REVIEW: Dave Manington’s Riff Raff – Challenger Deep album launch at the Vortex

L-R: Brigitte Beraha, Rob Updegraff. Dave Manington and Tom Challenger
Photo credit:Cat Munro

Dave Manington’s Riff Raff – Challenger Deep album launch
(The Vortex. 12 May 2018. Review by Dominic Williams)

LJN previewed this event and interviewed Dave Manington a few weeks ago. His aim, he said, was to be the composer and bandleader and to create a collaborative approach to improvisation which still resulted in accessible music. The band line-up was Brigitte Beraha: vocals, Tomas Challenger: saxophone, Ivo Neame: keyboards, Rob Updegraff: guitar, Dave Manington: double bass and Tim Giles: drums.

I enjoyed this gig, as did the three people I was sitting with. The first set had an early 1970s vibe to it, kicking off with Doctor Octopus a Joe Zawinul tribute. Ivo Neame played Mellotron and Fender Rhodes electric piano; the guitar and (wordless) vocals were heavily electronically modified and they collectively delivered tapestries of abstract textures and sounds (as well as a lot of knob-twiddling).

The title track of the album out on Loop Records, Challenger Deep, was inspired by the deepest place in the ocean, in the Marianas Trench, and was a slow moody piece underpinned by bowed bass. Tomas Challenger (no relation) opened with a solo that should easily win the award for most convincing impersonation of abyssal fish by a saxophonist in 2018. It deserved a marine wildlife documentary to go with it.

On these numbers, and Dangerpig which followed, Beraha showed off her extraordinary technical ability, singing scat solos, doubling tricky saxophone lines and abstract sounds pitched anywhere from top soprano to alto. It does also help that her voice has a gorgeous mellow tone. All the tunes bar one, Agile, were written by Manington and came from the album. As the evening progressed, the music spread in different directions and became less electronic. The first, more electronic set, however, finished with The Iliad, a less spacey number and the second set finished with Prime Numbers, an up-tempo climax featuring a rumbustious Fender Rhodes solo.

Beraha contributed lyrics to four tracks including one, Thagomiser, about the boney growths on a stegosaur’s tail. Willow Tree included a sax solo backed by soundscapes from the guitar, toms-toms and splashy cymbals that had an Andy Sheppard feel although Challenger’s sax playing is typically much faster paced. Like his sometimes collaborator Kit Downes, he has the ability to play almost any way he wants, instead of being locked into an idiosyncratic personal style.

Over the evening, Ivo Neame began in restrained fashion on electronic keyboards then gradually spent more time on the grand piano where his widely-acknowledged virtuosity could shine through. Rob Updegraff, billed as heavily influenced by John Scofield, did play loud and hard on his solos but also had a delicate touch when providing context for the other soloists. The early 1970s was the era of flamboyant electric bass but Dave Manington stuck to acoustic bass, as befits a self-effacing band leader who cites Charlie Haden as an influence. Special plaudits are due to Tim Giles for barely drawing breath all night. At times he was the only instrument accompanying the soloist, at times the rest of the band was off on a collective freak out and he seemed to be the only one looking where they were going.

In most settings, these musicians would deserve a paragraph each, not a couple of brief sentences. Here, the point of the exercise was to achieve a depth of collaborative playing so the whole was greater than the sum of the charts. It needs the players to develop more complex improvised interactions instead of settling into a groove behind the soloist of the moment. The result is music that can twist and turn, sometimes at breakneck speed, sometimes in slow evolution. Comparisons with Weather Report are warranted because of the style of the music but also because the players had the tightness of a band instead of an ad hoc collaboration.

Dave Manington can feel justly pleased for doing what he set out to achieve, not least because the audience was warmly appreciative and showed it. He showcased his composing talent and bass playing, created a band with a collaborative approach within which some very talented musicians could each express themselves and still put his own unique mark on it. This was not just any old riff raff. This was Dave Manington’s Riff Raff.

Challenger Deep is available on Bandcamp

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