No Big Brand

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Review of 'Goodbye Swingtime', Matthew Herbert Big Band, Accidental Records £13.99

Being any kind of conscious artist under 21st century imperialism is fraught with contradictory tensions. Aesthetics v politics? Art v propaganda? Individual v the masses? Local v global? Innovation v tradition? Particular v genre?

This CD is an exciting attempt to grapple with all these questions in a musically intricate and arresting work which deserves huge recognition. As he explains on his website, 'At a time of war, it is a difficult task to know where to place music. Contemporary music, like much western culture is again at a crossroads. Does it describe, critique and contribute to the urgent political questions of the day, or provide an alternative, prescribing different rules and espousing its own values?'

Matthew Herbert works under various guises. He is Wishmountain, Doctor Rockit, Radio Boy or, simply, Herbert to a techno/house audience and is a globetrotting club DJ. But he's also a precocious musician, touring Sweden with his own Glen Miller style big band at 16, having played violin and keyboards from the age of four. With his father a BBC sound engineer, it's little surprise that he tends to define himself very much in relation to technology.

His 'Personal Contract for the Composition of Music' is an aesthetic manifesto which bars the use of any already existing sound, especially sampling other tunes. No synthesised instrumental sound can be used where the financial and physical possibility exists of using real instruments or musicians. Any preset FX must be edited out of all programming technology to be used. Sounds that can be used must be generated as found sound by the composer/performer. All technical equipment used must be listed and made public.

Prompted by DJ Gilles Peterson to put this project together for the 2002 Montreux Jazz Festival, the bulk of recording was undertaken in the infamous No 2 studio at Abbey Road in July. The acoustic possibilities of the four trumpets/trombones/saxes, piano, bass and drums line-up plus vocalists were fleshed out with arranger Pete Wraight, then augmented by thousands of recordings Herbert made over the following ten months.

These recordings were largely structured by anti-war literature and protest. They include London marchers on 15 February, printing-out data from anti-capitalist websites, and quotes from Chomsky, Pilger, Palast, Moore, et al.

Goodbye Swingtime therefore manages to look forwards and backwards, spinning so many of the plates of artistic contradiction simultaneously. Explicitly attempting to rescue big band swing from its connotations of decadence and opulence, Herbert is also exploiting the creative sonic possibilities of cutting edge gizmos.

He is also adamant about avoiding the corporate structures of the music business. The work is wholly controlled by the artist and its contributors from conception through distribution, licensing, publishing and performance. Herbert refuses to market or merchandise. The liner notes state, 'If you'd like a T-shirt/record bag/mouse mat/mug/pencil/SUV with our names on, feel free to make it yourself.'

There is wonderful vocalising and playing, arrangements which echo musical strands from Brecht/Weill, Archie Shepp or George Russell to Frank Zappa and Charles Mingus, as well as the percussive and melodic construction of musique concrete. The sense of political struggle is expressed most through harmony v dissonance rather than lyrics, and it is very much as art rather than propaganda that it works so well.

Herbert's manifesto can be read at www.magicandaccident.com.