Magic and Accident
The final date of the Matthew Herbert Big Band tour at London's Barbican Centre was a genuine spectacle. The Barbican now seems to have successfully cornered a market in open-minded contemporary music programming - this is not music that you will hear regularly on any radio network, but it is of genuine significance, and can still pack out a substantial music hall. The Barbican still has the sense of being a slightly snooty, serious venue - where talking during the performance might result in a swift lynching, but maybe this is the most appropriate venue for Herbert's daring and intelligent melding of jazz and electronics.
Mind you, despite them inciting anger in other members of the audience, I didn't really blame the group in the row behind me for starting a conversation during support act Bugge Wessletoft. It's not that the music was terrible - in fact, it had the potential to be quite interesting. Unfortunately, Wessletoft's take on electronic jazz was mostly soporiphic, and only intermittently engaging. My lasting impression of this short set was that the five pieces were remarkably similar and extremely formulaic. The music initially sounded intriguing, but the use of loops, DJ work and laptop computers actually served to limit the possibilities of what the band could achieve. They were fixed in to a regular, hypnotic tempo. Subtle percussion work helped create a dense rhythmic base on which the musicians could and should have expanded. Yet, melodically and harmonically, the compositions were uninvolving, and the improvisation was strangely perfunctory. Reliant as they seemed to be on pre-ordained material, the band could really only play to the most fundamental of dynamic changes - a loud section followed by a quiet ruminative section, but with very little variation in tone or mood. It made me yearn for some more daring, more organic, perhaps even more confrontational musicianship.
Matthew Herbert's big band was something else entirely. This performance demonstrated convincingly that electronic interventions can invest fresh significance in old forms. The 'Goodbye Swingtime' album initially struck me as a little too subtle and restrained in its approach, but it has grown on me considerably as I have come to appreciate the intricacy of its arrangements. Live, any sense of restraint is quickly dispelled, as Herbert steps on stage, strikes a cup with a spoon, records it, and somehow transforms it into a clanking, invigoratingly dense rhythmic mesh. The band come on stage, and play from charts with controlled discipline and rigour. The overall sound is colossal, enveloping and striking.
The compositions succeed in maintaining great reverence for traditional big band forms (the spirit of Ellington, Gil Evans and Mingus breathes through this music) , but also manages to transform it into something creative and relevant to the here and now. Herbert takes a live feed from the band and samples it - often you can hear hints of melody being recycled and remodelled in real time. Unlike Wessletoft, everything he does fits in and makes real musical sense. The electronic interventions never come across as pretentious or excessive. Whilst the vivid detail of the live band impresses, it is Herbert's uncanny abilty to integrate with the unit that is so vital to its success. The actual amount of improvisation from the band is minimal, but this becomes unimportant when Herbert's considered and thoughtful manipulation of sound becomes the chief form of experimentation.
Herbert is a genuine master of the sampler - and has a great way of finding unique sounds. Tonight, he samples the band ceremoniously ripping up copies of the Daily Mail, or squeaking balloons, and works this into the texture of the music. With striking images on screens as well, the show is a visual treat. His politics are visceral and polemical, but much less vague than the flirtations of the Manic Street Preachers or even the idealism of Billy Bragg. They serve as the backdrop for his music, but they do not define it.
The best moments of the show come when vocalist (and Herbert's partner) Dani Siciliano performs. On her recordings, her voice sounds elegant and also slightly elusive. Live, she is both expressive and tightly controlled. She also looks fantastic. In one of the two encores, there is an awesome full big band arrangement of 'The Audience', the best track from Herbert's house album 'Bodily Functions'. Siciliano's voice is sampled, replayed and echoed. It is dazzling, and also indicative that Herbert sees his own music as having the potential to be explored in new and different ways. The strong vocal performances left me slightly disappointed that Jamie Liddell and Arto Lindsay, the other two vocalists on the 'Goodbye Swingtime' album could not put in an appearance. It would have been fascinating to see how the band might cope with the jerky, edgy rhythms of a track such as 'Fiction'.
Without these songs in the set, it remained a relatively brief performance, but it certainly left me wanting more. It ended with the band taking flash photographs as an integral part of the final composition, and encouraging audience members to do the same. This was a performance determined to explore new artistic possibilities, but while also creating and sustaining a sense of entertainment and involvement. The two need not be mutually exclusive. It left me convinced that Herbert is one of the most inventive and important producers and composers currently at work. His next project will apparently involve collecting samples of food - he is currently encouraging readers of his website (www.magicandaccident.com) to send in recordings of themselves blowing bubblegum. It sounds slightly ridiculous, but somehow it will surely end up sounding extraordinary. Tonight's show summed up both the magic and the accident of this music - the magic of the composition, and the accident of risky, daring electronic improvisation. In the end, it made perfect sense, and never sounded chaotic. My Dad summed it up perfectly: 'I guess he's some kind of genius'. I'll second that.