Tom Challenger's Brass Mask - Spy Boy (*)
(Babel Label. CD Review by Sarah Chaplin)
This is the début offering of multi-instrumentalist Tom Challenger’s newest project, which brings together a talented and youthful octet of horns plus drums and percussion to pursue some fresh new takes on a New Orleans-inspired band sound. Make no mistake though, this is not a trad jazz record. Far from it: it’s a wild and inspired attempt to create something really fresh with no typical rhythm section in sight, and two brothers playing tuba (Theon Cross) and trombone (Nathaniel Cross) holding the fort in the bass. Another way of looking at it would be to say Brass Mask is just one big front line.
Immediately you see it, the colourful album cover with its carnivalesque feathers and bright blue skies creates expectations of joyful excess, maybe even music that exudes a little ribald camaraderie. But again, make no mistake, this is not a free jazz record either. It’s an exercise in some very considered and informed writing with plenty of scope for individual players to step into the limelight and strut their improv. Take for example the self-assured opening track Onnelinen, in which Challenger marshalls his gang with a cool locking of horns set off by vibrant accented offbeats: as well as Tom on tenor sax and alto clarinet, here we have George Crowley on tenor sax and clarinet, Dan Nicholls on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Rory Simmons and Alex Bonney on trumpets, with John Blease on percussion.
Challenger's lush but restrained closely-voiced ensemble writing produces a tremendous richness of texture, the horns weaving purposefully in and out of each other, with lovely moments when it all thins out and the time feel changes and you’re just left with the tuba anchoring it all together. There is no feeling anywhere on the album that these tracks follow that standard tune-solos-tune format. Challenger also varies his material stylistically from track to track, for example from Indian Red, with its strong Southern feel, and I Thank you Jesus, a sleazy New Orleans-style funeral march arranged by Challenger, to Nighty Night, which is written in some bizarre time signature that I couldn’t quite work out, and Francis P with its delightful wayward quality, the horns all pushing and pulling at each other to vary the tempo. Then there’s Rain Rain Rain, a rhythmic evocation that builds and shifts into some kind of hip-hip territory contrasting nicely with the mysterious and brooding Meniscus, which just oozes tension.
Challenger has been able to explore quite a lot with this album, digging into the archives of underrated figures like Henry Threadgill, drawing on his work from twenty years ago on the album Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket. It’s perhaps inspirations like this that have helped keep Spy Boy’s honest down-to-earth feel firmly in place, also evident when the marvelous guest percussionists Jez Wiles and Hugh Wilkinson mix in funky West African rhythms. Challenger is certainly a composer and musician we can expect great things from, judging by pieces such as Don’t Stand Up, worthy of being the soundtrack to a terrible denouement scene in a wondrously bleak film set somewhere in Senegal.
It was the Loop Collective, founded in 2005, that helped them establish the project in 2012, and Challenger also pays tribute to other venues and organizations that have given Brass Mask opportunities to perform this material to a live audience. And believe me, next time they play live in London, I shall be there.
(*) This review is from a backlog of unreviewed CDs. LondonJazz News has recently moved to a new system of CD review commissioning, co-ordinated by Catherine Ford.