The Magic Hat Ensemble, The Hive, Shrewsbury, 10th April 2010
Review by Ian Mann (www.thejazzmann.com)
The Manchester based quintet Magic Hat Ensemble kicked off their UK spring tour with this enjoyable and entertaining evening at The Hive Arts Centre in Shrewsbury. Ironically the group’s itinerary brings them to my home town of Leominster on 16th April to play the town’s intimate Blue Note venue. By the time I’d learnt of this I’d already committed myself to covering Michael Janisch’s Saxophone Summit band in Pontypool so my only chance to catch up with the Hatters was here at Shrewsbury.
Led by trumpeter/cornet player Steve Chadwick this exciting young band also includes guitarist Tony Ormesher, pianist Andrzej Baranek, double bassist Nick Blacka and the excellent drummer Rob Turner. The band have recently released their début album “This Conversation Is Over” on the Yorkshire based Jellymould Jazz label and their imaginative arrangements of jazz classics have been very well received.
The quintet’s sound is based on the hard bop style but the Hat’s arrangements and general attitude to the music gives them an unmistakably contemporary edge. The group’s album features six extended work outs and we were to hear four of these tonight, the rest of the programme featuring as yet unrecorded material. The band’s repertoire is fairly extensive and it’s likely that a second album will appear in the not too distant future.
They kicked off with their as yet undocumented version of Horace Silver’s “How Deep Are The Roots” with Chadwick taking the first solo of the night, a marathon display of virtuoso open horned trumpeting that left me feeling breathless just watching him. Behind him drummer Turner set up a scalding swing, his ride cymbal sizzling like frying eggs. Guitarist Tony Ormesher was next to shine, coaxing dazzling flurries of single note runs from his silver strings. All the evening’s tunes incorporated extended soloing, often, as here, with the whole band being featured but the brightness of the arrangements and the obvious joy the band members took in each others playing ensured that this was no “going through the motions” head/solos/head exercise. It’s unfortunate that The Hive doesn’t have a piano and Baranek was forced to deploy a Roland electric keyboard that sometimes struggled to cut through the volume created by his colleagues. However his soloing and overall contribution left one in no doubt as to his considerable ability. Pugnacious bassist Blacka was hugely propulsive throughout the evening and proved to be a dexterous and often flamboyant soloist covering the full range of his instrument and often strumming it dramatically. It was perhaps though drummer Turner who proved to be the band’s star instrumentalist. Not only was his drumming powerful, swinging and dynamic it was also highly colourful with a variety of sticks being deployed, plus his bare hands in the more impressionistic moments. Turner’s cymbal choices, his use of sticks on the rims and his overall technical facility made this a stunning percussive display, an excellent combination of power and attention to detail.
Chadwick switched to the now rarely heard cornet for the group’s version of Kenny Barron’s “Voyage”, a tune featured on the album. Chadwick’s use of the cornet reflects his roots as a brass band musician. These days such origins are not the normal background for a jazz trumpeter and emphasises this group’s distinctive Northern identity. In Chadwick’s words the group had taken Barron’s piece and “twisted it a little bit”. Although distinctive the Hat’s arrangements display a real affection for their source material, they’re not piss takes or iconoclastic Django Bates style deconstructions.. Introduced by drums, deeply resonant bass and piano the tune included a bass feature from Blacka plus solos from Chadwick, Ormesher and Baranek, all of these punctuated by a series of dynamic and imaginative drum breaks from the excellent Turner. The live version was perhaps a little more “full on” than that heard on the album.
The as yet unrecorded “C’est Ce Bon” calmed things down a little bit with Chadwick switching back to trumpet and featuring as a soloist alongside Ormesher, Baranek and Blacka.
The first set closed with a stunning version of Thelonious Monk’s classic “Epistrophy”, the tune which opens the group’s album. Here it was a powerful rendition introduced by Baranek’s block chords in conjunction with Turner’s drums. The Hatters gave the piece a wholly contemporary groove which provided the springboard for fiery solos from Ormesher on guitar and Chadwick on trumpet the two also meshing together on some fast and furious unison lines. It was an exhilarating way to end an enjoyable first set with both band and audience ready for a breather at this point.
The second set was even better than the first. Blacka’s bass introduced the group’s stunning re-working of Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps To Heaven”- “I’m not sure if he would have approved” quipped Chadwick. The dialogue between Chadwick’s fiery trumpet and Turner’s volcanic drums above Blacka’s bass pulse was intense and frequently jaw dropping before things moved on with more conventional soloing coming from Ormesher, Chadwick and Baranek. Turner’s solo included some crashing cymbal work and Blacka eventually brought the piece full circle. As yet this arrangement is still unrecorded, after this attention catching display let’s hope the group get the chance to document it on their next studio visit.
“You And The Night And The Music” was delivered at a rapid clip, far faster than is usual with solos from the Chadwick on trumpet plus Ormesher and Baranek. Blacka and Turner ensured that it swung mightily.
Another piece from the album followed, a version of Lionel Bart’s “Who Will Buy?” from the musical “Oliver”. Blacka’s lengthy bass solo introduced it, during which the young bassist enquired “Am I out of tune?” before making a few minor adjustments. It still sounded pretty good to the audience who warmed to his honesty. Magic Hat are a group with a wry Northern sense of humour, something which came out in Chadwick’s mid tune announcements. Blacka incidentally is a member of the young Manchester based Beats & Pieces Big Band whose EP was recently reviewed on this site. Other solos on a typically colourful Magic Hat arrangement came from Chadwick on cornet and Baranek at the keyboard.
“Darn That Dream” has been in the group’s repertoire for a long time “so we ought to get it right” dead-panned Chadwick. I suspect that this may be the piece that kick started the whole Magic Hat project. Bass ,drums and piano introduced their stunning arrangement with it’s dramatically contrasting fast/slow passages. Hence Chadwick’s lyrical cornet solo was followed by Baranek’s breakneck piano seamlessly superseded by Ormesher’s mercurial guitar. Turner’s dynamic solo was a reminder of his abilities and the group’s sense of fun was encapsulated in a series of false endings.
Naturally the Shrewsbury audience weren’t going to let them go that easily and Laurie Grey, chairman of the Shrewsbury Jazz network coaxed them into a well deserved encore. This proved to be the only original tune of the evening a blues by Chadwick introduced by a humorous musical dialogue between Blacka and Turner with Ormesher subsequently taking the first solo. Chadwick’s own solo on trumpet was one of his best of the night with only Turner for company. The young drummer’s explosive playing urged his leader on to new heights. It was only afterwards that I found out that the title of Chadwick’s tune was “My Arse!”-he wouldn’t tell me that himself, I had to extract it from Baranek!
It had been a hugely enjoyable evening of music and once again I was impressed by The Hiveitself. It’s a smallish venue and with 50-60 present there were enough there to give a good, listening atmosphere. Like so many jazz societies SJN’s finances are rather fragile, the monthly raffle helps to keep things going, but overall audiences are holding up well and hopefully they broke even tonight.
If you get the chance to see the Magic Hat Ensemble on this tour make sure you take it, the full listings are on our news pages. There may not be much original material here but their arrangements are imaginative and inventive and the group are a dynamic live act who keep the energy levels up pretty much all the time. They could arguably benefit from introducing a little more light and shade but I didn’t hear anyone at The Hive complaining.
I’ll be interested to hear how they get on at the Blue Note. The Magic Hatters make a big sound despite Ormesher only using minimal amplification. Chadwick’s trumpet is unmiked but he’s a powerful player with a huge sound and Turner and Blacka are both hugely propulsive. If they play like this in Leominster they’ll rise the roof off the place. Hopefully somebody will give me some feedback (pun not intended) in due course.
The group’s album “This Conversation Is Over” is also hugely enjoyable. “Epistrophy”, “Darn That Dream”, “Who Will Buy?” and “Voyage” all of which were featured this evening form the first four tracks. In the main the arrangements are pretty much the same as we heard at Shrewsbury.
The remaining two pieces are Freddie Hubbard’s tune “Up Jumped Spring” and Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You.” the choice of a Hubbard tune is interesting, there’s more than a hint of Freddie in Chadwick’s playing, maybe a touch of Lee Morgan too. Chadwick’s website also mentions Clifford Brown and Blue Mitchell as influences. In any event the Hat’s version of the tune is taken at a sprightly mid tempo with solos from Baranek, Chadwick and Ormesher. It’s well up to the standard of the rest of the album.
The Kern piece begins with Baranek’s self consciously over the top solo piano, an example of the band’s sense of humour really coming to the fore as they take the mick out of some of the old jazz clichés. When things settle down though the group really tear through the tune, swinging ferociously and with rollicking solos coming from Chadwick, Baranek and Ormesher. Great fun and a great way to round off a hugely entertaining record.
The current tour should win the Magic Hat Ensemble a lot of new fans all around the country as they endeavour to break out of their North Western heartland and bring themselves to the attention of a national audience. I don’t know what they’ve got lined up for the rest of the year but they’d make a great festival band. Organisers take note.