Last time Jazzwise took an evening to see Bex Burch’s out-of-the-ordinary quintet was on a lively Saturday night at Dalston’s renowned live music oriented dance club Passing Clouds. This time, celebrating the launch of their debut album Good is Good (see October 2015 issue for a review), the Afro-jazz minimalists had a comparatively challenging Monday night at East London’s Rich Mix to entertain, but it only took a few of their fiendishly intricate yet undeniably groove rich rhythms to get the crowd moving.
The five-piece are centred around Burch’s homemade gyil xylophone, supported by a wholly intriguing arrangement comprising an array of hyper-talented up-and-coming jazzers: George Crowley (sax), two full drum kits played by Simon Roth and Dave De Rose, with Dan Nicholls providing keys and synth-bass. Burch studied percussion with the Dagaare tribe in upper West Ghana, and these lessons coupled with adoration for Steve Reich’s polyrhythmic approaches give Vula Viel their highly unique aesthetic.
Opening with ‘Bewa’(arguably the most memorable tune off Good is Good), the band then proceeded to lock into several entrancing rhythmic odysseys. What’s remarkable about Vula Viel in a live setting is how far their music deviates from 4/4 rhythms, yet still maintains a danceable fluidity. For the most part they’re ploughing through constantly shifting god-knows-what time signatures, yet occasionally linger in more conventional territory and do exceptionally well to punctuate the funk that can be found in a 3/4 or even a 6/4.
At times energy levels would reach a peak and an easing off would become a necessity, often taking the form of a gleefully executed solo from Crowley, who eclectically sported a t-shirt depicting Detroit techno titan Jeff Mills. His virtuosic endeavours lay on a smooth bedding of synth tones from Nicholls – moments like this proved the sense in having this unorthodox ensemble.
By the final number ‘Yes Yaa Yaa’ each member of the group was fully in rockstar mode along with virtually the entire crowd enjoying a dance. Burch in particular was uproariously bouncing and head-banging, not in the least bit bothered by her long curly locks flooding her entire face. The audience were invited to engage in a call and response, shouting back “YAYA KOLO!!” (Dagaare for "I beg") with surprisingly commendable results both rhythmically and tonally – an audience full of musicians no doubt.
Burch has previously said Vula Viel rehearsed for 18 months prior to performing live due to the complexity of their repertoire, and it perhaps also this attributes to a shortness of material, which became apparent when they encored Bewa despite having opened with it. This was no matter however as the group engaged in a punchier and more pounding rendition of the tune which corresponded with the audience’s energy levels that had built up throughout this fantastic performance.
– Jake Williams