Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Brass Mask live at the Oxford, 27 October 2014


In Brass Mask, Tom Challenger has created something infectious, powerful and fun. He draws a line from the most adventurous work going on in the London scene, firmly through Ascension, right back to the second line and beyond. Anyone doubting the faith to African-American tradition in forward-thinking contemporary jazz should keep quiet until they've given them a good listening-to.

While there's a hint of something academic about Challenger's going back to the sources, his appropriation and manipulation of Spirituals, New Orleans carnival tunes, and Haitian RaRa music is inspired. He has surrounded himself with some of the (other) finest musicians on the scene, and plays loud, terrifying, joyful music that makes you physically shudder, and makes you smile. (When they went to double time on Indian Red, I found myself covered in goosebumps and grinning ear to ear).

Before the gig, I didn't know what to expect of the billed addition of the Farfisa organ - it's not on the record, and I couldn't imagine what it would add - a testament, as it turns out, to my own lack of imagination. Hovering just behind the horns, Dan Nicholls was a smart sonic choice. He filled out the sound, and gave a couple of blinding, colourful solos - weaving in and outside of the tunes with gymnastic references to carnival music and the blues, all the time maintaining his own sharp style.

I feel a special mention should go to Challenger's cowbell playing. With his trusty tenor slung limp from his neck, he played some of the loosest percussion I've seen live - at times hanging back, at others pushing ahead hard, phasing from one extreme to the other within a handful of bars each time. It's these details - these elements of understated, vital control behind the thunderous mask of brass - that uncover not only how deeply he's thought about this, but how deeply each of the musicians love what's happening here at every single moment.

Of course, I could write a paragraph on each and every musician, but it's probably much more fun for us all just to listen... Here they are playing at Cafe Oto:

Brass Mask played upstairs at The Oxford in Kentish Town on 27 October 2014

Tom Challenger - Tenor Sax, Percussion
George Crowley - Tenor Sax
Rory Simmons - Trumpet
Alex Bonney - Trumpet
Nathaniel Cross - Trombone, Percussion
Theon Cross - Tuba
Dan Nicholls - Farfisa organ
John Blease - Drums

The album Spy Boy is available on CD or download from Babel Label. I bought it after someone else's gig at the Con Cellar - not sure why it was there - but I listened to it non-stop for about a month afterwards...