Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra

The Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, 16 April 2016

The Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, 16 April 2016

Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham UK

This concert was presented as part of the Rhythm Changes conference which had been happening at Birmingham City University for four days. The theme of the international jazz conference this time around was Jazz Utopia, and, indeed, there had been times when, listening to a room of jazz academics, I had been tempted to think that this imaginary world had its idyllic attractions. But when it comes to a perfect jazz world there is nothing quite like the experience of being in the same room as a bunch of musicians playing at the present height of their powers.

The Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra brings together some of the finest under-35s(?) in the country and has them playing the compositions of the saxophonist/flautist who divides his time between the UK and Spain. He has recently begun a PhD at Birmingham City University.

This concert not only gave Mike and his band the opportunity to present new material of their own and revisit some heard at a previous concert given at the CBSO Centre in 2013, but its centrepiece was a new work commissioned by Jazzlines from contemporary classical composer Anna Meredith.

The MFJO opened – appropriately -with Opening, and segued into Madrileño and Underground, pieces which at different times showed affinities with the Miles Davis/Gil Evans sound of Sketches Of Spain, the minimalist looping and overlapping melodic fragments of Steve Reich and the iconic John Coltrane four-note chant motif from A Love Supreme. A previous Fletcher commission had involved linking the last two composers into new project which he neatly called Different Trane.

Then it was time for the Anna Meredith work: Studies for Big Band. It was striking to hear how effortlessly the musicians straightened their imaginary ties, tightened their belts a notch, neatened any creases, smoothed their hair. From one point of view this was just more music on the page, but it came from a different place, with an absence of places marked “solo”, and with its effect very much dependent upon tightness rather than looseness.

There were useful links for the listener unfamiliar with Meredith’s work – my untutored ears recalled Steve Martland’s rave-inspired compositions from the 1980s, except in Meredith’s twenty-teens the rhythms are now more sinuous, the beats not as drug-hard. The tightly controlled melodic and harmonic content had me thinking of Philip Glass, but again the mood was more flexible and more inviting. The internal rhythms created had a deep “groove” and a marvellously controlled swell and fade, all with the visceral familarity of a blood pulse.

A very clear sound picture emerged of Anna Meredith’s delight in the sound of the jazz big band expressed through the technique and sensibility of contemporary classical composition. The band played it superbly, I thought, showing – or rather confirming – just how skilled and adaptible are our young Conservatoire-trained musicians.

The band loosened their clothing once more for jazz, and were given room to stretch out over the rest of the performance. They played Next Time Last Time, Where Are You, As A Star Might Scream, The Follower, Vellichor and David.

I was reminded that, much as I had enjoyed the classical composition and its performance, this really was much closer to my jazz utopia, where there is precision needed to do the music justice but also a delight to be had in a wider application of that precision – a kind of precise imprecision, if you will. Where more power is offered from the composer to the players, where chance has a part to play too. I was also reminded what a fine composer and arranger we have in Mike Fletcher. It was encouraging to see the recording mics around the stage – this music needs a much wider hearing.

Over the evening all the players had a chance to solo with the exception of tuba player Andy Johnson (maybe we need to start a petition: Solo For Andy!), with special mention deserved by all, but especially by trumpeter Sean Gibbs who had the opener much to himself, trombonist Kieran McLeod who brought the appropriate wooziness and wit to the Ellingtonian Next Time Last Time, Tom Challenger on tenor in a couple of things, Chris Mapp on bass in a couple of others, and pianist Dan Nicholls who constructed the perfect arc which underpinned Vellichor.

That last named was my highlight in what, let’s be honest, had been a whole concert of highlights. Fletcher explained the piece’s title came from a website of invented words called The Dictionary Of  Obscure Sorrows, its definition being: “the strange wistfulness of used bookstores…” As Nicholls slowly constructed and then deconstructed his solo, so clarinet notes hung in the air like dust motes, muted trumpets crackled like dry pages, cymbals creaked like long-unopened spines.

Mr Vertigo provided the suitably tongue-in-cheek band announcement conclusion to an evening which had showed its largely international academic audience just how strongly accomplished and characterful a centre of jazz this city has become. I hope they will spread the good news.

Categories: Live review

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