Tom Bancroft’s six–year–old orchestra from Scotland has been described as “the most adventurous contemporary big band in the UK,” a statement that will go unchallenged here. I have no degree in Pieology, but after appraising Bancroft’s debut recording (covering those six years) on the new Caber Music label, I’d guess that it must have something to do with slicing big–band Jazz into as many pieces as one can, tossing them into a blender and awaiting the outcome — which, in this case, is often surprisingly appetizing. And if not to everyone’s taste, the music is at least fresh and unconventional. Bancroft acknowledges in the liner notes that the road toward becoming an accomplished composer/arranger (all of the songs are his except “The Battle of Algiers,” which was written by Ennio Morricone) is “a long and winding path,” and that he has learned “largely from trying to do a specific thing, failing massively, but ending up doing something else.” The bustling, Braxton/Hemphill–like title selection, for example, began life in Bancroft’s head as a Basie–style chart (which, as one can readily hear, it definitely isn’t). The playful, skitterish opener, “Cat n Mouse,” is the only tune on which the “pipes” are used, and those who aren’t inflamed by the music of Scotland will be happy to learn that the pipes referred to are Bancroft’s vocal chords, as he sings the verse in lieu of Fionna Duncan, for whom it was written. “Cat n Mouse,” Bancroft writes, was inspired by Ellington’s “Cottontail,” but any resemblance beyond its 32–bar form escapes these ears. “Scottish Heart” nods earnestly toward the folk music of Bancroft’s homeland, “The Piano Is a Dark Horse” is about his living arrangements and a borrowed piano, “Battle of Algiers” depicts, at least in part, a rat infestation suffered in the winter of ’95–96, “Sleepy Head” the imagined thoughts of Bancroft’s seven–year–old niece lying awake in a darkened room. Bancroft’s sidemen, it should be noted, are quite good, but as one can see from the photograph on the album’s jacket, they are without question a group of free spirits. The finale, “Coal & Logs,” is an extended (16:22) martial–based composition mostly for the ensemble but with some brief leg room for tenor, bass clarinet and Owen Marshall’s tuba. Like most of Bancroft’s music, it’s densely orchestrated, episodic, richly textured, sometimes dissonant, and decidedly not for the faint of heart.
Track listing: Cat n Mouse; Pieology; Scottish Heart; The Piano Is a Dark Horse; The Battle of Algiers; Sleepy Head; Coal & Logs (67:21).
Tom Bancroft, music director, drums, vocals; Claude Deppa, Colin Steele, Eddie Severn, trumpet; Paul Jayasinha (2, 3, 6), trumpet, cello; John Burgess (2, 3, 6), alto sax; Dick Lee (2, 3, 6), alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; Jorrit Dykstra (1, 4, 5, 7), alto sax, clarinet; Phil Bancroft, tenor sax; Karen Wimhurst (1, 4, 5, 7), clarinet, bass clarinet; John Telfer, baritone sax; Oren Marshall (1, 4, 5, 7), Lindsay Cooper (2, 3, 6), tuba; Rick Taylor, trombone; Brian Kellock (2, 3, 6), Chick Lyall (4, 5, 7), keyboards; Kevin MacKenzie, guitar; Kenny Ellis, bass; John Rae, drums; Jim Sutherland (2, 3, 6), percussion.