If there’s one defining aspect of jazz’s maverick status among other musical forms it’s the big band – an oversized unit that can truly explore the depth and breadth of musical possibilities – while at the same being often unwieldy and un-commercial by sheer weight of numbers. A prime example of this was Jerry Dammers' extraordinarily Spatial A.K.A. jazz orchestra (Friday, Barbican) that reached intergalactic proportions not just via its small army of top UK players, that included a horn section boasting the likes of Denys Baptiste, Nathanial Facey, Jason Yarde and Shabaka Hutchings (among others) but their near two and a half hour set explored a hugely varied musical universe too. Closing on a beautiful string-led mini symphony the horn section filed off stage and into the foyer of the Barbican where Sun Ra’s ‘Space Is The Place’ became a mantra like horn riff that soon found hundreds of happy punters suddenly witnessing a surreal jazz flashmob.
If Dammers' extravagant and eclectic tastes were happy flying around the jazz universe then last night saw Manchester-based Beats and Pieces Big Band bringing some streetwise grit back to the sometimes clichéd smooth swing brass-heavy units of yore like to perform. Bandleader/composer Ben Cottrell and his punchy sounding crew looked very at home on Kings Place’s wonderful wood panelled Hall One, that seemed to be at capacity with an enthusiastic crowd. Their winning combination of rock, electronic and drum and bass-edged riffs, that often built from small fragments of piano, that looped round as if played like a live sample, B&P were soon hitting the high gears rattling through solos and even using an a cappella vocal from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (played in via Ben’s laptop) in a smart bit of musical cutting and pasting. Impressive and enjoyable Beats and Pieces have a huge future ahead of them and will certainly win over the most cynical of jazz doubters with their sheer energy and enthusiasm.
Down at Ronnie Scott’s however it was bass guitar virtuoso Laurence Cottle who brought a sublime eloquence to his Portrait Of Jaco project, in a stunning recreation of the late great bassist Jaco Pastorius’ large ensemble pieces. Cottle, like almost every electric bassist who plays jazz, has been influenced by the former Weather Report star’s style that extended the range of Leo Fender’s humble four string bass guitar to include high pitched harmonics, lead melody playing and of course intricate sax-like solos. Yet Pastorius’ musical legacy goes way beyond his groundbreaking chops, and Cottle did an outstanding job of creating brand new scores that magnified the smallest musical details that often resulted in tender harmonic flourishes or dazzling multi-layered contrapuntal melody lines.
Among the highlights of Cottle’s inventive charts was a reinterpretation of Jaco’s infamous take on the tricky Miles Davis bebop head ‘Donna Lee’, which he originally played in a duo with just Don Alias on congas. This newly minted version saw the entire band tackle the twisting unison melody before Cottle’s score of Pastorius’ amazing solo was spread amongst the horns to create a mesmerising call and response, sub-classical mini suite. Cottle himself was a commanding presence on fretless, evoking Pastorius’ signature sound via punchy, syncopated bass lines and many fleet fingered runs across the neck of his bass, also reminding of just how far ahead of the curve the Florida-born genius really was. The star-studded band included the likes of alto sax demon Nigel Hitchcock, tenorist Julian Siegel, trombonist Barnaby Dickinson, the outstanding Gareth Lockrane on flute and the powerful and propulsive drumming of Gary Husband, all taking turns to shine. Yet the real star of the show was Pastorius' sometimes overlooked music that through Cottle’s genius-level scores illuminated the likes of ‘Continuum’, ‘Portrait Of Tracey’, ‘Used To Be A Cha Cha’, and forgotten gems such as ‘Holiday For Pans’ and ‘Reza’ with a new light, love and lustre. This is a world-class band that needs to be heard by a whole new generation and Cottle may just be the man to pass on the flame of this mighty mind-expanding, groove heavy, punk jazz.
– Mike Flynn