaving of timbres was a crucial part of the band’s fresh sound, from George Crowley’s cheeky, piping clarinet and Dan Nicholls’ treacly bass clarinet, to Theon Cross’ floorboard-pumping tuba, and the trumpets of Alex Bonney and Rory Simmons, sometimes rasping, sometimes squealing, sometimes muted and whining. All three reedsmen, Challenger, Crowley and Nicholls, swapped regularly between some version of clarinet and sax, which offered a diverse and rapidly-shifting sound-palette.

The repertoire was a combination of new writing (‘Onnellinen’, ‘Rain Rain Rain’) and arrangements of traditional pieces (‘Indian Red’ and ‘I Thank You Jesus’), the balance nicely judged to reflect Brass Mask’s character. For the most part, the breadth and variety of the music worked superbly, with sound, genre, mood and period all deliciously balanced. There was, perhaps, some occasional tension between the traditional, regular structures of the music (especially the heartbeat of the tuba) and the need for more freedom during the improvisatory sections. With Brass Mask, Challenger has hit upon such a rich concept that there are musical ideas for him to develop over many years ahead, and this is one feature among many he is no doubt looking forward to exploring further. It’s already a highly original sound, with much repertoire to explore, and there’s a lot to enjoy both live and on the album.

Brass Mask were preceded by a set from a quartet led by saxophonist and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Young Artist Trish Clowes. Although the combination of Gareth Williams on piano, Ryan Trebilcock on double bass and Dave Hamblett on drums is not Clowes’ regular band, (which is Tangent, with Chris Montague, James Maddren and Calum Gourlay) their exquisitely nuanced performance of Clowes’ new compositions had the depth of interaction and oozed skill and sensitivity. Clowes’ compositions have an immediately recognisable inquisitive, restless quality, their questing melodies flecked with folk and classical influences, yet with improvisational space to show off the finest jazz technique. It was contemporary playing at its most inspiring.

The Brass Mask gig was recorded by Jazz On 3 for transmission on 7th October

Matthew Wright interviewed Trish Clowes earlier this year. Trish Clowes' set was also recorded for future transmission on Jazz Line-Up  

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