Jazz: Orchestral manoeuvres in the mix

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The Independent Culture

FOR THOSE familiar with the fringe jazz circuit, frequent are the accounts of how the number of people on stage outnumbered the audience at some gig or other. So you would think that setting up a 25-piece jazz orchestra was just asking to be added to that depressing list of anecdotes. Not with IO. People were being turned away from Jackson's Lane theatre last Saturday night - and they missed a truly dynamic performance.

Then again, IO aren't strictly a jazz orchestra. Consisting of musicians from a variety of backgrounds, including members of the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as jazz and pop session players, the group fuses the improvisation of jazz with classical string arrangements, hip hop rhythms, and musical tones and moods from all around the globe. World music, then?

Some of the tracks brought to mind Salif Keita or Toure Kunda, others the repetitive, orchestrated layerings of Philip Glass, and yet others were dancefloor grooves that reminded me of the work of German DJ producers Sofa Surfers.

Guitarist Paul Griffiths and clarinettist Nick Hayes are the principal composers of the band, although they just provide the group with the bare bones and the rest is worked together through improvisation in rehearsal.

An orchestrated Loose Tubes? Or, as someone in the interval described it, classical Schoenberg getting in a cab with Starsky and Hutch. The opening number, Melange, was exactly that, but it was held together and driven forward on an insistent Afro-jazz rhythm that owed much to the two exuberant guest percussionists from Tanzania.

This was followed by "Which Way Sid", violins and clarinets exchanging before the whole orchestra took up a Middle Eastern motif that swirled and scurried from India to Africa before coming back to rest. "Some Time Then" highlighted the dramatic, cinematic quality of IO's music with a voodoo tension and noirish tones that echoed Lalo Schifrin's film scores, put through a Nineties' global mix.

If there is a weakness to IO's music, it is a tendency to be over-indulgent, not knowing when a chorus or motif has run its course. The opening number of the second set, "Vapours of Orion", highlighted this flaw.

Apparently inspired by the fact that a huge mass of water vapour is currently floating around in that particular part of the universe, at times it got lost in the weight of its own dramatic pretensions.

This, however, is a minor criticism of an evening's music that was exuberant, infectious and above all, prepared to push at the boundaries. IO's plans for the future include incorporating decks and analogue synth sounds to the potent brew. Do they have anyone in mind? The Aphex Twin, apparently. So if you're reading this, Richard D James...

As the audience milled out, Ian Dury's "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" was aptly playing over the PA. We had all been struck by IO. It was just a pity that there had been no room to dance.

IO play The Red Rose Club, Seven Sisters Road, N4, on 26 Nov and 17 Dec. Tel: 0171-263 7265