UK jazz audiences have largely been denied the somewhat guilty pleasures of nostalgia that have saturated the rock and pop worlds over the past decade or so – at least until now. The reunion of big band and mischievous collective Loose Tubes is something of a holy grail for gig goers of a certain age – an event that, in spite of the spirit of co-operation, networking and continued friendly relations between many of the band members – looked somewhat unlikely to ever happen.
Not only that, but Loose Tubes have risked becoming something of a ‘lost’ band altogether. Various theories abound as to why their three superb studio albums remain unavailable on CD. In fact, until keyboardist and de facto bandleader Django Bates released the live recordings Dancing On Frith Street and Sad Afrika on his own Lost Marble label, it was a challenge for new generations of jazz musicians and enthusiasts to even hear Loose Tubes music.
This version of the band, celebrating its 30th anniversary, has rejuvenated to change all that, returning to Ronnie Scott’s. the scene of their ‘final’ gigs in 1990 (and largely adhering to the line-up of the group that performed at those shows, along with a few additional members). Thankfully, the band members agreed that they ‘didn’t want to be their own tribute act’ and commissions from BBC Radio 3 for new compositions from founder member and original bassist Steve Berry (not performing in the reunited line-up), trumpeter Chris Batchelor, flautist Eddie Parker and Django Bates have ensured that this is something a good deal more than a return to old haunts.
Indeed, the new material provides as many of the highlights in this earlier of two Friday shows as the old classics. Chris Batchelor’s arrangement of a traditional Irish tune eschewed much of the band’s trademark mirth and provocation in favour of something beautiful and full of longing (particularly well supported by John Parricelli’s acoustic guitar). Eddie Parker’s Bright Smoke, Cold Fire veered between a driving soul groove and lighter, airier textures with characteristic unpredictability. Steve Buckley (“recently exhumed” according to trombonist and chief mischief-maker Ashley Slater in his between tunes banter) unleashed a magnificent, fluent saxophone solo. A later piece made an effective comic play on percussionist Louisa Petersen Matjeka’s single chime bar – a moment of surprising simplicity in an an otherwise complex, intelligent arrangement.
This particular set seemed to give greater weight to material from the band’s final album Open Letter, with one of the greatest surprises being the sudden lurch into the reggae detour of The Last Word. The opening Sweet Williams was exquisitely joyous and vibrant, a reminder of this band’s considerable respect for South African township music and for the big band jazz tradition (suggestions that the band were disrespectful due to their anarchic humour or even racist in the 1980s were always mistaken). Only Children’s Game, less slithery and slippery than its recorded version, threatened to become a little smooth.
With Django Bates dressed in an outlandishly bright shirt and pink trilby, gleefully directing the band whilst playing the keyboard with his other hand, and with Eddie Parker and various other members moving through the crowd and dancing at the bar, tonight’s set provided a wonderful reminder of the band’s brilliance in crafting a positive mood and offering entertainment as well as exhibiting their intricate, often delightful arrangements. The concluding Arriving (in spite of its title about as perfect a set closer as could be conceived) brought us a hint of New Orleans and a sublime piece of whole group improvising. Ashley Slater, often the band’s voice of political protest in the past, took the opportunity to gently berate certain elements of the audience. “You may have money, but you’ll never be in Loose Tubes,” he cried gleefully. “Think about that on your way home!” Even after everything that has happened in the intervening 24 years, it seems there is still safety in numbers.