Jazz: Now that's what I call culture shock

Moire Music African Drum Orchestra Salisbury Festival Colin Towns' Mask Orchestra Bath Festival
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Drawn in by a photo in the festival programme of a smiling-faced black man beating a big drum, many of the full house at Salisbury Arts Centre had perhaps come in the hope of seeing a percussive version of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. What they got from Moire Music African Drum Orchestra was more funk than folk: an avant-garde amalgam of Ornette Coleman-style saxophone frenzy and trance-inducing rhythms driven by four African drummers and a finger-popping electric bassist. When it became apparent that Trevor Watts, the saxophone player and leader of the band, was white and looks like a cross between Professor Branestawm and an old-school polytechnic lecturer, it could only have added to the already heavy air of culture shock. A few brave members of the audience tried a bit of Isadora Duncan interpretative dancing, but most sat immobile in their seats as if wondering what they had let themselves in for.

The group, which Watts has led for many years, follows a method that is, on the face of it, simple but nevertheless devastatingly effective. As the chorus beat hand-drums of various shapes and sizes with flesh or sticks, Watts on alto or soprano sax wails over the top, while both the bassist and a conventional kit drummer take up the slack in between, providing a kind of funky commentary on the main action. Once a groove is set in motion, it could theoretically go on for days, like the music of the trance musicians from Morocco whom the Rolling Stones's Brian Jones helped to popularise in the late 1960s. No wonder some of the audience sneaked the odd mid-trance look at their watches.

But this wasn't a classic Moire Music performance. For a start, the sound balance was too Eurocentric (the sound man was wearing a Prodigy T-shirt; a bad omen from t he start), picking out Watts as the foreground and relegating the drummers to the back. In order to get those moire patterns shifting about, you really need to experience an equally weighted barrage of noise, so that you don't just hear the drums but feel them in your bones. The audience's world- music expectations might have had something to do with it too. When Watts mentioned the band's album for ECM (A Wider Embrace, and very good too), someone shouted out "Bah!" After a moment of shock, Watts deadpanned back, in perfect Ronnie Scott style, "Do I know you?" All in all, it may have been a case of jazz by any other name not sounding as sweet.

Last Sunday, at the Bath Festival Jazz Weekend, the big bands came back. The 17 members of Colin Towns' Mask Orchestra even wear matching blue shirts which blend in with the illustrations on both the back projections and those cardboard shield things that stand in front of the players. For British big bands these days - where the possibility that the musicians might wear shirts at all is usually as much as the bandleader can hope for - it's amazingly organised, with everything cunningly themed to match Colin Towns's blue suede shoes and the cover of the band's new album (Dreaming Man in Blue Suede Shoes).

The music doesn't let the shirts down either. Dense, multi-layered orchestrations are punched out by a cast of some of the best British players available, and the vocalist Maria Pia de Vito emotes Towns's own literate lyrics most effectively. It's not even subsidised, other than by Towns himself, who pays for his hobby by writing film and television soundtracks. That the results include both Our Friends in the North and a great big band seems almost more than we deserve.