After several months of shielding, devoid of live music, the news that the Two Moors Festival (the moors being Dartmoor and Exmoor) was going ahead, albeit on a reduced scale, was welcome, all the more so when I discovered that the Exmoor leg would include two concerts by Misha Mullov-Abbado’s group less than a minute’s walk from me at St. Andrew’s Church, Wiveliscombe, Somerset. These were the remnants of a tour envisaged pre-lockdown to promote the sextet’s album Dream Circus, recorded in September 2019 and released in June.
The personnel was the same as on the album: the leader on bass, James Davison (trumpet and flueglhorn), Matthew Herd (alto sax), Sam Rapley (tenor sax), Liam Dunachie (piano) and Scott Chapman (drums). They are excellent on disc but were even better in person, with an extra edge and, from the front-row, discrete sound that made it possible to distinguish more clearly each horn’s role in ensembles without losing the overall group sound and power.
St. Andrew’s is a large Victorian church consecrated in 1829. The previous building was demolished when it was discovered that its tower moved when the bells were rung. There was no danger to the fabric tonight, 2 October, although the bass was subtly amplified. Despite the height and acoustic hardness of the space the band’s sound was clear and warm. Only the piano suffered slightly from a degree of echo, sometimes blurring Dunachie’s more complex chords and rapid runs, but this was a little better from where I sat for the second house. Throughout it was possible to hear the responsive interplay between him and the horns during their solos. A particular pleasure of the band’s approach is its fluidity, flowing seamlessly between tempi and rhythms as the instruments’ lines wind in and out. There is also a fine sense of structure and dramatic development in their soloing.
Mullov-Abbado told me beforehand: “The reason these instruments are in my band is because I want to work with these particular musicians. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to have a band with trumpet and alto and tenor in the horn-section if it wasn’t for these three players who are fantastic musicians. Sometimes if one of the musicians hasn’t been able to make a gig I would work without them or if I had dep it’s been someone who plays a different instrument but I’ve preferred to work with them even if they don’t play the ‘right’ instrument.”
Although the tour was largely designed to promote Dream Circus the set-lists included some highlights from the band’s two previous albums, including Real Eyes Realise Real Lies from New Ansonia (Edition EDN 1062) and Hair Of The Bop (from Cross-Platform Interchange (Edition EDN 1091). The programmes, consisting entirely of the leader’s compositions, were nicely varied and balanced, embracing roaring melées, hard-swinging post-bop, voluptuous ballad-style tunes, luminously scored and elegantly improvised impressionistic pieces and even a humorous waltz parody that might have pleased Spike Jones. The soloing was consistently inventive and absorbing, as was the interaction between band members, whether in the ensembles or when supporting others’ solos. Mullov-Abbado explained that some of the free-sounding ensemble passages were scored, some wholly improvised and some partly improvised based on guidelines he had set out.
Finally, I should acknowledge the work of the festival organisers and the stewards and other helpers on the night for making these concerts such a success in these difficult times … and, indeed, for putting them on at all.