It was the last of ten consecutive nights on tour for Jonny Mansfield’s ten piece band Elftet when they landed at Future Inn in Bristol on a slightly wild and stormy Thursday night. The vagaries of the train timetable meant I caught just the first set, it was more than enough to dazzle however.
The ‘tet’ may be ten strong but the instrumentation is not conventional: Strings in the shape of violin and cello as well as bass (electric) and guitar; percussion, drums of course and vibes (the leader); reeds, brass and wind with alto, tenor sax and bass clarinet, trumpet, flugel horn, trombone, flutes (yes, some doubling up) and not forgetting voice!
It’s a rich palette and Mansfield’s compositional chops are more than equal to it. Sailing launched the set, bristling with energy as a few short phrases bounced around the band, before condensing into an exuberant, infectious riff. Melodically there was a folk-like simplicity at the core of the theme, a thread that persisted through the set, Ella Hohnen Ford’s vocal cutting through a lush layer of harmony. There was a finely judged sense of pace, the insistent riff creeping up on us building to an irresistible climax. Impossible not to grin along. Falling was a sighing, swooning lullaby,with the melody feinting sideways and harmony twisting unexpectedly, the vocal floating and fading into a segue. Flying Kites emerged with a bustling, rocky vibe, a fizzing solo from Tom Smith followed by increasingly dramatic exchanges between Dom Ingham’s violin and the guitar of Oliver Mason. Wings, starting with a song that sounded like a thickened up Scottish folk tune and then like other pieces evolved through episodes which felt entirely natural or dodged round corners offering surprises. Silhouette had a bold urgency, fractured beats with overlapping, swirling loops from the band assembled to whip up a grooving storm.
There was something of the mischievous quirkiness of Django Bates lurking below the surface and a blend of hymn-like melody and harmony sieved through a dissonant jazz sensibility that put me in mind of Dave Douglas. We perhaps take for granted cleverness and intricacy in some contemporary writing and assume the technical fluency of the players, but this music and the band has a sprinkling of magic dust. It’s very personal and immediate. American vibes man Joe Locke has a way with words and distilled it better than I can. ‘I appreciate the high level of craft … I bask in the beautiful feeling this music gives me‘ he said. I’m still basking. The tour continues and there’s an album coming out on Edition Records next year thanks to Mansfield winning the Kenny Wheeler prize last year. On this showing it was easy to see why.
The full line up:
Ella Hohnen Ford – Vocals & Flute
James Davison – Trumpet and Flugel
Tom Smith – Alto, Tenor Sax and Flute
George Millard – Tenor Sax and Bass Clarinet
Rory Ingham – Trombone
Dom Ingham – Violin, Vocals
Laura Armstrong – Cello
Oliver Mason – Guitar
Jonny Mansfield – Vibraphone
Will Harris – Bass
Boz Martin-Jones – Drums