REVIEW: Colin Towns Mask Orchestra at LSO St. Luke’s

The final full band curtain call at the end of the Mask Orchestra mini-tour

Colin Towns has  a prolific and successful career as a theatre, film and TV composer, but he has another side: his respect for the UK’s jazz musicians is unlimited (which explains the cover photo on the new double album Drama of him standing in Archer Street) , and his craft in writing for them in the context of the jazz orchestra is unique and original. Combine all of these, and what has emerged in the past year is the new album, and a short tour with a top-flight big band, of which this concert at LSO St Lukes in Old Street was the last of the series of three.

The impressive thing, what stays in the mind, was the boldness the scale and the power of the big band writing. It is as if Towns has come back to the Mask Orchestra – the last outings were in 2010 and 2011, reviews below – with a renewed sense of the sheer energy and vividness a big band can deliver. The period in between saw him more involved with the band Blue Touch Paper. Towns has also brought their more prevalent use of electronics to the fore in the context of the big band.

On one level, the compositions are adaptations, extensions and re-workings for the concert hall of existing theatre pieces, marking a celebration of Towns’ twenty-five years of collaboration, on productions all over the world, with the theatre director Terry Hands. In between the numbers, Towns explained this background, and gave a lively, in-the-moment explanation of how he wants to work when writing for the theatre: “We want to keep people involved during a play. Try to bring quiet, take a breath, to find yourself in a different place. I like going forwards.”

That last idea is,  perhaps, the point. In some senses this was a celebration, a retrospective. But musically it was more than that. In these pieces Towns has not stood still or wanted to look back, but has clearly developed and grown. The expectations of what the musicians should deliver have moved forwards. Some of the writing for lead alto Simon Allen  required him to scream, howl, dominate. The extensive percussion section, given their feature in Royal Hunt of the Sun at the beginning of the second half. are required to command the stage.There was some wonderful sardonic writing for full band reminiscent of Shostakovich’s theatre music  The outings for pianist Andrew McCormack were more of those pausings for breath, quieter moments delivered exquisitely.

Towns’ big band writing has found its most frequent expression with the salaried radio big bands of Germany, where you get a very different result than from this group of UK musicians. The result when those bands play Towns’ music are much more controlled and pre-rehearsed, as if striving for perfection rather than the impact or raw power off Mask. It is to be hoped that this music gets to be heard in other contexts – it deserves it –  but for freshness, for edge-of-the-seat excitement, the Mask Orchestra are almost certainly unbeatable.  



Cherry Orchard
Long Day’s Journey into Night
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern


Royal Hunt of the Sun
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The Cripple of Inishmaan
A Doll’s House
ENCORE: Royal Hunt of the Sun (reprise)


Trumpets: George Hogg, Graham Russell, Henry Lowther, Paul Jordanous
Trombones: Barnaby Dickinson, Tom White, Harry Brown,Roger Williams
Saxophones: Simon Allen, Graeme Blevins, Alan Skidmore, Mark Lockheart, Julian Siegel
Piano: Andrew McCormack
Percussion: Stephan Maass
Guitar: Chris Montague
Bass: Arndt Geise
Drums: Joshua Blackmore
Japanese percussion: Joji Hirota
Director/ electronics: Colin Towns

LINKS: Colin Towns Mask Orchestra Visions of Miles at Ronnie Scott’s in 2011
Mask Orchestra Kurt Weill Suite at Ronnie Scott’s 2010

Categories: miscellaneous

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