New Generation Jazz - ‘Showcase Wales’, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 10/07/2018.
Thursday, July 12, 2018
Ian Mann enjoys an evening of original music played by students of the RWCMD in Cardiff with sets from Josh Heaton's Mouth of Words, Skeleton Leaf and the Norman Willmore Quintet.
New Generation Jazz - ‘Showcase Wales’
Josh Heaton’s Mouth of Words
Norman Willmore Quintet
Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 10/07/2018
In August 2017 the Midlands based singer Annette Gregory played a successful show at The Muse as part of that year’s Brecon Jazz Festival. Gregory and her pianist and musical director John McDonald were accompanied by three students from the acclaimed Jazz Performance course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD).
Tenor saxophonist Tom Newitt, bassist Matheus Prado and drummer Zach Breskal all acquitted themselves superbly as part of the kind of one-off collaboration that Brecon Jazz Club organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon regularly bring together and make work. As musical facilitators Lynne and Roger have developed an uncanny knack of bringing together musicians who have never played together before but who instinctively combine into admirably cohesive units on the concert stage. Many of these collaborations have featured musicians from different generations or even different countries and it’s to the credit of Lynne and Roger that they have developed such a keen eye and ear for knowing who will hit it off with who.
The Gregory performance struck a good balance between vocal and instrumental jazz with the young musicians from RWCMD given plenty of opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. In my review of the show I remarked;
“Newitt came close to stealing the show with his versatile and highly accomplished sax soloing which was consistently assured, mature and fluent. I’d like to see him returning to Brecon and leading his own band at a regular Jazz Club event, preferably with the similarly impressive Breskal at the drums. How about it, Lynne and Roger?”
My full review of that Festival performance can be read here;
My comments resonated with Lynne and Roger who were keen to invite both Newitt and Breskal back to Brecon. They were also keen to involve the Brazilian born Prado, a good friend of Brecon Jazz Club who had previously visited The Muse with the bossa nova quartet Ocasa, with Japanese pianist Atsuko Shimada, and as part of a trio with guitarists Maciek Pysz and Jean Guyomarc’h.
Brecon Jazz Club has always enjoyed a good relationship with the RWCMD and both club and festival events have regularly included College students and alumni with student ensembles frequently featuring at Brecon Jazz Festival.
Thus Lynne and Roger took my suggestion several stages further and conceived a showcase event highlighting the abilities of the current crop of undergraduates. They invited Tom Newitt to curate the event and secured financial support from the Arts Council of Wales’ ‘Night Out’ or ‘Noson Allan’ scheme.
Dubbed ‘New Generation Jazz – Showcase Wales’ this eagerly awaited event featured three different ensembles and a total of eleven musicians with a degree of ‘doubling up’ going on, something that served to demonstrate the adaptability and versatility of these already highly accomplished young musicians.
On a sweltering July evening a pleasingly large audience made their way to the Muse, undeterred by the heat, the World Cup and the early start time of 7.15, the latter to help facilitate the change overs between the three performances.
On now to the music which began with;
JOSH HEATON’S ‘MOUTH of WORDS’
The first group to take to the stage was the quintet Mouth of Words, led by tenor saxophonist and composer Josh Heaton. The group also included Prado on double bass, Rachel Head on alto sax, Kumar Chopra on guitar and ‘returning hero’ (Heaton’s words) Breskal at the drums.
I’d previously been impressed with Heaton’s playing when I saw him perform at Café Jazz in Cardiff in October 2017 as part of a quintet led by drummer and composer Max Wright, another RWCMD student. That group had also included Prado plus alto saxophonist Norman Willmore, who was to lead his own band later this evening. Wright’s group had been supporting pianist Tom Millar’s quartet who were touring the UK at the time. My account of that night’s performances can be read here;
The performance by Mouth of Words set the tone for the evening. The Annette Gregory & Friends performance that had helped to inspire tonight’s event concentrated on standard material, but this evening the focus was wholly on new music with all three groups performing programmes comprised of original compositions by the band members.
Mouth of Words adopted a particularly eclectic approach with their blend of jazz and poetry, admittedly not a new concept (think Michael Garrick, Mike Westbrook etc) but still unusual enough. In any event the Heaton group brought a modern and original slant to the genre by using their own words, mostly Heaton’s, rather than ‘setting’ those of other, more established poets.
For all this the quintet began with an instrumental, which Heaton announced as “Halesowen”, though quite why a Lancastrian studying in Wales should name a tune after an industrial town in the West Midlands escapes me. This atmospheric piece had something of the feel of an ‘overture’ about it with an opening twin sax chorale featuring the intertwining of Heaton’s tenor and Head’s alto, later augmented by Breskal’s cymbal shimmers and mallet rumbles.
“Globes” was the first piece to feature poetry and saw Heaton reciting his words in a deadpan Lancashire accent; throughout the performance the lyrics were spoken rather than sung. Heaton’s words proved to be wry and observational, rooted in everyday experiences and often downright funny, but with the humour laced with pathos. “Globes”, he told us, was all about “eyes – and what they have seen”. The quirkiness of Heaton’s words sometimes reminded me of Django Bates whose music has relied increasingly on vocals and lyrics in recent years, an influence that Heaton was prepared to acknowledge. I was also reminded of the Liverpudlian band The Weave who also incorporate quirkiness and poetry into their music, although Heaton had never actually heard of them. Meanwhile the music incorporated full length solos from Heaton on tenor and Head on alto with Chopra’s distinctive, stabbing guitar chording serving to prompt the soloists.
“Happiness” featured words and music by Head, the former still being recited by Heaton and concluding “a life without happiness, there is no lonelier thing”. The more vibrant second section with its guitar driven groove featured some sparkling interplay between the two saxophonists, their dovetailing and use of counterpoint amounting to far more than just a series of exchanges. The piece also included a drum feature from the excellent Breskal, whose roaming of the kit was underpinned by an ongoing groove generated by Prado and Chopra.
“Celtic Complexion” adopted a contemporary jazz feel that suggested the influence of the New York ‘Downtown’ scene and included instrumental features for Prado, Heaton and Head.
Mouth of Words completed their set with a segue of two poems/pieces, “Mirror Face” and “Sunset Song”, the first including further recitative from Heaton. Meanwhile Chopra had been biding his time and was finally given his opportunity to deliver his only solo of the night, cutting loose with an impressive display of fleet and fluent fretboard work which exhibited a strong rock influence. The twin saxes then combined on some powerful ensemble playing before Heaton recited his second poem, this followed by a brief group outro.
Overall I was impressed by the quintet’s original approach and by the standard of the playing from all concerned. Some audience members expressed misgivings about the poetry aspect of the performance but, for me, this was what helped to make the set so distinctive. It also avoided the usual ‘jazz and poetry’ clichés, instead adopting an irreverent and thoroughly contemporary approach to the subject. Heaton’s cleverly named Mouth of Words project has considerable potential, expect to hear from this quintet in the future.
The changeovers at tonight’s event were commendably swift and efficient and next to take to the stage were Skeleton Leaf, a quartet led from the kit by drummer and composer Eddie Jones West. In fact this turned out to be a highly democratic unit with the other members of the band also contributing material and with tenor saxophonist Dave Bush also handling the announcements from his centre stage position.
Jones West and Bush were joined by Ben Manning on five string electric bass and Frazer McIntosh at a Korg keyboard played with a classic electric piano sound. Inspired by contemporary jazz and ‘math rock’ Skeleton Leaf play in a broadly fusion-esque style with the focus on fluid but powerful grooves and strong melodic themes.
The quartet commenced with “Herons”, written by Bush, which commenced with an impressive passage of unaccompanied tenor sax with the composer subsequently joined by electric bass, keyboards and, finally, the leader’s drums. Bush continued to solo in more conventional jazz fashion, wispily and ethereally at first before a sudden shift to a harder, funkier groove brought out the more forceful aspects of his playing. The saxophonist was followed by further features for keyboards and electric bass on this lengthy, but undeniably impressive opening piece.
The writing duties passed to McIntosh for “Light Beams” which combined vibrant grooves with an arresting melodic theme with the composer leading off the solos at the keyboard before exchanging phrases with Manning on electric bass to the accompaniment of Jones West’s skittering drum grooves. The drummer later exchanged ideas with Bush, their dialogue underpinned by Manning’s propulsive electric bass grooves.
The leader’s own “Achroous” was introduced by Manning’s electric bass and initially presented a softer sound before gradually ramping up the tension via Bush’s tenor sax solo to embrace something more anthemic and rock influenced with McIntosh also featuring on electric piano.
Skeleton Leaf concluded their set with “Cosmic Dolphin”, presumably also written by Jones West. The quirkiness of the title was reflected in the cerebrally funky, odd meter interlocking grooves generated by bass, keys and drums as Bush soloed above on tenor. Subsequently tricky, complex unison passages were punctuated by a series of fiery drum breaks from Jones West that finally asserted his leadership.
Again this was a highly enjoyable set that featured some engaging writing and excellent playing. The tunes were lengthy and arguably meandered a little at times but the potential of this group was again glaringly obvious. A glance at youtube suggests that these are pieces that routinely mutate in live performance. However it would be good to hear them documented in the more disciplined environment of the studio. Indeed all of tonight’s original music from all three groups will hopefully be documented on CD at some point. Well, we can dream, can’t we?
NORMAN WILLMORE QUINTET
The evening concluded with a blistering set from the quintet led by alto saxophonist Norman Willmore. He was joined in the front line by event curator Tom Newitt on his trademark tenor in a line up that saw McIntosh and Manning returning immediately to the stage with Breskal also playing his second set of the night.
This time round Manning was playing acoustic bass but there was no let up in the funk quotient as his propulsive grooves helped to fuel “Azure”, a composition brought to the group by Newitt. Nevertheless there was a more orthodox jazz feel about the music of this quintet as Newitt and Willmore doubled up on the theme before breaking up to deliver fluent, inventive individual solos, the composer going first on tenor.
The remainder of the music came from the pen of Willmore, beginning with “A Local Shop For Local People” with its unison horn theme statement and odd meter grooves. Willmore’s alto solo embraced a degree of wilful dissonance while Newitt also shone with a powerful tenor solo that impressed in terms of both its power and fluency. If the tenor man’s performance with Gregory had evoked memories of old masters such as Young, Hawkins, Webster and Getz here he came over more like Michael Brecker.
Newitt was at it again on the gospel flavoured “Till The Wheels Fall Off” - “tearing it up on tenor” as Willmore put it. Meanwhile the composer also demonstrated an impressive power on alto during the course of his own solo as McIntosh added the sound of clangorous keyboards.
“Flit”, a tune written about moving house, was driven by muscular bass lines and briskly brushed drum grooves and incorporated solos from Willmore on incisive alto plus McIntosh at the keyboard and Manning on double bass.
Announcing the final number, “The Finishing Set”, Willmore described the piece as a “set of tunes” suggesting a folk influence, something that had also been hinted at in the earlier “Local Shop…”.
Here the Celtic folk influence was more overt, reminiscent at times of the work of Scottish trumpeter Colon Steele. Breskal’s precise but powerful drumming drove this rousing piece with the twin saxes complementing each other on the folk inspired melodies. Subsequent research has revealed that Willmore originates from Shetland, an area with a particularly strong folk tradition (think fiddler Aly Bain of Boys of the Lough), so it’s perhaps not so surprising that his heritage is reflected in his writing and playing.
Willmore’s group was the most cohesive of the three and, despite the folk influences, the one with the most conventional jazz feel about it. Nevertheless I was also impressed by both Mouth of Words and Skeleton Leaf and it was also heart warming to see how positively the Brecon audience responded to all three bands, despite the total absence of any standard material whatsoever. I found it particularly pleasing to see how warmly people reacted to this new music, the response reflecting both the quality of the original writing and the skill of the playing from all the musicians involved.
This was a good gig for these young players, one that will help to put them on the musical map, and I’m sure that some of them will be making a return to visit to Brecon at some point in the future. Congratulations are due to Lynne Gornall, Roger Cannon, Tom Newitt and all the musicians for such a successful evening of new, original music.
In the meantime the quintet Hillmore, yet another variant featuring some of tonight’s musicians performs at Tiny Rebel Jazz in Cardiff on the evening of Thursday July 12th 2018 featuring the twin alto front line of Head and Willmore plus McIntosh, Manning and Breskal.
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