Review: Matthew Herbert Big Band

Matthew Herbert Big Band at Brecon Jazz Festival 2011
Photo credit: Finn Beales

Matthew Herbert Big Band (Ronnie Scott’s, Part of Britjazz Festival, 13th August 2011. Review by Sarah Ellen Hughes)

Q. How do you fit 100 musicians onto the stage at Ronnie’s?
A. Put a 17-strong big band in the hands of sampling wizard Matthew Herbert.

The Matthew Herbert Big Band has a unique sound. Quite apart from having a politically-charged theme throughout most of the program to challenge the audience intellectually, every sound the band makes is recorded and sampled there and then by composer/leader Herbert, a set-up to inspire and challenge the audience’s perception of big band music. For this band doesn’t conform to your typical idea of the big band swing, instrumental solos and the occasional song. No, this is a band that’s big, existing to play the music of Matthew Herbert’s mind.

The singer (on this occasion, a flamboyant Alice Grant) is a major part of the story-telling, so is featured in every tune. The music is an eccentric mix of retro-pop, electronica and funk-fusion, its messages cryptic yet hard-hitting. Here is a man with many things to say about the state of this world’s affairs, using the big band as instruments for his message. There were some awesome swinging moments, particularly in the appropriately entitled The Battle, as it appeared to be a battle between the live musicians and the ‘nutty professor’ bent over his desk working the samples.

Herbert didn’t restrict his orchestra to the sounds of the instrumentalists – he sampled water bottles being blown, slapped cheeks, the audience singing a high note, newspapers ripping – the musicians then showering newspaper confetti over their band-mates like school boys.

The juxtaposition of this carefree frolicking, the happy-go-lucky sounds of the big band, the robotic stature of singer and the band leader pumping out remixed words of political relevance was interesting, powerful and at times overwhelming. Herbert didn’t say much, leaving the audience to decide what the sacks over the head meant, or the significance of the trumpet section making rhythms by hitting batteries on the bells of their instruments. Luckily, I was seated next to a part-time-dep for the band, who divulged song titles and stories behind the performances (this one in particular was about a Brit who had had a phone charger in his hand luggage and was sent to Guantanamo Bay).

Matthew Herbert at Middelheim 2007
Photo credit: Eddy Westveer

I was grateful for the back-stories because otherwise a lot of it would have gone straight over my head. Herbert did, however, find it necessary to introduce a new piece – a poignant, moving and beautifully orchestrated piece about the Iraq war, using a beep (recorded from his new-born son’s intensive care unit alarm) to represent 100 people killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. He had initially wanted each beep to represent one person, but explained that the piece would have lasted almost 100 hours. The beep still outlasted the piece of music, even vastly sped up.

I feel inclined to raise the question of what was this band doing in a fortnight of programming intended to celebrate British Jazz at Ronnie’s, given that it was not playing jazz. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic evening of music, raucous at times, but highly engaging.

Categories: miscellaneous

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