Speakers Corner Quartet with Manchester Camerata @ New Century Hall

By December 4, 2023

Music. Manchester.

Speakers Corner, Manchester (Photo credit: Marc Sethi)

“This was on our to-do list but was only like a maybe for the third album” joked drummer Kwake Bass to close a mesmeric night fusing jazz, hip-hop and classical music. To his left sit the Manchester Camerata, each one of them beaming after such a spiritualistic performance, and behind him, the rest of Speakers Corner Quartet: Biscuit on flute, Raven Bush on violin and Peter Bennie on bass. Though their artistry and musicianship is more than enough to warrant them having this platform, how genuine Kwake Bass’ words are is so telling. 

As their name implies, Speakers Corner Quartet honed their craft near to the famous soapboxes of Hyde Park. A hive of free speech, new thinking, debate and crucially unlimited expression. Their headquarters was the Brixton Jamm nightclub where the quartet would be the soundtrack to singers, poets, rappers and everything in between. Improvisation meant that egos had to be laid down at the door; banding together as a unified voice to champion the speaker. It meant the band’s collaborative mentality never shrank: not only were they effortlessly switching from vocalist to vocalist each night for four years, but as time passed the band itself changed personnel. 

Their debut release, Further Out Than The Edge, is a melting pot of thoughts. A simmering of conversations about camaraderie and class divides layered above syrupy neo-soul textures and crackling, saturated beats. Gentle synth counter-melodies and hopeful string padding refresh its listener’s ears. Experimentation in regards to structure is subtle, never dragging your focus away from their featured artists. Every percussive tap is like crystal, every song is volatile with invention, every track nestled in amongst rustling, chatter and ambient breathing.

It’s therefore a surprise to see the direction the quartet took Manchester Camerata. Gone were the electronics (for the most part). Gone was the coziness you get with the album recordings. Instead the quartet characteristically shone a light on the orchestra for most of the night. The quartet weren’t front and centre nor were the arrangements written to showcase their individual prowess. It was a masterclass in selflessness. Seeing the bandmates listening to their new orchestral composition ‘Gone Where’ while sat on stage in delight, Biscuit air conducting like someone at an Andre Rieu concert, the collective in awe and full of gratitude. This also applies to the Camerata who, when they were tacet, turned round entranced by such a radiant energy from Speakers Corner Quartet’s clockwork head-banging to sloppy Dilla beats and hefty basslines. 

What does come with these new arrangements is a newfound emphasis on tension. Not letting the drums come in until 10-15 minutes into the set left the audience in anticipation, so to did the sustained harmony in the orchestral parts. Moulding the group’s catalogue into lusher cinematic territory, however, takes away from the intimacy within their DNA. There’s a comforting claustrophobia to their LP: a warmth and fizz ideal for a film like Rye Lane. Spacious arrangements with expansive string writing are an enjoyable aside but don’t quite capture the raw essence of Speakers Corner Quartet.

But Confucius MC’s cameo on ‘Wavelet’ bathed in rich, breathless purple light was a hypnotic callback to the band’s nightclub roots. His understated tone and unwavering flow proved to be a cog in some Derren Brown mind trick to transport us concertgoers. Though being seated in an eight-hundred capacity venue doesn’t really have any of the hustle and bustle of Brixton, smoke trails of incense coming from stage left and bathing the audience in deep red lighting goes a long way to form a convincing illusion. The conveyor belt of guests delivered all night: Coby Sey’s coy delivery had an intriguing fragility to it, James Massiah’s authentically brittle phrasing left you wondering what direction he was going in and Tawiah’s ‘Round Again’ made for an unexpectedly euphoric outro. Her performance was the highlight of the night, having a masterfully constructed arrangement that took the original track to newer, darker, heavier levels. It was a joy to see the unity within the ensemble: unbridled energy and ecstasy as they dug into the pulse with abandon. Likewise the mellow instrumental ‘Karainagar’ flirted with lower frequencies gorgeously as the onlooking members of the orchestra sunk into the groove. 

This reaction makes the UNQUIET series special. Enabling all manner of artists – Mica Levi, Afrodeutsche and Hildur Guðnadóttir to name a few – to reshape their compositions into an unorthodox setting. Though Speakers Corner Quartet has to be the most ambitious partnership yet. You can tell that the groove-centric collective have made rhythmic compromises and given the orchestra a role focused on creating ambience. But that isn’t to the concert’s detriment. ‘Round Again’ is a flawless reworking, one that overshadows the album version, exceeds its dynamic highs and replaces electronic sparkle with string and brass tenacity.

It doesn’t come as a shock that the Speakers Corner Quartet explore the strength of community on tracks like ‘On Grounds’, ‘Can We Do This?’ and ‘Dreaded!’. Their musical identity is built from tight rhythm section playing. They have a tightly woven synergy that’s made this seventeen year wait for an album release worth it; an album that isn’t a single-minded showreel of what each of them can do but a smorgasbord of collaborations with artists they adore. Sustaining this while adapting the project to a live setting was heartwarming as they thanked backline techs, bar and venue staff to finish off the night as an extension of their altruistic values. To see perseverance pay off for a group chained to respect, love and grace was, as they would say, thoroughly nourishing.