Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra, Mammal Hands and John Ellis at the RNCM

Last Saturday’s gig was a very different experience to the first time I saw Matthew Halsall and The Gondwana Orchestra. Instead of standing a few feet away from the band in the intimate basement space of London’s Jazz Cafe, I was watching from a seat across a theatre in the prestigious Royal Northern College of Music. But any worries I might’ve had about being removed from the music soon disappeared. The gig was just as full of talent, passion and community as last time. You just got to sit down at this one.

The gig’s lineup echoed this sense of community. The supporting acts, Mammal Hands and John Ellis, are both signed to Gondwana Records, and Mammal Hand’s saxophonist, Jordan Smart, also plays in The Gondwana Orchestra. As well as the latter, Luke Flowers also drums for The Cinematic Orchestra, which John Ellis co- founded. After the gig, I mentioned this network of association to Jordan Smart and he referred to it as a family. It’s this sense of love and shared passion that makes music such a special and powerful thing – I always leave Matthew Halsall’s gigs with that in mind.

John Ellis was first of the family to perform, playing piano with a accompanying orchestra. After two gorgeous orchestral pieces from his upcoming solo debut, Seeds and Streams, I decided that this album cannot come fast enough. I’m still not over the fact that we only got two songs.

Next up was Mammal Hands. Over the last four years, the trio have won a strong and growing fan-base with their fiercely expressive nu-jazz – they carry this passion onto the stage, and then some. Jordan Smart, in particular, would often become so consumed by the music that he seemed unaware of anything else, which is such a wonderful thing to see in a musician. The band’s energy made them particularly good at creating tension. They’d build these incredible, atmospheric crescendos, get everyone on the edge of their seat, and then deliver with some crazy intense climax. Someone could be spilling their drink on you and you wouldn’t notice.

Matthew Halsall & Gondwana Orchestra slowed it down after Mammal Hands. Though they played a few of the same songs as at The Jazz Club, the performance style was altered to match the different concert setting – a more mellow, dreamy vibe for the seated audience. Josephine Oniyama was also present to lend her deep, sage vocals to songs like, ‘Only a Woman’, where she nails the difficult pitch changes, and ‘As I Walk’, a gorgeous, eastern influenced track. ‘Badder Weather’ also spotlighted Rachel Gladwin’s incredible skill with the harp – doubly impressive because she was playing with a broken leg. And yet she still hobbled all the way off-stage and on again for the encore charade. Now that’s dedication to the show.

The night ended with a piece that encapsulated the music and atmosphere of the gig for me. The pace, style and instrumentation varied, but never separated from one another. The shifts were fluid – like one great river that catches different lights and currents, but always stays connected.


Listen to the artists here:

Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra:

Mammal Hands:

John Ellis:

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