Safety Signal From A Target Town (DISCUS 66CD) is another exciting record of UK big band music, under the auspices of Sheffield musician Martin Archer (who composed everything) performing here with 12 of his friends and fellow jazzers, appearing as Engine Room Favourites. The Favesters also performed on the two previous albums in this series, i.e. Blue Meat, Black Diesel and Engine Room Favourites and Bad Tidings From Slackwater Drag. Archer intends this project (he has many such on the go at once, which you probably realise if you’re a regular reader) as a direct homage to the Chicago collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, with whose aims and ideals Archer explicitly aligns himself. It’s all acoustic music played here by Engine Room Favourites, unless you count the Fender Rhodes piano of Laura Cole, with plenty of brass and percussion, and the spontaneity and warmth of the music is what strikes you up front – the record just never stops giving, generous scads of human-generated music with compassion and creativity.
I mention this because Archer himself has long felt a tension in his own music between the need for improvisation and the need for control. For what I know of his back catalogue, there are any number of records which could be described as “labour-intensive”. This isn’t to say Archer is a control freak who tweaks every last detail on a record. But it’s interesting that all the music on Safety Signal From A Target Town began life in the studio; as he realised the works, Archer played all the parts himself, overdubbing a set of what he calls “demos”. Anyone else would probably have called them finished works. These demos were transcribed by Laura Cole, turned into scores and charts, and Engine Room Favourites then had the music to play in their hands. As part of this, also note the turn-around period; two months for Archer to write the work, 2 days for them to record it. Maybe all that preparation makes performance easier. As a working method, this might not be too far apart from that of Frank Zappa, although by the end of his career the music not only began in the studio, it ended there; complex and abstruse synclavier pieces by the yard emerging from the fingers of this most focussed of control-freaks.
The next thing to note is the storytelling/cinematic side to the work – which is intentional – but manifests itself most notably on the 17-minute title track, and on ‘Happy Birthday! Mr President’. The title track is like a movie soundtrack, full of dynamic changes (as if responding to changes in action and mood on an imaginary screen), and only the most unimaginative listener could not help but conjure up their own stories as they listen. This is exactly what Archer wanted; to “enable the listener to imagine their own story of a world”. Even if ‘Safety Signal From A Target Town’ lapses into a sort of jokey film noir / hard-boiled detective mood now and again (we almost expect a William Burroughs voiceover to appear at any moment), it’s the most effective piece on the record. ‘Happy Birthday! Mr President’ also seems to tell a story of a celebratory pageant, but it’s probably intended as a sarcastic riposte to the rise of President Trump (Archer was composing it in the last two months of 2016), which may be why the story of the world is “moving in exactly the opposite direction to the version most people would wish to live in”. This is Archer’s roundabout way of expressing his dissatisfaction with global politics. While I enjoy the jaunty swing feeling of ‘Happy Birthday! Mr President’, it lacks bite as satire; too reserved, too polite, too English to hit its intended target. For a more successful take on American satire, once again I look to Frank Zappa; his ‘The M.O.I. American Pageant’ from 1967 is a devastating critique of middle American society’s values in music and sound effects, and the Mothers played with far more “grease” than Engine Room Favourites.
However, this isn’t to deny the generous servings of musical excitement on offer; one might single out the efforts of tenor saxman Mick Beck (who solos virtually everywhere), violinist Graham Clark, performing as a slightly more astringent version of Jean-Luc Ponty, the vibraphone of Corey Mwamba…but the whole band are great. I particularly enjoy the large amounts of percussion on the record – three drummers, Peter Fairclough, Walt Shaw and Johnny Hunter are joined by Steve Dinsdale who supplies “floor percussion”, and the combined effects are rich and tasty. Archer’s method of semi-scored, semi-improvised is really paying off; a tune may move from wispy ambiguous moods to wild and freaky blow-outs in the course of a few seconds, and it takes well-seasoned and talented players to be able to do that (I would assume). Archer is not aiming for the sort of heart-stopping dynamic effects which Otomo used to specialise in, and the music remains rooted in jazz traditions, which is what keeps it all approachable and appealing. But the band can also do “discordant and anxious”, if that’s what your dark psyche craves; ‘One Minute To Midnight / Beijing Halflife’ is the token “experimental” work, with plenty of disconnected angsty chords, cymbal rattling and murmuring sounds from the brass and woodwinds. Given that this tune follows the one about the election of the US President, you can draw your own conclusions as to the subtext of this track. From 5th February 2018.