Phil Meadows’ Engines Orchestra rip through Ronnie Scott’s

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Saxophonist Phil Meadows is nothing if not ambitious. In the 21-piece Engines Orchestra, he’s brought together the improvisers of the Phil Meadows Group with some of the best young musicians from London’s folk and classical music scenes. Earlier this year he led them to a win at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards and they’re now midway through a 10-date tour of the UK. But, with talk of charity status, outreach projects and new collaborations, it sounds like he’s just getting started.

 

On Thursday night we got a taster of what the future might look like, in the form of an Engines Orchestra variety show, with Meadows playing the role of compère and an army of photographers and managerial types scampering around organising and videoing the lot. A captivating set from vocalist/violinist Alice Zawadzki and pianist Elliot Galvin opened with ‘Low Sun; Lovely Pink Light’, a Zawadzki original with folkloric leanings, wordless lullaby vocals, fluttering violin and piano lines as fine as spider silk. ‘Beautiful Love’ ended with a sublime cadenza, juxtaposing classical poise with gutsy blues as the accompaniment sank into a black depression, and ‘Love For Sale’ was dark and licentious, shining a red light on the lyrics.

 

Music from the Phil Meadows Group (two new compositions and two taken from 2013’s Engines of Creation) was similarly inspiring, combining burrowing piano motifs and chugging grooves with billowing, anthemic melodies and bursts of anarchic free playing. ‘Trashlantis’ added jolting, asymmetric bass and minimalist drums to the mix, with folky trills from trumpeter Laura Jurd and flighty soprano from Meadows, while ‘Thrower’ featured one of several show-stealing piano solos for Elliot Galvin.

 

It’s the intractability of Galvin’s playing that makes it so compelling. Sometimes the notes come thick and fast, like a river in spate, broken by eddies, rip tides and insidious rhythmic whirlpools. At others they’re placed with pinpoint precision. Then it’s like watching him tinker with the intricate workings of a clock, teasing apart motifs, examining their components and putting them back together.

 

It turns out I know a few of the players in Engines Orchestra from back in the day, which is awkward. So it’s a relief that their second half set, a performance of Meadows’ ‘Lifecycles’ suite was just as strong. Flitting between through-composed passages and free improvisation, with reflective solos from the Group, lush beds of strings and soaring brass, the suite was leaner and more focussed than it is on record, but just as rich in imagery. At times it played out like an epic film score, which would be a nice idea for Meadows’ next project. There were whirring, industrial soundscapes, agro reels (folky but with an urban swagger) and uplifting themes. Some of the grooves came straight outta Compton or from electronica and classical minimalism, but more often than not the music was a jigsaw puzzle of styles.

 

‘Celebration’ saw bursts of funk rock and thrashing anarchy wrestle for control of the music (imagine a team of ultra-smooth 1970s detectives conducting a midnight raid on Cafe Oto and you have the size of it) and there was a wonderful moment in ‘Remembrance’ when Tori Handsley’s harp shimmered into life amidst a meteor shower of darting strings. From there the whole thing built to a climax with Zawadzki’s rough-edged vocals leading the way and the orchestra sweeping all before them. A giddy high-point in a thrillingly audacious piece of music, it had spine-tingling echoes of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ and Shirley Bassey. Which sets you thinking: if a film score proves too ambitious, even for Meadows, there’s always scope for a Bond theme.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

– Photo by Carl Hyde