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Review: Colin Towns Mask Orchestra

Colin Towns Mask Orchestra, Ronnie Scott’s 2010
Photo credit: Roger Thomas

Colin Towns Mask Orchestra
(Ronnie Scott’s, 30th September 2011. Review by Patrick Hadfield)

More than a year since their last outing at Ronnie Scott’s, Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra were back in Soho last week, this time playing Towns’ tribute to Miles Davis’ electric period, “Visions of Miles”, which he recorded with regular collaborators the HR Big Band in 2009.

Squeezing onto the small stage, the many members of the orchestra spilled into the audience. Towns conducted from the front of the audience – and those sitting close to the band will have had a blast.

This is not easy music to adapt and present, if only because it is so well-known. Towns didn’t simply transcribe the original pieces: he created new music, full of texture and depth. Much of Miles’ original music from his electric era was famously cut together by his producer, Teo Macero creating the tracks we are now so familiar with. Towns has added another layer, another dimension, by reworking the riffs and themes, turning famous solos into the tune and having musicians play solos over them.

Whilst most of the material came from Davis’ electric period, with compositions from albums from In A Silent Way through to Tutu, Towns included a piece from Gil Evans’ orchestration of Porgy and Bess. Towns explained that he thought Evans was central to Davis development and his willingness to embrace rock rhythms in the invention of jazz-rock.

The spirit of Evans as well as Miles was ever-present in this gig, Towns’ rich arrangements clearly influenced by Evans. Towns’ use of trombones didn’t always work for me, and once or twice it felt as if he had taken the easy option of scoring for Steve Lodder’s synthesiser when he had a whole orchestra available to recreate the sounds of the sixties. The band were impressively funky, and the trumpets led by Henry Lowther did a superb job of reinterpreting Miles’ trumpet. Julian Siegel and the rest of saxophone section were excellent, too.

My one real quibble rests with the audience: where I was seated, there was loud, non-stop chatter; the music was loud, so the tables nearby must have been very loud for me to hear them over the band, despite them being asked by a members of Ronnie’s staff to be quiet. This lack of respect for the musicians and the rest of the audience was unforgiveable, and marred an otherwise excellent concert.

ronniescotts.co.uk / colintowns.com

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