Jim Gilchrist: Bagel's full range of flavours gives wings to uncle's lifelong dream

FROM consummate musicians specialising in klezmer, eastern European dance music, tango and much else, to magnificent men in their flying machines is but a short hop for Moishe's Bagel, whose latest and third album is entitled Uncle Roland's Flying Machine, the eponymous eccentric aviator portrayed on the cover in suitably Heath-Robinson style by the surrealist cartoonist Glen Baxter.

In fact, it transpires, the titular Roland really existed, and was uncle to the band's accordionist (and the tune's composer), Pete Garnett, and he did indeed start building a home-made flying machine in his shed, but, sadly, failed to complete it before he died. In the title track of the new album, however, the intrepid Roland finally slips the surly bonds of earth, if in musical imagination only, soaring gently into the cerulean while riding the stratospheric whine of Greg Lawson's violin.

"I think it's still there in the shed," says the band's pianist, Phil Alexander, of the flying machine. "Pete wanted to do this, partly as a tribute to his uncle and partly as a sort of continuation of the machine which never got off the ground in aviation terms, but we've at least got it off the ground in musical terms."

Hide Ad

Moishe's Bagel, an eclectic quintet of Scottish based musicians, all of whom keep busy with other projects, had trouble coming up with titles for their previous two albums, Salt and Don't Spare the Horses, says Alexander, "but as soon as we had that tune we knew it would lend itself nicely to an album title, so then we started to think about what would make a nice cover."

For an appropriately idiosyncratic image, the name of Glen Baxter, widely published cartoonist of the absurd, came up, was duly approached by the band's agent and took a shine to both the story and the music.

So far as the music is concerned, the album strikes this listener as a slightly more homogenous group sound than previously, without implying blandness, and with individual members still able to shine out, particularly Lawson's singing fiddle in his tribute to the late Martyn Bennett, New Morning, a beautifully lilting melody which jubilantly transcends loss.

The Jewish and Eastern European roots of much of the band's music are still well evident, as in the gracefully sinuous Sephardic tune Si Verias or, tempered with a certain Goonish drollery which matches the Baxter illustration, in the manically gypsyish free-for-all of If You Want to Know the Way, Ask a Policeman, which explodes with gleeful irreverence out of a Prokofiev violin melody.

There's also an attempt to capture something of their jazzier inclinations with Flatlands, written by their Scots-based Brazilian bassist, Mario Caribe, and here becoming an extensive improvisation between double bass, Guy Nicolson's percussion and Alexander on piano. "We had to rein it in a bit in the studio," says the pianist. "It can get incredibly epic on stage."

He reckons that in this album the band is finally finding its identity as a unit, while still preserving each player's musical individuality: "We've often struggled a bit with how we defined ourselves as a band. I think we've now realised that while we started with traditional klezmer and East European and Balkan music, that's not really where we are any more.

Hide Ad

I mean, we still play it in the sets and it goes down really well, but in terms of the music we're writing, or arranging from the tradition, we've moved in a direction which brings in more of what the rest of us have to give. "

In the meantime, the band launches Uncle Roland's Flying Machine at Edinburgh's Bongo Club on 17 July – flying helmets and handlebar moustaches not mandatory.

• For further information and forthcoming concerts, see www.moishesbagel.co.uk