REVIEW: Tokyo-chutei-iki and Harvey Mason at Ronnie Scott's (EFG London Jazz Festival)

Tokyo-chutei-iki. Photo credit: Benjamin Amure

Tokyo-chutei-iki and Harvey Mason
(Ronnie Scott's 19th November 2014. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

"We are just a baritone sax group, As you can see." With ten men clutching baritones having just marched playing through the crowd, having given us their opening number, that clarification from  Akira Mizutani did seem unnecessary. But there again, that wasn't the point.

Tokyo-chutei-iki (Tokyo-bass-frequency) are a spectacle. Clad in black suits and an assortment of different black hats, they engulf the cosy stage. Playing big band-style arrangements, Balkan folk and New Orleans Mardi Gras, smattered with virtuoso improvisation, they shuffle and rearrange themselves into different groups on stage as members come to the fore or drop into rhythmic support. They sing educational songs explaining what a baritone can do (roar), and how you play it (with fingers and a strap around your neck). They dance (crouching, wiggling, jumping) all comically slightly out of sync with one another. There are moments when the timing of their unison playing judders, or when tuning slips. But there are also moments of real power, displaying the rich low rumbling and textured harmonies one can only achieve with that number of instruments. During one piece half the band were banished from the stage and set loose on the venue, wandering the aisles, the volume rising and falling as band members erratically made their way around the room.

As occasionally befalls a support act, the audience's energy wasn't yet ready to match that from the band. Yet Tokyo-chutei-iki's  delivery, both of their music and their performance was deadpan, a smile only briefly showing through when they incongruously dedicated a song to anyone in the room who might be named 'Paul' (the stage patter read in slow English from a notepad). They brought the threat of chaos to the usually professional, slickly run Ronnie Scott's, with waiters running into each other, finding themselves, their trays and their caviar inadvertently trapped between tooting baritones.

The main act couldn't have been from a more different musical place. The  effortless cool of drummer Harvey Mason, performing a set of covers and originals from his latest album Chameleon, was fresh from the 1970's.

There are few drummers with a sound as distinctive as Mason's, or with such a refined touch. When he plays you hear every tap, every strike as a defined, tuned note. His drum work during Black Forest saw him play a single tom with such variation it sung like a tabla. With good drummers come exceptional bands - the structurally crucial Ernest Tibbs watching Mason like a hawk throughout, alert and sharp in support but restrained and considered when improvising on the full range of his five-string bass.

While before the break the group focused on work from the new album, post interval they relaunched on standards. Their rendition of Take Five, dragged away from its eponymous time signature back to four, lacked bite although Headhunters classics Sly and Chameleon were punchy and smooth with that familiar inexhaustible hi-hat groove, Kamasi Washington channelling some Maceo Parker swagger to add to his impressive sorrowful soprano moments earlier in the set. A brief impromptu skit saw Mason groove while keys player and laptop 'mixologist' Mark de Clive-Lowe layered electronic percussion and clean grand piano loops on top, showing how, like Herbie Hancock, Mason is still eager to embrace new technology, the very essence of what made their collective milestone 1974 record so important.

Following a crowd-pleasing encore the group left the stage to a standing ovation. It had been a master class in percussion and jazz-funk. Forty years on from its release, Chameleon is still making waves.

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