Ma - The Last: The Jazz Mann (4*)

The group Ma is the brainchild of saxophonist and composer Tom Challenger, a musician who forms part of the influential North London based Loop Collective and who is concurrently also a member of the bands Outhouse and Redsnapper. “The Last” is the first full album length release from Ma following an earlier EP on the Mini Loop imprint and this new recording has met with a compelling amount of critical acclaim.

Ma teams Challenger’s tenor sax with the drums of Loop mainstay Dave Smith (also of Outhouse) and the Hammond/Rhodes of versatile keyboard player Ross Stanley. However it’s the electronics of fourth member Matt Calvert that really give Ma its distinctive flavour. I first encountered Calvert when he appeared with his “Soundtrack” project at the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Here his band of versatile young musicians including pianist Ivo Neame and bassist/violinist Tom Mason improvised to a backdrop of vintage silent films with Calvert treating the sound and also playing occasional guitar. This proved to be one of the hidden gems of the festival, the content of the music mirroring that of the films- both were quirky, sometimes disturbing but never less than interesting.

Ma’s music is rather different to that of Soundtrack. It’s emphatically more contemporary with industrial strength dub beats and rumblings, Messiaen-esque organ drones and Gothic prog rock elements. The press release for “The Last” mentions Messiaen as a key influence and also references Supersilent and Burial. One of the accompanying quotes describes Ma as sounding like “as if Tony Williams’ Lifetime was jamming Messiaen’s organ works with Fennesz, Deathprod, Lee Perry and Coltrane”. I assume they mean John, not Robbie. All fair enough I suppose but I also hear links to close musical “cousins” Polar Bear and for those of us of a certain age the combination of Challenger’s sax blasting and Stanley’s doomy, gothic Hammond is reminiscent of the work of David Jackson and Hugh Banton, once the instrumental core of the wonderful Van Der Graaf Generator. Other reviewers have mentioned the influence of electric era Miles Davis, the contemporary Norwegian jazz scene, AMM and even Pink Floyd.

For an ostensibly bassless line-up Ma make an impressively resonant low end noise courtesy of Stanley’s pedals and Calvert’s electronic treatments. Much of this music is of an ominous, brooding nature and it also possesses a strong pictorial quality. One can imagine Ma’s darkly atmospheric music being used on the soundtrack of a particularly cool and noirish film or TV series. Despite the high level of improvisation to be heard this music is by no means inaccessible and one can also envision it having considerable appeal to adventurous rock listeners courtesy of its highly contemporary electronic qualities. Fans of groups like Polar Bear, Led Bib and Portico Quartet will also surely appreciate Ma. 

The bulk of the twelve relatively short pieces come from the pen of Challenger with Smith and Calvert also occasionally collaborating with the saxophonist. Opener “We Need Two” sets the group’s stall out with Calvert’s dubby electronics distorting the sound of both Smith’s drums and to a lesser degree Challenger’s tenor sax. It’s the Huddersfield born saxophonist who provides the main melodic content, soloing powerfully above a background of crashing drums and earth shuddering electronics. This is visceral, attention grabbing stuff and a spirited call to arms.

“Pipes” is more ethereal, with long saxophone lines and subtle organ drones floating above skittering electronically treated percussion grooves. The unpromisingly entitled “Dump”, a collaboration between Challenger and Smith has been hailed as one of the album’s outstanding cuts and rightly so. Grandiose organ and searing saxophone coalesce above a background of rumbling electronics and dynamic broken beat drumming. Like the opener it’s heady, powerful stuff.

Heavy on atmosphere the slow pulses and drones of “Virus” initially conjure up visions of drifting fog. This is Ma at their most cinematic but the music steadily builds in layers with Challenger’s sax breaking through the murk. However the sense of hidden menace extends throughout the track and extends into the following “Accidental”, another fine example of electronically enhanced “mood music”. Even at their most reflective there’s a hint of urban danger in Ma’s music that ensures that even their quietest pieces could never be dismissed as merely being “ambient”. 

“Shake”, attributed to Challenger and Calvert, begins with Smith’s insistent drum grooves and Stanley’s accompanying Rhodes and is subtly transformed into something of a dubfest by Calvert’s electronics. Challenger himself maintains a relatively low profile and keeps his sax lines clean and simple. This is very much Calvert’s baby and emphasises the importance his contribution to the group sound.

“Noir” is appropriately titled. Slow burning and vaguely threatening it’s another example of Ma’s unsettling “movie soundtrack” music. Dark, dubby electronic glitches and a combination of acoustic and electronic drum sounds merge with Challenger’s long tenor sax lines, the whole underpinned by a slow, steady, low register pulse.

In the recent past Ma have collaborated with former Loose Tubes drummer Steve Arguelles who is now also a respected electronic musician and soundscaper. I assume that the track “Steve” is a dedication to him. Musically it’s based round Stanley’s dense organ chording and heavily treated sax and percussion. It’s all very brief and seems to be over almost before it’s begun.

The title of “Amma Orra” seems to be a direct acknowledgement of the medium of film on the band’s work. The music is pure grand guignol with monstrously gothic organ, flailing drumming and screaming saxophone all augmented by the whooshes and rumbles of Calvert’s electronics. It’s certainly interesting to hear Ross Stanley in this context. I’m more used to hearing his Hammond in more straightforward settings such as the organ trios of guitarists Jim Mullen and Steve Howe or the Blue Note inspired quartet of Steve’s drummer son Dylan and saxophonist Brandon Allen. Stanley is a fine pianist too and often accompanies singers. I’ve seen him perform with Nia Lynn of the Bannau Trio. Ma represent the more experimental side of his musical personality and it’s good to see him spreading his wings in such a contemporary context.

It’s strange to see a track entitled “Intro” scheduled at number ten in the running order and it is perhaps intended to be a kind of precursor to the following title track. However this Rhodes led item is a convincing piece of work in it’s own right. Stanley’s sparse chording is embellished by percussion and electronics in another excellent example of the group’s ability to sculpt moods and atmospheres through a combination of conventional instruments and electronics. Unless my ears deceive me Challenger doesn’t even play at all on this one.

The title track begins with a roll of Smith’s drums before heading for the stratosphere via Stanley’s dense,soaring church organ chords and Challenger’s piercing saxophone. This is epic, wide-screen stuff driven by Smith’s forceful but intelligent drumming. Calvert maintains a relatively low profile here but is more visible on the closing “Medicinal”, jointly credited to Calvert and Challenger. Here the relative sweetness of Challenger’s tone contrasts well with the dub elements percolating beneath as the group maintain their high standards right to the end of the album.

“The Last” more than matches the high standards set by the majority of the Loop label’s output. Challenger & Co’s fusion of jazz and electronica is one of the most convincing examples of its kind with Calvert a wholly integral part of the music making process, indeed Polar Bear’s Leafcutter John sounds almost peripheral by comparison. “The Last” deserves to be regarded as one of this year’s most significant UK jazz albums and it is to be hoped that Ma get the chance to take this music out on tour and also manage to snag a London Jazz Festival appearance.