Mammal Hands go ape at Brighton’s Latest MusicBar

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The quirky basement performance space recently hosted hordes of indie-rock fans on the Great Escape trail; Bjork is playing over the PA, and most of the seating has been packed away at the band’s request. Mammal Hands have been successfully working the jazz gig and festival circuit, in the footsteps of their erstwhile labelmates GoGo Penguin, but like the Penguins they are reaching out for audiences beyond the confines of the jazz scene. The band emerge from the tiny backstage room and set straight to it. The opening number is from their recent album release, Floa, and sets out their stall immediately – hypnotically repetitive piano figures intertwine with plaintive, folk-style melodies from the saxophone, while Jesse Barrett’s propulsive work at the drumkit provides dynamic and textural variation. It’s an evenly balanced, finely tuned trio performance, along the lines of Weather Report’s ‘we always solo, we never solo’ ethos. The follow-up builds to a massive peak before dropping vertiginously down to a whisper – a favourite device that indicates the empathy borne of long hours playing together. ‘Hourglass’ starts with a rippling piano line reminiscent of the X-Filestheme, while ‘Think Anything’ blends Eastern European melodic elements with a jaunty jazz waltz recalling Dave Brubeck.

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Fans of Gogo Penguin will find much here that they recognise; the writing owes more to contemporary electronica or minimalism than the classic jazz tradition. Plaintive minor key vamps explode into a sudden intensity and simmer down again; texture and dynamics are used to develop the harmonically static material; the mood throughout could be characterised as a kind of exultant melancholy. Saxophonist Jordan Smart’s role is often rhythmic as much as melodic; his grainy tone and simple, compelling melodies recall the Nordic intensity of Jan Garbarek, full of folk inflections and ornamentations, especially on ‘Kudu’ where he joins Barrett in a duet that builds up some real heat. If the earlier part of the set feels a bit too carefully plotted to allow the material to really catch fire, things hot up considerably as the evening progresses – an unreleased and untitled track allows Barrett to cut loose with some good old-fashioned drum breaks, while ‘Mansions Of Millions Of Years” is one of their strongest compositions, with Smart’s soprano skirling away over thrilling polyrhythms aided by Barrett’s tablas, and Nick Smart’s piano improvisation drawing yells of approval. 

Jesse Barrett is a delightfully unassuming host, and there’s a palpable feeling of sincerity and mutual respect from the trio. They really give it their all, drawing every ounce of drama from every tune. If an over-reliance on some simple but highly-effective devices could ultimately limit their scope, tonight’s show takes the rapt crowd (most of whom are youthful enough to opt to sit on the floor) with them every step of the way, and their encore brings out the very best in them, as drums, sax and pounding piano build to a thrilling finale.

– Eddie Meyer

– Photos by Lisa Wormsley

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