If you haven’t heard Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble live you’ve missed one of the great spectacles that folk music has to offer. The fifty musicians are drawn from various courses at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and tours every year in the long vac so the musicians and the musical influences they bring differ every year. Not Leaving Quietly was actually recorded in 2020 and we know what happened then. The Ensemble played some virtual gigs but missed out on the reward of a proper tour.
The album is now being released to mark the group’s 25th anniversary and it has been worth the wait. To put you in the picture: there are nine violins, four cellos and a viola; six flutes and a bassoon; twenty brass players (including saxophones) and a selection of other instruments routinely employed in folk music including an array of percussion. I’ve seen smaller orchestras! For all that, the production is so tight.
The record starts with ‘Kitchen Girl’, an old time tune from the US east coast. It opens with what sounds like kitchen implements being banged together but is probably much more clever than that. It’s this playfulness that sets the agenda for the set. ‘Dawn Til Dusk’ also opens with percussion which is quite reasonable given that it’s written by Jonno Gaze who plays floor toms on Not Leaving Quietly and has his own album of drum improvisations available. And you thought that the drum solo was a thing of the past.
Trombonist Oli Parker wrote ‘Rise’ and accordionist Harry Thorpe wrote ‘The Caterpillar’s Vengeance – what a wonderful title – and by now you’ll have worked out that the CFE doesn’t limit itself to playing folk music. However, the next track is the longest and it is the traditional ‘Gravel Walk’, a set of Scots/Irish reels. It starts out with a chugging rhythm and yet more percussion before the violins get to work over that solid beat and it’s possibly my favourite track – I haven’t quite decided yet.. ‘Kenny’ and ‘Kid On The Mountain/Paddy On The Railroad’ are both traditional and then we find a song written by Ashley Hutchings, who doesn’t appear on the record. ‘Brief Encounters’ comes from the Gloucester Docks album and is sung here by Julie Claire accompanied by Harry Thorpe’s acoustic guitar. It provides an oasis of calm in the midst of all the excitement until the passion overtakes all the vocalists.
The traditional ‘Hole In The Wall’ is paired with Adam Sutherland’s ‘Nabo’ in an arrangement by The Bass Wanderers, a quartet within the Ensemble featuring Jude Crofton’s bassoon. Finally we have ‘Murder In Medina’, telling a story in middle-eastern musical styles with elements of jazz and a screaming saxophone solo.
Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble are playing some dates in the summer, including Green Man and New Forest Folk Festival and if you’re in the vicinity of any of then I urge you to go along. Meanwhile, Not Leaving Quietly is probably the most exciting album you’ll hear this year.
Artists’ website: www.folkensemble.co.uk
Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble – recorded in lockdown: