Richard Strauss smoulderingly gyrating against a grooving Curtis Mayfield … Elvis Presley rocking out to a harmolodic, Ornette Coleman-infused maelstrom … Mozart strutting his stuff in an exuberant, African street-band promenade – perhaps that could only be the all-at-once beautiful, funny, profound and rebelliously entertaining world of Pigfoot. There’s little wonder why London’s Vortex Jazz Club packs in the audiences to discover what this crackling, unpredictable line-up might stage next – and Pigfoot Shuffle brings together a glorious greatest-hits snapshot of their ‘Opera’, ‘Bacharach’, ‘Motown’, ‘1972’ and ‘Elvis’ evenings to date.
With a liberating panache first unleashed in debut album 21st Century Acid Trad, the quartet again treads an oblique, fine line. They radically recolorize timeless melodies and ingeniously entwine genres, swinging from Jimmy Page’s gutsy, hard-rock overdrive to the tender romance of Burt Bacharach – but behind it all is a clear, healthy respect for the essence and integrity of these enduring, wide-ranging originals. Indeed, Chris Batchelor, Liam Noble, James Allsopp and Paul Clarvis are all esteemed, individual names in progressive contemporary jazz. But taking Batchelor’s charts simply as an opening reference, their anarchic adventures lead to a big fat New Orleans-imbued arena of no-holds-barred experimentation and celebration.
In an almost Ellingtonian rendition of Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils, listen out for Chris Batchelor’s transformation of an Eb cornet, its eastern mystique remarkably achieved by playing through a bassoon reed (a ‘cornoon’, if you will). And the heady growl of Led Zeppelin’s classic rock-out, Black Dog, is maintained with vintage buzz wah trumpet mute (a quirky item complete with kazoos – one of several in his armoury) alongside riffing synth and bari sax.
It takes an enquiring musical mind to interweave Richard Wagner with a popular 1950s hit – but here, Song to the Evening Star (from Tannhäuser) is paired with Heyman & Young’s Love Letters in a soulful 6/8 gospel procession, enriched by Allsopp’s throaty baritone and Clarvis’s hard-hitting toms. And Mozart – Isis & Osiris (The Magic Flute) and Dove Sono (The Marriage of Figaro) – pulsates to an ebullient, hymnal, township vibe, accentuating the influence of opera on 20th century American songwriters.
Pigfoot continue to blur barriers in the jazz/blues fervour of rock‘n’roll favourites Heartbreak Hotel, Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog (the latter arrangement described by Batchelor as “the blues in all keys at once”), while Liam Noble’s adroit Fender and synth presence in Curtis Mayfield’s Pusherman (from the Superfly movie soundtrack) honours its early-1970s vibe. Batchelor affectionately transcribes, for soprano cornet, the harmonica solo of the Stevie Wonder hit For Once In My Life as Noble’s jabbing chord and funk synth bass anchor that late-1960s context, before a high-kicking showtime finale ensues – raising a smile is all part of the Pigfoot experience! Burt Bacharach’s distinctive musical elegance is recognised in a spacious, detailed reading of The Look of Love; and Wives & Lovers is reimagined in sunlit McCoy Tyner style.
It was Tennessee-born ‘empress of the blues’, Bessie Smith, who hollered, “I wanna pigfoot and a bottle of beer; send me, ‘cause I don’t care; blame me, ‘cause I don’t care”. With their own, wry free-spiritedness, who knows along which avenues Batchelor and co. may wander next. Crack open the lid … and enjoy!
Adrian Pallant (January 2019)