New nujazzfolk albums abound in Birmingham this spring. They’re all different, but with common threads. The musicians all work with each other, for a start. Tracking who plays where is bewildering. It’s musical promiscuity of the highest order, and as always with promiscuous behaviour – let’s put this delicately - cross pollination will take place. I think I’ll stop exploring that analogy any further before I get into trouble.
Both bands here are as much into Jazz as they are Folk. The key is experimentation, adventure, and a lot of fun on the side. The danger is that we take this brave and appealing work for granted. Please, don’t ever do that. Savour it; appreciate it, support it if you like; but don’t take it for granted.
Urban Folk Quartet
|UFQ: Broughton, Trigas, Moon and Chapman|
I caught their first two gigs – opening for Jo Hamilton at the Glee Club in Birmingham City centre, and their official lunch at the Cross in Moseley. Both were lovely, musicianly, powerful, confident affairs. I loved them, but I wondered then how they would fare. I didn’t have to worry. For a brand new operation, they’ve done really rather well…
“We were quite careful about when we became a brand new operation”, explains UFQ cajonista Tom Chapman. “We probably did a little bit more prep and rehearsal before we started gigging. After our first Birmingham gigs, we headed out to Belgium, Spain and Italy. It’s always been part of the ethos of the band to try and get work abroad. With Joe and Paloma s' histories, having travelled widely and built up some ready made connections, that’s how that part of things came together”.
It doesn’t hurt that they’re well connected. Joe Broughton teaches at Birmingham Conservatoire, of which more later, and he and Paloma Trigas teach at the Guildhall School in London. Tom also works with Joe for Music For Youth, and at the Barbican in London. So there is a certain academic cast to the band. Frank Moon, the fourth member of the band also teaches, has probably played in more bands in Birmingham than anyone else (of course, maybe you know better) .and is an examiner; and they all teach workshops too.
“Joe and I do a workshop called Folkworld in Devon, which is rather fun. Joe led a group at the Last Night of the School proms, with Music For Youth. They let me play cowbell… The workshops are all about live music and getting kids going, getting them really excited about music. We don’t use any notated music at all. No music stands… everyone’s standing up ”Tom’s background includes the excellent Old Dance School, who are also about to release a new CD, and session work with Katrina Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, TG Collective… and a lot of jazz. In fact, many of the nufolk musicians I’ve talked to recently are also seriously into jazz. So this is where I shot myself down in flames:
Why do you think the Folk scene is so much healthier than the jazz scene?
"Oooh. That’s an interesting one. It depends on how you define ‘healthy’. The jazz scene in Birmingham is amazing; there are so many people playing. It’s harder to create a full-time career out of it."Who would you cite as doing really interesting jazz in Birmingham at the moment?
“Michael Fletcher is really good. He runs a night at the Spotted Dog in Digbeth, every Tuesday. The bands that he gets up, every week, are fantastic. He’s a really good example of a graduate musician (from Birmingham Conservatoire) who’s doing really well. And Soweto Kinch, obviously. He’s someone who has managed to have a bit more mainstream success.… “UFQ’s Birmingham CD launch gig is right at the beginning of the March tour, March 3rd at The Yardbird. While you’re waiting, here’s something from 'Off Beaten Tracks' to whet your appetite.
On Saturday 3rd March, UFQ played a scorching and very showy set at the Yardbird in Birmingham. The crowd? seething and seriously up for it. You don't get that too often with Folk music. Great skill and musicianship I expected, and got; what really knocked me out was the old-fashioned showbiz savvy they built into their show. Haven't seen that since Horslips, ages ago..
|TG Collective: Barker, Pursglove, Fekete, Slater and Jones|
The kernel of TGC - Sam Slater and Jamie Fekete - were two thirds of Trio Gitano; when Sophia Johnson, departed for Western Swing and Country with Toy Hearts, Slater and Fekete settled into a more flexible line-up as TG Collective.
You’ve got a lot of different people working with you in the Collective. That implies flexibility.
“It’s fairly settled”, explained Sam Slater this week. “We are six musicians. Occasionally we’ll get special guests in, and have fixed deps when we need them. Depending on our set and venue, we also sometimes perform with Ana Garcia, a great flamenco dancer.”There’s a degree of musical promiscuity in Birmingham, where people fly from band to band, infecting each other with musical ideas…
“It’s true! There’s a lot of cross-breeding going on.”And how is it that the Folk/NuFolk/Experimental sector, which you are seen to be part of, is so much more prominent than Jazz? What’s your take?
“I suppose Folk has always been popular and perceived as more accessible for audiences, from the fifties folk revival onwards… And Jazz has (often unfairly) sometimes got ‘that’ image if people don't know much about it. If you sell yourself solely as a ‘jazz band’, it has to be different. It can’t be just another standard bebop tune if you're trying to do something new. And you have to be an incredible instrumentalist. In Birmingham it’s actually going rather well, with the Spotted Dog sessions, Cobweb Collective stuff, Harmonic Festival and Birmingham Jazz. I don't think we're particularly 'folky', but folk (especially some festivals) now seems to encompass a lot of broader styles all with their own followings – you can include singer-songwriters, world music, and an awful lot more. Even the Destroyers can find a place there”
After all this time, this is a first album for TGC. The album was recorded in a cottage in Shropshire, with two London-based engineers, Joe Peat and Alex Merola, both friends of the band, using portable kit.
“They took all the gear in; you could work to your own hours. If you wanted to do something at 2 in the morning, you could. It was a really nice vibe. Most of the material was put down there, with a couple of overdubs in London. It feels… right. Alex is Uruguyan, so has a different perspective on things, and that added to the mix. Him and Joe were just as important as musicians in the band, and now do our live sound as well. Gypsy Jazz is one element, Flamencos’ a second, and Contemporary Classical another ”And there I was thinking I was going to write up experimental Folk….
“Of course! But it’s quite hard to put your finger on it and say this is what we are”It’s been a long time coming.
“Yes. We didn’t finish with Trio until 2006, and the Collective didn’t start until later that year. It’s been a while. It took a year or two until we settled on a line-up that we were happy with. Logistically, recording was tricky. Various band members – there’s that promiscuity thing again - had other projects and family obligations.”Percussion is a newer element. Players who are part of the collective include Tom Chapman (see above) from UFQ and Joelle Barker from ADO and half a dozen other outfits. Louis Robinson of the Destroyers takes a key role; Percy Pursglove - Jazz lecturer at Birmingham Conservatoire - is now a fixture on trumpet and double bass.
All this is making me think about the role of the Conservatoire in supplying players, teachers, mentors and musos who have chosen to live and work in town. And the next steps for TGC?
“After taking god knows how many years to produce this album, finances permitting, we’ve certainly got another couple we’d like to do pretty soon. We quite like the idea of having a couple of full band pieces, and then me and Jamie working up two-guitar pieces, but with different guest players on Kora, Sitar… a different recording direction”Links:
Urban Folk Quartet site
TG Collective site