People Band, January 14, 2016: Shows I’ll Never Forget

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Cafe Oto, London: This was the perfect setting for a gig launching the new People Band album. They have issued two before, with a gap of only 46 years between the second and this 33Jazz Records release, their third. “The reason for a new album is that the last album, released on the Emanem label, covered material from 1969-70,” producer and band member Paul Jolly says, “and there was nothing current to show that the band is still alive — mostly — and still creating.” That they are still creating was left in no doubt at the gig.

The line-up for the night was Terry Day on drums and percussion; Tony Edwards on bongos, triangle and percussion; Charlie Hart on bass, violin and xylophone; Adam Hart on piano; Mike Figgis on guitar and trumpet; George Khan on saxes and flute; Paul Jolly on bass clarinets and saxes; and Dave Chambers on alto sax. Audiences who know the People Band understand that their collective playing evolves on the night, with little rehearsal or structure decided beforehand.

The band played two sets, each comprising around 40 minutes or so of unbroken playing. The music developed as they played, the musicians taking turns to solo, drop in, drop out and sometimes add their own touches in the form of voice or occasional percussive additions. All the while, live paintings were created by artist Gina Southgate, who completed pictures on massive canvases which conveyed the atmosphere felt in the music, shared through the artist’s brush strokes. At one point, her brush strokes took on their own percussive rhythm, becoming part of the music itself.

The music was superb. The People Band contain some of the most experienced and exceptional free form players around today, each one an individual musician of note but when they come together something tribal and organic emerges. Each is listening, understanding and feeling what the others are expressing and they know just when to add, take away and increase or diminish the volume.

In the music itself, there are all kinds of references among the improvisation. At one point, Tony Edwards set up a driving calypso rhythm which was swiftly taken up, expanded and developed by the others. At other times, there were references to big band music and swing with muted trumpets, the blue notes on saxes. There were periods of almost absolute silence, with a quiet theme played on one instrument whilst at others the entire band played, creating a solid wall of sound — some of which was related, some not. Whatever they played though had a connection, an intuitive understanding shared by the collective and a beauty which only comes truly to the fore when musicians are playing totally at ease and in tune with each other. Riffs rolled and reverberated off the walls, were taken, changed, developed and tweaked with each player and the audience loved it.

The audience were a mix of ages and, whilst some had heard the People Band before, for others, it was a new experience. Their feedback was positive. Comments included: “This music is totally engaging. It opened my eyes to free jazz and made me realize it is really worth hearing.” “I have seen them before but they still surprise me.” And, “Wow, totally engaging, I was completely immersed in the music.”

Charlie Hart told me they did not structure the music apart from perhaps discussing the opening key. Instead, they chose to allow the music and individuals to lead. The People Band are a collective and have no leader, so anyone can fall in or fall out as required. For instance, Dave Chambers joined the band half way through the first set, simply unpacking his alto and becoming a welcome addition to the collective. That’s how the People Band works.

Each musician brings his own expertise to the collective playing. Tony Edwards rarely takes the lead, but his bongos established many of the rhythms which the others followed. Terry Day on drums was mesmerizing, as he could be found banging, tapping, stroking or brushing his ever-expanding collection of drums and various noise making bits of kit. He uses his tools in different ways, exploring the sounds and creating loud or soft, gentle percussive additions, as the muse takes him. Paul Jolly was simply superb that night, his double sax solos were incredible and his mastery of bass clarinet, alto, tenor and soprano sax were totally engaging.

When they first started playing free form — both in the UK as the full band and in Holland and Europe in smaller versions — audience reactions were mixed. One time, they even had bricks thrown at them. When I asked how the music had changed since then, Charlie Hart told me that audiences were perhaps not ready for them but now they have caught up. He does not think the People Band have changed their style much, although, as Paul Jolly said, the musical experience of each member is infinitely more due to the passing of time. They have also all played in many different genres, so they have learned a lot along the way.

“The People Band has always had a regular nucleus that has steered the music in the direction it chooses,” Terry Day told me. “The diverse natures of the nucleus have allowed a fluidity of concepts without being bound by one set of musical concepts of genres. Our musical approach is infinitely less anarchic that it was in the ‘60s. The musical philosophy of the People Band was born from the Continuous Music Ensemble in which there were no organized sets, beginnings or endings to the music. The music was open to accomplished and non-accomplished players. Musicians rotated on each others’ instruments during the continuous set. The audience would participate in the music, the musicians would wander freely throughout the space, they would sit next to the audience. They would occupy the space, however big that space was.”

In Europe, the People Band played some pretty big spaces. Their new CD, featuring 12 excerpts captured live at Care Oto from 2008-2014, is interesting, different and free. It opens and closes with two piano pieces from the great improviser and pianist Mel Davis, who was a driving force for the band throughout the years. He died in 2013, but the People Band still have a deep respect for this man. Missing on the night from the regular line up also was sax player Davey Payne, whose individual style of playing enhances any performance, but the collective produced some of the best free from music likely to be heard for a good while.

The new disc includes all those who played at the gig plus Tony Marsh on drums, Maggie Nicols on vocals, Ed Deane, Ben Higham on trumpet and tuba and Brian Godding on guitar. It is dedicated to Mel Davis.

The UK audience may have been slow to embrace this kind of jazz but now, largely due to the increasing number of players who improvise, people the skill and understanding of the music it takes to play free jazz. Audiences now have access to it, largely to the proliferation of venues like Cafe Oto, the Vortex, Iklectic, Clinker and others who offer audiences a variety of music, including improvised and free jazz. Now the People Band are acknowledged as one of the key combos in their field, and their influence is widely recognized.

Long may the People Band continue to bring free jazz to an ever-broadening audience. If this gig (with its wide range of listeners and the respect for the new album) is anything to go by, we should be hearing the People Band for a long time to come — and not a brick in sight.

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