holding hands are a newly-formed octet, co-led by trumpeter Chris Dowding and saxophonist Rob Milne. The octet’s music explores the political and cultural relationship between the UK and US through orchestrated samples, as well as lush brass textures, post-minimalist vibraphone patterns, and electronic elements. They are set to release music in May, but we got a sneak peak at one of their tracks pre-release. ‘another black death (for George Floyd)’ is a piece which truly takes its listeners on a journey, moving through warm and uplifting ensemble playing, shredding solos, and disorientating moments of free improvisation. At thirteen minutes in length, it’s an extremely varied piece yet manages to feel cohesive due to the musical themes used throughout. holding hands distinctively have the brass band sound because of their instrumentation, yet the addition of a vibraphone and electronic elements, plus eclectic jazz influences, allows them to stand out and move away from simply being a ‘brass band’.
‘another black death’ opens with Raph Clarkson on trombone, playing a solo to the sound of people shouting, cheering and clapping. These protest sounds were provided by Morris Masuda, and the effect on the listener is really moving. Clarkson plays an interestingly dynamic solo, which features extremely clean, smooth playing alongside deliberately choppier, edgy choices. This contrast between warm, satisfying musical themes and more disorientating, edgier ideas runs throughout the piece, as the track features tight ensemble playing alongside periods of freer improvisation. The first taste of this warmth from the band is introduced after Clarkson’s solo, as the band enter with beautifully voiced backings and Chris Dowding begins the melody on trumpet. The movement of Dowding’s lines, with the band moving beneath him, is really beautiful. Following this, Dee Byrne begins to solo on alto sax, making very different musical choices to Dowding. Getting a taste of each performer as a soloist as well as an ensemble player is always a real pleasure – even more so with holding hands.
“These protest sounds were provided by Morris Masuda, and the effect on the listener is really moving.”
Once Azzy King enters on drums, the mood changes and the piece has much more movement. Although the groove is laidback, it feels as though there’s a sense of anticipation for something – and as Rob Milne solos on tenor sax, this feeling increases. It feels as though there is a slow, gradual build from the band – they build and build until suddenly, they all drop out. Milne is left soloing alone, yet each band member begins to add in their own improvisatory ideas. This section of the piece is very experimental, and challenges our expectations as listeners. Many of the ideas feel deliberately disorientating, yet there are repetitions and themes which seem to run throughout; we can hear what sounds like people talking, clapping, birds, and keyboards typing. It’s an interesting commentary that we’d love to hear about from the band themselves.
Finally, Martin Pyne on vibraphone moves the band back into rhythmic, ensemble playing. Raph Clarkson solos on trombone, bringing back the sweetness and warmth of the previous playing. The backings from the brass are higher in voicings, creating a sense of triumph and joy at the end of the piece. The track ends with beautiful muted trumpet playing from Dowding, and a more typical brass band sound. The effect is one of real satisfying closure to an exploratory and varied piece.
“From ‘another black death’ alone, we can’t wait to hear their full collaborative works.”
holding hands are an exciting new octet who are yet to release their first recordings together, yet from ‘another black death’ alone, we can’t wait to hear their full collaborative works. Although their music features some exploratory improvisation, and can be challenging to the listener, these moments are enveloped by ensemble playing which provides a beautiful contrast to these experimental elements. ‘another black death’ takes the listener on a journey, moving through different musical and emotional spheres, before returning to the warmth of its opening. The fact that holding hands are making a political commentary in the musical process makes their tracks all the more poignant. This return to warmth feels like an important sense of hope which is reinforced by the protest sounds used in the piece’s opening. This track is a great and important listen, and we would recommend it to any lover of jazz.
Review by Evie Hill