Nestling somewhere between the anarchic sonic inquisitiveness of The People Band and the communal shouts of love and anger of the Liberation Music Orchestra is Phil Begg’s 11-piece Midnight Doctors. Stalking out of northeast Britain like a Tyneside bouncer with doctorate-level jazz smarts and an instinctive knowledge of how to make people feel… good, this is a big band with style and restraint, merging chillax-worthy modality and sprigs of Ethio-shuffle with widescreen cop-show noir. And the fact that all of this is occasionally buffeted by gusts of tape-mangled noise makes it all the better. Begg’s flown solo for most of his career, trading under the Hapsburg Braganza name since the mid-00’s. Through a Screen and into a Hole is his second outing for Midnight Doctors, following 2013’s self-titled debut, and it is a solid stride forward, corralling some of the more exuberant elements of that first record into a tougher, more self-contained musical carapace.
You might think that having to manage a double bass, drums, tenor sax, three violins, a clarinet, bass clarinet and trombone, as well as his own guitar, harmonium, modular synth and percussion, might give Begg the conniptions. But if it did, it certainly doesn’t show on these assured recordings. Maybe it’s his experience as a sound recorder – he’s captured sonics for Rhodri Davies, Cath and Phil Tyler, and Richard Dawson, among others – that gives him the wherewithal to get exactly what he needs from all of the disparate elements at his disposal. (Dawson, incidentally, puts in an appearance here, adding lung-busting wordless howls to the heaving arc of Climactic Loss, its air of storm-tossed distress like the last drawn-out moments of the ship’s band playing valiantly as their stricken cruise liner slips beneath the waves.)
Begg’s modus operandi pushes focus and lyricism to the fore, avoiding the disjointed sprawl that can be an issue once you get more than … ooh six or seven players on the team sheet. That unruliness can occasionally be a good thing. Herbie’s Mwandishi crew springs to mind, as well as Miles’ and Mingus’ various large-scale outings. But you need discipline – in the edit suite, if not in practice – to stop things getting ugly, or heading off into noodle-land. Fortunately, John Pope’s double bass is here to keep things on the straight and narrow from the get-go, his twangy ostinato providing a tough, flexible backbone to tracks like Chump Change as it swerves from soulful tenor riffs to folk-inflected violin circles. He’s at it again on Rust Coloured Smoke, although this time it’s a thicker, smokier stew, with guitar mulch and reedy tenor serving up a smidgeon of Addis Abba for us to chew on.
There are a couple of things that keep Through A Screen And Into A Hole from straying into full-on ECM Sunday morning coffee territory (nice as that may be once in a while). Begg’s choice of instrumentation is the first, balancing conventional jazz components with clarinet and bass clarinet – sprinkling a little Mitteleuropean melancholy over everything – and those violins, which bring in some of post-rock’s tidal pulse with their luxuriant swoon. The other factor is deploying Joe Posset Murray for some trademark unhinged tape-o-matic madness to ruffle up the smooth textures. Murray wisely keeps his interventions separate, for the most part. He contributes to Rust Coloured Smoke’s exotic density, but usually his tape riots bookend pieces instead of busying up Begg’s unflustered arrangements. Somewhat counterintuitively, this approach works well, with the Posset drops acting as a binding agent for the album so that it becomes a collage rather than a set of individual songs – a free jazz Faust Tapes perhaps, or The Who Sell Out for the no-audience underground. All in all, lovely stuff.