Freak Out tour reviews, Sep 2013

The Herald review, Glad Cafe Glasgow gig
Scotsman review, Glad Cafe Glasgow
The Edinburgh Reporter review, Liquid Room Edinburgh
Rob Adams article in The Herald, on Paul Harrison

Kate Molleson, The Herald
18 Sep 2013

AS A teenager in the late 60s, Robert McFall would while away the hours with Frank Zappa's genre-smashing Freak Out! and Captain Beefheart's swamp blues. With typical classy eclecticism, Mr McFall's Chamber - the intrepid Edinburgh-based troupe of Scottish Chamber Orchestra musicians and friends - make Beefheart and Zappa the backbone of their latest tour. The programme also showcases first-rate new works by Martin Kershaw and Paul Harrison, both of whom doff their caps to the brash rock iconoclasts but keep their jazz-accented language their own.

There's been a recent explosion of interest in Zappa from the classical music world, with tribute shows at the Proms and Edinburgh. McFall's have been ploughing this field for well over a decade, since early gigs at the original Bongo Club, and their take has a mellow ease to it.
There was laid-back swing in Echidna's Arf (of you) and G-Spot Tornado, Zappa's zany metric shifts lolloping by without much sass or shock factor. The Beefheart numbers (Ice Rose, Suction Prints) could have likewise used more tight-sprung jolt.

But there's a vibrancy in this group's sound that's beguiling. The Habanera from John Adams's Book of Alleged Dances was elegant. Kershaw's Far Vistas translates Caithness scenery to bright, inter-locking percussion against warm padding from strings and French horn. Harrison's electro-acoustic The Dust Blows Forward kicks off with a jaggy, Monk-ish theme; later vibra-phone trills and yearning horn motifs are laced with cheeky keyboard riffs. A recording of Beefheart's grisly singing weaves into the contours of the score: subversive beat-poetry from beyond the grave.

Ken Walton
Scotsman * * * *
18 Sep 2013

It was standing room only for the opening Glasgow leg of Mr McFall’s Chamber’s Freak Out Tour. That is, there were no seats in the bijou backroom bar of the south side Glad Cafe, where floor space was at a premium.

But that seemed just right for a touch of funky, steamy nostalgia from the lugubrious dynamism of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, kindred spirits whose music and minds were the focus of a short, sharp couple of sets that incorporated new works by Martin Kershaw and Paul Harrison, as well as the sultry decadence of John Adams’ Habanera from his quartet John’s Book of Alleged Dances.

It was a vintage McFall’s show – keyboard, rhythm and bass underpinning a steely kernel of amplified string quartet, frontline percussion and, to quote main man Robert McFall, the unlikely “jazz horn” of virtuoso French hornist Alec Frank-Gemmill. All of which gave vital spontaneity to the frenzied unison jabs of Zappa’s Echidna’s Arf and G spot 
Tornado, and the riot of eccentricity that lit up Beefheart’s Suction Prints Harrison’s The Dust Blows Forward, featuring the recorded voice of Beefheart, emerged as a catching combination of surreal and pastoral jazz. Kershaw’s Far Vistas played more on insatiable energy, capped by a climactic canonic cadenza.

Missing sadly from the Glasgow performance was George Crumb’s Idyll for the Misbegotten, due to lack of space in the venue. Catch it tonight, though, in Edinburgh’s Liquid Rooms, or tomorrow in Musselburgh’s Brunton Theatre.

David Kettle, The Edinburgh Reporter
19 Sep 2013

There was a good chance that very few of the audience had ever been in an underground Edinburgh rock venue before – as, I’m ashamed to admit, was the case with me. But the Liquid Room was, in theory at least, the ideal venue for contemporary music group Mr McFall’s Chamber’s high-energy Freak Out gig of (mostly) American music, combining classical-influenced rock from Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart with rock- or jazz-influenced classical pieces by modern US composers John Adams and George Crumb.

It was the ideal venue in theory – in practice, the bar’s ice machine made a distracting clanking sound throughout much of the performance, and the informal buzz of chat didn’t help the music that required closer listening. But no matter – this wasn’t a classical concert, and it still made for a thrillingly innovative evening that brought together some blistering performances.

The most blistering of which was horn player Alec Frank-Gemmill’s account of George Crumb’s An Idyll for the Misbegotten, which saw him howling and whooping with his instrument against a backdrop of thundering drums and tick-tocking woodblocks. The setting was far from the moonlit lakeside August evening that the composer suggests, but it still made a potent, theatrical impact.

Rob Adams, folk & jazz critic
The Herald

Harrison focuses on spirit of Beefheart

IT IS somehow typical of Paul Harrison's career that he should be speaking about one project while he's immersed in another, completely different, sphere of activity.

This week Harrison, who teaches piano on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland's jazz course, has been premiering his first work for the adventurous chamber music group Mr McFall's Chamber. Part of a programme that features arrangements of music by friends and rivals Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, their contemporary George Crumb and a new piece by saxophonist Martin Kershaw, Harrison's composition is based on Beefheart's monologue The Dust Blows Forward and marks the pianist's first foray into working with voice samples.

He's worked with singers - Carol Kidd and the late Tam White are among those who have called on Harrison's considerable accompaniment skills - and creating electronic sounds has been a feature of his adventures with free-spirited jazz trios Trianglehead and Breach. Beefheart, however, represented a particular challenge.

"I'd heard some of his more straight-ahead stuff through Tam White, who was a big fan," says Harrison down the line from Lyth, near Wick, where he's recording a new solo piano album. "But when I got the commission from the McFalls I thought I'd follow the theme of the programme, which is Freak Out, and delve into some of his denser work and went straight to Trout Mask Replica, which is still quite a heavy musical experience - there's so much going on in there."
The sound of Beefheart's unaccompanied and uncompromising vocal on The Dust Blows Forward was the first thing that caught his attention.
"What I liked about it was, he's kind of singing it, although it's not in pitch, and it's a really interesting way of vocalising," he says. "But the challenge I faced was stretching this piece that's two minutes long on the album into a work that lasts 12 minutes. I didn't want to just pad it out. I wanted to stay close to the spirit of the original."

He was helped by the possibilities offered by another new experience: writing for French horn. The McFalls line-up for Freak Out, which takes its name from a classic Zappa album, pitches Alec Frank-Gemmill, principal horn with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, alongside McFalls regulars, cellist Su-a Lee, violist Brian Schiele, violinist Robert McFall and Rick Standley (playing bass guitar here) as well as jazz drummer Stuart Brown and percussionists Iain Sandilands and Tom Hunter.
"Alec's a pretty monstrous player and he's been really helpful," says Harrison. "I'd never written for a line-up like this before at all but it turned out to be a treat because the French horn, for me, has a rustic quality that fits in really well with the words of The Dust Blows Forwards. I became really immersed in the poem and could recite it from memory fairly quickly, and it suggests a lot of images of Americana, such as the smokestacks, and the desperation of Beefheart's youth living in the desert."

Harrison has, he concedes, taken some liberties in constructing a piece in four sections from the 25 lines of speech on the original recording, and will be bringing the good Captain back from the dead so that the ensemble can play with and around him as he delivers The Dust Blows Forward over the sound system.

"There are one or two moments where I've twisted the timbre of his voice but otherwise the original track is intact," he says. "I hope Beefheart himself would approve of what I've done because there's a lot of room for improvisation, as well as a healthy dose of electronics, and although it has been a challenge for me, the piece itself is, I think, a lot of fun."

It's also some distance musically from the album Harrison is concerned with as we speak. On retreat in Caithness, he's got his head stuck into the Great American Songbook and is finally laying down the solo piano album that he's been procrastinating over for the past three or four years. With the luxury of a full week in a studio, as opposed to the jazz musician's usual lot of a day or two, he's been able to spend time examining each song.

"It has a practical side in that I really need something I can sell at gigs, a kind of calling card, if you like," he says. "But I've been able to find some lesser known standards and different ways of approaching ones I already knew, so it will be familiar and yet not so familiar."
McFall's Chamber Freak Out is at Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, tonight, and reviewed on page 16.

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Mr McFall’s Chamber is a registered charity: SC028348

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