The striking cover of the new The Filthy Six EP Soho Filth (Live from Dean St Studios) reflects the colourful origins of the London-based sextet, who began their journey playing in The Tatty Bogle club in Soho, writes Martin Chilton.
“We started about 20 years ago doing monthly nights in this gritty little basement club, so we based the EP cover on photos from that era. It made sense to make a story of that,” says trumpeter and founder member Nick Etwell. It is fitting that the band will be showcasing the new EP on 18 January at nearby Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, a venue he described as “the Mecca of British jazz”.
Two decades ago, when Etwell was playing in the Trinity College of Music Big Band, guitarist Jerry Haglund suggested the newly formed group of musicians played their ‘Boogaloo music’ at a club in Soho he knew. At the time, they called themselves The Blackjacks, after the Donald Byrd track of the same name.
Although he studied classical music at the Royal College of Music for his degree, 47-year-old Etwell, who grew up in Derby, had been into jazz since his early teens. He vividly recalls hearing a track from Jimmy Smith’s The Cat played on a local radio show, and the impact it made. “I thought, ‘wow, what is this?’ At the time I had two paper rounds that gave me about £15 a week. I would get the bus into town and spend most of my money on jazz records. I remember buying a Blue Note Heroes of the Hammond compilation and it got me hooked on the sound. That lit the touchpaper for what eventually became The Filthy Six”.
The whole Blue Note and Prestige Records sound entranced Etwell, who cites Blue Mitchell, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd as his favourite four trumpet players. “I love Lee Morgan and Freddie’s fire and creativity, and Mitchell’s lyricism. I adored Byrd’s albums Mustang, Blackjack and Fancy Free. Byrd had such a soulful, rich sound. He’s got the chops, but he holds it all back and just grooves along nicely on those records,” adds Etwell. “That’s why we took the name The Blackjacks. But we found out there was a band in Las Vegas called Blackjacks, so in rehearsal one day we started chatting about new names, and the club we played was such a dingy, filthy little place that someone suggested The Filthy Six. It was also half the Dirty Dozen, which we liked, and it stuck”.
The Blue Note sound remains an integral part of the group’s make-up and their captivating EP, released on Color Red Music, has four vibrant tracks: Mr Shmingle Bangle, Swapsies, In Time and The Swagger Junkie, all composed by Etwell. The opening track reflects Etwell’s own musical journey. “I basically wrote the Mr Shmingle Bangle tune when I was doing my GCSE Music compositions, back in 1990. I think it was called Fun Child at the time,” explains Etwell. “It was a tune that was always there in the back of my head, but I thought it was almost too twee for the band. It was only in the first summer of lockdown, when I was listening to the album The Cannonball Adderley Quintet at the Lighthouse, that I began playing around with the tune again. I listened to Adderley’s track Azule Serape and thought, ‘maybe I could do something similar with that old tune.’ While reworking it, I was reflecting on friends no longer with us, and I thought about James Bush, my old college roommate, who was a big Latin fan. James had quite a line in nonsense speak and one of his favourite phrases was ‘Shmingle Bangle’. So I turned the tune into a tribute to him. It’s funny that song has been on its own 30-year musical journey.”
Etwell composes all his tunes on piano, his original instrument before the trumpet took precedence. He spent 13 years teaching jazz piano at King’s College School, Wimbledon, and among his most celebrated students was Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons. Etwell has joined the folk-rock band on most of their tours and recordings over the past decade. “Ben was one of my first pupils. I taught him for six years, and also coached him and Marcus (Mumford) in a jazz group at school. Marcus enjoyed jazz lessons and was actually a good drummer! They both appreciate jazz and still listen to it.”
Etwell says his most memorable gig with them was headlining The Glastonbury Festival in 2013. “Ronnie Scott’s club is the pinnacle of jazz in Britain and Glastonbury is the biggest music festival, one people talk about all year round,” he says. “Glastonbury has got this mythical element and it really is an incredible place. I’ve played there with The Filthy Six many times, including headlining the old Jazz Lounge tent, but performing on the Pyramid Stage was amazing. Glastonbury is such fun, and hectic, because you end up running round all over the place doing extra gigs with friends. One year, I played nine gigs over the weekend!”
Other fantastic opportunities have come his way. Etwell has played with Mavis Staples twice, including one time at the Newport Jazz Festival, when he joined the gospel great and Mumford & Sons for a version of The Weight, on which Brandi Carlile, Maggie Rogers and Phoebe Bridgers joined in. “Mavis Staples has an aura about her. Her voice is so unique, with its own raw, smoky quality,” he remarks. Etwell also offers a vivid image of working with Tom Jones, on a one-off television special. “Tom Jones has always been a hero, and even in rehearsal he is something special,” Etwell recalls. “He came to the side of the stage and it was like a bull who was about to charge, almost like stomping his feet, ready to go. The raw energy when he walked out was incredible.”
The words “raw energy” capture something of the appeal of The Filthy Six themselves. Mark Brown (tenor saxophone), James Fenn (guitar), Pete Whittaker (organ), Daniel Drury (electric bass) and Simon Lea (drums) also play on the EP, along with special guest Snowboy, who plays congas on Shmingle Bangle, the one track on which Etwell plays flugelhorn. The sessions at Dean Street Studios were organised by Sennheiser and Neumann, who were looking for a band to showcase some of their products in sessions that were filmed and recorded digitally.
Etwell, who realised that they had enough material for a whole new album, later took the band back to the Fish Factory studio in Willesden to record a full length album live, straight to analogue tape. “The beauty of recording live is that you can capture the energy and funkiness of six musicians playing in the moment, caught in one or two takes and spurred on by the nervous energy and excitement of having to produce it there and then, with the same impetus as being live on stage,” he says.
As well as cutting different versions of the four EP songs, there are new tracks and a sextet version of a tune called 911 Blue (for George) which Etwell wrote about the death of George Floyd in police custody. Etwell also recorded a version of that particular song with a quartet, featuring Bill Laurance of Snarky Puppy on piano. Proceeds from that song, released in early December 2021, will go to the Black Lives Matter Global Network.
January’s Ronnie Scott’s concert offers the chance to hear their captivating new repertoire, including the good old fashioned boogaloo blues of The Swagger Junkie, in more salubrious surroundings than those Soho basement gigs two decades ago. “Ronnie’s is a magical place, full of history,” says Etwell. “And it’s fun to see that our Soho story has come full circle.”
The Filthy Six play Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on Tuesday 18 January 2022.
Categories: Feature/Interview (PP)