Somnambule - Writing About Music

Bugge Wesseltoft and Matthew Herbert ~
Two Approaches to Power

29th April 2004, Barbican

It was a game of two halves, Jim, and the name of the game was power...

Either the advertising for the concert was ambiguous or I had unconciously indulged in a little wishful thinking. I’d thought that Bugge would be playing with Matthew Herbert, perhaps firing up some electronics to create a two-pronged attack upon Herbert’s big band. I was mistaken however: Bugge was to play the first half, Matthew the second and there would be no jolly cameraderie spanning the interval. Despite this, the evening provided a fascinating opportunity to experience two very different approaches to leadership and control.

First half: Bugge Wesseltoft

Bugge Wesseltoft is one of the leading lights of the Norwegian Nu-Jazz scene which melds the worlds of electronica, clubland and jazz into an unholy and often potent brew. As label boss of Jazzland Records he’s also responsible for releasing a great deal of interesting music which might otherwise have gone unheard. The cheeky name of his New Conception of Jazz group has managed to ruffle some feathers, particularly in the States where ‘The Jazz Mainstream Franchise’© is guarded by the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch.

Bugge bounds onstage ahead of his four young players and positions himself behind a table a-tangle with wires and devices. Bespectacled and dressed in sports jacket and cords he seems more like an eager professor than a groovy beatmaster. He greets the audience affably, fixing them with an intent stare and proceeds to create some gentle sonic waves, gilding them with reflective acoustic piano. After triggering a drum machine rhythm he signals his group to join in. Ole Morten Vaagen (bass), Andreas Bye (drums), Jonas Lonna (DJ) and Rikard Gensollen (percussion) obediently do so.

In concert, Bugge’s musical strategy is akin to setting a raft adrift on open seas - sooner or later it’s caught by wind or current and propelled along. However, the oceans that Bugge’s raft sails upon are distinctly temperate: they suffer no dramatic storms, nor are there any monsters lurking in the depths. Such a serene voyage would be less problematic in a club setting. Unfortunately the Barbican concert hall isn’t an appropriate venue for dance music: its ushers are likely to frown upon those courageous enough to dance and its symphonic acoustics are too cavernous for funk. As a result the sedentary setting requires something which Bugge’s group is not organised, or probably intended, to deliver: namely, interaction and perhaps just a smidgen of dissonance. Bugge’s goal is clearly the sort of elation and participation experienced on many an Ibiza beach, but achieved via jazz rather than trance music. What he and his group play, however, sounds much more like a noughties version of fusion, something like an updated Headhunters. The difference between the two versions is that the tiresome instrumental virtuosity of yore has been replaced by a group emphasis upon rhythm and a variety of soothing ambiences.

The group is so strictly focused upon their leader that, however benevolent he is – and Bugge appears to be the very picture of affability – proceedings appear to be as disciplined as an army unit and ultimately as predictable. This, despite the improvised structure. In fact Bugge is the only soloist, the others serve solely as supporting cast. No matter how enthusiastically Bugge tries to start a tidal wave (and at times his fervour seems almost to lift him off his feet), his autocratic position combined with the limitations of the venue mean that he's only able to create the smallest of ripples, registered in the occasional nodding of heads or tapping of feet by the audience.

Second Half: Matthew Herbert Big Band

Until 2003 Matthew Herbert’s career had married hybrids of techno and house to political awareness and a keen interest in the creative possibilities of live sampling. It’s unlikely that anybody could have predicted that his next project would be to compose for and perform with a 17-piece swing jazz band. Goodbye Swingtime was that project and Herbert himself may have been surprised by its popularity.

Like Bugge Wesseltoft, Herbert begins his set by striding onto the stage ahead of his band. He’s dressed in tails, black tie and black drainpipe trousers but offsets this concert dress conformity with black and white shoes and a brown shirt. In his hand he carries a white teacup and saucer from which he ostentatiously takes a loud sip, turns to a microphone and knocks the two pieces of china together with almost enough force to break them. Moments later, his symbolic props put aside, he’s busy building a whole chorus from that single sound. In the meantime the band arrive and settle behind their music stands, all dressed conventionally in tuxes, white shirts and black bowties. They’re arranged in a ‘V’ with the conductor standing at the centre of the gap and the rhythm section at the back. At the front of the stage and to the left stands Matthew Herbert, to the right Phil Parnell sits at a grand piano.

They launch with gusto into Goodbye Swingtime’s first number ‘Turning Pages’. Herbert begins to sample the band almost immediately and throws brief snippets of their playing back at them. It quickly becomes clear that he’s very adept at this practice, treating his sampler as a musical instrument in its own right. The intense concentration on his face is mirrored in the rigidity of his body both at his keyboard and as he occasionally marches up and down in front of the band. It’s not clear whether this is intended as parody or simply because he’s caught up in the performance of the music. It’s certainly very easy to be swept along by the sheer volume of the sound blasted out by the combination of four trumpets, four trombones and five saxophones. The line between mockery and subversion is a fine one and it would be interesting to know what the other musicians make of the project. Perhaps the answer is in the delight with which the group takes part in some of the extra-musical elements which include magic tricks, sight gags, ritual shredding of copies of the Daily Mail, a confetti fountain, videos of Blair with Herbert’s mouth superimposed and, for the final encore, a camera flashlight parade with audience participation. Herbert’s partner Danni Siciliano sings four numbers and her enthusiasm acts as foil to her partner’s pranksterisms and provides a welcome balance to the occasional bombast of the band. Mathew Herbert adopts a number of guises in addition to his musical role: performance artist, showman, political campaigner and sonic terrorist. Stood stage left and just a little outside the circle of the other musicians he brings to mind Batman’s enemy, The Joker, menacing a victim: eager, gleeful even – his is an intense and unsettling performance to behold. The suspicion grows that he might bring the band crashing to a halt using their own sound like a juggernaut toppled by its own load. Disappointingly this never quite happens and his sonic interventions remain more akin to a terrier worrying an elephant.

Herbert’s performance has its antecedents in radical authors J.G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs. With the former he shares a desire to subvert the middle-class mainstream by appropriation and subsequent refraction through the unconscious. Both also share a taste for suburban bungalows in south London... Herbert’s sampling practices may also be traced back to William Burroughs’s suggestion that riots might be triggered by the strategic use of recorded sounds (in ‘The Electronic Revolution’).

The evening revealed two very different approaches to power: Bugge assumed the role of benevolent dictator and Herbert that of guerilla fighter. While both leaders provided scant space for soloists other than themselves, Herbert’s project was the most interesting and certainly the more unusual of the two. His approach to the big band format raised questions regarding the apolitical nature and malleability of form at the same time as maintaining a greater degree of conceptual playfulness than his, admittedly admirable, political engagement. It will be interesting to see where both musicians choose to go next, although Bugge Wesseltoft looks at this juncture most in need of some wind in his sails.
Colin Buttimer
Published by All About Jazz