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Colin Towns' Mask Orchestra
LSO St. Lukes
October 17, 2015

The gap between the music that Colin Towns makes and much that currently passes for jazz grew even wider last weekend. Performing compositions from his new double CD Drama with his stellar Mask Orchestra, the composer-bandleader revealed the music's potential in ways that few others could even imagine.

Drama features music that draws on Towns' twenty year history of composition for film and theatre, re-envisaged for a jazz big band that comprises many of the UK's finest musicians, as well as guests from Australia, Germany and Japan. I can think of one or two artists and composers capable of picking up the gauntlet Towns has thrown down but none with so unique a sense of the dramatic.

Using pre-recorded tapes, the band open with "The Cherry Orchard," which echoes its Russian inspiration but adds just a twist of Nino Rota. "Macbeth" follows with a trumpet fanfare and then a pedal from the piano introduces a series of intersecting melodies and riffs that seem top owe as much to Weill or even Stravinskyas to Ellington or Basie. It's jazz, Jim, just not as we know it.

But it is also the way Towns deploys his soloists that bespeaks the precision and coherence of his vision. The examples are many—Henry Lowther's trumpet cadenza at the end of "Macbeth," Graham Russell's beautifully weighted trumpet solo on "Long Day's Journey into Night" or guitarist Chris Montague's echo-laden solo on "Hysteria" that seemed to channel John Martyn circa Solid Air. The point is that each soloist's highly individualised contribution serves the composition, whilst the composition should provide a springboard for that contribution. Whilst, on "Hysteria," Alan Skidmore, Mark Lockheart and Julian Siegel perform as a tenor trio that is one of the show's high spots—the reins are loosened but not completely abandoned.

"Rosencrantz & Guildenstern" shifts almost imperceptibly from its Gershwin-esque piano introduction from Andrew McCormack into its circus-like theme. Some fine playing follows from McCormack, trombonist Harry Brown and, from Hamburg, Arnd Geise on bass guitar. "Ghosts" ends the first half as sotto voce brass rises and falls beautifully through a series of poco diminuendi and crescendi.

The embarrassment of riches continued in the second set. "Royal Hunt of the Sun" was graced by an astonishing and dramatically extended percussion duet between Stephan Maass and Japanese virtuoso Joji Hirota. This is my favourite piece on the CD. At its heart lies a simple processional march in 2/4. Yet it comprises so many different layers and levels that it easily sustains its fifteen minute length. One section combines four soprano saxophones with bass clarinet and two trombones to create the most glorious textures. Even "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," my least favourite track, came into its own on stage. On record, its five movements, which include a country blues and a Spanish segment, seemed disconnected but here flow together with strong solos from, amongst others, Simon Allen and Australian Graeme Blevins on sopranos.

It could be that Towns' very eclecticism counts against him and leaves him marginalised even within the marginal world of jazz. One could take someone brought up on the traditional jazz big band music to a concert by Maria Schneider or Big Jim McNeely and they would get it instantly. But Towns' determination to see and hear jazz as a journey or as a series of events that unfold to tell their own story demands that the audience leave their preconceptions behind.

It's jazz but its Homeric qualities—and I don't mean Simpson—require a different kind of attention than much big band music. For one thing, Towns uses techniques more often found in classical music than in jazz. Whilst part of the orchestra may follow a theme, several other groups of musicians may play different contrapuntal melodies simultaneously against the theme and against the rhythm of the piece. Silences or solo cadenzas may signal changes of mood, pace or direction. Tempi are varied often quite abruptly and free, rubato passages occur unexpectedly. Yet the music is not 'free' in the sense that one uses the word in the context of 'free jazz' or 'free improvisation.' The composer's hand is always evident, even when a soloist has the spotlight. Throughout, the music remains eminently approachable.


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