• Alex Fisher

Reaching Swinging Heights - an Interview

Jazz in popular culture has, in recent years, had something of an unfortunate image – often stereotyped as self-indulgent, inaccessible ‘high art’ to be enjoyed by an elitist fanbase.

This is a contentious issue with many jazz musicians, who would love to have their music enjoyed by a wider audience, hence there is a need to counteract the aforementioned notion.

Two Leeds music students particularly concerned with jazz’ image problem are guitarist Ed Allen and pianist Nico Widdowson, who set out to change the publics perception. Their solution, the colourfully-named 7-piece Mabgate Swingers Party. Their slogan, ‘Bringing Jazz Back to the Party’. I ask them the meaning behind the slogan:

“Jazz was the main party music for much of the 20th Century, from Dixieland all the way to the Swing Era”, says Allen, “A lot of people have this stigma about jazz where they see it as insular and self-indulgent, and some of it is, but we wanted to show the public that, even 100 years after its inception, jazz is still relevant and fun and accessible”.

“We noticed a growing trend in our local music scene for a lot of really self-indulgent, one-chord vamps, played by the same kind of neo-soul lineups with the same backbeat” says Widdowson. “We decided we wanted to do something a little different, a little more light-hearted and fun for audiences”

Allen continues, “We came across this British band called the Kansas Smittys House Band (based in the London club of the same name) who play their own arrangements of really old-school swing tunes, and we thought their concept would work perfectly for the band we were trying to create”.

After gathering a cohort of like-minded musicians who shared their passion for swing, the band began rehearsing arrangements of gems from the swing era (and earlier; much like Kansas Smittys, there are a handful of ‘rags’ in the groups repertoire). Both Allen and Widdowson are skilled arrangers, too, so finding and arranging good new material is never too difficult.

“The main emphasis” says Allen “is that whatever tune we play has to fit with the vibe of the band and our sets as a whole. We like to keep the music upbeat and fun, but also appealing to jazz purists – it’s a compromise – so we’ll have fun things like Maple Leaf Rag in the set, but then more straight-ahead bebop; tunes like Parker 51. It makes it fun for the musicians, too, so they get a chance to let loose a little after restraining themselves over the swing numbers”

Indeed, it soon became apparent that playing swing music well is deceptively challenging: “Swing music is patently melodic; if you play a wrong note it really does sound like a wrong note – there is no place to hide! So we often had to strip solos right back to basics, play the simplest things possible, and that can be hard”.

Another challenge for the Swingers was to learn each arrangement off by heart. The bandleaders insisted on doing this from the outset. I ask Widdowson to explain: “It certainly looks better for one thing, but also once the players internalise their parts, they’re free to play around with them as they like, so in fact it adds another kind of spontaneity to it, which really enhances the performances. That’s the main reason for memorising”

After a couple of months of rehearsals and memorizing tunes, the band needed a place to debut their swinging set, but the bandleaders weren’t just looking to simply put on a gig – they were keen to establish a whole new jazz night in Leeds.

Allen and Widdowson contacted a small café in Leeds called the Union, and, as Allen continues, “They were really enthusiastic about what we wanted to do – they’ve been great to work with and are always happy to host the jam”.

‘Mabgate at the Union’ was a roaring success from its first night in December 2017 (where the Swingers were the house band for that evening), and will continue to run fortnightly into the future. The night has already played host to the Swingers Party on several occasions, as well as sister bands, the Mabgate Organ Experiment, and the quartets of members Dan Coulthurst (trumpet) and Alex Fisher (sax). The name Mabgate itself (named after the street in Leeds where the bandleaders both reside) is fast becoming a brand – one which both Allen and Widdowson hope will grow even further.

I ask what the future holds for the Swingers and for Mabgate as a whole, and both men are optimistic, and enthusiastic about branching out into different areas. One of these areas is original music (both Allen and Widdowson are also adept composers, so it was inevitable for some Mabgate compositions to find themselves worked into the canon). “We already have three originals in the rep” says Widdowson, “all of which are also vocal features for Ed, myself, or our bassist, Tom Rhodes, another keen singer in the band”.

And will these originals be recorded any time in the future?

“Almost definitely!” both say. “We’ve recently started a new night on Wednesdays at Sela (one of Leeds’ most stalwart music venues), and the manager there is a real music lover; not only does he let us play there every week, but he’s really keen to fund us getting our originals recorded and released on an EP…on vinyl!”

So, on top of so many great prospects for the fledgling Swingers Party (including sets at several jazz festivals this coming summer), could this mark the start of a Mabgate record label?

“Watch this space” both men say with a smile.

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