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Radio Banska @ The CIC Arts Centre, Taunton, July 2023 : reviewed by The Jazz Journal

Too many arts centres in this region fill their schedules with little else but stand-up comedians, tribute bands and juke-box musicals, so Taunton’s CIC (Creative Innovation Centre) is therefore all the more valuable for its regular programming of non-mainstream music, including a good helping of jazz of various styles, plus there’s often an art exhibition thrown in.

Their latest presentation was a session by Radio Banska, a southwest quintet that mixes jazz with elements of Balkan and Levantine traditions, plus occasional reggae beats and Spanish/Latin tinges.

The band has been disseminating its unusual mixture for over a decade and was co-founded by guitarist Dave Spencer and violinist Nina Trott who, sad to say, passed away in 2017. I asked Spencer what gave them the idea. He explained that it was simply that he and Trott were getting a little bored with playing in the standard jazz styles and asked themselves what else they really liked. The answer was world music, with a particular focus on eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa - and they wanted to write the material themselves. As this gig emphasised, it’s a concept that works well musically and was certainly much enjoyed by the audience !

Apart from Spencer, who handles announcements and banter as well as electric guitar, the current line-up is Craig Crofton (sax), Tony Barby (guitar and charango), Sol Ahmed (bass) and Jon Clark (drums), although Tim Robinson was depping for Jon this particular evening. Spencer and Crofton took the solos but there were fine contributions from everyone : Barby’s roster included a couple of numbers featuring the charango, a kind of small lute-like instrument originating in the Andes, and there were some rousing solos by Crofton that employed flurries of short repeated notes that vividly evoked Arabic/Eastern Mediterranean genres.

Most of the tunes were Spencer originals, including Isfahan (not confusable with the Ellington-Strayhorn number), The Levantine Waltz (which had complicated fun with the metre) and the appropriately titled We’re Not In Kansas Now, but there was also a strong version of John Zorn’s Ravayah.

At the end of the second set the band went through what Spencer referred to as the 'usual pantomime' of resisting an encore  - but they did accede to demands for one more tune ! The audience clearly wanted even more but there was no doubt that the band had already given us excellent value, and those sinuous rhythmic patterns stayed lodged in the mind long afterwards !

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