Brass Mask’s Live (Babel Label) isn’t uncomplicatedly a live album. For this follow-up to their studio-recorded debut Spy Boy (2013), bandleader Tom Challenger set out: “to create a different base to colour the listener’s perception of the gig”. To this end he folded treated samples and loops spliced from rehearsal recordings into a 2014 live set that combined original pieces with New Orleans spirituals and street songs, with mid 60s John Coltrane and Haitian RaRa also cited as influences – a heady brew.
In lineup changes from Spy Boy: new recruit Jon Scott (Kairos 4tet) plays additional percussion (the following day he’d dep for drummer John Blease at another gig) and Dan Nicholls plays keys rather than reeds as on the album. Challenger and George Crowley play twinned tenor saxes in the front line alongside the brass section: Rory Simmons and Alex Bonney on trumpet, and the Cross brothers Nathaniel on trombone and Theon on tuba.
So the changes aren’t many – it’s essentially the same band – but with a broader instrumental palette, even before the studio gloss, they’re not so emphatically a brass-and-reeds unit any more. With no bass all the low end’s in the brass, and they can evoke the raucous swing of a jazz funeral at times.
The concert was held in the “boutique” (capacity 40) basement venue at Dalston’s Servant Jazz Quarters, and Ian ‘The Jazz Mann’ Mann’s report from the front line testifies that “the noise generated by the all acoustic front line of brass and reeds was almost overwhelming in such a small space.”
Live opens with a radically reconfigured version of one of Spy Boy‘s most immediate tracks, ‘Shallow Water’. The Jazz Mann remembers it as “a performance of great energy and joy, at times a little ragged around the edges.” Here its theme emerges blearily amid a muzzy concoction of studio-filtered applause and loop fragments titled ‘Francilia’.
The New Orleans traditionals ‘I Thank You Jesus’ and ‘Indian Red’ get more faithful reprises. Though predictably less finessed they’re both more vital for the live performance’s raw energy. The former, a slow-drag sleazy number dropped mid set, picks up on the rambunctious spirit that first breaks out on the second cut, ‘Lil’ Liza Jane’, the first of four new pieces here.
Imagine a marching band cutting loose at Notting Hill carnival, a ragged percussion tattoo and fanfare framing a handclap-tracked breakdown amid brass and reeds trading scuzzy licks, and that tuba keeping march time, and that’s ‘Lil’ Liza Jane’.
‘The Bague’ then ups the anti, and ‘Indian Red’ restores some blues gravity only pending a raucous and cathartic upswing.
Despite the studio tricksiness that emerges sporadically throughout (witness the abstract intro to the otherwise relatively grounded ‘NYODI’), Brass Mask’s playing is too vital and in the moment and too irreverent to be the work of New Orleans pasticheurs. And though shades of Loose Tubes inevitably haunt this music, on this evidence Brass Mask are more aggressively up for it than the 80s big band, more exultant, with a harder, more urban urban edge.
The kit percussion-driven, ‘The Merman’ kicks thing along on an ever more feverishly uptempo groove striated by impassioned tenor licks and horn riffs, surging toward the finale of a final Spy Boy revival, ‘Francis P’, this album’s most freely fiery cut with space for the unaccompanied twin trumpets to trade scalding licks.
It’s good to have this set out at last. My advance copy dropped through the letterbox over a year ago, and there have been at least two launch gigs since then. But hey, let’s have another. There’s not much else like this around, after all – nothing so ferociously and infectiously upbeat that I’m aware of on the current British jazz scene.
Tom Challenger & George Crowley – tenor saxophone, clarinet; Dan Nicholls – keyboards, percussion; Rory Simmons – trumpet; Alex Bonney – trumpet; Nathaniel Cross – trombone; Theon Cross – tuba; Jon Scott – percussion; John Blease – drums, percussion.
Gonimoblast (feat. Nicholls) – Always Darkest Before Dawnn.
Human (feat. Bonney) – Being Human.
Eyes of a Blue Dog (feat. Simmons) – Rise.
Bruno Heinen Sextet (feat. Challenger & Scott) / Dice Factory (feat. Challenger) – Tierkreis / Dice Factory.
Buy Brass Mask Live direct from Babel Label.