The Matthew Herbert Big Band.

In 2001, as part of the score for a French musical ‘Le Defi’, directed by choreographer Blanca Li (pop culture fiends know her for her work in Daft Punk’s influential ‘Around The World’ video), Matthew Herbert was asked to write three pieces for a Big Band. One of these pieces, ‘Singing In The Rain’ attempted to go a step further by incorporating samples of the band, chopping up the existing recordings, looping, splicing and generally manipulating the raw material to create a new and totally distinct version. When Herbert talked to Gilles Peterson about this at the start of 2002, Peterson offered the yet to be formed ‘Matthew Herbert Big Band’ the chance to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival. There was now an incontrovertible deadline for a project Herbert had previously thought impossible to put together.

mhbbLIVERecorded at Abbey Road Studios in 2002, the ensuing album, ‘Goodbye Swingtime’ attempted to move away from the modern association of big bands with decadence and opulence and address it as a musical form worthy both of respect and indifference and whose merit should be judged on a piece by piece basis. It also attempted not to distance itself from the political environment in which it was created. Whilst the production of such a large-scale, self-financed album on Herbert’s own independent label, Accidental, was in itself a political statement, he was wary of creating a musical work happy to solely exist in its own universe.

The big band set up of 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 4 saxophones, piano, bass and drums were always considered a set of parameters to work with, rather than a staple of convention. Consequently, working with arranger Pete Wraight, much of what was written ended up more as a jazz orchestral work rather than a Big Band. Herbert took the original Abbey Road recordings, then deconstructed and reconstructed them in an electronic environment. The original integrity remained intact but were by no means treated with absolute reverence. Conversely, sounds were not added that had no relationship with the original. As such, all pieces were written according to the rules of PCCOM, a series of constraints Herbert imposed on himself to prevent him from re-treading the path of the familiar. Sounds that were added were either taken from recordings at Abbey Road during the session, including forty people banging anything they could find in Studio 2, or noises relating to reading. As such, specific political texts were used to generate additional percussion noises. Clippings sent to Herbert’s label from around the world about the imminent invasion of Iraq were also used along with recordings of people dropping their local phone book from various heights. Artists contributing to the album included Arto Lindsay, Dani Sicliano, Jamie Lidell, Mara Carlyle, Shingai Shoniwa, Plaid and Mouse on Mars. The process of arranging, writing, recording, deconstructing and reconstructing each song was revealed on the 12″ release, ‘The Process, The Parts, The Many and The Few’ (2003) which took music from the album and exposed it at each stage of the process from midi-written idea to reconstructed Big Band recording.

In 2008, the Matthew Herbert Big Band returned for the London debut of material from their new album, There’s Me And There’s You. Fans of Goodbye Swingtime, the last MHBB outing, won’t be disappointed: it’s another explicitly political album that combines the cream of London’s session musicians with Herbert’s beautifully infectious songwriting, all underpinned by his deft sampledelica. Expect to hear everything from the sounds of landfill sites, to a body being cremated and even a cheeky visit to the Houses Of Parliament. Who else would have Tony Benn, John Major and Ken Livingstone in the liner notes? Underground soul hero Eska (who’s worked with everyone from Ty to Lewis Taylor and David Sylvian) fronts the latest incarnation of the 18-piece band, with Herbert himself sampling the whole affair back on itself live.

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