Review: The Haggis Horns at the Cambridge Jazz Festival

Megan Fereday 23 November 2016

Have you ever wanted to remove all the unnecessary extras from a song and leave only the most memorable riffs? If so, then The Haggis Horns are your answer.

A seven-piece funk band from Leeds, The Haggis Horns have worked with a dizzying number of top artists, including Mark Ronson, Robbie Williams, Adele, Take That and the late Amy Winehouse. But you probably won't recognise the band – it’s normally their job to provide the powerful, brassy backing to the stars.

Described by Mark Ronson as “the best horn section in the world”, they consist of saxes, trumpet and rhythm section. Here lies both their strength and their weakness: the group is incredibly tight, with Luke Flowers’ kit playing providing a solid groove foundation, and the relatively small size of the ensemble allows each player’s virtuosity (which they have in abundance) to shine through. But I couldn’t help but want something more from the sound. It was incredibly impressive, certainly: the group’s delicate balance of individual skill and taut ensemble work is evident on their latest vinyl release ‘What Comes to Mind’. But after an hour-or-so of heavy backbeat funk, my ears needed a change. Their style ranges from driving funk rhythms to impassioned soul, but each style retains the same level of power and similar instrumentation.

I don’t for a minute believe that what I got was not what I ordered, and I certainly loved most of it – but the addition of a regular vocalist would lift the experience up a notch. It’s great to hear the stripped-back, rhythmical sounds of backbeat funk without anything extraneous, because you’re generally just left with the good, catchy stuff. But sadly I didn’t know what I wanted until I missed it, and a singer was just that.

I think there’s a reason that Mark Ronson called The Haggis Horns “the best horn section in the world” – it’s not just hyperbole. The group from the north may well be one of the best in the world, but they’re also most definitely a “section”: without anyone else on stage, after an hour you start wondering who they’d left in the dressing room. I’d love to see them in concert with other artists, as their brilliant tightness and ability to completely inhabit the styles of music would, I’m sure, lend them well to accompanying and performing with vocalists, and other soloists. In the best possible sense, there’s very much a ‘session musician’ vibe coming from The Haggis Horns.

Perhaps it was the venue that explains my lack of unrestrained enthusiasm. The Fisher Building in St. John’s College has a wonderful acoustic for the band, at once resonant and tight, but the space itself is weird: a few chairs floating around at the sides, and nowhere as such to put your bags. Overall the impression is not of a intense party space for heavy backbeat funk, but rather post-dinner wedding band entertainment, where the dancing was not much less dad-like, and the audience certainly no younger.

There’s no substitute, though, for a great groove and a heavy beat. The Haggis Horns certainly provided that, but I’m not sure how much more.