Shobaleader One take drum’n’bass to the dark side

Four figures take to the stage of The Concorde in Brighton, masked and robed like Kendo warriors – the leader slings a mighty matt-black bass over his shoulder and the band smash unhesitatingly into the mutated cop-chase funk of 'Cooper's World'. At the first beat, the masks light up in flashing multi-coloured LED displays that alter with every note they play, chasing across their faces like the console of a 1970s movie spacecraft.

This tour is the second outing for Squarepusher's Shobaleader One and his colleagues Strobe Nazard, Arg Nution and Company Laser with their live interpretations of Squarepusher's studio classics, and it's immediately apparent that this time they are determined to push the awesomeness quotient to the limit. There's so many effects on everything that it's sometimes hard to tell who's playing what – a relentless assault of slap bass and skittering drum breaks, like Level 42 gone over to the 'dark side', sitting beneath howling storms of ring-modulated noise from guitar and keys. Deliberately woozy tempo shifts even suggest the technical chug of death metal, and indicate the levels of musical skill and precision at work behind the sci-fi aliases – the anonymous masked jazzers are among the country's finest progressive players, and the 'Pusher himself is a phenomenal high-velocity bassist as well as being a cult hero to the crowd of frantically moshing drum'n'bass fans.

There's a risk that music this intense will suffer from diminishing returns over a 90-minute set but Laser's incredible energy pushes things along, always managing to take it even higher on surge after surge of pounding drums. Technical problems send a hapless roadie scurrying to the rescue with spare bass amps, but the band rise to the occasion and ride it out, leaving the audience dazed, deaf and ecstatically happy.

– Eddie Myer

Frank Williams' African Jazz Quartet bring South African sunshine to Oxford's St Aldates

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After Frank Williams left South Africa in 1978 he made his name in the UK in the 1980s playing with fellow South African jazz exiles in Chris McGregor's legendary Brotherhood of Breath and, later, Dudu Pukwana's Zila. For this show the tenor saxophonist brought his long history with township music to a packed upstairs pub room in Oxford. He was joined by guitarist Cameron Pierre, originally from Dominica, but a UK resident since he was 18, long-time collaborator Ghanan Kofu Adu on the drums and recent Royal College of Music graduate Ben Havinden-Williams on electric bass.

Tunes by both Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana were part of a first half dominated by Williams' long solos. He was on fine form and commanding attention, whether chugging away or exploiting his rich tone to full on a ballad that morphed into a semi funk. But even the authority of his playing couldn't conceal the fact that, with the exception of a brief sally by Cameron Pierre, his colleagues were rather tentative. Williams mentioned that the band hadn't rehearsed, so maybe this was the reason why.

Whether it was a half-time beer, the bandmembers getting more comfortable with one another or a desire to get on Williams' wavelength, the group upped their energy levels in the second half. Williams' tenor continued to be in the ascendant, but his colleagues were now making telling contributions. Williams' own compositions – 'Journey's Song', another semi-funk ballad with Cameron Pierre coming up with a neat Wes Montgomery-influenced solo and 'Cape Scape', inspired by the landscape seen through a bus window by the young Williams as he made the 10-hour journey from where he lived with his Grandmother to see his mother working in Cape Town – had echoes ranging from the pioneers of township jazz and the Jazz Epistles to the Trinidadian steelpan (this courtesy of Cameron Pierre's pedals, transforming the sound of his guitar).

The irresistible rhythms had begun to have an effect and there was a sunny atmosphere in the room with many of the crowd defying the lack of space and getting up to dance – unusual for Oxford, where audiences tend to be cool and detached. The inevitable demand for "one more song" led to a hasty conflab after which Williams led the quartet in a vibrant version of 'Hellfire', a tune that emerged from the mix of big band jazz with a traditional South African flavour in the black cultural hotbed of 1950s Sofiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg.

I wondered how this music would go down now in modern Johannesburg, but in Oxford the tune made a joyous climax to what, in the end, was a great night out.

– Colin May

Burning Bright: The Westbrooks Take On Blake At Kings Place

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The music of Kate and Mike Westbrook defies categorisation. This has been the case from the earlier days of the Brass Band and Hotel Amigo to now. Glimpses of jazz mingle with cabaret; tango with choral; classical with kletzmer. This concert – one set, no interval – began with vocalised ghostly spirits, as if to eerily invoke the presence of William Blake himself, rising to a crescendo to usher in Mike's anthemic piano and introduce each soloist. The London College of Music Chorus also played an integral part, in true democratic fashion, as befits the philosophy of Blake and his links to Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Kate Westbrook's vocals on 'London Song' led into 'Let the Slave', a tour de force introduced by Billy Thompson's violin, then featuring the strong and forceful singing of Phil Minton, with perfect pitch and diction, and the pertinent recitation of 'The Price of Experience' by Mike Westbrook. The choral chant with voiceover then allowed the violin's energy to aggressively underline the poem's point: "It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity... but it is not so with me." Blake's message as relevant now as then.

'Lullaby' spotlighted Chris Biscoe's fluent and sensitive soprano, while Minton demonstrated his vocal range with mellow and velvet tones. Of the two Kate Westbrook compositions, the success of 'Holy Thursday' lay in the way it made oblique reference to 'Let the Slave' and 'London Song', Blake's words again applicable to the present – "so many children poor... it is eternal winter there." Mike then carved out a solo like a painter layering paint, richly reworking with palette knife until resolution is achieved. And, all through, the choir busied itself with unearthly groans and demonic utterances. The choir's contribution to her other arrangement, 'The Human Abstract', wouldn't have been out of place in choral evensong, perhaps appropriately reflecting Blake's idiosyncratic religious leanings.

Blake's famous 'Tyger' was effectively portrayed by the deep growling resonance of Steve Berry's bass and the feline percussive hiss of Billy Bottle's vibraslap, then Kate's penchant for cabaret pushed 'Poison Tree' towards the tango, an abstract soprano and choreographed violin thrown in for good measure. Minton approached the cautionary tale of 'Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell' in a soulful manner before engaging in his trademark vocal pyrotechnics, growls and yodels sitting on a choral bed. The finale moved away from the sorrow and desolation of the human condition; the poet's optimism in 'The Fields' segued into the stirring 'I See Thy Form', a glimpse of Blakean light shining through the dark clouds.

– Matthew Wright

Baker's Boys Spit Out The Bone At Leam Jazz

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There's a feeling that, in the past, British trombonists have tended to be overlooked or sidelined. The Goonish humour of George Chisholm's later years overshadowed the fact that he earlier recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller and Benny Carter. For every high profile player such as Chris Barber, there were numerous not so fortunate. This has changed to some extent, and a lineage now runs from Eddie Harvey, Roy Williams, John Picard, Campbell Burnap and Roy Crimmins through to Malcolm Griffiths, Nick Evans, Annie Whitehead, Dennis Rollins and Mark Nightingale. And that's ignoring the freer players like the late Paul Rutherford, Alan Tomlinson and Sarah Gail Brand. Increasingly they have fronted their own bands, and this was the case at Leam Jazz where Richard Baker's Quintet performed.

The quintet started tentatively – possibly not having played together for a while – and saxophonist Alan Wakeman had a bit of reed trouble from a new mouthpiece he was using. But after a few numbers things began to gel and there were good contributions from the percussive and expressive pianist Al Gurr, Tom Bull's full and resonant bass and Alan Savage's busy snare. Of the frontmen, Wakeman needs little introduction, his pedigree established from past associations with Graham Collier, Mike Westbrook and Barry Guy etc.

It was Baker's night though, and he seldom disappoints. Based in Rugby, he has a history of playing in classical orchestras (CBSO, English Symphony Orchestra, etc), in small groups with Mark Nightingale, Karen Sharp, Bryan Corbett, Adrian Litvinoff's Interplay and others, as well as swing and modern big bands. As a result, his technique is polished and tone distinct as he runs the whole gamut of growls and glissandos, speed and agility in handling the slide, thoughtful use of mutes and long melodic lines. He also relates to his colleagues in the band, listening and responding, and the passages of his trombone in unison and counterpoint with Wakeman were particularly strong. The second half, comprised of entirely J.J. Johnson-related material, included 'Bag's Groove' in which Wakeman's tenor effectively substituted for Kai Winding's trombone opposite Baker's J.J. horn. Another 1954 number was 'Lament' in which Baker soloed with great lyricism and sensitivity. Their version of 'Syntax' (based on 'I Got Rhythm') elicited a suitably apt comment from the audience, "Don't mention it to the Chancellor!".

– Matthew Wright

Verity Lane journeys the Japanese sublime in North London

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This multi-media production has a breadth of ambition that is matched by a depth of virtuosity. Music, dance, poetry and animation are brought together with great coherence and discipline by an ensemble of performers marshalled by producer-composer and sound artist Verity Lane in a strikingly original exploration of Yugenism or 'the Japanese sublime'. In real terms that means that Lane, a Londoner who lived in Japan for a decade, collaborated with three animators and a traditional dancer to find an original take on the country's classical music, which yields a fluidly shifting narrative over four pieces – or sound installations – that have a darkly atmospheric, theatrical slant.

From the positioning of instruments to the lighting and changing configurations of the ensemble the work feels very much like a series of scenes, monologues and duets, an intimate tableau enhanced by the presence of no more than three musicians on stage at a given moment. In any case, the bass koto played by Etsuko Takezawa is as much dramatic objet d'art that irresistibly draws the audience's gaze as it is compelling source of sound. A gorgeously burnished curved wooden frame streaked with strings, ivory bridges and tuning pegs the instrument is akin to a pre-industrial loom or a small ship in the imaginary world evoked by Lane, a place where there is indeed a boat drifting in turbulent waters, blue butterflies, dancing leaves (borrowed from Wordsworth, no less) and cranes which duly assume human form.

Wearing thimbles on her fingertips Takezawa vividly weaves Lane's scores into life and the timbre of the koto is startling for the unique evocation of metal, silk and wood that has a faint undercurrent of bluesiness recast to a zither rather than guitar. The frequent slides of pitch create a sense of sound curling, quivering and wavering that reinforces the image of choppy sea, and this harmonises excellently with Liam Noble's piano in the latter stage of the piece where the dissonant pluck of the strings and rumbling low notes come well to the fore. Yet a marked relief from these more confrontational flurries is provided by Clive Bell's shakuhachi flute and Ko Ishikawa's sho, both of which introduce a serene, almost hypnotic warmth to the stage. The former is as much notes around breath as it is breath around notes, and Bell's unfailingly precise articulation is such that his long tones hover languorously in the air, while Ishikawa's chords, drawn from an instrument akin to both mouth organ and pan pipes, are well layered without being muffled. At times the melodies are like swirling mist.

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All these sounds serve Lane's compositions, which have a stark, spare harmony, dot-dash motifs and a subtext of mystery that also permeates the other elements deployed in the production. Animations provided by Etienne Eve and Barry and Rowan O'Brien depict polychrome shapes while Kaho Aso's choreography is sharply mapped through obtuse and acute angles as if she were moving seamlessly between forest and sky as well as exaltation and endeavour. The steps frame the music with an apposite blend of beauty and gravitas.

Last year Evan Parker's collaboration with Noh musicians at King's Place was a highlight of Anglo-Japanese music in London. The fact that Lane unveiled this work at the T Chances venue in her birthplace, Tottenham, a manor that is not usually associated with avant-garde creativity, and that it is well attended by a predominantly local crowd, is a golden shot aimed at those who might choose to stereo-trash the area.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Sean Kelly 

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