Jonny Mansfield Quintet
The Air In Front Of You
by Howard Lawes
The effect of the Covid pandemic on musicians continues to manifest itself through the music they created at the time. Recent examples have included Trish Clowes, A View With A Room and Mikkel Ploug, Balcony Lullabies, and The Air In Front Of You by vibraphonist Jonny Mansfield is another. Replying to questions about his music Jonny explains that the title for the album "comes from a line in the book Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami. It's maybe not directly related to how that phrase is used in the book but my interpretation of it was physical, focusing on breathing and not overthinking, being present."
Jonny was brought up within a musical family in Huddersfield, Yorkshire; an area particularly noted for brass band music as well as the world-famous Huddersfield Choral Society that was formed in 1836, and many other choirs and orchestras that maintain the town’s strong musical tradition. There are annual musical events such as the ‘Mrs Sunderland competition’, which began in 1889, and in which Jonny often competed, and the more recent Contemporary Music Festival. Jonny and his brother played in the Scissett Youth Band which was conducted by his father. Jonny recalls particular childhood pieces that have stayed with him such as Haydn's Cello Concerto in D, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, and Brahm's Clarinet Quintet. Every year he would go to Shepley Folk Festival and one year saw a band called KAN, which he still really enjoys (here they are playing Night Ride To Armagh). Jonny and his older brothers all went to Chetham’s School of Music and by the time he went to the Royal Academy of Music, Jonny was already playing with the National Youth Orchestra, the Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra and National Youth Jazz Collective. He graduated from the Royal Academy with a first-class BMus degree and perhaps with the benefit of his Mrs Sunderland competition experience picked up the Tebbut Exhibition Award, Richard Turner Award, the Principal's Award and the Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize on the way.
There is more about Jonny and his earlier music career here from when he dropped into Sandy Brown Jazz for a Tea Break in 2020.
The Kenny Wheeler Prize award enabled Jonny to create and release his first album, Elftet (2019), on Edition Records. He has said "For me, making music is about bringing people together to celebrate; whether that is culture, family, friends, opportunities, etc. Elftet is a celebration, bringing together ten of my closest friends to make music (largely dedicated to other people) and featuring amazing teachers/mentors that I’ve been so fortunate to learn from. Writing for a large ensemble is like mixing paints as a kid, the colours you can create are endless. With Elftet, I try to write to everyone’s strengths and allow space for everyone to bring their own ideas, that’s where the fun really starts. I would love to do a large ensemble project again sometime soon."
During the pandemic lockdown, as well as composing the music for The Air In Front Of You Jonny embarked on two widely different musical projects. In August 2020, he set himself the challenge to compose, record, mix and master a whole album in a day "to capture this strange unique time in music and reflect some of the feelings generated from lockdown". The album is called Portrait and it features Jonny playing vibraphone, drum kit, percussion, pandeiro, piano, Korg minilogue, Critter & Guitari organelle and singing. Over a much longer period, he created Present (2021), asking members of his Elftet band to record their parts from home. He says "Gradually I started adding more and more parts until it ended up as basically a big band + orchestra + choir, it took a lot of time to edit together but was a fun project. We didn't rehearse together, just recorded individually and then put it together after." The final result, which includes contributions from 33 artists, is available on the Resonant Postcards label. Simultaneously Jonny was studying for a Masters degree in Psychology. “Studying psychology resulted in me wanting to compositionally explore my physical surroundings as a release from self-analysis,” says Mansfield. “As this process developed, the line between introspection and extrospection became blurred…” Given that track titles on The Air In Front Of You refer to basic elements such as air and water it is tempting to imagine there is psychological significance to them but Jonny denies this.
On The Air In Front Of You album the Jonny Mansfield quintet has Jonny on vibraphone, Dominic Ingham on violin, Midori Jaeger on cello, Will Sach on bass and James Maddren on drums but an upcoming tour will see a change of personnel to include two exceptional talents in the form of Emma Rawicz on reeds and Francesca Remigi on drums. Jonny describes the music on the album as contemporary jazz with elements of folk, perhaps influenced by the fiddle playing he heard when he saw KAN at the Shepley Folk Festival. He also recognises the influence of English Renaissance composers such as John Dowland and William Byrd who were younger contemporaries of Thomas Tallis, and also more modern composers such as Edward Elgar, Royal Academy of Music professors Nikki Iles and Kit Downes and Scottish composer Anna Meredith. The makeup of the band is unusual in jazz and Jonny cites Thomas Strønen's cross between a chamber ensemble and a jazz group that recorded Time Is A Blind Guide (2015) as a comparable ensemble. Jonny Mansfield has a particularly high regard for the music of Dominic Ingham and Midori Jaeger and his compositions very much have them in mind - "The combination of strings and percussion is what makes up the whole ensemble with vibraphone and drums in contrast to the strings and the bass sort of fits in the middle as Will mainly plays pizzicato".
Here is an introductory video:
The picture on the front of the album has Jonny up to his armpits in a rather calm sea, and the first track, Ripples is equally calm and relaxing. The title track, (Organise) The Air In Front Of You features a really, lovely folk melody that is initially played as a duet between violin and cello but then develops to include the rest of the band. Next, Waves incorporates dynamic strings and crashing cymbals, setting the maritime scene for some excellent solos, first by vibraphone and then drums. Flicker starts with a sense of Renaissance yearning from the strings, and illustrates perhaps how jazz might have sounded in the 16th century. Norwood, is a district of South London, and Jonny Mansfield's composition is an affectionate tribute that provides Will Sach with a leading role while Etude is a short Jonny Mansfield solo. James Maddren's drum beat is distinctive in the last track, Periphery, and a kind of dance ensues but drums take over for the finale and gradually fade away. Here is a video of the band playing Flicker:
The Air In Front Of You is a very engaging collection of music and, being composed during the pandemic lockdown has a sense of introspection reflecting the lack of anything really happening outside of one's own personal environments. The air in front of you is part of each personal environment and in this context, the title makes perfect sense. As described above Jonny Mansfield's inspiration and influences are eclectic and this is reflected in the music which is beautifully played by his quintet. Over time jazz has had a huge impact on the popular music of the day, The Air In Front Of You is an example of jazz being impacted by other great music.
Details of The Air In Front Of You album are here.