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Mammal Hands: Animalia

Bruce Lindsay By

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When is a trio with a piano not a piano trio? British outfit Mammal Hands offers one answer to that conundrum with debut album Animalia, released on Gondwana Records, the label run by discerning trumpeter and producer Matthew Halsall. Actually, given the varied nature of the tunes on display—co-written by the band members—it offers eight answers.

Nick Smart's piano is certainly a key element of the Mammal Hands sound, but it's by no means the dominant one—brother Jordan Smart's saxophones and Jesse Barrett's distinctive percussion are equally as important. Jordan Smart often favors the soprano saxophone—a choice that has led to comparisons with the Portico Quartet and leads to some of the band's most plaintive, melancholy, moods. Barrett can deliver rock-solid beats but he's also fond of more melodic patterns when the opportunity arises, crafting intricate and surprising phrases as Nick Smart keeps the rhythms under control.

It may cause some head shaking from those with a keen sense of what is or isn't jazz, but this is not an album full of lengthy improvisations or interminable solos. But this isn't necessarily A Bad Thing. What Mammal Hands does have is strong, accessible, tunes played well. There are bursts of up-tempo jollity to be found on Animalia—the rolling hook on "Bustle," the Latin groove of the apparently Leonard Bernstein inspired "Street Sweeper"—but the most pervasive vibe is a gentler one, the pace slow to mid-tempo. With the exception of Jordan Smart's brief saxophone shrieks in the closing section of "Inuit Party" the playing is considered and controlled. That's not to say there's a lack of dynamics or tension—"Tiny Crumb" has both, building from a low-key start and eventually resolving to a feel-good closing groove featuring Barrett's tabla.

As befits a band that takes some of its cues from Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders—something it shares with producer Halsall—there's a spirituality to Mammal Hands' music too. It's most obvious on the reflective opener, "Mansions Of Millions Of Years" and the brief and spacious "Snow Bough."

Mammal Hands formed in early 2012, busking in the beautiful mediaeval city of Norwich. The band has yet to achieve the international fame accorded to fellow Norwich busker the Puppet Man, but give it time. This trio-with-a-piano is still growing, still developing its own distinct voice, but Animalia is a debut that suggests Mammal Hands knows where it's going.

Track Listing: Mansions Of Millions Of Years; Snow Bough; Kandaiki; Spinning The Wheel; Bustle; Inuit Party; Street Sweeper; Tiny Crumb.

Personnel: Jordan Smart: soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone; Nick Smart: piano; Jesse Barrett: drums, tabla.

Title: Animalia | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Gondwana Records

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