It’s been a busy time for British nu-jazz outfit Mammal Hands. The trio have come a long way in the decade since they crossed paths whilst busking in Norwich in 2012 and have just released their fifth album Gift From The Trees. Made up of saxophonist Jordan Smart, pianist Nick Smart, and percussionist Jesse Barrett, they have now embarked on a European tour and are beyond excited to be sharing new music:

“We have just had an extended break and are really looking forward to getting these new songs out on the road and exploring these new sonic spaces with the audiences. With five albums the difficult thing now is deciding our set lists, but we will be focussing mainly on new tracks and some bits we haven’t played for a long time also.” (Jordan Smart)

Finding A “Collective Resonance”

Their sound is difficult to break down and stands at the threshold between the intersecting worlds of classical and modernity. The wide range of influences within their work – such as Pharoah Sanders, Gétachèw Mekurya, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Sirishkumar Manji now has ultimately led them to showcase aspects of jazz, modern classical, electronic, and popular music on their latest LP Gift From The Trees. There is a freedom to move fluidly between genres, finding the aspects that they like most and interweaving them, which is an essential part of their group identity. Creating an autonomous space for themselves lies thus at the heart of their DNA, as percussionist Jesse Barrett explains:

“As a band, we’ve done our own thing and been observing from a distance in a way. I feel good about that. I think we’ve been free to do our own thing and not get caught up in trying to live up to anything other than that.”

The title of the latest record is derived from the mystery which surrounds nature and how information regarding the natural world is inherited as part of a passing down of collective knowledge. It is also meant to remind us of our own relationship with the natural world and how much we are still yet to understand.

“We settled on ‘Gift from the Trees’ as a way of representing this idea of knowledge being passed down through generations, yet not owned by us, more like a gift.” (Jordan Smart)

Nick Smart explains further how much they had reflected on the puzzle that is nature before translating it into an album: “The fact that a mushroom that grows naturally from the earth can have a dramatic effect on your consciousness and the way you perceive yourself, your surroundings and your relationships with others, these things are little short of miraculous to me and science does little to explain the depth of these connections and this co-dependence we share with our surroundings.”

“It’s so easy to feel separate from nature today but this ability for plants to help us both physically and psychologically in so many areas of our lives is pretty astounding and it’s easy to think of these instances of help as like gifts from the trees.”

Live on stage: Mammal Hands (photo by Rich Williams)

The Rawness Of Gift from the Trees

A decade into their history as a band, the fruits of the trio’s output are as vital as ever and they just seem to be becoming stronger and more comfortable in their unique style of improvising to create. They describe it as having reached a state of “collective resonance” through their shared experiences and knowledge that have led to a mutual understanding, allowing them to create structured songs out of improvisational spaces. These spaces translate to Gift From The Trees, which the group praises for its raw and direct nature, made possible by possible by their philosophy of comprising the energy of the performance rather than running after perfection. “Sometimes songs just arrive through one of us working a particular part and then we all work and jam on the idea together. Sometimes we have group jam sessions together and ideas are born out of the improvisation, sometimes it’s a mix of the two”, states Nick.

“There’s often a rhythmic or harmonic core at the start of the idea but we explore a lot of ways of framing the same melody or rhythm before settling on the best combination of parts for a track. We might also just have a very basic concept that we want to take to an extreme on a track, we’ll say lets play something really relentless and fast and still make it interesting or let’s create the quietest and simplest piece possible that says the most we can with the least amount of volume and notes played. Working within the confines of these quite straight forward concepts and limitations can lead to interesting choices and the results can feel quite liberating instead of limiting!”

Whilst there are no lyrics, the songs’ names of the record are often in accordance with what the music means to them personally, the mood of a piece, and their state of mind when they were writing. However, they also try to leave room for interpretation for their listeners. “We don’t want to try and tell people what they should be thinking about or feeling when they listen to our music, everyone will have their own feelings and imagery that comes up with music that is unique to them.”

“Sometimes though, we just settle for something simple that explains an element of the track clearly, like with ‘Nightingale’, we were encouraging Jordan to play more and more like a bird in the middle improvisation section in rehearsals. We really enjoyed the fluttery phrases he was playing in the upper register and to me and Jesse it sounded like birdsong and the title stemmed from there.” (Nick Smart)

Working Together, Finding Inspiration

Creating collaboratively over an extended period could easily give way to friction and tension, however, they approach it with the maturity gained from ten years of working together. “The main thing is not forcing ourselves and letting creativity happen when it needs to, the songs are expressions are expressions of different periods in our lives and the journey of working together as three creative individuals.” 

“Like all relationships sometimes it is more harmonious than others but we tend to follow the natural flow and energy of different times and let the music come from that, giving each other space sometimes when that is needed too.” (Jordan Smart)

They also have a wellspring of inspiration to work with, explaining that they don’t just look towards music but also artists who are authentic and honest in their creative endeavors, letting the flow of inspiration be transposed to the moving realm of nature-bound music, such as in Gift From The Trees.

“What influences us most are people we feel are completely honest as artists. And that could be music really far away from the area we’re working in, it might not even be music! But as long as it feels like a genuine, human artistic expression coming from a place of honesty we can appreciate and find something inspiration in that.” (Nick Smart)

Mammal Hands’ Gift From The Trees is available everywhere. Catch them live if you have the chance.