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IN CONVERSATION: MAMMAL HANDS (JORDAN SMART)

Photo Credit: Alex Kozobolis

Jordan Smart: The lungs behind not only the sweetest, emotionally resonant music in UK jazz right now, Mammal Hands, but also the shoulders, knees, and modular toes behind progressive electronic duo, Sunda Arc. Who I suspect, in years to come, might be having their toast buttered by the likes of Nils Frahm. 

It’s fair to say, 2020 has been one big ketchup stain on everybody’s favourite white garment. The music industry, too, was unable to avoid the large splash of sauce straight to the groin. Anyone could foresee that venues with no crowds and tours with no venues was to be something of a challenge. For Jordan, learning Ney online, building a DIY drum machine, and brushing up on his Japanese shakuhachi were all a product of this extended period indoors. Another product was the calamitous timing of the release of two new albums: Captured Spirits (Mammal Hands) and Tides (Sunda Arc). …

“There was an initial weird period. The beginning of it was strange for everybody when there was this sort of disbelief, and you were watching a lot of your work just completely fall away. We’d already planned most of this year, particularly the summer. I mean, we had gig offers into next year. It’s like having the rug pulled from under you”.

“We went into the studio January and February this year. The original release date was going to be in April (Captured Spirits), but after everything happened and got pushed around, we decided to move it back to September. I think the final mixing happened in March, so it was before the lockdown”.

And Tides

“We were really worried with that; we had touring planned over the summer. It was weird because, on one hand it was good because we had already released it, but it’s a shame because a lot of the promoting you do with an album is touring it, and particularly, making any money back to pay off manufacturing of all the vinyl and cd’s. But luckily, we’ve sold that album out. The streaming figures have been really, really good. I guess with the lockdown, a lot of people have been on Spotify, and looking for new music, and listening to new stuff”.

September 11th marked the release of the new Mammal Hands album: Captured Spirits. On this latest work, they forage even deeper into the depths of the soul, striking the same passionate tone as always. The lure in an album like this is the myriad of moods the music is able to entangle you in. Much like an ancient forest, Jordan explains:

“Music is the most powerful form of expression that humans have, to me, at least. I think it’s the most direct, in that you don’t need any training to appreciate music, you can play the same piece of music to a bunch of different people and they’ll respond to it slightly differently. If you play a piece of music to someone who’s got their ear trained, they’ll listen to it in a different way, but the emotional immediacy is still there, no matter who you are, and what background you’re from. I think that’s fairly unique as a human art form. I think that’s exactly what nature does as well, if you place a human being in a stretch of ancient forest, there will be a humbling experience for them”.

The album is beautifully constructed, and to my ears contains an even wider array of globally inspired musings. You may conjure ungodly images of Nick Smart covering the length of the grand piano with four hands. Even five. Or submerged in an ambient piece, hopelessly trying to understand the obscurities of Jesse’s minimal, polyrhythmic tabla drums. And almost definitely, frantically pacing your room with an unbeknown horn-fuelled intensity that Jordan’s sax dominates from deep within your speaker. Many tracks really strike as a clear move forwards in Mammal Hand’s discography: Late Bloomer, for example, showcases a transition of a melody in its soft affinity, and over the course of the song builds with force. Jordan’s solo then dissonantly unravels out of control amidst a barrage of sounds before returning to the melody by the skin of its teeth. Spiral Stair, too, with an interesting use of textured effects on the recording, reveals a move toward a darker tone of their tunes to date. Which, I’d hope, is nothing to do with fumigated recording space. 

“For this album (Captured Spirits), we toured Shadow Work for about two and a half years. We decided for a lot of that we weren’t going to be writing at the same time, we’ll just really focus on the touring. Which was really valuable in a lot of way ways, but basically we came to the end of that touring period, got in a shed together, and wrote it over two months. We went in one of Jesse’s dads workshop out buildings. He’s a carpenter, so we had to get this dehumidifier in there because it was full of chemicals; there was a lot of lacquer and thinning chemicals and stuff in the shed with us. We’ve probably all shortened our lives by about 10 years. Ha-ha.”

I still have flashbacks to the last time I saw Mammal Hands live at Epic Studios in Norwich. A homecoming gig! Occasionally, I can distantly tap in to the vivid feelings which swirled inside me that evening and for many days after. It’s almost as though there was a vague emotional memory attached to the music from my childhood. The word ‘virtuosic’ is often used to describe masterful performances. What this means, to me, is the ability to not only have complete control over the instrument, but to treat it as an extension of the body, in order to engage the crowd with an energy from within the performer. That’s the absolute beauty of jazz, and improvisational music in general. No solo or piece can truly be replicated. It will always have the intricacies attached the body, or feeling of the player.  

“I think particularly with improvised music, there’s a big difference between a player that puts their heart into something, and puts their life into something, and a player that’s very wooden, and doesn’t have anything to say. It’s intuitive but you can hear a person’s perspective from their music, I think anyway”.

I know there are probably hundreds you could mention, but which wind players are you fond of that express themselves with that kind of emotion? 

“The big players that really got me into saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet are Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Eric Dolphy, and Yusef Lateef. Yusef Lateef is one my favourites. And also, do you know Sahib Shihab? He’s a really good player. In terms of more modern players, I really like Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart. Both of them play in Polar Bear. 

Leaving the gig, there was a real communal sense that we’d all shared something special this evening. I started to wonder how an artist can deal with such an intimate, emotional transaction night after night. Because, personally, I felt mentally drained; and I only watched the thing. 

“There’s a mental space that you’re trying to get to as a performer, and that the band are trying to reach collectively, and then also what you want to bring the audience into. I still struggle to a word describe it, but it’s kind of something close to a modern religious experience. It’s not got any of the trappings of religion, but it’s a shared emotional experience. You’re all in it together basically. 

“Some people describe it as this emotional thing, or that they were able to reach places with their thoughts or their imagination that they wouldn’t normally be able to reach. Some people visit things that are difficult for them in their lives and deal with them. 

“It’s a lovely thing to be able to apart of and it’s very lucky and special, but you’re often very tired by the end, to be honest, your body is knackered. But I find my mind is very cleared out, I feel very energised when I come back from a tour. It’s sometimes quite hard to come back to day to day reality to be honest. Occasionally, that’s one of the more difficult things about touring. Engaging with the washing up, and you know, tidying your house”. 

There we have it, folks. The trifle of the dishes remains, even if you can play John Coltrane’s Giant Steps note for note.

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