When a band member comes on stage wearing a sousaphone like an enormous absurdist snail-shell, accompanied by two drummers also sporting their instruments and, with deadpan expression, starts tooting a merry funk bassline, you know you’re in for an unusual evening. Such it was at the O2 last night, when the trio were gradually joined onstage by two trombones, two trumpets and a saxophone, and assembled into New Orleans’ Hot 8 Brass Band. The ensuing jazz/hiphop/funk fusion that unfolded was hot in truth – physically warming up the sedate crowd and generally improving the atmosphere from ‘damp Oxford night in late-October’ to ‘summer night on the Mississippi’. Their energetic covers of jazz standards, funk and Motown involved some audience participation – the dance instructions, directed from the stage (‘Step left! Step right! Lean forward! Lean back!’) and somewhat redolent of a good-natured aerobics class, even occasionally overcame this reviewer’s inhibitions to allow for some engagement in (it’s true) arm-waving.
It is this good humour that really carries the ensemble along. Their middle sections are spicy and, in this mix, prominent, so we hear plenty of sax and trombone in each of the 7- or 8-minute tracks. The solos are a treat, including a masterclass in circular breathing in a two-note trombone solo, right at the top of the instrument’s range, which teeters absurdly for a good couple of minutes. Covers of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, ‘Sexual Healing’ and George Clinton’s ‘Atomic Dog’, as well as Al Green, are high-energy and good-humoured.
Perhaps the tempo is a little too standardised throughout these songs – the slowburning swing of the original ‘Sexual Healing’ bassline is, here, made a little glitzy, and Joy Division is similarly rendered a bit bossanova (‘Love will tear us apart – and it will feel great!’) – but elsewhere the shot in the arm is exactly what we need. The snare is particularly on form, and the bass drum adds heft to the sound so that the group is exactly that – a unified whole, though comprising individual instrumentalists who can all deliver an ear-blasting solo. You get the sense that this group is a great deal of fun to play in, and that joy spills out into a very happy crowd.