Snarky Puppy – KOKO, 14 March 2013

Tonight, KOKO played host to Brooklyn-based band, Snarky Puppy: these guys have exploded in England in the last few months following their sell out London Jazz Festival debut in November 2012 at XOYO. Tonight KOKO is absolutely packed, with every type of person in the crowd, from groups of hipster teenagers to pensioners. First on is Mancunian jazz trio, GoGo Penguin. Their explorations into drum ’n’ bass and other urban influenced music made interesting listening, but you couldn’t help but think that the E.S.T. style jazz trio just wasn’t the right support for fusion monsters Snarky Puppy.

As soon as Snarky Puppy stepped on to the stage the atmosphere in the room flipped. Their ability to play to a crowd is incredible, having the whole room singing along and taking part in the performance. Led by bassist Michael League this nine-piece powerhouse lay down over an hour long set of seamless groove. The composition and arranging is impeccable, creating boundlessly interesting pieces that take the listener on a euphoric journey of hip-hop, funk and jazz. The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and will be played on Jez Nelson’s Jazz on 3 on the 8 April at 11pm. If you missed the gig, catch it on the radio – I know I will!

– Tim Doyle

Dave Brubeck: Godfather of jazz-metal?

Jamie Skey discusses the possibility that the late great piano innovator may have inadvertently given rise to a new wave of extreme jazz metal madness

At a glance, jazz music and heavy metal don't strike one as the likeliest bedfellows. On the one hand, jazz tends to swing towards, as Ben Ratliff of The New York Times put it, 'subtlety' and 'beauty', whereas heavy metal, on the other, is rooted in disaffection and the adolescent release of impotent rage. Often as not, jazz gigs are polished affairs, staged in sober, sit-down settings – candlelit pizza restaurants, for instance, or plush, midsize theatres. Attendees of metal concerts, meanwhile, are, to put it lightly, more inclined to let their hair down; the floor space at gigs commonly resembling the adrenalin-pumped disarray of an all-against-all gang fight, thanks to what are known in the industry as 'mosh pits’, 'circle pits’, and 'walls of death'.

However, due to jazz and metal’s perplexing, highly hybridised natures, first impressions don’t matter much. Look deeper and in actuality you’ll find that between the two there are many striking, stylistic symmetries: whether it’s jazz guitar legend Pat Metheny or Tosin Abasi (architect of prog-metal trio Animals As Leaders), both genres bank on bookish musicians who wield dazzling, virtuosic technique; both genres were begat by the blues and have since deviated from it, creating thrilling harmonic expanses thanks to what Joe Lester, bassist of LA prog-metal outfit Intronaut, calls ‘tall’ melodies and ‘chord progressions beyond those that are common in pop’; and musicians of both genres are wont to trade places, whether it’s Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo moonlighting for DJ Spooky of the New York avant-jazz scene, or Alex Skolnick, six-string shredder of Bay Area thrash legends Testament, turning his hand to swinging, laid-back jazz. All of which fairly well demonstrates that the match of jazz and metal is one made in heaven.

So when did the cross-pollination of jazz and metal begin? Fusion is widely thought to have been seeded in the early-1960s by founding father of the British blues boom Graham Bond. Bond, perhaps rock’s most influential keyboardist, brought together the knock-out powers of Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and John McLaughlin, forming the Graham Bond Organisation, whose debut album, The Sound of ’65, is essential listening for jazz aficionados and rockers alike. A year later Jimi Hendrix, who’d previously cut his teeth in Little Richard’s touring band, was, it seemed, communicating with alien life forms with his guitar, representing sonically the greatest leap in the sound of rock that had ever been witnessed. Hendrix indeed could get in the zone with the best of them, his Woodstock improvisation of ’69 proof, if it were needed, that he was much more of a fusionist than a straight-ahead blues riffer.

Later, in the late-1960s, the once ever-evolving trumpet doyen Miles Davis was turned on to Hendrix’s cosmic riffs by Davis’s then wife Betty Davis, and, as a result, so to speak, he shoved a rocket up jazz’s backside, detonating the visionary Bitches Brew in 1970. Later, Davis’s alumni, which included Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Chick Chorea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, became giants in their own unique modes of playing and formed various outfits that kept on rocking in the jazz world. Likewise, at the time, Frank Zappa was tapping into a rip-roaring, jazz-rock vein with his kaleidoscopic film-for-the-ears, Hot Rats.

However, if we were to turn back time to the 1950s, another equally inventive figure was setting in motion new, astonishing rhythmic approaches to jazz composition that foreshadowed the mind-boggling fusion sound that was to come: the late, great pianist Dave Brubeck, who died 5 December 2012 aged 91. Brubeck, although dividing opinion at the time by popularising jazz, was a true pioneer, fusing classical themes and complex tempos, and might now finally be considered the godfather of maths-inspired jazz metal. For he largely did away with the conventional 4/4 metre peddled by the restrained ‘cool school’ players of the late-40s, augmenting swing and classical fugues with polyrhythms and time signatures that look like algebra: his syncopated' Blue Rondo a la Turk' darted slyly in 9/8 time, while 'Take Five', his landmark composition, could get any dance floor going despite its odd 5/4 signature.

In honour of Brubeck’s pioneering spirit and his largely unrecognised invention of math metal, we take a look at five great modern jazz-metal groups who, even if they aren’t aware of it, owe a debt to the purist-infuriating American pianist:

Animals as Leaders

Self-taught, California-based guitarist Tosin Abasi started out as a metalcore shredder for brutally technical band Reflux, before honing his quicksilver-speed skills and melodic intuition at Atlanta Institute of Music. Driven by a new confidence, he then formed his solo project, Animals as Leaders, putting his newly learned jazz and classical techniques into practise. The result: a shameless display of painstakingly assembled, hyperactive and brutal progressive metal, tempered with gorgeous jazz breakdowns and hypnotic classical figures.

Cynic

In 1993, with the release of debut album Focus, Florida-based death-metal experimenters Cynic changed the face of an entire genre. On one album, they deftly fused extreme metal, psychadelia, jazz, new age and electronic to heart-stopping effect. Due to musical and personal differences, the band went on a twelve year hiatus ending in 2006. However they didn’t disappoint fans with their 2008 follow-up to Focus, Traced In Air, a more mellow, jazz-tinged affair.

Meshuggah

Swedish extremists Meshuggah, on the face of it, have decidedly more death metal leanings than jazz tendencies. Their lead shredder, Fredrik Thordendal, however, is evidently completely in thrall to one-time Bill Bruford axeman Alan Holdsworth, in terms of tone and technique. Their industrial, bludgeoning polyrhythms are notable for the fact that essentially each member, including vocalist Jens Kidman, is an integral part of the rhythm section.

Liquid Tension Experiment

For all intents and purposes, Liquid Tension Experiment are an instrumental incarnation of flamboyant metallers Dream Theater. Featuring John Petrucci, Mike Portnoy and Jordan Rudess of the aforementioned prog rockers, with the addition of King Crimson stick bassist Tony Levin, LTE blend synapse-popping avant-garde metal with hilariously immaculate jazz improvisation, which can be enjoyed on two studio albums and a live box set.

Behold...The Arctopus

To describe this Brooklyn-based instrumental trio as complex and challenging would be the understatement of the year. Albums such as Nan-Nucleonic Cyborg Summonings and Skullgrid are frightening examples of what can be achieved when the human brain and limbs are forced to function at their very limits. Dense and assaulting, BTE are a tech-geek wet dream (or nightmare)… and then some.

– Jamie Skey

Orrery by Corey Mwamba – Derby Assembly Rooms, Darwin Suite, 30 November 2012

Corey Mwamba’s piece, Orrery, commissioned to celebrate 30 years of Derby Jazz, connects an expansive range of ideas and local cultural heritage as well as being an exhilarating piece of creativity.

The Midlands was once at the heart of 18th century scientific thinking and the Lunar Society involved the most prominent thinkers, philosophers and industrialists of the time. Science was emerging from alchemy and our relationship to the cosmos through astronomy was being refined. With these roots Derby improviser and composer Corey Mwamba describes his piece as the musical rendition of a planetarium”.

This is a capacious work in sound, in which musicians become the planets moving physically through the concert space, orbiting the rhythmic presence of the Corey Mwamba’s trio – the heart of the sun. Mwamba has combined the musical mysteries of Coltrane, Miles and Sun Ra to create a powerful piece of improvisation with a scholarly basis in local history as well as cosmic concerns.

The piece is named after a painting called ‘A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery’, by celebrated mid-18th century Derby painter Joseph Wright. Regarded as a masterpiece of British art, it features a group of people being shown how the earth revolves around the sun by a travelling scientist, one of the entertainments of the day. The people are positioned like planets themselves around the clockwork Orrery, the light on their faces showing the awe of this new scientific discovery.

The sun was now known to be the center of the universe, not the Earth and the planets revolved around it. An Orrery was a device depicting this motion and must have encapsulated the magic of early astronomy, changing how people viewed themselves, their relationship with religion and the world around them. Picking up on this, Mwamba asks that we suspend our reality and engage with the expansive nature of the cosmos through the interplay of planetary musical themes.

The piece is worked around improvisations on musical motifs from six musicians playing the different planets. Mwamba conducts around variations played at different stages of their orbits as they move around the auditorium. “It’s more like waves – the audience hears a slow succession of melodies falling on them.”

Mwamba’s trio forms the Sun and rhythm section for the piece, which he conducts barefoot from behind the vibes. Joshua Blackmore also from Derby is on drums, Dave Kane on bass.

Graham Clark, plays Mercury on violin. Saturn, dark and mysterious is played by Nottingham born Tony Kofi on baritone sax. Julian Siegel is Jupiter on bass clarinet; Venus, the brightest object in the night sky is tenor sax from Jan Kopinski and Mars is played beautifully on trumpet by 17-year old Alex Suckling ¬– his face reminiscent of the children in Wright’s Orrery painting, awestruck, entranced.

Finally, Earth is improvised with gentle and soulful clarity through the voice of Deborah Jordan, who’s tones weave a superb trajectory with the other planets around the rhythmic heat of the trio’s Sun.

Mwamba has created something rich and transcendental, imaginative and deep, conducting the individual planets to variously harmonise with, react to, drown out or complement the wider musical environment.

The result is stimulating and often transporting, steeped in history, the science and art of The Enlightenment and above all, located in geographical time and space through three centuries of the county, which commissioned it.

This work is rich and otherworldly and judging from the faces in the crowded hall, is imbued with an illuminating and energising dimension.

– Lyn Champion

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