It was difficult not to come in with very high expectations. The Overground Collective is essentially a 19-piece big band of outstanding soloists and improvisers. Its founder, Paulo Duarte, is a Portuguese composer and guitarist who has been in London since 2003. This performance preceded the Collective’s first recording together and was the first outing of several of Duarte’s new compositions. The balance of instrumentation allowed both great intimacy and enormous energy, often creating an exhilarating wall of sound. Duarte’s ability to write music that is at once melodic and accessible but highly challenging and unexpected where the improvised elements hold primacy, is the key to the inevitable success of this music.
The performance was intended to be performed as a suite, with no breaks, but this was difficult to execute because of the audience’s need to show its appreciation. This is an element Duarte could consider leaving aside for future performances. Ben Bastin on bass made a gallant conducting effort supported by key members within the band. The complex counting required in this music was evident in the occasionally anxious faces of the performers but none of that anxiety could be heard in the confident, energetic and fully committed execution. Jon Scott (drums), Ben Bastin and Danny Keane (piano) provided an unshakable base which is vital for a score where grooves take sudden U-turns and tension is created with frequent stops and changes. The perfect execution of these was heart-stopping. This is a big band that I would make time to see again and again.
The Vortex is always a warm and intimate venue, but on Tuesday it was both warmer and more intimate than usual as the enormous Overground Collective overran the stage. The brainchild of guitarist and composer Paulo Dias Duarte, this band is an exciting sensory assault, mixing more musical styles, moods and tempos than most people have had hot dinners.
Having encroached into the audience to seat the full band, they quickly engulfed them as a rumbling baritone introduction was joined by the rest of the 19-strong ensemble - the group’s thunderous power unleashed with soloists straining to climb through the rich layers of sound. The compositions give little time for rest as you're dragged through a vivid soundtrack: frenetic horn madness to beautiful calm keys; grooving funk to 50s big band.
It's a rare sound, drawing favourable parallels to their exhilarating ensemble cousins in Paris, like Ping Machine. But more importantly it is entrancing, original and unpredictable stuff. If you ask someone to pat their head with one hand and rub their stomach with the other it often looks an inelegant mess, but when it works it appears entirely natural. The Overground Collective achieve an intensely heightened version of this unified multitasking ease, patting and rubbing their musical belly with 38 hands working in confounding coordination.
In some ways they do still play as just two hands – a rocky and driving back line on the left pushing on as the reeds and brass on the right jump in and out, individually or in unison. Jon Scott's drumming distils the mood excellently, providing a solid beat to much of the proceedings while improvising and experimenting at the same time. Even when soloing alone he provides a relentless platform from which to add virtuoso flourish. Together with Ben Kelly on sousaphone and Ben Bastin on bass, the first set of pieces were well supported.
Paulo himself brings something inherently meaty to the arrangements with the regular appearance of a rocky rhythm section, his Middlesex University seeming to encourage crossover composition not dissimilar to fellow alumni Led Bib (featuring in both the Collective and the crowd). And for such a large group, he's lucky to have so many leaders in the band, with Noel Langley keeping everyone in shape and Tom Ward stepping up to conduct his own compositions.
The second set may be where the Collective's heart lies, re-launching with a prolonged solo from the band leader, hunched in the corner with back to the crowd - overdrive engaged and shredding and tapping to his heart’s content. Much like a solo metal version of Esperanza Spalding's Radio Music Society, Dias Duarte flipped between snippets like a re-tuned radio before the band joined him on the epic Superman, inspired by practise chord sequences given to him by a former teacher 20 years previously.
The looping four-chord refrain led Rachel Musson into a red-raw solo, laid bare with only guitar for support, before the mood relaxed for Yazmeen Ahmed to play flugelhorn with one hand and electronics with the other, recording, distorting and repeating herself. A pensive solo by Langley followed a passionate Ward clarinet solo arranged with two flutes and a piccolo in tow climaxed with a nimble Chris Williamson soprano as the band crunched to an exhausted finish.
With young large ensembles like Mimika and the Pop-up Circus emerging and composing their own music, perhaps there is something of a revival on the horizon in London for the improbably large unconventional big band. To achieve such musical accord requires impressive compositional, organisational and time commitments from all involved - both the bands and the venues that accommodate them. As an audience member, I hope everyone continues persevering for us.
Vortex Jazz Club, 14 july 2015
Vortex Jazz Club/LUME, 3rd August 2015
The next act was Overground Collective, who fielded a small army of musicians using an arsenal of electronics, sax, drums, bass, guitar, trumpet, and more. They ran through a composition based on the deadly sins, which took in raging string bending fury, gusts of noise, tight driving rhythms, contemplative improvisation, wild abandon, and ordered procession. It was a performance that grabbed attention throughout its seven movements; the band in complete control of its material but knowing when best to cut themselves loose. Overground Collective were riotously fun, their music full of invention and twisting reallignments.