With more than 60 members, no rehearsals and no set list it is hard to know what to expect from Brisbane band Accomplice Collective — even the musicians can never be too sure.
The growing group of creatives — who range from classically trained musicians to singers still finding their voice — perform improvised gigs around the city, bringing an array of instruments, voices, styles and genres to the stage.
“I think the reason Accomplice works so well is because we’ve got over 60 people who are really excited to play music with each other and that’s something special,” founding member and saxophonist Denholm Brockley said.
Brockley, along with drummer Nick Downing and bassist Loukas Johnson, were playing together seven years ago when they first put out the call for others to join.
“We found that when we wanted to do bigger gigs like festivals … we wanted to get more musicians in, but we never formalised the band,” Brockley said.
The pandemic quickly ramped up their numbers with local artists keen to get back on stage after lockdown.
The sheer size of the collective has meant groups of members can be playing at separate shows around Brisbane simultaneously.
The genre, which Brockley describes as “fluid”, is as diverse as the band’s members and draws on everything from world music, classical jazz, Latin, blues, hip hop, soul and funk.
“It’s one of the advantages of having so many players, you’ll have people who specialise in broad styles like blues … right down to bebop specialists,” Brockley said.
‘Mind if I get on the mic?’
Twenty-seven-year-old Kayla Cosgrove, a freestyle rapper, stumbled on the band late last year.
Kayla was at a refugee rally at Kangaroo Point when she came across members of Accomplice Collective performing on the street.
“I think they were bringing their instruments as a bit of comfort because that’s what they wanted to contribute to the energy that day,” Cosgrove said.
“I saw that there was a microphone and PA system and they were jamming and I just said to one of them … ‘Do you mind if I get on the mic?’.
“They sort of just looked me in the eyes and they were like, ‘Yeah, alright. Go for it’.
“I just got on the mic and started freestyling about the protest.”
Before Cosgrove knew it, she was performing with the group regularly.
“You go to an Accomplice gig and not one is ever the same, it’s always going to be different,” she said.
“There is no ego involved, you just go up there and you come together and you do what you love.”
But Brockley said improvisation was not for everyone and it could often deter artists from taking part.
“It has a lot of association with jazz, and while we do have a lot of guys who’ve been to uni and studied performance and jazz improvisation, the active improvisation we do isn’t quite to that technical level.” Brockley said.
“It’s more about setting a stage for people to do their own thing.”
Despite the collective’s numbers, the door is always open for anyone who wants to have crack.
“We’re hoping that more people are going to try and take that plunge and try to get into improvisation and playing through coming to one of our gigs and jumping up on stage for a single song, with no pressure at all,” Brockley said.
“We’ve had cases where someone who is a bit shy and their friends have come in and said, ‘This person is amazing, can you give them a shot’.
“And that’s always really fun to see.”
Brockley said with daily demands like work schedules, study or other commitments, traditional bands can be harder for people to commit to but the format of Accomplice Collective has enabled more artists to participate.
“I certainly think we’ve had the opportunity to play with a lot of musicians we probably wouldn’t normally have,” he said.
Playing to people’s strengths
So, how do you wrangle multiple musicians, singers, styles, skill levels and genres on one stage?
“It’s a lot of learning to understand somebody quickly, trust each other and build from there,” Brockley said.
“I guess it’s … having that musical indication where you know where people’s strengths are and you can play to them.”
“When you’ve got a strong leader in the band, they can get a lot out of musicians of any level.”
It’s not all left to chance. A lot of work goes in behind the scenes to identify core musicians to hold the fort during a performance.
From there, others are invited to join them on what can become a crowded stage.
But playing on the fly has its shortfalls, too.
Despite thoughtful planning, sometimes different artists and styles don’t work.
“There’s going to be a few incorrect notes here and there but for the most part … it’s kind of an exciting gamble,” Brockley said.
“It’s something that we could never have planned, [it just] comes out of us.”
For musicians who have studied and trained in music, the approach helps keep their passion alive.
“Audiences really latch on to the energy and excitement of musicians who are enjoying what they’re doing,” Brockley said.
“And that excitement leads to a lot of fun and a lot of engagement on stage.
“Whereas if you’re playing the same songs, the same way you’ve played thousands of times — and I’ve played in those bands — it’s really easy for it to turn into work.”