The Stone Roses, Oasis, The Smiths… Matthew Halsall and the Gondwana Orchestra? Ellen Kemp makes room for Halsall and co on the Manchester music map in light of their beautiful jazz extravaganza at St George’s.
Though I am by no means an expert, when you think of Mancunian music, your mind may not immediately turn to jazz. Yet some of the talents that lie behind Manchester-based Gondwana Records are truly exceptional. I had the privilege of witnessing a collection of such talents under the roof of St Georges’, when Matthew Halsall, accompanied by the Gondwana Orchestra and supported by Mammal Hands, took to the stage last Thursday night.
Bathed in cool blue and yellow light before an enthusiastic audience filling the central pews of the former church’s auditorium, Mammal Hands began the evening. The three piece (piano, drums, saxophone) were formidable, even soliciting a standing ovation following their final number. Their hour long set flew by more swiftly than I could have imagined, and after a short break, the main act assembled on stage.
For anyone who is not familiar with Matthew Halsall’s particular strand of jazz, it is the kind that thrives on dynamics and fluidity. Songs seem to drift from powerful, restless staccato seamlessly into whispered melodies that draw you closely in. Yet it is also consistently neat, and has the quality of incandescent lights reflecting in puddles in the early hours of the morning – I’m convinced that that is, honestly, the best way I can describe it. Quiet, in a sense other than volume, and (though I highly doubt I’m managing to articulate it in this review,) unpretentious.
Hailed by Giles Peterson, Mr Scruff and Bonobo to name but a few, Halsall and fellow bandmates create music which is not superficial nor overwhelming, but a perfect balance of experimental, made-in-the-moment, energetic expression and carefully thought out layers of harmony. On stage this translates into a wonderful musical democracy: each instrumentalist is given space within the song to breathe, to embellish and complement another part, and to shine alone.
And you can’t help but admire the skill of these musicians, too. Perhaps part of the charm of the performance was the sheer joy of watching such technical skill flourishing, but this did not disrupt the serenity of the atmosphere in any way. Though Halsall is an incredibly gifted trumpeter, he does not dominate the stage as you might expect a headlining name to. The drummer, double-bassist, saxophonist, harpist, flautist and pianist that together form the Gondwana Orchestra seemed (at least to my ear) equals in dexterity and musical instinct.
Another element which made this evening particularly enchanting was the way that the richness and warmth of the different tones of these instruments was made crystal clear by the gorgeous acoustics and sound system of the room. Every tremble of the hi-hat, every string plucked on the harp could be heard with astounding clarity. This setting, coupled with the respectful and peaceful audience, was a pleasant fit to the spiritual feel of the music, and all together formed a really pleasant, tranquil evening’s entertainment.
For any who are interested in the blossoming UK jazz scene, St Georges’ have kicked off a new season of musical events, (including rather tempting £5 student tickets). I’d strongly recommend checking out their upcoming programme.