Category Archives: Live reviews

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:

Spiritual Jazz Magic : Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra play Camden’s Jazz Cafe

It’s Monday July 11th in north-west London, and under the sultry shifting colours of Camden Town’s Jazz Café, Matthew Halsall, the Gondwana Orchestra and Dwight Trible weave spiritual jazz magic.

Halsall’s atmospheric compositions, rooted in the music of Pharoah Sanders and John and Alice Coltrane, blend the rich expressiveness of modal jazz with delicate Eastern influences. His intuitive employment of The Gondwana Orchestra’s harp, bass, drums, piano, saxophone, vocals and his own trumpet creates a gorgeously textured, emotive and distinctive sound – one that is rapidly propelling him to the top of the UK jazz scene.
The gig is kick-started with an eponymous track from the album, When The World Was One. The band, the music and the eyes of the audience are immediately energetic and gleeful. Crashing drums, hopping piano and a fantastic trumpet solo transports me to a smoky 20’s jazz café – an image helped by the stage fog that seems to rise from the musicians’ fast moving hands, catching the coloured strobes as it climbs. Experiencing this group live is something I cannot recommend enough – the harmonies saturate the air so heavily, you can almost see it.

Halsall’s intelligent arrangements draw out the most from the orchestra and the effect is even better/more pronounced live. Lulls and solos give each instrument space and focus, while grand crescendos demonstrate their powerful harmonic potential. The band maintains this balance throughout the performance, constantly building and releasing tension to allow every muscle of the orchestra to be flexed and flaunted. Regardless of pace, complexity or number of active instruments, every sound weaves flawlessly into each other. It’s great to watch a group of musicians who are so (warning: pun) in tune.

After a few songs, Dwight Trible enters the stage. Halsall is a big fan of the seasoned jazz vocalist, and the two haven’t played together since they met at last year’s Joy of Jazz festival in South Africa – the excitement is infectious/spreads through the crowd. It’s inspiring to see a group of people who are so proud and excited to be making and sharing music – there’s never a moment where one or more performers aren’t grinning with delight. After a quiet and unassuming entrance, the music starts, Trible opens his mouth and the whole crowd is knocked off its feet. The immense power and passion of his voice rains down upon us as he performs John Coltrane’s ‘Wise One’ and his own song, ‘John Coltrane’. Trible’s vocal range and control is staggering. Using a variety of techniques, he guides his voice from soulful thunder into wavering hush and up to ethereal heights. As his second song finishes, there’s an awed silence. Halsall laughs and suggests a 10 minute break for everyone to ‘recover’.
The audience is welcomed back with promises of more ‘spiritual jazz nuggets’. As promised, every song is a piece of musical gold, each with its own distinctive style and focal point. Trible returns to the stage for the last few songs: a soaring, soulful rendition of ‘The Creator Has A Masterplan’, ‘I’ve Known Rivers’, an enchanting lament from Trible’s Cosmic record, and the passionate ‘You’ve Gotta Have Freedom’. The inevitably demanded encore, Trible’s enchanting ‘Celestial Blues’, breathes the last magic of the night over the audience. As the lights come on and the crowd reluctantly begins to disperse, I feel the spell quietly breaking and wonder if the Gondwana Orchestra are touring again soon.


N.b. This review is from earlier in the summer – I will be posting a couple of articles I finished before the website went up.