Radio Banska @ The Melville Theatre, Abergavenny 27/10/19 : reviewed by Ian Mann

Tonight’s performance represented a welcome return to Abergavenny for the Bath based ensemble Radio Banska, who had first visited the town in 2015 when they appeared at the annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. The band’s website describes them as “an instrumental jazz/world quartet fusing Levantine mystery, Balkan passion and Latin rhythms into powerful original compositions”, which sums things up pretty nicely !  The sad and untimely death of band co-founder Nina Trott from breast cancer in 2017, inevitably resulted in the band going into a period of hiatus, but the current edition of Radio Banska is a quartet, now led by Spencer on lead guitar and featuring fellow founder Tony Barby on second guitar and charango, long serving member Sol Ahmed on double bass, and for tonight only drummer Tim Robinson, who was deputising for regular incumbent Jon Clark.

Radio Banska had obviously made a good impression with their Festival appearance back in 2015 as there was a pleasingly substantial turnout at the Melville Theatre on a cold, clear October night. Another pleasing aspect was the presence of a few new faces, evidence perhaps that Radio Banska have something of a cult following.

Under Spencer’s guidance Radio Banska delivered two substantial sets of mainly original material, including new arrangements of several pieces from the 2012 “Balkan Courtesan” album. First up were two pieces that Spencer described as “Latin tunes”, the lively “She’s All Mayan” and the slower “Get Over It”, both of which featured the sophisticated guitar interplay of Spencer and Barby over  the solid rhythmic support of Ahmed and Robinson. I’m loath to describe Barby as a ‘rhythm guitarist’, as he did far more than just strum chords and keep time, so the title ‘second guitarist’ is probably more apt. Nevertheless it’s undeniable that all the soloing was undertaken by Spencer, a fluent and versatile guitarist with an exhaustive knowledge of global musical styles. His richly inventive compositions embraced a wide variety of rhythms and time signatures, and certainly kept his bandmates on their toes. Robinson, who was sight reading throughout, was the very model of concentration and acquitted himself well in the face of some very complex material.

Spencer described much of his output as being “Middle Eastern and a bit weird”, adding that others have described it as being “genre defying”. To Illustrate the point we heard the Levantine styled sounds of “La Mezquita” (translating as “The Mosque”), the opening track from the band’s 2012 album. This saw the leader making judicious use of his various effects pedals. From the same recording came “Chat Pitre”, a tune written by the French accordionist Richard Galliano. In Banska’s hands the piece was transformed into a patented brand of “Moroccan Reggae”, a beguiling blend of North African inspired melody and syncopated dub groove.

“Suleiman’s Dance” continued the Middle Eastern theme with its interweaving guitar parts and clipped rhythms, the sound further enriched by brief, but distinctive and melodic, arco bass flourishes from Ahmed. Introducing his composition “Spice Caravan” Spencer described his group’s aim as being to “create original music that sounds like traditional tunes of other cultures”, which again seemed to sum up their approach very succinctly.

However, the following “Lucid Dreamer” represented something of a contrast as the group edged closer to conventional jazz with both Spencer and Barby deploying a relatively orthodox ‘jazz guitar’ sound, with chord choices to match. Next up “Pitch Dark” explored the possibilities of the “flattened fifth” or “blue note” and saw Spencer adopting a harder edged electric guitar sound as Ahmed enjoyed a brief cameo at the bass.

Then came the title track of “The Balkan Courtesan”, introduced by Barby and again featuring the sound of Ahmed with the bow, here approximating the sound of Trott’s accordion on the recorded version, followed by the gentle “Otono de Amor” marking a return to the group’s Latin side and featuring Spencer’s tasteful guitar soloing over Robinson’s softly brushed drums. Next “The Levantine Waltz” (described by Spencer as ‘tricky’!) relocated the music back to the Mediterranean prior to the final tune of the first set, the Nina Trott composition “Emo Latino”. This featured the distinctive sound of the Peruvian charango and the interplay between Barby on charango and Spencer on guitar was particularly engaging with the guitarist sketching melody lines above the tautly strummed rhythms of the charango, with additional impetus coming from bass and drums.

The charango was also to feature at the beginning of the second set as the quartet delivered their arrangement of the John Zorn composition “Ravayah”. Here the charango was deployed in more of a lead role and sounded very different. Zorn is a composer of some stature and this was a genuinely impressive performance that sounded distinctive and different. Next “10,000 Things” saw the group adopting a more contemporary, almost rock, sound on a piece with a title sourced from Buddhist philosophy, but which might also be applicable to the sheer diversity of the group’s music.

Barby introduced the mellow “A Country Mile” - as second guitarist he would often create the motif or melody around which Spencer would solo. As befits its title this piece sometimes reminded me of the ‘Jazz Americana’ of Pat Metheny and, particularly, Bill Frisell. The interplay between Barby and Spencer continued to impress on both “Ashkenazim” and “What a Frozen Waste”, the latter also including a dazzling solo from Spencer, a dizzying blend of sophisticated chording and lithe single note runs.

The Spencer composition “Isfahan”, not to be confused with the Billy Strayhorn tune of the same name, featured some of the most overtly “Middle Eastern” music of the set and featured another stunning solo from Spencer, whose guitar sometimes replicated the sound of an oud.

The breezy “Rio Coca” then took us back to Brazil, before “Alkira” ( a title derived from the aboriginal word for “Sunrise” ) added Australia to the list of musical destinations with Ahmed’s powerful bass lines helping to drive the piece.

Following all this sonic globe trotting the title of “We’re Not In Kansas Now” almost seemed like an understatement. The closing track on the band’s CD, this composition was  introduced by twin guitars, quickly combining with bass and drums to create a hypnotic groove . . . . a piece that seemed to depict a meeting between America and all the other cultures whose music Radio Banska had explored during the course of the evening. The recorded version even features Barby on didgeridoo, a sound replicated here by Ahmed’s arco bass drone.

All in all this was an enjoyable and highly accomplished performance from Radio Banska that was well received by the Abergavenny audience. The standard of the musicianship was excellent throughout, with leader Spencer particularly impressive, and with ‘dep’ Robinson navigating the complexities of the material admirably, a tribute to his sight reading skills.

Speaking to them after the show it’s clear that Trott’s band mates still miss her desperately. Besides her talent as a musician she was also a great organiser and music educator, “a force of nature”, as they put it. With regard to tonight’s show it was perhaps focussed too intensely on Spencer ( it would have been nice to have seen the others given more opportunities to express themselves) – but Radio Banska is currently a band in transition, finding its feet again after the tragic loss of its co-founder. Spencer’s richly imaginative compositions deserve to be heard, and one senses that this is what Nina Trott would have wanted.