x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Cup calibre brass

Who needs vuvuzelas? Certainly not these London sport fans cheering to a live improvised soundtrack.

A jazz band improvises with a musical commentary to the England versus Germany World Cup game at a club in London.
A jazz band improvises with a musical commentary to the England versus Germany World Cup game at a club in London.

Who needs vuvuzelas? Certainly not these London sport fans cheering to a live improvised soundtrack. For many football fans the abiding memory of this year's World Cup will be an enormous amateur wind section. The now-infamous vuvuzelas - large plastic horns, hugely popular with South African spectators - have given every game a distinctive soundtrack, if not a particularly harmonious one.

Visitors to one North London jazz venue are enjoying a more accomplished accompaniment to the action, however. The innovative Vortex Club is screening several big games complete with a live, improvised musical score, and with an extra competitive edge. This spin-off tournament is called Jazzball. "There are two teams," explains guitarist Billy Jenkins, who came up with the idea. "One plays for one side, one for the other. Whoever has the ball plays the music. Crunching tackles become a glorious cacophony, a defender chasing a runaway striker might be shadowed by that team's saxophone."

The second round clash between England and Germany is their biggest game so far, and the Vortex teams are well matched. Star man for the home trio is Ashley Slater, a bald, bespectacled, ebullient trombonist who fronted Fatboy Slim's old band Freak Power in the 1990s. The away side features one German - the pianist Hans Koller - plus an eminent English brass section: Oren Marshall on tuba, and the trumpeter Chris Batchelor. Batchelor picked the teams, and his place on the German side was the biggest selection dilemma, as he's an avid England fan. "I think this could be quite a challenge," he says, referring to the national team's task and his own.

The game kicks off and things start badly for both England sides. Slater, making his Jazzball debut, is late onstage and his first contribution is a mighty trombone blast as Germany attack. "You're in red!" shouts Batchelor. He'd parped for the wrong team. They soon get into the swing of it. Another dangerous German movement is accompanied by a strident burst of Beethoven from the classically inclined Deutschland trio. Slater's bandmates - the drummer Dave Smith and the guitarist Stuart Hall - are more rock 'n' roll, and as England misfire they strike up the Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, to hearty laughs all round.

Enjoying the action from the sidelines is Josef Stout, who isn't a big football fan but was once tutored by Batchelor and Hall. "I like how broadminded jazz musicians are," he says. "You wouldn't get classical musicians doing this. They wouldn't be able to react in the same way." "It's like a ballet," suggests his friend Will. "Beautiful music, and someone juggling a ball up and down." Clearly this isn't your average football crowd; there are seated rows of well-dressed women with children rather than men in football shirts, but many still wail when the inevitable happens, and England go a goal down. The busy German trumpet - played by the England fan Batchelor, ironically - becomes raucously triumphant as England then quickly concede another. Slater raises the room's spirits, responding to a close-up of the England keeper David James with a series of clown noises.

At half-time it's 2-1 to Germany, and the two musical teams gather to discuss the performance so far. "I'm impressed how well it's all melded together," admits Slater, and as the second half begins both sides combine for a poignant rendition of classic Beatles ballad Yesterday (well, the Fab Four did have strong Hamburg links). Then, suddenly, a change of pace: Marshall's tuba issues a volley of traditional oompah as Germany surge forward and make it 3-1, and the away ensemble are soon essaying an ominous version of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries: it's four. Slater's stunned trio struggle through a shaky version of the British national anthem.

There may be anger and frustration elsewhere, but these droll musical responses help keep the mood fairly buoyant in the Vortex. Remaining staunchly neutral towards the back of the room is Omar, an amateur musician from Jordan who now lives in London. "What I like about this, there's not too much tension," he says. "You can't hear the commentators, no one is really upset. It's a fun way of watching football."

Omar is doubtful of ever being asked to perform at Jazzball, due to Jordan's lack of footballing success, but Middle-Eastern music has figured strongly. Jenkins' first event coincided with 1998's contentious Iran/USA World Cup game. "Whenever Iran got the ball [eclectic UK collective] Orquestra Mahatma would strike up a Persian victory qawwali that was quite simply intoxicating," recalls the guitarist, whose own band "responded with Chuck Berry riffs and bursts of Louie Louie."

Jenkins isn't performing this year as "you have to be mentally, physically and musically 100 per cent match-fit to do such demanding improvisation," and previous participants have found it overwhelming. As the Vortex director - and today's Jazzball referee - Oliver Weindling recalls, "when Zidane headbutted the guy in the last World Cup Final, the French musicians stopped playing. They couldn't go on".

Batchelor looks most likely to succumb this time, momentarily neglecting his German role to emit a heartfelt trumpet whine as England's tournament begins to fizzle out. Koller, presumably hoping for one more goal, leads both sides in a freestyle approximation of Dave Brubeck's Take Five, before the England guitarist Hall does likewise with some African highlife pop. Over 90 minutes these disparate performers have become a solid sextet, and there's a mighty round of applause as the final whistle blows and the referee announces the result. "Music," shouts Weindling, "is the winner!"

The players gather again afterwards, wearily euphoric, and in marked contrast to the England footballers. "I'm pleased I was doing something fun," says Batchelor, "rather than just watching the game. That would have been awful." Hans Koller refrains from celebrating. "I've lived in England for a long time," he smiles, while sorting through his holdall, "and when Chris texted me he didn't know it was going to be Germany/England. So I was actually hoping to play in the English team." And to prove it he pulls from his bag a red top, with an England motif. It's the first football shirt we've seen all day.

The next Jazzball event - the last for four years - will coincide with Sunday's World Cup Final, and a selection of the tournament's finest players have been booked to compete. Chris Batchelor made the squad. Once again he'll play another nation's anthems with a heavy heart.