The People Band – Live at Cafe Oto (2016)

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So, here’s the thing: Back in the 1960s, the People Band played small and larger venues with mixed receptions. They got good reviews, they got bad reviews but they never changed how they played. Their style is full-on improvisation, enhanced by a fluid line-up of players who have each achieved success in different genres and spurred on originally by a gifted and charismatic pianist in the shape of Mel Davis.

Originating from the Starting Gate Jazz Club, where musicians would roll up to play improvised music, the People Band included early on players such as Russell Hardy on piano, Terry Day on drums, Terry Holman and Frank Flowers on bass and Mel Davis on piano. Mel remained the driving force until ill health required he take a back seat from around 2000; he died in 2013. Mel Davis inspired many of the musicians who later became permanent core members of the band and Live at Cafe Oto (33Jazz records) is dedicated to him.

Now the core, though still fairly fluid, remains — as I last saw them Charlie Hart on bass, Adam Hart on keyboards, Paul Jolly on saxophones, flutes and bass clarinet, George Khan, saxophones, flute, Terry Day on drums and reed instruments, Tony Edwards, percussion and Mike Figgis on pocket trumpet and bass. Live at Cafe Oto is made up of a series of recordings of live excerpts from Café Oto in London recorded between 2008-14. The tracks are not titled but 12 excerpts make up the CD, with both the opener and closing numbers piano solos by Mel Davis.

The first excerpt on Live at Cafe Oto is a piano piece from Mel Davis, providing the listener with a lesson in improvisation. Centering around 5 chords or so, Davis creates a landscape of musical forms and sounds. The second excerpt is a short but sharp fanfare, where the instruments enter fugue-like to culminate in a wall of sound. The third is a typical live excerpt where the musicians react and respond to each other. This first part of this excerpt is dominated by the reeds, underpinned by bass clarinet before it develops into a swung sections complete with rhythmic percussion and a sax and flute solo.

Excerpt 4 on Live at Cafe Oto is set up by the drums before other members of the People Band join and create a mid-Eastern feel, before excerpts 5 rolls in with a quieter, esoteric feel, centering on the piano, violin and percussion. Excerpt 6 is more of what regular listeners expect from the People Band with all the instruments played, drifting in out, over and under each other, creating little side conversations behind the overriding theme and there are vocal here too provided by guest Maggi Nicols.

Excerpt 7 is darker, deeper and combines vocals, trumpet, bass clarinet and percussion in a dialogue which continues through the recording. It does not make for easy listening at times and it strident, angry, of-key but somehow delicious. Excerpt 8 from Live at Cafe Oto is a clever intercourse between different instruments with a light, ticky-tocky percussion over the top — light and cheerful. Excerpt 9 is introduced by an accordion followed by over 9 minutes of interaction with everyone pitching in. Little conversations are struck up, melodies passed to and fro, dialogue, vocals and full-on almost arkestral feel and a gorgeous trumpet solo.

Excerpt 10 centers on the piano and has a swing beat introduced by bass and percussion, before being picked up and developed by the trumpet and then the rest. Except 11 from the People Band is a long but joyful development where every members is involved, creating music which keeps adding layers, works up and down and never once relents. The final excerpt on Live at Cafe Oto is a solo piano track from Mel Davis and is finishes with a reminder that this driving force of the People Band was not only a much respected pianist but an improviser to his soul.

Charlie Hart recently commented that when the People Band first started, audiences did not really understand them. Now, however, they have caught up.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, and, among others. Contact Something Else! at
Sammy Stein

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