It is 24 years since the British jazz ensemble Loose Tubes last convened, and it took a new commission to coax the 21-piece out of retirement – as they told the audience, they didn’t just want to be their own tribute band. The new compositions, created for BBC Radio 3, develop more smoothly and with noticeably more depth than their old repertoire. But they still sound like a strange hybrid of Latin dance band and modern jazz orchestra, darting off at angles and throwing in whatever takes the composer’s fancy.
The band opened with a jolly fanfare, seagull sounds and a scattering of squeaks. A jagged riff cued a bustling Latin beat and Iain Ballamy soloed lyrically on soprano sax. Twiddly bits were followed by John Parricelli’s funky guitar until a mélange of riffs cued a neat sudden stop. Next up was a medley, with “Sad Africa” at the core. There was a roll of drums and curtain-raising reeds, hymnal chants and syncopated trombone, a pennywhistle break and a roar of free jazz brass that ended on a trill.
The new commissions were equally intricate. Flautist Eddie Parker’s “Bright Smoke Cold Fire” arced from boppish lines to raw-edged funk, and trumpeter Chris Batchelor’s “Creeper” began with fragmented horns, featured a folk-song theme and ended with a hypnotic off-beat that was delicately voiced with a glockenspiel at its core.
But for all the odd juxtapositions and flights of fancy, Loose Tubes retain the excitement of contemporary big-band jazz. Spilling off the stage, they filled the club with shouting brass and solos that dug in deep over powerful Latin grooves and reggae beats – Eddie Parker, saxophonist Mark Lockhart and Django Bates on tenor horn stood out. And the music had a humour to match trombonist Ashley Slater’s pithy, well-salted introductions. Slater angrily counting in the band at odds to Bates was really funny (the band came in as one), and a passage of tricky whistling rendered parts of the audience helpless with laughter.
The long set ended with Bates playing tenor horn, leading off the New Orleans cadences of “Arriving”. Traditionally, the Tubes would file through the audience, blue notes at the ready, but this time half the band stayed put. An encore was never in doubt.
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