At London's Cafe Posk last year pianist Ivo Neame gifted free cupcakes to punters minded to buy his homemade ear candy: CDs. By his own admission Jim Rattigan is more of a savoury than a sugar man so he has remixed the culinary sales pitch and offers potatoes instead. The spud-u-like promotion neatly brings to the boil the strain of humour that marks this performance. Yet as playful and plentiful as the banter between musician and audience may be it does not deflect attention from an evening of impressive composing, arranging and improvising.
As a bandleader who plays the French horn, Rattigan could be seen as niche or novelty within jazz, and though his most notable musical antecedents – think Junior Collins, John Clark, Tom Varner – are relatively few the equally significant fact is that he is at the helm of a 12-piece orchestra, Pavillon bolstered by soloists like alto-saxophonist Martin Speake, drummer Gene Calderazzo and trumpeter Percy Pursglove. Playing material drawn largely from the recently reissued 2011 set, Strong Tea, the band is anchored by a potent rhythm section in which Calderazzo is joined by double-bassist Dave Whitford and pianist Hans Koller. They make a strong engine within the ensemble.
Rattigan's writing and arranging effectively marshal the large resources at his disposal in any case. The hard swing of the album's title-track and the carefully woven countermelodies of 'Dulwich Park' celebrate the grandstand flourish of big band vocab, but there are enough left turns taken throughout the gig to make it clear that Rattigan is very interested in channelling experimental energies into his scores, and some of the edgier it not harsher timbres may reflect his experience of working in unusually configured outfits such as the trio formed with pianist Liam Noble and violinist Thomas Gould several years ago. 'Parkwood Fair', inspired by the off-centre geometry of a twisted bicycle at a fete Rattigan attended, is a good example of the sound palette nuanced with imagination. A moody 6/4 lament in which brass and reeds are used sparingly, teasingly, tantalisingly, it builds slowly as Calderazzo skips funkily on the pulse. Haunting melodic combinations of Rattingan's French horn and muted trumpets eventually give way to a boisterous fanfare after which the whole band strides to the finale.
On this and other pieces the unique texture of the French horn comes into sharp focus. It is a low register instrument with an intriguing, pastel-like softness, something exploited by the far-sighted arranger Claude Thornhill and underlined by the fact that Rattigan is the only member of the horn section using a microphone, his phrases given the faintest electric flutter amid the acoustic purity of the other horns. Then again Rattigan's positioning on stage is noteworthy. Standing right in front of the double-bass and next to the trombones he is a micro-bass, a sotto voce bass within a bass unit, and it is the velvety, wistful delicacy and subtle swell of the notes that make the French horn much more than a curiosity.
Ultimately the overriding impression made by Pavillon is a joyous one and the scattering of snappy blues throughout the two sets lends a warming uplift to the evening that chimes nicely with the leader's good cheer. This is the penultimate gig of an Arts Council tour and the vibe is up. As befits the talk of hearty foodstuffs in cold, dry January, things wind up with 'Mung Beans.'
– Kevin Le Gendre