Golden Age of Steam / Matthew Bourne
(Vortex. Dalston. 3rd October 2012. Review by Alex Roth)
James Allsopp has over the last few years become one of the most important voices on the contemporary jazz scene in the UK, appearing with such acclaimed groups as Fraud, Kit Downes Quintet, Nostalgia 77 and World Sanguine Report. A masterful improviser across the family of reed instruments, he is equally capable of incendiary solo saxophone explorations, freewheeling group interplay and rich melodicism.
His own band The Golden Age of Steam, which was launching its second album Welcome to Bat Country (Basho) at The Vortex, is a vehicle for Allsopp’s writing and band-leading. In fact, although each of its five members are noted soloists in their own right, the focus here is very much on developing a cohesive band sound rather than showcasing the individuals therein. The original trio of Allsopp, Kit Downes and Tim Giles certainly each had moments in the spotlight, but (perhaps even more so than on the record) the improvisations always served the compositions – even to the point of the listener being sometimes unsure as to which was which (a good thing in my book).
In the new, expanded line-up, electric bassist Ruth Goller added extra punch to the low end of the frequency spectrum, strumming out gritty riffs one minute and employing an arsenal of textural effects the next. With Downes using both Hammond organ and Nord synth, and Giles adding electronic percussion to his kit, the band operates very much at the crossroads between electronica and improv, and the addition of laptop wizard Alex Bonney to the group is a natural step for the music. His warped samples and live processing provide the glue that holds the acoustic and digital realms together, with Giles often functioning as a kind of textural orchestrator.
Allsopp leads the band through his intricate charts with tenor sax arabesques, pithy clarinet lines and skronk baritone, but it was unfortunate that the sound levels sometimes prevented us from hearing the full range of detail in his playing (especially given the quality of sound on the album). Nevertheless, at times the impression of a single acoustic voice straining to be heard over the thick tumult of organ, bass guitar, electric percussion and samples was a powerful effect.
Allsopp’s verbal introductions to his tunes are hilariously surreal – Butter Dome for example was apparently written in commemoration of Downes’s former career as an obese motorcycle stuntman – and this sense of twisted humour pervades the music, making the album title’s nod to Hunter S. Thompson’s cult classic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” all the more pertinent.
The opening set by Leeds-based pianist Matthew Bourne deserves more than a passing mention. During a series of tightly focused solo improvisations Bourne set upon his instrument with an adventurer’s curiosity and a painterly sense of form, teasing out every conceivable nuance from inside-piano bell-tones to violently exhilarating keyboard-bashing.
Displaying a masterful control over the flow of his pieces, Bourne often alternates rapidly between two or more sharply distinct ideas, developing each independently until they collide in impossibly brilliant ways. In one piece, virtuosic Nancarrow-esque freneticism was juxtaposed with chorale-like harmonies which in this context took on an achingly nostalgic quality. It was as though Bourne were striving to return to a place (or time?) of greater simplicity but moving ever further away. In another, a simple melodic gesture provided the material for an ingenious study in motivic development. Another piece featured an unashamedly tonal two-chord cadence repeated over and over so as to induce an almost meditative stillness.
An incredibly wide-ranging set as a whole, there was nevertheless a robust logic in each individual piece and a natural (if unpredictable) continuity from one to the next. This was improvised music at its most immediate.
Golden Age of Steam’s new album – Welcome to Bat Country is due for release on Basho Records next monday the 15th October