Scarborough Jazz Festival 2015 (Friday evening)
Q. What does a jazz musician do in hospital?
No, it's not the start of a joke; they write suites of music, it seems. At least that's what one of the performers at last year's jazz festival told the audience, as does Phil Meadows whose compositions, largely prompted by his own extended stay in hospital, forms the Engines Orchestra repertoire.
The ensemble is quite different to a typical jazz 'orchestra' having a 13-strong string section plus brass and woodwinds. Phil Meadows' own quintet provide the rhythm section enhanced by Olivia Jageurs on harp. Conductor Matt Roberts leaves Phil himself free to play solos along with Laura Jurd on trumpet - also one of his regular group. She brings some particularly striking solos to the performance, her urgent climbing notes brimming with tension and playing perfectly against the orchestral backing.
The compositions have all the hallmarks of Meadows' pieces for smaller ensembles - tricky time signatures, headlong runs of avant funk, and fast syncopation across the different instruments. At times muscular but with contrasts of very gentle lyricism, the flowing melodies and building chords that weave throughout the pieces are reminiscent of such as Weather Report and the big band arrangements of Colin Towns, but there's also some fresh-sounding writing for strings. In particular it seems as if some sections are composed to specifically emphasise the unique timbre of the string section with the result that the nature of the sound is as important as the notes themselves (credit here to the Spa sound crew for achieving such clarity in a potentially echoey space). This writing is perhaps an influence from film scores where violins are used to set a mood and build expectation, and along with some exquisite harp playing and wonderful trumpet and piano solos it creates some moments of tangible atmosphere in the Spa Grand Hall.
Meadows introduces some of the individual pieces, explaining themes of death and drunkenness, so perhaps it's no surprise that dissonant passages feature prominently, both from soloists - particularly the thrilling piano of Elliot Galvin - and from the ensemble as a whole. In fact it is these free jazz elements that actually function as the unifying theme of the suite, an approach that could have seemed a bit of a cop-out in the wrong hands but by the completion of the hour long set there's a sense of unity as if the different elements have glued together without you realising it.
Apparently this booking was made on the strength of compere Alan Barnes' recommendation to Mike, the festival organiser, and at the time the Engines Orchestra were an unknown quantity with only Meadows' reputation to go on. This, the ensemble's first performance outside of London, was a triumph and whilst not wishing any more hospital stays on anyone, I'm sure there are many hoping he finds time to write more for this unconventional jazz group prompting them to venture out of the capital again very soon.