Sunday, 8 April 2018

The gypsies and the tramp… The Adventurer (1917), ZRI, Kings Place

ZRI describe themselves as a Viennese tavern band and when I first saw them they were producing an exhilarating take on Brahms and the gypsy music from which he took so much inspiration. He was a regular drinker and listener at a Viennese tavern called The Red Hedgehog (Zum Roten Igel…) where he immersed himself in the music of tavern bands, inspired to compose his Hungarian Dances and much more.

These ‘Gypsy’ bands were diverse included Jews, Greeks and Russians as well as Hungarian Roma, they might even have included the odd tramp or two. Which may or may not have any bearing on the latest step in their evolution, they may well have rushed off to play an evening of Schubert in Stoke Newington but this afternoon they were attempting something completely new: accompanying a silent without a safety net for the first time.

These are all superlative musicians, classically-trained and disciplined, yet also capable of extemporisation and improvisation the two do not always go hand in hand. Matching wits against Charlie Chaplin at his most mercurial in The Adventurer, is probably not the safest place to start but it’s what Brahms (probably) would have wanted had he (somehow) been given the choice.

Henry Bergman, Marta Golden, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Charlie Chaplin
ZRI seem to feed off each other as much as their notation and adding a sixth member to the dynamic allowed them to add an extra dimension and, not only were the group watching the film as they played they were also laughing – especially Iris Pissaride who soldiered on with the santouri through every smile. As accordionist Jon Banks said afterwards, even though you know what’s coming it’s still funny and the band are more than tight enough to roll with every unexpected plop of ice cream, kick and pratfall.

The score was a mix of Charlie-contemporary flavours from Limehouse Blues, Brother Can You Spare a Dime (sung so expressively by cellist and multi-tasker extraordinaire Matthew Sharp) to a final acapella version of Chaplin’s Smile which moistened many a watching eye. There were also more “classical” pieces with rip-roaring escalations of Ben Harlan’s clarinet and Max Baillie’s violin which are trademark ZRI, bringing “the gypsy” out from the more ordered settings of Brahms and others.

They split the film into four parts, freezing the action and playing “interludes” which may be sacrilege for some, but it worked as the tone was maintained and quite clearly the players were enjoying themselves.

Edna Purviance, Marta Golden and Charlie Chaplin
The Adventurer was Chaplin’s last film for Mutual and shows the maturation of his style as he began to reach for longer form comedy. Even though he had settled his tramp persona this film features a more malicious Charlie than some might expect. For a start he is an escaped convict, there’s no back story on his innocence or otherwise, and then there’s his fondness for alcohol and life’s baser pleasures. He nobly dives in to save a drowning woman at a seaside resort but quickly switches target when he sees her daughter (the divine Edna Purviance). He also saves the girl’s would-be suitor, big and beardy Eric Campbell, only to drop him back in the water again.

Charlie’s battle with Eric intensifies as he gains acceptance in polite society and with the girl’s parents, even her father, played by Henry Bergman, who is a judge who vaguely recognises him… Eric also spies mischief when Charlie’s mugshot is shown in the newspaper and the police return only to provide our (anti?) hero with more opportunities to humiliate them through swiftness and comic invention few could match. Forget “sentimental” Chaplin, this is Charlie the Punk and he wears it well.

ZRI: Max Baillie, Jon Banks, Matthew Sharp, Ben Harlan and Iris Pissaride
So punk and classical do mix and this was a thoroughly enjoyable – sold out – adventure for band and audience from which only a live Charlie was missing. As ever the live setting brought out the best in both sight and sound; it’s almost as if Charlie knows we’re laughing (long before 1917 he was *sure*.)

I hope ZRI carry on this adventure as they are made for jazz-age capering. Chaplin was a world-wide success by 1917 and you can imagine The Adventurer being screened not just in Vienna and Hungary but in New York with jazz, klezmer, classical and all manner of folk music similarly deployed as accompaniment.

Both music and silent cinema were expressions of migrated creativity and ZRI’s music shares its roots with the same sources, the melting pot of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which itself fed out West as the Twentieth Century began to take its toll.

More details of ZRI are available on their website - I urge you to seek them out! 

“Smile though your heart is breaking, smile… ”


  1. Thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and yes ZRI's rendition of Smile made me cry!

    Wonderful music - really good post - Thank you :)

  2. You're very welcome! Thanks for reading!