Ben Cottrell premieres New Seeing at MJF – a visionary fusion of strings and jazz

Music is a resilient force in times of adversity, having a habit of kicking against the trend of contraction, opening things up to offer an alternative perspective. It's apt then that Beats & Pieces bandleader and composer Ben Cottrell premiered New Seeing, an expansive and exciting commission as the centrepiece of this year's Manchester Jazz Festival at the Royal Northern College of Music. Joined by 12 string players, arranged in an elegant semi-circle behind the core six-piece band, notably featuring two drummers, Finlay Panter and Johnny Hunter, and two bass players, Mick Bardon and Stewart Wilson plus featured trumpeter Graham South and pianist Richard Jones, with additional electronics from Tullis Rennie, and Cottrell himself energetically conducting up front –- this was certainly not your average jazz ensemble.

Ben-Cottrell-New-Seeing-1

It's perhaps a little known fact that Cottrell contributed to the orchestral arrangement on the piece 'Gretel' on Snarky Puppy's Grammy winning album Sylva with the Metropole Orchestra, and it's this association that readily springs to mind here as his adventurous use of textures from the strings and the piercing lead voice of South's trumpet and flugelhorn combine to create a thrusting cinematic sound, which is in marked contrast to the seriously alt.rock vibes he conjures with the brass-led Beats & Pieces. The strings also allow varicoloured layers and pulsating polyrhythms to bubble up in pleasingly unexpected ways, punctuating or expanding the end of melodic lines or creating vast harmonic fields of sound, far wider than any keyboard can stretch.

There was fun to be had too, with a delicately thunderous bass duel kicking off an extended section of the work, both players snapping and sliding around their cumbersome instruments and ending on some delicately plucked harmonics, before leaping into a unison bass line that muscled its way to the heart of the next piece in a stereo bass stomp. Just as the music once more expanded, it then collapsed into a similarly playful drum dialogue between Panter and Hunter, which was to Cottrell's credit to allow improvisational space between the starry symphonic flights. With the doubled-up bass boogie leading off the coda, now joined by three furiously plucked cellos and the rest of the strings sawing mightily to the finish, Cottrell once again showed his mettle as a writer of both experience and depth, happy to grab a little of Snarky Puppy's prog fusion power for maximum sonic impact.

Ben-Cottrell-New-Seeing-6

A far more reflective piece, 'I Feel A Lot Better Now', inspired by a poignant note of forgiveness Cottrell read in a German church that was bombed in WW2, created a pastoral calm via a softly shimmering bed of strings, Jones' piano sparkling dexterously on top, like dappled sunlight on those sleeping tombstones Cottrell passed by; the mood evoked further by the sound of church bells played backwards and then fading at the end. It's vital to remember that the reality of creating hugely ambitious works like this takes time, and indeed money, to bring to fruition free from commercial pressure – that said, this never-before-heard piece attracted a near full house. So it's to the MJF's credit that they can provide opportunities to talents as prolific and impressive as Ben Cottrell's to fully realise this kind of visionary music-making and in turn give a little hope for the future of art and music in this country.

– Mike Flynn

– Photos by Felix Mulderrig

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