With the UK’s booming jazz scene welcoming a swathe of new young listeners, Gondwana Records is currently one of Manchester’s most exciting labels. Like their brothers-in-arms Gogo Penguin, Gondwana’s own Mammal Hands are an unconventional jazz trio. Combining jazz, electronica, classical, north Indian, folk and ambient styles, they draw from a melting pot of influences. For all its ingenuity, though, it’s music that strikes the heart first and the head second.
The band met whilst busking on the unassuming streets of Norwich. At that time brothers Jordan (saxophone) and Nick Smart (piano) made up an electronic duo. After encountering drummer/percussionist Jesse Barrett, though, the vision changed, and the more obviously ‘jazz’ project Mammal Hands was born. A year or so later, when the band were up and running as a live act, they played the Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul Festival in Birmingham. In the crowd was Gogo Penguin’s Nick Blacka. Excited by what he saw, Blacka reported his findings back to Gondwana boss Mathew Halsall, and the trio were signed. It was then that their vision really started to take shape.
Upon the release of their Halsall-produced album Animalia in 2014, Mammal Hands were praised by critics for carving out a distinctive sound so early on in their career. Characterised to some extent by the band’s unusually bassless line-up, each player brought something unique to that album. Having studied with tabla maestro Sirishkumar Manji for twelve years, Barrett’s preoccupation with North Indian energies is arresting. Similarly, Nick Smart’s penchant for minimalism shines in his wonderfully hypnotic piano parts. It’s the saxophone, though, which provides the emotional sucker punch. Jordan Smart’s soprano soars with a wistful grace, evoking a strangely joyful sadness.
2016’s follow-up record, Floa, saw the band settle into the energy with which they operate best. There are less up-tempo tunes now, and the band feel more comfortable in their gorgeous brand of melancholy. Continuing this trajectory is 2017’s democratically-conceived and self-produced Shadow Work, which they are currently touring. This record feels like a sanctuary. Its ebbs and flows take you on a richly emotional, cathartic journey which, come the closing track, you are reluctant to complete. Poignant track ‘Solitary Bee’ is a personal stand out. Featuring the trio’s most sensitive and empathetic playing, its simple, impassioned melodicism is achingly powerful. Translating to the stage wonderfully, this whole album is a treat live. Get ready to be captivated.
Mad-cap instrumental five-piece STUFF. will provide a supporting set to remember. Classifications like ‘progressive jazz’ and ‘electro funk’ don’t quite contain this Belgium band, nor do justice to how exceptionally weird they are. One obvious reference point is the dystopian music of Flying Lotus, who is equally beyond classification. With Aphex Twin and J Dilla also sometimes present in their work, STUFF.’s eponymous debut album frenetically splices together grooves which span a range of genres. The result sounds like a mescaline trip that is almost going wrong. Live they play with insatiable energy and precision, notably employing the lesser-spotted EWI (electric wind instrument) to breathe human life into their woozy, woozy synth lines.
To top the night off, label founder and excellent musician in his own right, Mathew Halsall will be DJing at the close of event. Expect an eclectic mix of tracks from his label’s artists, as well as some of the most exciting jazz, hip hop and leftfield electronic music out there at the moment. This is not one to sleep on.