It’s 2006, a cold wintry night subsides as I walk into the warmth of the CBSO centre, Birmingham. I’m here to see alto sax man Chris Bowden perform as special guest with The Heritage Orchestra. Alongside Bowden stands a very young, unassuming tenor saxophonist. I am later to find out his name is Tom Challenger. On hearing his first solo I remember thinking wow, who is this guy? Definitely not your average tenor player, a mature sound well beyond his years, subtlety and power blended beautifully, leaving the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end… This guy is one to look out for me thinks. Fast forward 5 years or so… I was fortunate enough to see the band “Ma”, led by Challenger, a couple of times during 2011/2012. Once at The Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath and once at The Vortex, London – a venue that on the face of it seems to have become something of a spiritual home for Challenger and his Loop Collective associates. It was during this period that “Live” was recorded. The essence of Ma is this: their music speaks in a language I do not always understand. A beguiling, textural, acoustic and electronic soundscape of beautiful and at times incomprehensible bodies of vibrations, noise, improv, samples, resonance and reverboration. Like a wave from the sea that washes over the skin and then slowly permeates its way through the body, sending subconscious, confusing and enlightening messages to the brain. Ma is: Tom Challenger: sax, synths, Matt Calvert: laptop, synths, Dave Smith: drums. Plus Ross Stanley: organ, John Blease and Ben Bryant: percussion. (The band also featured Steve Arguelles on one of the gigs I frequented). It has taken the band over 3 years to decide to release this live material. In between times saw their 2013 studio album “The Last” receive critical acclaim.
Ma is part of London’s forward thinking Loop Collective. The three main protagonists on “Live”, Challenger, Calvert and Smith, have associations with Brass Mask, Red Snapper, Fofoulah and Outhouse to name but a few. Challenger has also featured most recently with George Crowley’s Can of Worms (Whirlwind Records). “Live” features three tracks: “Forge 1.1”, “Forge 1.2” and “The Last”. Atmosphere is key to Ma’s output and is at the heart of these recordings. At times ambient, at times spellbindingly free and adventurous, the defining thing for me is its integrity and soul. Challenger’s organic sax and Smith’s driving, intriguing drums are the bedrock to which the multi faceted layers of synths, samples and percussion can build. The first two tracks segue into one another and feature the full sextet of musicians. This is stimulating music that is both tenacious and slightly scary, the mix of electronica and jazz pushing boundaries beyond measure. The third track is the trio and though naturally more sparse as a natural result, is just as riveting and thought provoking. Ma’s music is a fascinating voyage of sound. On this evidence (and of 2013’s “The Last”), it is a journey that looks set to continue on, with no time to take prisoners or conscientious objectors along the way. Roll on their next adventure.