Jazz review: The Bowie life is so sharp
Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy/Howard Johnson's Gravity Barbican, London
Friday 15 May 1998
Not that the magnificent band didn't deserve it, but Bowie's showbiz stagecraft is something you rarely get at a contemporary jazz concert. Take opening band Gravity, for example, led by the mighty Howard Johnson on tubas and tin whistle. Though hampered by a typical-second-on-the-bill mix, their versions of Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments", Herbie Hancock's "Tell Me A Bedtime Story" and some expressive blues and gospel-based numbers were a joy.
But where Gravity reinterpret jazz, Brass Fantasy deconstruct. They grab the tradition by the scruff of the neck, pull it apart and reconstruct it in the leader's goateed image. As soon as Bowie, in his customary "mad professor" white coat, had skipped on to stage to ask "Are you ready to rumble?" the band kicked off: a full-throttle brass attack over a raging rhythm section of electric tuba (skinny new recruit David Schieman), drums (Vinnie Johnson) and congas played with sticks (Don Moye). Without keyboards, guitar or bass, Brass Fantasy make a sound hot, dense and wild, with complex arrangements played effortlessly by the remaining line-up of four trumpets, two (instead of the usual three) trombones and French horn - the impressive Vincent Chancey.
The repertoire looks wilfully eccentric: show numbers such as "The Birth of the Blues", camp rock'n'roll such as "The Great Pretender" and "Unchained Melody" and a surprisingly moving version of the Spice Girls' "2 Become 1". Bowie hears these pop numbers as rich, raw material for his baroque fantasies. The most extreme example is "Don't Cry For Me Argentina", a brilliant arrangement that proceeds from abstract gongs and cymbals, through a delicate Gil Evans-ish brass filigree, to tango to rip-roaring stomping funk. Live, much more than on record, it works as a sort of critique of the original Evita showstopper, managing to extract something good, while casting a quizzical ear on the original. The audience's chuckles as they recognised the tune were part of the fun - from this point on Bowie could do no wrong.
Though they are full of the noisy, swaggering bravado and "development noise" that can be tiresome in a conventional big band, in this context they demand your love and affection, your attention and total belief. Why? It must be the way they play them. As Bowie writes on their album Odyssey of Funk and Popular Music (Birdology/Atlantic): "Jazz is neither specific repertoire, nor academic exercise ... but a way of life."
Brass Fantasy have a high level of instrumental virtuosity and stamina and awesome arrangements, but those are to admire rather than love. Bowie adds a personal touch with playing that can be vocalistic and fragile. There's something committed, extreme and charismatic about the way he performs, from the abstract extended cadenza that opens the stomping version of Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People" to the avant-schmaltz stylings over the closing vamps of the cover of that Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes classic. It's not just music; as Bowie says - it's a way of life.
Life & Style blogs
The Last of Us Remastered: Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
Ebola outbreak: Why has a disease that's only ever killed 2,000 people captivated the darkest side of our imagination?
Ebola virus: UK health officials issue warning to doctors as experts admit the outbreak 'is not under control'
National Orgasm Day: Don't get caught up on climaxing
Ebola: UK is ready to deal with outbreak, says Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond
The secret report that helps Israel hide facts
Land for gas: Merkel and Putin discussed secret deal could end Ukraine crisis
Woman and two children killed by mob in riots over 'blasphemous' Facebook post in Pakistan
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
Putin is 'thuggish, dishonest and reckless', says British ambassador to US
Richard Dawkins tweets: 'Date rape is bad, stranger rape is worse'
- 1 Russell Brand accuses FOX News anchor Sean Hannity of terrorism after aggressive Israel-Gaza debate
- 2 Pope Francis issues top 10 tips for happiness – including don’t try to convert other people
- 3 Arturo Vidal to Manchester United: Midfielder set to force through move to Louis van Gaal's Red Devils - reports
- 4 Disney heiress Abigail disowns her share of family profits in West Bank company
- 5 Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire
- < Previous
- Next >
£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...
£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...
£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...
£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...