13th April 2015
Some clever stuff here. You’d be forgiven, in the opening moments, for thinking this was a Phillip Glass piece but then the brass tones of a big band appear and staccato fun begins. That’s right – a big band – brass and percussion. What’s more, they are playing interpretations of prog rock.
Gavin Harrison is the drummer with British prog rock band, Porcupine Tree (as well as currently playing with the legendary King Crimson). This side-project, assembled over five years, is a swing band interpretation of Porcupine Tree tracks. I have a very partisan approach to prog – some I like, some annoys my ears – so I have not heard Porcupine Tree before, giving me the liberty to approach these as fresh music and not some novelty cover version. There was a vogue in the seventies for hiring orchestras to cover classic rock tracks and even now there are novelty sets like nursery versions of the Ramones, jazz versions of The Rolling Stones and even the shark-jumping Reggae Salutes The Grateful Dead. This set isn’t like that and, given the relative obscurity of the source material, can be approached on its own merits.
The big band approach works really well, the punchy brass substituting for the attack of guitars, whilst trumpets and cornets are more expressive than a lead guitar solo. There are obvious comparisons to be made with Frank Zappa, who felt orchestral versions of his work added some gravitas, since he was so desperate to be taken seriously as a composer. Hated by many orchestral musicians for “unplayable” music (he thought they were just lazy drunks), he showed that prog can work well with a large ensemble. There is an inescapable angularity to Frank that makes none of his work an easy ride, particularly when he is being terribly serious and seeking comparison with Edgar Varese again. Gavin Harrison, however, seems more relaxed and the arrangements allow the band to swing a bit and follow a tune. There are some filmic moments and some cool moments, while the busy-ness of the compositions keep the whole thing moving and interest is maintained. The lack of strings makes the translation from guitar / keyboard / drums more natural and shows an ideal approach. Duke Ellington made a big band into a serious compositional tool in his later suites.
It is very clear that this is put together by a drummer (Harrison) and bass player (Laurence Cottle – arranger), since it is all about the beat, whether that is brass blasts or traditional percussion. The whole rolls along very nicely and defies a whole raft of conventions to deliver something refreshingly new.