"Manouche Etcetera" describe themselves as a band on a quest to discover what their name means. OK, the "Manouche" refers to a style of gypsy jazz originating from France; but the "Etcetera" leaves them gloriously free to subject music from any country, genre or era to their own distinctive and compelling interpretation. Their audience is whisked away on an exhilarating whirlwind tour of diverse musical climes. The spellbinding concert at the Old Fire Station included an eclectic mix of Serbian folk, modern Argentinian tango (Astor Piazzolla), French song ('Mon Pot' le Gitan'), Italian cinematic themes, gypsy dances, Gershwin, Cole Porter and Vittorio Monti, to name but a few.
We were impressed by this phenomenal new trio when we first saw them play together inJanuary in the unadorned setting of Wytham Village Hall. "Play together" is an apt phrase: the three agelessly personify youthful high spirits in their music making and are so engaging and entertaining, with their playful jocular banter between numbers.
Using the Old Fire Station venue allowed them to add even more theatricality in terms of lighting and subtly smoky atmosphere – but this trio provides a dramatic spectacle without these aids, performing with energising vitality. Many of the numbers are presented with a breathtaking tour de force. Alex Thomas's fingers fly over the violin strings impossibly fast, like the beating of a hummingbird's wings. Tom Vallance somehow manages to play two instruments (keyboard and melodica) at once. The melodica always elicits a laugh from the audience: it is such a strange-looking contraption, a wind instrument with a small keyboard and a long flexible hoover-like tube. The way he plays it, it sounds at times sleazy and sultry as a saxophone, at times sentimental and yearning as a Parisian accordion. There was a similar variation in the emotional tone of the programme as a whole, from the lingering, poignant rendition of the blues ballad 'Cry Me a River' to the angry, driving, rhythmic power of 'The Other Half' (from the utterly excellent musical 1917 about the Russian Revolution, written and composed by Alex Thomas himself, which overflows with such musical jewels).
The trio's performing style is full of dramatically abrupt transitions - stops, pauses, starts, changes of instrument, changes of tempo, often from going suddenly to fast and furious – all requiring split-second timing. As musicians, they are so perfectly attuned to each other that they seem to function as one musical intelligence – like three interconnected centres of activity in one musical brain. You can almost see the musical neurotransmitters leaping across the synapses in their shared glances. This was even more apparent when they set themselves a demanding additional challenge: during the interval they collected audience suggestions of favourite Disney movie tunes, then improvised a medley of them on the hoof in the second half. Another challenge - for the audience, this time - was counting how many of his different swing numbers we could name at the end of the Gershwin medley. It all adds to the fun.
My neighbour had seen the trio perform at another venue earlier in the month. Was it the same programme? I asked. "Yes", she said, "but I'm delighted to have the chance to hear it all over again." She was beaming with delight all the way through, as indeed was most of the audience.
Robin Colyer (double bass; also founder of Flintlock Theatre) tells his drama students "Remember: this is not just a performance – it is an Event!" A Manouche Etcetera concert certainly is an 'Event', and one to remember.
Manouche Etcetera perform regularly at venues on the Cowley Road (Kazbar, Café Tarifa) and will be giving another full concert performance on Saturday 1 July as part of the Oxford Festival of the Arts.