Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra. London, August 2010.

Over a month ago, I went to one of the best gigs of the year so far. I’ve been meaning to write about ever since, but other things seemed to get in the way…

The gig was Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra, the final night of Ronnie Scott’s celebration of British jazz. The Denys Baptiste Quartet were on first, and they played an excellent set of new tunes – some fine playing by all concerned, with great solos by pianist Andrew McCormack and Baptiste. They played some very enjoyable music. Baptiste has lots of ideas and an interest in science and complexity: one number was called Fractal Realms, another Quantum Sax. Schrodinger’s sax, perhaps…

In some ways, though, it was a shame that Baptiste was supporting Colin Towns: as far as I was concerned, it was very much Towns’ night. Towns’ 18 piece Mask Orchestra were crammed onto the stage, with Towns conducting from the front row of the audience together with some of the saxes.

It was an all-star band, featuring some of the best of British jazz, including Guy Barker and Henry Lowther on trumpets, and Alan Skidmore, Nigel Hitchcock and Julian Siegel on saxes. Siegel played a lot of baritone, producing a beautiful tone.

Towns writing and arranging is unique – the rich soundscapes he creates sound like no other composer: the standard yardsticks for big band writing don’t apply.

Much of the set was taken up with a suite based around themes from Kurt Weill – lots of “Mack the Knife” and “September Song”, but twisted and bent by Towns. He told a story about how he’d missed a call from his mentor, and by the time he could get back to him, Johnny Dankworth had died; he dedicated the suite to Dankworth.

The band made a glorious sound, lots of brass and saxes. On a hot summer’s evening, this was powerful music: the band gave it their all. Through it all, Stephan Maass’ energetic percussion powered away, bring a strand of continuity.

A rare outing for Towns’ orchestra, and a truly great gig.

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