The Tokyo Jazz Festival is a varied event, featuring artists of every age and from all corners of the globe. Yet, like most mainstream jazz festivals, the lineups can be somewhat middle of the road, inoffensively safe in a way that keeps more underground acts outside the castle walls.
One crew of misfits that has managed to get itself on the bill this year, however, is Britain’s WorldService Project. This freaky quartet dips its big toe into the free jazz waters, peppering performances with a dose of psychedelia, all the while exuding a snarling DIY punk sensibility. Tokyo jazz-heads will get a chance to experience this brand of controlled anarchy when the band rocks the festival’s outdoor Plaza stage on Sept. 4.
Keyboardist and mastermind of the collective Dave Morecroft has described his group’s sounds as “a cage fight between Weather Report, Stravinsky, Meshuggah, Frank Zappa and Monty Python.” It’s an apt synopsis. Fans of Charles Mingus, the Battles and John Zorn will find a lot to like here, too. While the band’s three studio albums are all recommended, there is an unpredictable madness to its music that makes its live performances a must-see.
“Our live shows are certainly intense, and we’re not exactly shy,” Morecroft tells The Japan Times. “For me, playing this music has to be done in a pure, gestural, honest and intensive manner. We deliberately use movement, theatrics and additional sound effects to bring out certain elements of darkness, humor or passion. The nature of the music as well as sitting between improvised, written and cued sections creates a stronger visual and musical connection between all of us. It’s an intense set of music to get through, and we have to goad each other to reach greater heights individually and collectively. And we have a lot of fun too!
“In terms of what we want to achieve, I think it’s to make the audience feel like they’re really an essential part of the show, through the emotion, interaction and honesty we convey on stage.”
While there is an undeniable dark underbelly to much of WorldService Project’s music, it is tempered with doses of humor that keeps the mood from getting mucked down in gloom. Song titles such as “Fire in a Pet Shop,” “Change the F—-ing Record” and “Fuming Duck” add to the general wackiness. You can bet that the band will be the only combo at the Tokyo Jazz Festival decked out in throwback Edwardian military fatigues. On the festival website, the band is labelled “U.K. avant-garde.” While the geography is correct, there’s something playfully tongue-in-cheek that makes the avant-garde tag seem preposterous and ill-fitting.
“We definitely owe as much to Rage Against the Machine, Meshuggah and Frank Zappa as we do to any improv-avant-garde or art music,” Morecroft says. “We’ve always had a mix of influences, so have basically been attributed every genre name under the sun by various journalists. For me, I’m not so bothered about it, but I always prefer to use words for bands in an adjectival sense, rather than a genre-based sense; such as ‘intense,’ ‘passionate,’ etc., rather than ‘progressive’ or ‘avant-garde.’ “
“Punk-jazz” is another term bandied about to describe WorldService Project’s sound and there is a certain angry-young-man-down-at-the-pub-about-to-smash-somebody’s-face vibe to their approach. On the whole, there’s an otherworldliness to the music that’s hard to pinpoint geographically. Though occasionally, there’ll be a passage or a brief snippet where you’ll know that the members undeniably come from the U.K. While the British Isles have exported music of every genre for generations, jazz has never dominated the aural landscape.
“There is a very active jazz scene in the U.K. with a lot of musicians spanning many genres, as well as many clubs and festivals,” he says. “The other great thing is being a part of Europe (for now), coupled with large urban areas being very international also means there are lots of projects with U.K. and European musicians going on. In fact, I run a festival and touring project called Match&Fuse that aims to connect European musicians together. One of the bad situations, however, is that jazz suffers a significant lack of media support in the U.K. and it’s also tragically underfunded through both public and private sectors. This means that despite there being lots of musicians, there’s very little employment for them, and jazz lacks any real infrastructure in the U.K., leading to a lot of venues, clubs and festivals being largely run by volunteers.”
WorldService Project’s third and latest disc, “For King & Country,” shares some things with its debut and sophomore efforts: off-kilter time signatures, manic riffing and blaring horns. Yet, its attack here is more focused, more disciplined, even angrier at times. Morecroft says a change in lineup and scenery influenced the outcome.
“When I think about the differences in approach for the third album, there are two parts: the first circumstantial and the second creative,” he says. “We were lucky enough to have the support and resources of Rare Noise Records for this album, which enabled us to work with a great producer (U.K. guitarist Chris Sharkey) and focus on the recording process in a residential setting outside of London at Rockfield Studios in Wales. This last point was amazing as it really drove all of our focus together in an intense period, a slightly different approach to previous albums. Furthermore, last year we changed the rhythm section, welcoming Arthur O’Hara and Harry Pope on bass and drums. They obviously brought with them new approaches, sounds and ideas that also created the slightly heavier, rockier sound on this record. In terms of creative processes, I tried to pull together some of the more lyrical- and harmonic-based styles from the first album with the progressive and wackiness of the second. I was also really trying to write anthems, which I hadn’t done before.”
There is indeed an occasional anthemic nature to the group’s music. It’s the soundtrack to some unmade war epic where the soldiers are shaking, sharing smokes and screaming before they storm the proverbial beach, pillage the village and finally go down in a gory blaze of glory. On stage, there’s also the looming spectre of violence. As Morecroft himself says: “WorldService Project is a very intense, high-energy live show. We throw ourselves into it and hope to come out alive at the other end. And if you’re not bleeding by the end of it, you haven’t tried hard enough.”
WorldService Project plays the Tokyo Jazz Festival on Sept. 4 from 2:20 p.m. The Tokyo Jazz Festival runs Sept. 2-4 at various locations in Minato-ku, Tokyo. For more information, visit www.tokyo-jazz.com or www.worldserviceproject.co.uk.