REVIEW: Beats & Pieces Big Band + Johnny Hunter Quartet at Ronnie Scott’s

Board outside the club for the second night of the Beats & Pieces Residency

REVIEW: Beats & Pieces Big Band + Johnny Hunter Quartet

(Ronnie Scott’s, 1 January 2018. First night of a three-day residency)

Beats & Pieces are a 14-piece big band with the feel and dynamics of a small group and the force and impact of an orchestra. Bringing in the New Year and inaugurating their tenth anniversary, the first night of a sell-out, three-day residency at Ronnie’s was a celebration of the band’s past and a bold indicator of their future. Led by conductor and primary composer Ben Cottrell, the music is characterised by dense and intricate rhythms, exploratory compositional journeys, tight and richly coloured brass writing, and a bit more risk-taking than your regular big band. The new material consolidates these strengths.

Time (set to be the first single off their third album due in spring/summer) builds tension with a repeating minimalist figure and atmospheric ensemble playing, swelling to a full-bodied crescendo. Noise brings a fitting bruit of sonic disturbance that is offset by Nick Walker’s vulnerable trumpet tone. Banger opens with a thorny low-string math rock riffing from guitarist Anton Hunter, the tune building to a monster modulation. The big band has never sounded bigger.

Older tunes included the oldest one: Toan, the first piece Ben Cottrell wrote for the band. It has a characteristically stop-start structure, and opened with Richard Jones’s modernist-classically drenched solo piano intro and featured the unusual experience of a trombone duet, with Simon Lodge and Richard Foote tussling entertainingly. Three is based around a judiciously discordant phrase, unfolding slowly then spiralling headlong into a good old racket of free playing. The arrangement of Bowie’s Let’s Dance slows it down to a last-dance-of-the-prom seduction routine. The bleeding emotional core of the evening was first album cut Broken, a steely study in emotional annihilation, featuring some killer outside playing from Anthony Brown on tenor sax. On the album Broken has vocals, with some brutal lyrics—“Do you think I would take you back? Don’t think so.” To hear the words out loud in my vulnerable New Year's Day state would have probably broken me.

Ben Cottrell also masterminds the Efpi label, the go-to for fresh youthful jazz from the North West. Several members of the big band are themselves bandleaders, with new records from Anton Hunter’s XI and trumpet player Nick Walker both imminent. Each night of the residency opens with a different supporting act from the Efpi roster, the second night with the quartet Let Spin featuring Chris Williams and Ruth Goller, and, for the third, Paradox Ensemble. This first night opened with the Johnny Hunter Quartet.

Johnny Hunter’s 2016 album While We Still Can was a remarkable demonstration of compositional versatility, and tightly and generously apportioned improvisation. I last saw them at the Efpi showcase at King’s Place. The group was already moving beyond jazz themes reminiscent of Don Cherry and into less familiar electronic textures buttressed by guitarist Anton Hunter. Pared back to the acoustic format at Ronnie’s, the quartet played just two tunes over 40 minutes, taking an expansive approach to both composition and improvisation, allowing saxophonist Mark Hanslip and trumpeter Aaron Diaz an unusually generous opportunity for development in long solos.

Rivers of Appropriation is based on Beatrice by Sam Rivers, an important but often overlooked free jazz saxophonist and educator. To and Frodo isn’t named after the beloved hobbit directly, but a cat, and has a fittingly feline-cum-Tolkienesque wanderlust. It’s epic without epic bombast, varying and richly dynamic with shifting moods from strident to mournful, switching between 5/4, 6/4 and 13/8 time signatures. What this performance brought home to me was how Johnny Hunter has that ability to insert odd time into regular time without losing the momentum. The great drummers all do this to some extent – throw in a half bar of double time or triplets or some ridiculous 11/8 ornamentation – without losing the overall metric or momentum. In the time since I last saw him it’s clear Johnny Hunter has made one of those leaps forward that happens, and he is probably going to become quite terrifying.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

JOHNNY HUNTER QUARTET

1. Rivers of Appropriation (based on Beatrice by Sam Rivers)
2. To and Frodo

Seth Bennett : double bass
Aaron Diaz : trumpet
Mark Hanslip : saxophone
Johnny Hunter : drums

BEATS & PIECES BIG BAND

1. Rocky
2. Pop
3. Jazz Walk
4. Toan
5. Rain
6. Broken

1. Time
2. Three
3. Let’s Dance
4. Noise
5. Banger
6. Fairytale
7. Hendo

Ben Cottrell : director
Anthony Brown, Ollie Dover, Tom Ward : saxophones
Owen Bryce, Aaron Diaz, Nick Walters : trumpet
Richard Foote, Kieran McLeod, Richard McVeigh : trombone
Anton Hunter : guitar
Richard Jones : piano/Rhodes
Mick Bardon : bass
Finlay Panter : drums
Alex Fiennes : sound engineer

LINK: Liam Izod's feature about Johnny Hunter from 2016
Peter Bacon's interview with Ben Cottrell from 2016

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