Cath Roberts and Favourite Animals – Favourite Animals (2017)

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Cath Roberts is a saxophone player who is integral to many projects involving improvised music and composition. She has forged strong links with improvisers from the north of England, and it is with these collaborators mostly that she formed her quintet Sloth Racket. Cath is also a member of Madwort Sax Quartet, Article XI, Vole and Overground Collective, and she runs LUME events.

LUME began as a weekly event at venues around London featuring artists from the creative music scene. It included a monthly residency at the Vortex jazz Club in Dalston – a club which strongly supports the improvisational scene and is also a great space to hear jazz – for two years, later widening the residencies to include galleries, record shops and bookstores. Early in 2015, they produced LUME On Tour; a nine-date U.K. double-bill tour with support from Arts Council England. The inaugural one-day LUME Festival took place at London’s IKLECTIK Arts Lab in June 2016, with a two-day event following in 2017. Also in 2017, the first season of the exploratory series LUME Lab, featuring artists Julie Kjaer, Craig Scott and Anton Hunter developing brand new work began.

The LUME events led to the 2015 birth of the Luminous Label, which is run by Cath Roberts with fellow saxophone player Dee Byrne. Luminous is an artist-run record label which issues Cath and Dee’s own projects and the Live at LUME fundraiser compilation albums. Releases so far include Interference Patterns and Live at the Vortex by Deemer (Dee Byrne and sound artist Merijn Royaards), Triptych and Shapeshifters by Sloth Racket, Blurts/Growls by Tullis Rennie and Cath Roberts, and three Live at LUME projects.

Sloth Racket, Cath Roberts’ quintet, came about when Cath was invited to put together a new ensemble for Jazz North East at Gateshead International Jazz Festival. Initially, they intended to play just that event but they became a band and played as part of the LUME Barbican Freestage at the London Jazz Festival, and they also played the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival.

For Cath’s artist in Residence commission at Lancaster Jazz Festival in 2016, Sloth Racket was expanded and the five musicians – Sam Andreaa (Silence Blossoms, Trio Riot) on tenor saxophone, Anton Hunter (Anton Hunter trio, Bits and Pieces Big Band) on guitar, Seth Bennett (Baby Harp Seal, McWatt, If Destroyed Still True and Nut Club) on bass and  Johnny Hunter (Johnny Hunter Quartet, Blind Monk Trio) on drums, along with Roberts – became 10 with the addition of Dee Byrne (Entropi) on alto saxophone, Graham South (Bits and Pieces, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra) on trumpet, Tullis Rennie (Walls on Walls, Insectotropics) on trombone, Tom Ward (Ma/Ti/Om) on flute and bass clarinet and Julie Kjaer (London Improvisers Orchestra and a stalwart of the London improvisation scene who has recorded with John Edwards and Steve Noble with her trio Julie Kjaer3) on flute and bass clarinet. I had the pleasure of seeing Julie perform in June 2016.

The name of this new 10-piece combo became Favourite Animals. Their new self-titled album was completed over two days at City University of London by Alex Bonney and the album contains just five tracks – all of them Cath Roberts compositions constructed as compositional scaffolds upon which the ensemble improvise and arrange, whilst “creating spaces for individual voices of the improvisers to shape the music.” Interestingly, Favourite Animals has been made possible by 90 backers who pledged through a crowd-funding campaign. The album is released on the Luminous Label, with hand-printed linocut artwork by Cath.

“Confirm or Deny” opens Favourite Animals, and starts off as an ensemble number before a sudden pause, trilling flutes and this sets the pattern for the number: There are big, rich ensemble sounds, interspersed with numerous ethereal sounding parts from flute and sax. The recurrent theme is marked with time changes and tempo alterations. There is a longer sax-led interception, around which the percussion and other instruments float and dally with their own interpretations of filling the spaces.

What is great about this track is the improvisational texture coupled with the different ideas which come in and out, intertwining at times and then separating like a kaleidoscope of musical paintings and imagery. You have to stay tuned to appreciate the different lines and focuses as they weave around each other. The theme is always there, resurrected towards the end by brass and beautifully placed sax stut notes, and rises to the climax at the end “Confirm or Deny.”

“Unspeakable” is gentler, tentative and relaxed at the outset. Most of the ensemble are there, though the guitar soars over the rest. Somehow, however, it is not leading them, but rather providing a steady structure around which the other ensemble members build and create. By around five minutes, the build up has steadily grown and we are in free-fall improvisation mode, but still the steady cadence is there. By around seven minutes, the atmosphere has returned to gentle, calm and is underpinned with a strong percussive support.

“Boiling Point” begins as a simmer, with bass clarinet gently sashaying along whilst brass add waffles and discussion over the top. Then there is a long dialogue between the instruments as they decide who, if anybody, is going to lead. The answer? No one, it seems. But that is all for the better, as we have different rhythms, tempos and interruptions going on. The sax, at one time, sets a cheeky little river of sound along the way, and its rhythm is eventually picked up briefly before each instrument sets off on their own individual, yet decisively cohesive rivulet. They eventually come together to create a torrent of sound at two thirds of the way through. By the time “Boiling Point” nears the end, we have had solos from everyone almost, and a trumpet soars briefly over the top before it is collected by the ensemble and the track slowly works its way down both in sound and texture. This is sheer delight for those who enjoy improvised music.

Favourite Animals’ “Off World” is ethereal, spacey and seems to work around the lower register, grinding notes of different instruments for most of the track. The drums announce a change with several sequences of short, staccato rhythmic taps and the track then becomes something else: a quiet, dissonant series of chords created by the ensemble. Then, the brass turn it into something much more lively, with a series of tricky and interesting interjections with squeaks, stuts and breathy notes, which once again create a track which, as it plays, turns into something unexpected.

“Shreds” finishes Favourite Animals, and is just over 12 minutes of great improvisation and exploration of sounds. Everyone creates, is supported and leads at different times and there is a lovely conversation between percussion, saxes and bass clarinet which adds a lovely, rich tone to the feel. There are quiet parts, parts which are raucous, and others where the exchange of ideas simply flows from one musician to the other. It’s an endearing track with which to finish the album, and one which allows each musician to contribute their own style and emphasis. There is a sense of individuality here, yet when Favourite Animals play together over a theme (which they do in parts), there is also a sense of one-ness and understanding which only happens when musicians are completely intuitive of each other.

Cath says the aim of the expansion was “to broaden the sound palette through the extended instrumentation, whilst continuing to explore the territories between composed music and improvisation that are the focus of Sloth Racket’s ongoing work as a band.” Well, it works!

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

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Sammy Stein
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