Mathew Herbert’s previous work under other guises (Herbert, Wishmountain, Doctor Rockit, Rockit Boy) has often tended toward the cerebral. His latest ‘Big Band’ project is no exception.
Born from experimental pieces produced for the soundtrack of Blanca Li’s breakdance documentary Le Défi, the big band concept evolved into an album of its own, Goodbye Swingtime, on which the touring show is based. Working originally with samples taken from existing recordings, for the album Herbert enlisted the help of veteran arranger Peter Wraight, who adapted his ideas for live performance by a 16 piece big band.
Having previously played a number of one-off gigs at various events, including last years’ London Jazz Festival and Sonar, this evening’s show at the Barbican marks the end of an 11-date UK tour.
Support throughout has been provided by the Norwegian pianist and producer Bugge Wesseltoft and his quintet. An early exponent of jazz/house fusion, Wesseltoft has continued to experiment with combining elements of dance music and live improvisation. His latest album, Film ing, on his own Jazzland label, is comprised entirely of edited live recordings, and it is this album from which tonight’s set is drawn.
From the hushed opening pad of ‘Skog’, each of the band members enters in turn: Ole Morten Vaagen on bass, Rikard Gensollen on percussion, Jonas Lonna adding scratched samples on turntables, and Andreas Bye on drums, slowly and delicately building a solid mellow groove around which Wesseltoft weaves beautiful freestyle riffs on a vintage Rhodes. The endearingly quirky Wesseltoft also handles live mixing of the group and sequenced elements from the laptop, finding time in between to add the occasional, unexpectedly sweet vocal harmony.
Things move up a gear with the tribal rhythms of ‘Hope’. Built around an emotive, progressive synth phrase, this sounds like true ‘future jazz’. The floating, mystical vocals, while somewhat losing their hypnotic effect with Wesseltoft’s manic button bashing and instrument hopping, fit perfectly with the track and make it one of the highlights.
The bleepy intro of ‘Hi Is?’ takes us into more leftfield territory, with the mangled sound of a harmonica barely holding together to sketch out a dirty, funky melody which the band pick up and run with, the piece developing into an all out 70’s chase scene soundtrack.
After this raucous excursion, the mood becomes more contemplative, with Wesseltoft taking to the grand piano, back to the audience and almost in thinker pose to play the wandering and loose ‘El.’ with one hand and a minimal accompaniment.
The set ends with the album’s title track ‘Film ing’. Here Wesseltoft’s improvisation is at its most inspired and exciting, as he pauses to think or look skyward before attacking the keyboard with an awkward lunge, often looking surprised at the funky result. The Herbie Hancock influence clearly shines through. The track seems to be winding down with suitably epic, cinematic chords, but, as he has done throughout, Wesseltoft takes things somewhere unexpected with the introduction of an off-kilter 4/4 beat for the coda. An apparent technical glitch results in a rather abrupt ending, a slight anti-climax to an otherwise spectacular performance. Seeing the band in full flow, freestyling on both traditional and modern equipment, you had the feeling you were seeing jazz in its most contemporary form, the latest stage in its evolution.
Following a short intermission, the lights dim once more and Matthew Herbert takes to the stage, looking dapper in a conductor’s jacket and carefully carrying with him a white tea cup and saucer.
Nervously greeting the audience, Herbert takes a last sip before raising the cup and saucer to the mic and tapping them together, letting out an amplified ‘clink’. Hitting a note on his keyboard, the sound is reproduced again. Turning to the rack of knobs and dials to his right, he begins to twiddle furiously, mutating the sound through stomach shaking lows and screeching highs. Echo’s and delay’s build it to a steady march as the band enter stage left, and, after taking to their instruments, they join the rhythm in perfect time and harmony. Things begin to swing, with Herbert even contributing the odd kick or punch, crooner style, to the brass stabs and crescendo’s.
After this impressive start, you expect some development. However, there are long early periods of the band simply following the score, Herbert looking on, with his back to the audience. When he does come in, with a sample taken live from a section of the band, it is sometimes difficult to hear his contribution, beyond a muddy background rumble. At other times the results sound amateurish, like early 90’s sampling techniques, sometimes jarringly out of time or tune.
The situation is not helped by Herbert’s bizarre on-stage antics; stomping around, pointing and nodding at the band and temporarily taking over conducting duties from Peter Wraight. Who is the band leader? You’re left feeling unsure and it makes for an awkward dynamic.
Things improve, visually and sonically, with the introduction of long time collaborator Dani Sicialiano to sing ‘Simple Mind’. Sampling the tearing of pages from the day’s edition of the Daily Mail, the track develops over a wonky swing beat. With the focus off Herbert, he is left free to improvise with live processing of Sicialiano’s powerful voice. Her presence helps bring a sense of balance to the stage and, as visuals are introduced on the big screens, and the band swap their instruments for newspaper, tearing in time, you can relax and enjoy the spectacle… before it descends into an all out paper fight.
As an interlude, Herbert breaks out his accordion, on which he is classically trained, for some tango with an implacably cheesy 80’s soul vibe. A definite lowlight.
Sicialiano returns for ‘Fiction’, accompanied by Herbert on typewriter, managing to coax out a funky beat and conga line. The visuals feature a slowed-down loop of Tony Blair lipsyncing badly to the lyrics, which looks cliché and out of place and quickly begins to grate. Is this the ‘acid political commentary’ we are promised in the program?
Later, the audience have the chance to participate in the creation process, balloons being thrown out to the front rows and the mic swung over to capture the mini parps of escaping air. Here, the complimentary tones of the balloons and the brass combine to form the most harmonious instrumental track of the evening.
For the encore, house rules are broken with the audience asked to contribute flash photography to a track based around, you guessed it, the sound of a camera. The music takes a back seat, as the audience snap away, and Herbert and the band snap right back. A light show adds to the strobing effect, the conductor swaps his baton for glowsticks and the show ends on a cheerful high.
The big band tour is an ambitious project, the task of live sampling such an unwieldy entity as a big band is a high wire act and Herbert deserves much credit for making it work as well as it did. There were moments when the music and visuals gelled and the show was as fun as big band should be. However, for all the high falutin’ concept behind the music, the show felt rather gimicky. What perhaps sounded groundbreaking on paper in reality comes across as little more than Kaoss pad trickery over generic big band tunes, with some props thrown in to keep the punters amused. It had swing, but did it mean a thing?
The Matthew Herbert Big Band, Bugge Wesseltoft
(29 April, 2004)