REVIEW: Ben Cottrell's New Seeing commission – world première at 2016 Manchester Jazz Festival

New Seeing – centre: Graham South (trumpet),
right: Ben Cottrell (composer/conductor)

Ben Cottrell – New Seeing
(RNCM. Manchester Jazz Festival. 27th July 2016. Report and photography by Adrian Pallant)

Taking inspiration from Stan Getz’s 1961 album Focus (suite for tenor sax and strings, with arrangements by Eddie Sauter), composer and bandleader Ben Cottrell’s world premiére of his New Seeing project was enthusiastically received by last night’s Manchester Jazz Festival audience at the RNCM. Known especially as creator and director of the award-winning Beats and Pieces Big Band, Cottrell’s long-held ambition for this work was realised through the ‘mjf originals’ series (the only open jazz commissioning scheme of its kind in the UK) which, over the festival’s 21 years, has brought to fruition as many as eighteen major new jazz projects.

This instrumental set-up, drawing together many alumni colleagues, was visually intriguing – an arc of twelve mostly standing string players (6 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos) enclosing a double rhythm section of two drummers and two bassists, plus piano, electronics and trumpet, all directed by Cottrell himself. This in itself created an openness of sound, soon apparent from the gently unfolding weave of strings emanating from distant street sounds in FM (it was suggested these are perhaps working titles at this stage) as Graham South’s soft flugel tones floated across a descending bass piano motif from Richard Jones, encouraging a reassuring, sustained swell redolent of John Tavener (and, distinct from Getz’s work, here trumpet or flugel took the central melodic role).

A lumbering dual double bass feature from Mick Bardon and Stewart Wilson introduced Banger – a vibrant, propulsive jazz expression with an interesting dynamic: pizzicato strings embellishing saturated rhythms, with close communication between drummers Finlay Panter and Johnny Hunter as they entered into a percussive maelstrom. I Feel a Lot Better Now found its origins in a simple message which Cottrell saw in a Berlin church, its themes of forgiveness arising from a note whose writer pardoned a German fighter pilot for the death of a family member during the Second World War. Pervading, spacial, Pärt-like strings combined with gentle jazz piano and arco bass lines to create a slow ebb and flow of textures before fading to restful, recorded bell peals… and silence.

Contrasting final section, Big Band Zwölf, resounded to churning arco bass and effective plucked string ostinati (curiously resembling, at times, the fullness of woodwind or brass) as it crescendoed together with muted and flutter-tongued trumpet improv, embellished by Jones' celeste. Certainly a hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck celebration of evolving contemporary jazz.

At its close, there was a sense that Cottrell’s accessible and engaging work might indicate a larger, symphonic vision – perhaps the fusion of his mature through-composition and the improvisational versatility of his players possesses such a magic. Maybe this is just the beginning.


Adrian Pallant is a proofreader, jazz writer and musician who also reviews at his own site ap-reviews.com

Manchester Jazz Festival continues, daily, until this Sunday, 31st July.

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