At just twenty-five years old, Danish prize-winning composer, harmonica player and keyboardist Mathias Heise evidently has the European music world at his feet. This album of contemporary big band music is good evidence of why that’s the case.
Already known to some London listeners through the fusion sounds of the Mathias Heise Quadrillion - who recently played the Pizza Express Soho as part of the Sounds of Denmark festival - Mathias Heise is very much on the ‘rising star’ trajectory. Next stop is a recording with the Danish Radio Big Band (regarded, I’m led to believe, as one of Europe’s strongest), not simply playing standards but interpreting seven of his own new compositions written especially for this format.
While this reviewer can take or leave big band music, under the guidance of Heise the DRBB adds heft, colour and a big personality to what are already big tunes composed by Heise. This power a big band has is what inspired Heise to write The Beast; as his comments in the accompany PR notes for the album record, he has long been fascinated by the power of the big band, “associating them with a giant, golden, snarling set of fangs, and when the instruments were all playing together, vibrating in perfect harmony, it was like these golden throats were belching out this amazing, superhuman roar.”
Wild it may be, but this big band is definitely on a leash and under Heise’s firm control. The rare combination on many tracks of harmonica and big band - the ultimate battle of small and big instruments - is perhaps what makes this album stronger than just another big band album. The opening bars of Para Mi Madre, for example, are just Heise’s chromatic harmonica - of which he is clearly a master, developing a jaunty motif under which the Big Band adds some brass flourishes and a swing rhythm, but doesn’t overwhelm the squeaky simplicity of Heise’s sound. Rather satisfying, and cleanses the palate for a lovely flugelhorn solo. Second track Brain Soup is a little more morose, minor key, looming, with some gorgeous unison brass adding power like a steam engine. Heise’s piano playing too - on a track like Sudden Ascent (also produced as a Quadrillion track) - is as whip smart as his harmonica; the two together, well, they’re just super stuff.
The best track is the title track, The Beast, which melds beautifully the funk electric bass more associated with Heise’s day job, and the crisp, immediate brass sound of a big band. Driving through the whole track, like a message in a stick of Blackpool rock, is this lovely, simple triplet motif on the piano - unchanging, like a pulse - that points the way and insists the band follows it, which they do, sometimes straight up, sometimes in a roundabout way. It is funky as hell, and foot-tappingly infectious. This beast is wild, but it’s behind bars.
There are eight tracks in total, and some slower pace, more pastoral tunes, such as fourth cut Repetition, which is more pussy cat than lion, or punchier, ’traditional’ swing numbers like One Man Army, where the light register of the harmonica, the middle tones of the piano and the punch of the brass all fill out a great number that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Bond soundtrack. The Danish Radio Big Band does what big bands do, and they do it well - clean, muscular and raucous, they avoid cliches while also serving the compositions well.
Heise is annoyingly talented, inventive and just full of great ideas, as evidenced by the range of tunes and moods on The Beast. He is definitely to be filed under ‘one to watch’ as I imagine that, having conquered fusion and big band jazz, there’ll be something new from this young Dane some time soon.
Joyful stuff, that asks to be listened to repeatedly….and loudly, if you have considerate neighbours, of course.