It is not often I am surprised but then again, music can often surprise us all and I find myself slightly shocked and awed (just a bit) by Shatner’s Bassoon’s music. The Guardian has them down as ‘Sometimes Shatner’s Bassoon are knowingly jazzy, sometimes they switch from bold melodic ideas to demonic garglings and cacklings, or what sounds like a monkey eating cornflakes overlaid by cool Fender Rhodes licks. It’s all pretty out there” and Jazzwise said of the band, ‘Leeds’ uncompromising new generation of jazz noise-making terrorists’.
Shatner’s Bassoon genuinely sounds like no-one else. The quintet has played festivals such as North Atlantic Flux Festival, Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Manchester Jazz Festival, Lancaster Jazz Festival and Beacons Festival as well as touring around the UK. They have played alongside Melt Yourself Down, Matthew Bourne, Roller Trio and will play at Wakefield’s Long Division festival in June 2018. Three years since their previous release ‘Shansa Bursnaan’ their continued experience and musical growth has led them to this recording.
Speaking about the new album Mick and Johnny, said ‘For this album we wanted to produce a more direct and immediate music whilst retaining the unique characteristics of Shatner’s Bassoon. Because our music is fringe music we regularly perform to a wide demographic of audiences (DIY, Jazz, Unsuspecting general public) – presenting freely improvised and experimental music within a different context. This influenced how we conceived, produced, presented the music for this album and is our proudest work to date.”
Mick went on to say, ‘For ‘Disco Erosion’ the main compositions were written by our keyboardist Johnny Richards. These were then dissected/arranged/manipulated/mangled by the band through improvisation and experimentation over a period of three years, producing the final versions that are on the album. We are interested in exploring the line between composition and improvisation and how that is perceived by the listener – recycling written material that we then use as a springboard for improvisation and also using free improvisation as a way to generate new material. With this new album we have captured the visceral energy and intense sound of our live performances, the essence of our previous work, explored new ideas and achieved a more coherent and cohesive style.” Intrigued? I was and so I took a listen.
The CD opens with ‘Derpa Days’ which starts off as a conversation between sax and drums – the drums frenetic and from then on in it is a anarchic activity with keyboards, guitar and some devil may care free fall playing from the musicians. Whilst there is a pervading and engaging rhythm, it is slowed, speeded up and modified, as are the keys, modals and chords, which make it quite interesting and very listenable. The bass, keyboard and guitar riffs add up to some pretty explosive slurps, burbles and snickers in there, whilst the second third takes itself off in a strange and, at times, almost mesmeric jungly jazz idioms- the dialect very prescient and all of its own. The track develops and spins up and through many references until the spacey keyboard section which repeats a theme over and over – almost but not quite- to the point of annoyance and then….then… something magical happens as the full ensemble come back together to create a rhythmic pulse of sound which is as forceful as it is tight and the wind- down is lovely. An absolute gem of an opener.
‘You’ve Got To Play The Game’ comes in fast and furious with some lovely separated riffs, clicks, odd notes and chordal progressions input by the whole quintet before the sax takes over for a short spell, offering up some little intricacies before the rest of the band spill in taking the rhythm and working the spaces to create a deeper, fuller piece with trance-like repetitive and disparate workings which come together somehow to make a cohesive whole. The keyboard speed is phenomenal and the track is built from many parts, as if the pieces of a jigsaw are put together by some unknown hand. The deep echoed drum beats are effective under the higher, rapid fire of the keyboard and later guitar and then the track is lifted up, instruments ascending the scales, up, up and up we go , time after time until a crescendo is reached with squeaky high sax notes, intricate devilment underneath and a playful mood is accentuated by the cheekiness with which the sax bobbles along behind the gentle theme established around the 7 minute mark. Then the drum and bass establish a sonorous, timely beat which gradually comes to the fore and dominates under which the beautiful baritone sax notes and keys play. Now the track turns a little menacing and the atmosphere changes but this part is as good in its drive and energy as the first was in its lightness and joy. This ebbs into rock but manages to hold the jazz essence too. Powerful and gorgeous.
‘Zuppa’ starts off with some odd vocalisation and then takes off in such a tightly bunched plethora of rhythms it is difficult to listen to any one line but the sax dominates with drums literally throbbing into a short solo over which, well, a lot happens, let’s leave it at that. Sax then speaks its mind with some completely gorgeous and extraneous notation over the stolid and precise rhythms of the band. How tight is tight? This tight! The rhythms are smooth, never angular and the changes of tempo quick and sudden. The key and guitar section is lighter, creating a gentler atmosphere- but you just know what is likely to happen – and sure enough, it does – gradually a quickening of pace from the bass and percussion, then the sax slowly plays, adding colour and building up speed, whilst the drums get louder, more insistent, urgent. Then everybody gives in and goes with the upsurge – you can feel the energy build and it is wonderful – until, suddenly you are dropped into a comparative silence with just a tinkly percussion and drums – what just happened? This band do this kind of thing brilliantly and the listener can never, ever be lulled – which is good in my book! The finish is sudden.
Then on to ‘Darts’ so gentle, so light and sleepy at the start – but this, we know by now is a falsehood told so cleverly well by this quintet. Suddenly we are minor-keying it, modulating down and the notes begin to be bent electronically into something different, a slight menace maybe, a little threat of change – there is a Floyd-ish tinge to this and then we have it – the change comes with a rhythmic pattern established between sax, drums and the rest, intervals and spaces where there was fluidity – well, we never doubted it was coming. Counter-pointed rhythms for a while, then the sax leads down, slow and slower, almost a tune appears and a melody with sax over guitar and then full throttled chordal lines, unisons of deep notes introduce (for quite a while) the next section in which the drums play out a militaristic rhythm for a while before the mix of harmonics and maelstrom – Zorn-ism is in here. The bass is beautiful on this track, underpinning and directing at times while the guitar sings- rocky and hedonistic in the approach. Another diversion and all to the good.
What is really good is how tight the band play when they are together, seeming to read each other’s ideas about how to change, divide the textures and add colour where needed. The use of the delay pedal on the keyboards and what sounds like a theremin can often annoy but the band know just how much (or little) to use before it reaches the point of irksome. The use of the sax notes pushed up tightening on the reed so they are just off key is sheer genius and keeps the ears well and truly engaged. There is immense power and directness in some of the sections but there is also a playfulness which creeps in and you get the idea that these musicians, whilst creating different sounds and atmospheres, above all are having fun. The influences are many, from rock to several jazz structures and even touches of Sun Ra at times – and definitely a little Dolphy in the sax methodology. There is identity in this music and this is a band forging their own path. Yes, you can hear influences, from Zappa to Zorn, to Sabbath and other heavy rock bands – some more strongly than others- but the coming together of the influences of other musicians is used to create what is very much a Shatner’s Bassoon identity. Never again will I judge a band by the name! Shatner’s Bassoon is one name I would bet we are (and should) hear a lot more of.
Johnny Richard -keyboards. Michael Bardon- bass. Craig Scott-guitar. Oliver Dover- alto, baritone sax and clarinet. Joost Hendrickx- drums and cowbell.
To Find out more about the artist and their latest CD: Shatner’s Bassoon
Photo credits: Shatner’s Bassoon – and (c) info: all rights go to original recording artist/owner/photographer(s).