The People Band, London, UK, March, 2013

Sammy Stein By

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The People Band

Café Oto

London, UK

March 6, 2013

Café Oto, Dalston, London was the setting for a performance by legendary free form group, The People Band. Formed in the 1960s and led by drummer Terry Day and pianist/multi-instrumentalist Mel Davis, the group has played on and off right through to the present day. The lineup for this gig included Day, drums and percussion; Davis, piano and keyboards; George Khan, saxophones and flute; Mike Figgis, trumpet, bass guitar, keyboards; Paul Jolly, saxophones; Charlie Hart, double bass, guitar and violin; Adam Hart, keyboards; Tony Edwards, percussion; and guest guitarist, Brian Godding.

After a brief meeting to decide the run of the evening (which is as near to a rehearsal as it gets), the first half of the set consisted of six pieces, using smaller ensembles of different musicians. Starting with saxophone and spoken voice, the musicians assembled and played in various combinations of twos, threes and fours which made for an interesting first half. Some bits took on a folkloric feel whilst others felt like the instruments were involved in a musical feud. From controlled chaos to regular thrumming beats and riffs, the audience was treated to a show which provided immense entertainment.

Figgis introduced the second half, giving a short introduction on the band's history, before introducing Day on drums for a solo. Day produced a manic explosion of rhythms, sounds and effects from the kit and used brushes, cloths, even, and anything he could lay his hands on to produce sounds. He looked like he was running on clockwork. Eyes closed, his hands sought the drums, seemingly of their own accord and his sticks, brushes or whatever he chose to use at that moment, whirred and flashed in a blur of movement. His diminutive frame was dwarfed by the wall of sound he created and his exuberance showed no signs of diminishing as each member of the band joined him onstage until the complete People Band of nine players gradually morphed into being before the audience.

The thing about a People Band gig is that you never know what to expect. The audience was treated to manic free form jazz interspersed with riffs from standards like "My Funny Valentine" and solos, trios, duets and ensembles materialized out of nowhere. Figgis explained that they never rehearse and it was clear the music evolved of its own accord at times. Though The People Band is regarded as a free jazz unit, and generally included under the free jazz banner, the music adapts around individual eccentricities and quirks and its music defies any broad categorization. Largely improvisational, the band also falls easily into riffs and rhythms it has played many times before. Communication between the players is evident, and the sounds swell and ebb as different players take the lead. Egos, at times, vie for supremacy, but the overall feel is a band with its members as in tune with each other as any group of master players can be and, after 40 years of playing together, either as a group or in other projects, they read each other with consummate ease.

Every performance by The People Band is different, in part due to the changes in lineup, which can include different guests but is centered around the core sextet of Hart, Davis, Day, Khan, Jolly and Edwards; in part, due to the essence of the band being that, The People Band plays according to the mood and atmosphere at the time. The presence of Figgis introduced a subtle sense of control to the gig as he attempted, at times, to bring the players to a stop, quieten them, or encourage them to play louder, with limited success. Sometimes he was onstage, other times he was using lights and cameras (he is a filmmaker) to capture the players in action. The band has never had a leader as such but Figgis subtly but surely took on the role for this gig.

At times, players careered towards a precipice over which lay total anarchy, and this is where Godding came in. Throughout the set, he was the still small voice, imposing a sense of decorum and organization into the musical mix, preventing players from teetering over the edge and into chaos. He also improvised wonderfully, using the full range of his guitar to add effects and underpin the other players.

Another wonderful moment was provided by Davis' piano solo, demonstrating why he is still one of the most respected players in the business.

What came across clearly was that the band enjoyed themselves immensely onstage. Players wandered on and off between their numbers or even during pieces ; banter was exchanged between those mingling in the audience and those onstage and there was the feeling that everyone was on a musical jolly, enjoying the simple pleasure of playing together again.

There was a sense of restraint which was tangible at times, and the first half, in particular, took on something of a concert feel as each piece was almost formally introduced by one of the Harts. The second half was freer, and the players immersed themselves in the music, listening intently to each other, reading reactions and creating music which, at times, encouraged an irresistible urge to laugh out loud or, at others, simply close the eyes and drift with the music into blissful oblivion.

Café Oto is not the best setting acoustically. It has many corners and lots of furniture and clutter which seem to swallow the sound, but it more than makes up for this with its welcoming ambience and relaxed feel which suits a gig like this; the band is close to the audience, which also makes for a special ambience. It was really good to see the broad age range in the audience.

The gig delivered what every People Band gig offers—unpredictable, unexpected sounds, brought forth by some of the most versatile and gifted jazz players around. They create music which is, at times, beautiful in the purest sense of the word and sometimes almost unlistenable, but is always interesting and fun. As improvisers the members of The People Band excel. Each individual is outstanding in his/her own right and they are all involved with their own projects outside of the group. However, it is when they join together on one small stage that the magic happens.

Whilst the world changes and moves at an ever more frantic pace, The People Band is a reminder that at a time decades ago some young men took a forward role in the freeform movement, and they are still here, doing what they have always done.

In his segue leading to Day's solo, Figgis commented that when the band got together again in the early 2000s, after a hiatus of some decades, he questioned at the time whether it was a good idea. The reaction of the crowd gathered at Café Oto must surely have given him the answer—it was definitely a good idea.

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