' 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 manyHenry 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 spotsthe 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
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 qualitiesand I don't mean Simpsonrequire 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.
"The Cripple of Inishmaan" is essentially a berceuse filtered through Irish folk music but at times with an almost Ellingtonian grace and elegance. And Towns' music for "A Doll's House" is yet another example of his ability to take a form, here the Italian folk dance the Tarantella, and transform it into a vehicle for jazz improvisation to hypnotic effect. Some still believe the dance can cure the bite of the wolf-spider and in the hands of the Mask Orchestra one would not doubt it.
The band closes to a standing ovation and plays out with "Bolt from the Blue" from the first Mask Orchestra album. This beautiful hall was barely half-full. However, it had been filled with music of such energy and vitality that no-one who heard it could possibly understand why Colin Towns is not the 'go to' guy for festival programmers in the UK and in Europe. It's their loss and, sadly, that of British jazz as well.