Space Is The Place: three big bands in London. October 2009.

I’ve seen three big bands in the past two weeks…

Two were on the same bill at the Vortex. I walked in to the middle of a set by the Guildhall Jazz Orchestra, made up (I think) of students from the Guildhall jazz course, led by Scott Stroman. I must have said it before, but there is something just joyous about the sound of a big band – all that brass just makes me smile. Broadly! The Guildhall Jazz Orchestra made a lovely sound in a set of originals with a couple of standards thrown in (any band that plays Goodbye Pork Pie Hat gets my vote).

They were followed by the London Jazz Orchestra, also led by Stroman; the Guildhall made a lovely sound, but the LJO were a couple of steps up: that bit more polished and professional, and, frankly, more certain what they were doing. It was a glorious sound! Maybe they are just that bit more experienced – the Guildhall students are just beginning their careers whilst the members of the LJO regularly feature big name players.

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The only name I recognised in this gig was trumpeter Henry Lowther, but I hope I get to see other members in the next few weeks – they were pretty impressive, with impassioned solos all around.

And then… And then I saw the wonderful maelstrom that is tHE SponTANeoUS CosMic Rawxtra [sic!] at Kings Place, a pretty smart new venue. The low point: the number of people who turned out not enough, and this music deserved a lot more attention. The high point: ninety minutes of captivating orchestrated improvisation. This was brilliant and exciting music, several steps up from LJO (which doesn’t detract from the LJO at all!). The Cosmic Rawxtra were heavenly.

Taking his lead from the extraterrestrial meanderings of Sun Ra (the only jazz musician from Saturn. Apparently), Orphy Robinson “curated” the Rawxtra incorporating bits of Ellingtonia (a slowed-down version of the riff from “Blue Pepper” played on flute and bass clarinet set again furious double- or triple-time drums and percussion) and segments of modern jazz (another piece seemed to be based around the ubiquitous bass theme from A Love Supreme).

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I recognised two Sun Ra numbers – “Love In Outer Space” and “Space Is The Place”, but these were arranged to fit the Rawxtra’s unique sound. Cleveland Watkiss scat singing was excellent (happy birthday, Cleveland! – I don’t like jazz singing, generally, but Cleveland was part of the band, not in front of it – and HKB FiNN‘s spoken words – poetry? rap? Whatever – worked really well. The flutes of Rowland Sutherland and clarinets of Shabaka Hutchins were suitably ethereal, and Brian Edwards’ tenor and Ntshuks Bonga’s alto saxes were powerful. I loved the energetic, sometimes manic but subtle vibes playing of Corey Mwamba – there was a great duet between Mwamba and Orphy Robinson on marimba. (Robinson played pocket trumpet on one number, which surprised me – it was that kind of evening!)

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Behind it all, Camille Hands on bass and Steve Noble on drums and random percussion (with the occasional whistle thrown in) carried the music along; there was a really funky dub number, and a lot of free-ish jazz for Noble to get behind.

This was just great music: a celebration. Wonderful!

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