(The Vortex, 14th Jully 2015. Review by Dan Bergsagel)
The Vortex is always a warm and intimate venue, but on Tuesday it was both warmer and more intimate than usual as the enormous Overground Collective overran the stage. The brainchild of guitarist and composer Paulo Dias Duarte, this band is an exciting sensory assault, mixing more musical styles, moods and tempos than most people have had hot dinners.
Having encroached into the audience to seat the full band, they quickly engulfed them as a rumbling baritone introduction was joined by the rest of the 19-strong ensemble - the group’s thunderous power unleashed with soloists straining to climb through the rich layers of sound. The compositions give little time for rest as you're dragged through a vivid soundtrack: frenetic horn madness to beautiful calm keys; grooving funk to 50s big band.
It's a rare sound, drawing favourable parallels to their exhilarating ensemble cousins in Paris, like Ping Machine. But more importantly it is entrancing, original and unpredictable stuff. If you ask someone to pat their head with one hand and rub their stomach with the other it often looks an inelegant mess, but when it works it appears entirely natural. The Overground Collective achieve an intensely heightened version of this unified multitasking ease, patting and rubbing their musical belly with 38 hands working in confounding coordination.
In some ways they do still play as just two hands – a rocky and driving back line on the left pushing on as the reeds and brass on the right jump in and out, individually or in unison. Jon Scott's drumming distils the mood excellently, providing a solid beat to much of the proceedings while improvising and experimenting at the same time. Even when soloing alone he provides a relentless platform from which to add virtuoso flourish. Together with Ben Kelly on sousaphone and Ben Bastin on bass, the first set of pieces were well supported.
Paulo himself brings something inherently meaty to the arrangements with the regular appearance of a rocky rhythm section, his Middlesex University seeming to encourage crossover composition not dissimilar to fellow alumni Led Bib (featuring in both the Collective and the crowd). And for such a large group, he's lucky to have so many leaders in the band, with Noel Langley keeping everyone in shape and Tom Ward stepping up to conduct his own compositions.
The second set may be where the Collective's heart lies, re-launching with a prolonged solo from the band leader, hunched in the corner with back to the crowd - overdrive engaged and shredding and tapping to his heart’s content. Much like a solo metal version of Esperanza Spalding's Radio Music Society, Dias Duarte flipped between snippets like a re-tuned radio before the band joined him on the epic Superman, inspired by practise chord sequences given to him by a former teacher 20 years previously.
The looping four-chord refrain led Rachel Musson into a red-raw solo, laid bare with only guitar for support, before the mood relaxed for Yazmeen Ahmed to play flugelhorn with one hand and electronics with the other, recording, distorting and repeating herself. A pensive solo by Langley followed a passionate Ward clarinet solo arranged with two flutes and a piccolo in tow climaxed with a nimble Chris Williamson soprano as the band crunched to an exhausted finish.
With young large ensembles like Mimika and the Pop-up Circus emerging and composing their own music, perhaps there is something of a revival on the horizon in London for the improbably large unconventional big band. To achieve such musical accord requires impressive compositional, organisational and time commitments from all involved - both the bands and the venues that accommodate them. As an audience member, I hope everyone continues persevering for us.
Guitar/composition – Paulo Dias Duarte
Alto saxophone/soprano/flute – Chris Williams
Alto saxophone/flute/piccolo – Julie Kjaer
Tenor saxophone – Rachel Musson
Tenor saxophone – Dan Mays
Bass clarinet – Tom Ward
Baritone saxophone – Joseph Stout
Trumpet – Noel Langley
Trumpet – Yazmeen Ahmed
Trumpet – Andre Canniere
Trumpet – Henry Spencer
Trombone – Paul Taylor
Trombone – Ed Reiband
Trombone – Raph Clarkson
Bass Trombone – Olivir Haylett
Tuba – Ben Kelly
Bass – Ben Bastin
Keyboards – Danny Keane
Drums – Jon Scott