Mezzo Forte – Jerry Dammers Spatial AKA Orchestra.

So. These guys are a bit weird aren’t they.

Performing at Bristol’s Colston Hall on a Wednesday evening in April (the 7th to be exact), this was my first proper experience of live jazz, and it was… Interesting. It ranged mainly from excellent to awful, although it wasn’t the playing that was bad. Just what they were playing. Jerry Dammers (of Specials fame), seems to be making quite a noise (literally on some occasions) with this musical project of his, in which he and his orchestra pay tribute to Sun Ra (who I hadn’t heard of until I was told we were going to see JD and Orchestra) and thus,  apparantly there must be some seriously odd elements to Mr Ra.

The Orchestra played a good deal of well-known stuff, including a Satie piece (originally written for the piano), the Batman Theme, something by Mike Oldfield, which was brilliant – it is an excellent orchestra and their playing ability, together and separately, is brilliant – but for some unknown reason, they (or Mr Dammers?) thought it would make it better if they interspersed it with animal noise (what the hell?! The female singer was good, but why ‘sing’ animal noises when you can actually sing?), and FREE JAZZ. Whoever invented this (this was investigated later but I forget the name) should really be shot. There is no musical merit in going into a ‘jazz trance’ (there were a lot of these that evening) and playing whatever you want. It sounds terrible,  it does not fit into the rest of the music, it’s just noise, and makes your ears bleed! Why listen to that when you can listen to the wonderful ensemble of all the brass counterparts playing together? The only solo that was actually good was the percussion dude – just him on the bongos and he had the audience captivated.

In all fairness, Mr Dammers did sort of seem like a spare part some of the time – he was neither a conductor nor a player of a musical instrument, he didn’t really lead the orchestra and didn’t seem like one of the unit most of the time. But apparently none of it would have happened if it wasn’t for him so I suppose he should be there.

One of the best parts was the set and costumes. So elaborate! And so juxtaposed to a sit-down event in a fancy hall that, generically, the performers should have been wearing suits for. A clear favourite for most was the electric bass player in full Pharoah regalia. With sunglasses. It sort of fused Egyptian headdress with African outfits, and for technical there was a sarcophagus, figures with ‘keytars’ and other instruments, projections onto various parts of the stage, and I believe some form of car contraption strung up above the key section. All very odd but the set and costumes were excellent.

I should remind you it was a musical event, not theatre. Although it is pleasant when it’s more of an all-round performance, and people have actually seemed to care about the rest of the ensemble, as well as the music. Good call.

It was an enjoyable evening, but one of the best parts was the orchestra exiting through the audience, then continuing to play in the foyer of Colston Hall (with the band that was performing in the foyer at the time!), and then taking their music outside to the street as well. Now that is a good bit of improvisation, improv-jazz is not.

For next time, no animal noise and no free jazz. Other than that, excellent playing and an excellent orchestra – marvellous performance!


Elevator Music

Would someone please explain to me the whole concept/cult of jazz?!

In this case, it was some smooth jazz (ie. the stuff that’s not completely awful, is actually palatable to the ear, and can go on in the background without it interrupting too much of the current topic of discussion) that we saw. In a pub. Yes, a pub. A pleasant quiet-ish sort of pub that served cloudy cider. Although it had a few suspect continental lagers around too. Not your ideal setting for JAZZ (maybe a bar in New York? A “swinging club” in the deep South of America?) as such, but we chose neither the genre or the setting.

The players themselves were outstanding musicians – really quite excellent, although I rather feel the cow-bell was somewhat overused – and the way they played with each other was brilliant too. They were so in touch with each other that they could just start a tempo of sorts and everyone could join in with something. Just like regular jazz musicians. So one is led to believe this wavelength element is vital to playing jazz.

But what they were playing was just elevator music! It was the same beat every time, just the solos were a little different. But the crowd loved it. It provided excellent background ambience, but I found you could either ignore it completely and have a nice chat with a friend you had not seen in a while (maybe about “What the hell is this music?”), or you would get sucked in 100% and start subconsciously grooving away. There was no plateau, no middle ground. Alas. Was its purpose just to sit in the background, casually grooving away and creating a mild ambience of tack? Because if so, it does it very well indeed. It’s not like they can start playing a “number” and you yell “CHHOOOOOONNN!!” now is it?

Jazz to me seems very much to be a club or cult sort of thing, that if you get it, you love it. It also seems a little pretentious to me too, as, really, how much can one honestly like and merit elevator music? Where is the variation? Where are my lovely lyrics?! Fair play for varying the regular “song” format, but what is there to remember from elevator music? It all seems quite indulgent (for the musicians) in a “Let’s get our instruments and have a jam! Oh and there will be people watching” sort of way. But is there some merit to music that has just been created for your enjoyment on the spot? Possibly. But I rather want my music to have more meaning and thought involved. I find music means so much more if it actually means something in the first place, and it is not just music for music’s sake. I would quite like to know if anyone actually likes this music, because there is a reason it is called elevator music, and there is a reason it is only played there. You do not have to sit in an elevator for a whole evening. Now do you?