Bugge Wesseltoft and Matthew Herbert: Two Approaches To Leadership
It was a game of two halves, Jim, and the name of the game was power...
Either the advertising for the concert was ambiguous or I had unconsciously indulged in a little wishful thinking. I’d thought that Bugge would be playing with Matthew Herbert, perhaps firing up some electronics to create a two-pronged attack upon Herbert’s big band. I was mistaken however: Bugge was to play the first half, Matthew the second and there would be no jolly camaraderie spanning the interval. Despite this, the evening provided a fascinating opportunity to experience two very different approaches to leadership and control.
First half: Bugge Wesseltoft
Bugge Wesseltoft is one of the leading lights of the Norwegian Nu-Jazz scene which melds the worlds of electronica, clubland and jazz into an unholy and often potent brew. As label boss of Jazzland Records he’s also responsible for releasing a great deal of interesting music which might otherwise have gone unheard. The cheeky name of his New Conception of Jazz group has managed to ruffle some feathers, particularly in the States where "The Jazz Mainstream Franchise"© is guarded by the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch.
Bugge bounds onstage ahead of his four young players and positions himself behind a table a-tangle with wires and devices. Bespectacled and dressed in sports jacket and cords he seems more like an eager professor than a groovy beatmaster. He greets the audience affably, fixing them with an intent stare and proceeds to create some gentle sonic waves, gilding them with reflective acoustic piano. After triggering a drum machine rhythm he signals his group to join in. Ole Morten Vaagen (bass), Andreas Bye (drums), Jonas Lonna (DJ) and Rikard Gensollen (percussion) obediently do so.
In concert, Bugge’s musical strategy is akin to setting a raft adrift on open seas - sooner or later it’s caught by wind or current and propelled along. However, the oceans that Bugge’s raft sails upon are distinctly temperate: they suffer no dramatic storms, nor are there any monsters lurking in the depths. Such a serene voyage would be less problematic in a club setting. Unfortunately the Barbican concert hall isn’t an appropriate venue for dance music: its ushers are likely to frown upon those courageous enough to dance and its symphonic acoustics are too cavernous for funk. As a result the sedentary setting requires something which Bugge’s group is not organised, or probably intended, to deliver: namely, interaction and perhaps just a smidgen of dissonance. Bugge’s goal is clearly the sort of elation and participation experienced on many an Ibiza beach, but achieved via jazz rather than trance music. What he and his group play, however, sounds much more like a noughties version of fusion, something like an updated Headhunters. The difference between the two versions is that the tiresome instrumental virtuosity of yore has been replaced by a group emphasis upon rhythm and a variety of soothing ambiences.
The group is so strictly focused upon their leader that, however benevolent he is – and Bugge appears to be the very picture of affability – proceedings appear to be as disciplined as an army unit and ultimately as predictable. This, despite the improvised structure. In fact Bugge is the only soloist, the others serve solely as supporting cast. No matter how enthusiastically Bugge tries to start a tidal wave (and at times his fervour seems almost to lift him off his feet), his autocratic position combined with the limitations of the venue mean that he's only able to create the smallest of ripples, registered in the occasional nodding of heads or tapping of feet by the audience.
Second Half: Matthew Herbert Big Band
Until 2003 Matthew Herbert’s career had married hybrids of techno and house to political awareness and a keen interest in the creative possibilities of live sampling. It’s unlikely that anybody could have predicted that his next project would be to compose for and perform with a 17-piece swing jazz band. Goodbye Swingtime was that project and Herbert himself may have been surprised by its popularity.