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Review: Colin Towns Mask Orchestra plus Denys Baptiste

Colin Towns Mask Orchestra plus Denys Baptiste Quartet
(Ronnie Scotts, August 13th 2010, part of BritJazz Festival. Photo credits: Roger Thomas for Mask Orch, Michael Stemberg for portrait of Denys Baptiste taken at Hideaway Live)

Hearing Colin Towns’ tribute to Kurt Weill the second time around, it hit home harder, touched deeper into the soul.

In Krakow last year the NDR Big Band had played it in the Festival. NDR had originally commissioned the work from Towns for the Weill centenary in 2000, recorded it for ACT , and it’s now a repertoire staple – hugely impressive as a showcase piece. Most of the Hamburg-based players have their main jobs in the band, and know the piece backwards. The performance had been meticulously rehearsed by the clean-cut and highly professional Jorg Achim Keller. I’d remembered above all the subtle exploration of texture .

This Ronnie Scott’s performance was a much more powerful brew, particularly intheclose confines of the club. It had massive, edge-of-the-seat energy. The next best thing to a printed programme: this blackboard outside listing the names of an astonishing band of top-flight London players. (Photo credit: Edward Randell) .

Colin Towns himself was conducting, and there was emotion in the air: he dedicated the performance to John Dankworth, who -as he did with so many young musicians- had encouraged Towns as a teenager, and helped him fulfil his musical ambitions.

What Towns brought out in the composition was the intensely dark character, the loucheness, the snarling insinuation of the Weill tunes. The re-harmonised Mack the Knife was pure evil.

Thoae players. I hadn’t ever heard Julian Siegel play baritone saxophone before. He was featured on Speak Low. And, guess what. He plays it with the same total authority which he brings to the tenor, the bass clarinet, or indeed the double bass. A complete revelation was Sting-collaborator pianist Dave Hartley. Another pianist to go straight on to my hear any-night-of-the-week list. His piano interlude before Speak Low was a highlight. A trumpet section, with Guy Barker at one end and Henry Lowther at the other is as definitive and first-call first-take as you get. Ralph Salmins on drums and Stephan Maass on percussion were the persomification of high quality teamwork.

I was there with the winner of our weekly newsletter prize draw. The condition for taking part was never to have been to Ronnie’s before. I enjoyed Xavier’s company. He was blown away by the performance, and no doubt he’ll be back to Ronnie’s soon.

Support act was the Denys Baptiste Quartet, playing tunes from Baptiste’s fourth album, Identity by Subtraction, due to be released on Dune Records in January

Baptiste’s compositions are intricate, and don’t reveal all their twists and turns on a first hearing. I look forward to the CD. In the title track drummer Rod Youngs did a particularly fine job of turning up the heat notch by notch, and got the liveliest applause of the evening for it. The whole quartet did a beautifully controlled fade to one tune which doesn’t have a title yet but might be called Fractal Realms. For a jazz-head, the delicate Special Times, a duo with Andrew McCormack, brings repeatedly to mind the standard Here’s that Rainy Day. That didn’t prevent the enjoyment of Baptiste’s gorgeous sound, of Gary Crosby’s big bass presence, of McCormack’s variety of colour. It was an enjoyable set.

The BritJazz Festival – look no subsidy/ sold out every night – has been a fabulous achievement.

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