Composer, arranger, keyboardist, orchestral leader and former prog-rock musician Colin Towns is an unusual convert to jazz to say the least, but then he is a unique musician period. Once keyboard duties in group Gillan had ended, Towns embarked upon a highly eclectic and versatile second career as a composer both of television films and commercials, while at the same time setting up his own larger jazz ensemble and composing specifically for theatre productions. In fact it may surprise some to learn that the Mask Orchestra has now been around for some twenty-five years which is an achievement in itself and in the process has recorded seven albums of which this is the latest creation. Underpinning the project as a whole is the inter-connection between theatre, dance and music, one that no less than Stravinsky explored with pieces such as the Rites of Spring and Petrushka. Towns equally has a classical component to his portfolio. However, on this recording it is largely secondary and manifests itself rather in some of the arrangements and the occasional Romantic period piano solo, or layered keyboard while the soloing is firmly in the jazz idiom. Otherwise, this is most definitely a jazz album with a distinctive and, in parts, a quirky and unexpected twist, and Towns has surrounded himself with some of the very best in UK musicians, past and present, plus two of Germany’s finest in bassist Arnd Geise and percussionist Stephan Maass. Form the former category, these include among a whole host of musicians saxophonists Tim Garland, Nigel Hitchcock, Julian Siegel, Alan Skidmore, trumpeter Henry Lowther, guitarist Chris Montague while Andrew McCormack performs on acoustic piano with the leader himself on assorted keyboards. Well known theatrical plays from the classics through to the present say serve as the starting point for the impressionistic interpretations and re-workings. Highlights include the Balkan beats influenced piece ‘The cherry orchard’ the sparse and haunting trumpet-led ‘Long day’s journey into the night’ and the lengthy eleven and a half minutes of ‘Hysteria’ which is reposing in the intro, but gains in intensity and conveys a mind in turmoil most convincingly. In places the brass arrangements hint at Gil Evans whereas on a piece such as ‘A doll’s house’, the organised brass chaos is more akin to the big band mayhem of Charles Mingus in his prime with some McCoy Tyneresque touches from Andrew McCormack on piano thrown in for good measure.
It will be fascinating to hear how this loose sounding ensemble come across in a live context and on their imminent if brief UK tour, the Mask Orchestra will perform at RNCM Manchester (15 October), Southampton (16 October) before ending in London at LSO St. Luke’s (17 October). These will be the first live performances by the orchestra since 2010 when they interpreted the Orpheus Suite with the Royal Birmingham Ballet.