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Saturday at Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz and Blues Festival 2011.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Lichfield must represent the best value for money on the entire festival circuit. Every act that I saw this year delivered.


Lichfield Rugby Club, 25/06/2011.

The two main days of the 2011 Lichfield RAJB featured an impressively broad range of music featuring a crop of excellent musicians drawn from the local, London and international music scenes. Saturday’s programme was perhaps the widest in scope featuring players drawing on several different musical traditions but connected by their high standards of commitment, professionalism and technical expertise. Although all could be loosely grouped under the “Jazz and Blues” banner Tim Amann, Steve Ajao, Ian Shaw and Jay Phelps all brought something very distinctive to the party and each earned a great reception from an appreciative and knowledgeable Lichfield crowd. I wasn’t able to stay to see Zimbabwean band Chimanimani who closed the day with their blend of Afro beat and township jazz but I’d like to think that the music they brought to the “party slot” matched that heard earlier in the day. This was, I believe, the 22nd Lichfield RAJB and the music heard over the course of Saturday and Sunday was easily on a par with previous years. There may have been fewer contemporary “big names” but this was one of the most consistent line-ups I can remember, every act that I saw this year delivered.


Pianist and composer Tim Amman is an influential figure on the West Midlands jazz scene. He leads the acclaimed Walsall Jazz Orchestra (who had appeared at the RAJB on the Thursday) as well as leading his own small group the Xtet, so called because of the fluctuating numbers of the personnel. Amann last appeared at the RAJB in 2008 when the Xtet delivered two enjoyable sets and I also saw him at the 2010 Mostly Jazz Festival in Birmingham leading the Xtet and also appearing as a sideman with a number of other bands including that of veteran saxophonist Andy Hamilton.

Those familiar with the RAJB will know that each band plays twice during the day with the two sets often several hours apart. Amman’s quintet opened proceedings with the pianist joined by trumpeter Ray Butcher, saxophonist Sam Rogers, bass guitarist Adam Gilchrist and drummer Carl Hemmingsley. All are key figures on the Birmingham/West Midlands jazz scene and with the exception of Butcher all are current members of the Walsall Jazz Orchestra. For the second, very different set, Amman augmented the group with flautist/vocalist Sheila MacRory and percussionist Pete Hammond (who had also played drums with Steve Ajao’s Blues Giants).

The Xtet’s first set consisted of tunes written by either Amann or Butcher and was broadly in the sphere of Blue Note style hard bop. They opened with Amann’s gospel tinged “Our Journey” with solos from Amann at the piano, Butcher on brightly toned open horn trumpet and Rogers on fluent, hard hitting alto.

Butcher’s “Lion’s Den” was in classic hard bop style with fiery solos coming from Butcher on trumpet, Rogers, this time on tenor, and Hemmingsley at the drums.

Some time ago the Xtet travelled to Russia to play at a festival in St. Petersburg. Amann’s “On The Way Back” was written on the return journey and represents a more reflective, episodic side to his writing. The self effacing pianist often seems happy to let his group’s twin horn men take the attention but his solo intro was a timely reminder of his keyboard skills. Subsequent jazz solos on this mid tempo piece came from Rogers on tenor, Butcher on trumpet, his clear tones contrasting well with Gilchrist’s underlying bass growl, and finally the composer on piano. As I’ve mentioned before Amann is frequently the glue that holds the group together.

Butcher’s elegant ballad “After Midnight” saw fiery saxophonist Rogers taking a well earned breather. Following another introduction for solo piano the tune featured the composer’s cool Miles Davis style muted trumpet alongside lyrical solos from Amann and Gilchrist, the latter’s electric bass purring above the soft undertow of Hemmingsley’s quietly brushed drums.

The ebullient Rogers returned to the stage, pint in hand (well it is a beer festival too), in time for the set closer Amann’s “In Hope and Faith”. This splendid piece also closes the Xtet’s recently released album “Still Waters” which I’ll be taking a fuller look at in due course. Here the piece proved something of a feature for Rogers, moving from a delicate piano/tenor sax through to more robust tenor soloing as the rest of the band came in with Gilchrist and Hemmingsley laying down a subtly funky groove. Butcher also featured strongly with some dramatic high register trumpeting and bassist Gilchrist was also allowed some solo space, A second powerful tenor solo from Rogers culminated in a thrilling series of exchanges with Butcher as the Xtet closed their first set in fine style and to an enthusiastic reception.

The group’s second set took place earlier than planned due to traffic delays affecting Jay Phelps and was very different to the first. With Hammond, who frequently covers for Hemmingsley in any case, and MacRory now in the line up the focus switched more firmly to the music of the new album “Still Waters”. The aquatic theme is reflected in the titles and the music has a distinct Celtic flavour, something Amann has been exploring in recent years, thanks to the addition of MacRory’s flute to the ensemble. The flute is used as a textural device rather than a solo instrument but it does encourage more disciplined arrangements and the second set was less free wheeling than the first with the focus more on narrative development than bravura soloing. However there were still many excellent individual moments to enjoy in an absorbing second set.

An opening segue of the album’s first two tracks “Source” and “Dark from the Hill” moved from a delicately rippling piano intro through pithy, lyrical solos for alto sax ,trumpet and piano. “Source”  was thus a piece with the focus on melody and a strong pictorial quality. “Dark…” was more urgent and percussive with a strong Latin flavour as Amann’s sparky dialogue with Hammond’s percussion helped to set the tone. Butcher’s fiery Cuban style trumpeting and a closing percussion battle closed the second part of this intriguing sequence on a crowd pleasing note.

With Butcher and MacRory sitting out, the ballad “Ripples And Reflections” was a feature for the surprisingly tender tenor of the normally punchy Rogers. Amann’s piano solo matched him for lyricism with Hammond’s percussion providing a pleasingly effective if unexpected foil.

The tune “Solstice” has been around a little longer and doesn’t appear on the album but it does have a similarly strong narrative arc that acted here as the platform for further convincing solos from Rogers on tenor, Butcher on trumpet and Amann at the piano.

It was back to the new album for “Water Under The Bridge” which opened with a duet between Amann at the piano and Gilchrist on appropriately liquid electric bass. Butcher’s solo saw him reintroducing the mute before Rogers weighed in on tenor as the music began to soar. The similarly uplifting “Rainbow’s End” featuring blazing trumpet from Butcher, honking r’n'b style tenor from Rogers and some thrilling exchanges between the pair with Amann also featuring strongly at the piano.

Amann was clearly on a roll by now and invited local boy Nick Dewhurst to the stage for “Now You’re Getting It”. Now aged 20 trumpeter Dewhurst made a good impression at the 2009 RAJB as the leader of the young band Funktional, he also plays with the Walsall Jazz Orchestra. Amann described the tune as “a bit of a roaster” and so it proved as the Xtet returned to the hard bop stylings of their earlier set with Dewhurst taking the first solo and immediately rising to the occasion. Butcher was clearly impressed but didn’t get the chance to respond until after another powerful tenor feature from Rogers. Butcher then matched Dewhurst for excellence before Hemmingley took over for an entertaining solo spot as Amman beamed on with a kind of beatific “that’s my boys!” smile on his face. Only at the end did he realise he’d missed MacRory’s vocal feature so she hurried back on stage to sing her arrangement of the Irish traditional song “The Maid of Culmore” earning a sympathetic reaction from the crowd. They’d clearly loved the rest of the set too and this band of local heroes went down a storm. First impressions of the new album are that it’s very good. More on that later.


Steve Ajao is another pivotal figure on the Birmingham music scene. Last year I saw Ajao the saxophonist play a coolly elegant lunchtime set at the inaugural Mostly Jazz Festival. If Ajao the soulful saxman is a laid back figure then Ajao the guitar toting bluesman is just the opposite. A highly competent electric guitarist and a strong singer Ajao is also a confident and relaxed front man who knows how to work a crowd. His blues trio the Blues Giants featuring drummer Pete Hammond and bass guitarist Mick Hatton has been going for thirty years and frankly they’re pretty good at this sort of thing by now. Two energetic sets attracted a small knot of dancers to the front of the stage, even in the early hours of the afternoon, and it was also clear from the audience reaction that those who had only sat and listened had also found it extremely enjoyable.

Ajao draws on the classic blues repertoire throughout his new album “Pure Evil"with songs coming from such legendary figures as John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed. The trio kicked off with a hard hitting “recession song” in “Money’s Gettin’ Cheaper” by Jimmy Witherspoon which quickly established Ajao’s guitar hero credentials. Backed by an in the pocket rhythm section “She’s My Everything” borrowed from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride And Joy” before Ajao called drummer Pete Hammond to the front of the stage to play his battered old washboard on “Number Nine Train”.

Jerry “Boogie” McCain’s “She’s Tuff” was unadulterated blues boogie while"Polk Salad Annie” represented a diversion into southern swamp rock. The first set concluded with two slide guitar fests in the form of “It Hurts Me Too” and Hound Dog Taylor’s “Give Me Back My Wig”, both of which can be found on “Pure Evil”.

If anything the second set was even more high octane than the first, packed as it was with blues rock classics including Howling Wolf’s “Evil”,and Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House”, the latter featuring Ajao leaving not only the stage but also the marquee as he went on a Buddy Guy style walk about. He revisited the Hendrix repertoire again later with a blistering version of “Hey Joe”.

Other songs included “Bad Bad Whisky”, Hot Little Momma” and Albert King’s “Travellin’ Man”.
Somewhere along the line there were features for both Hatton, who demonstrated some jazzy bass runs and full chording, and Hammond, the characterful drummer giving his kit a thorough hammering.

Ajao meanwhile demonstrated every trick in the blues guitarist’s repertoire before closing the show with searing bottleneck versions of Robert Johnson’s “At The Crossroads”, as filtered through Cream, and John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun”, beginning the latter unaccompanied and then bringing in the band.

There’s nothing particularly original about Ajao’s repertoire. All over the country bands are playing this type of music in pubs but Ajao is just so much better than the majority of them. He’s a superb guitarist, a more than competent singer and an accomplished showman. His love of the music is obvious and if he’s not a great writer himself he chooses some excellent material to cover. In the wrong hands blues can sometimes sound very pedestrian but Ajao’s skill, professionalism and charisma helps to bring the music alive. The Blues Giants were very well received here and if you live in the Midlands and you like the blues you should really check these guys out.


After the testosterone fuelled guitar pyrotechnics of the Blues Giants vocalist/pianist Ian Shaw’s solo show came as a total contrast. Acknowledged as one of Britain’s most gifted male jazz vocalists Shaw is also a superb all round entertainer, perhaps not so surprising considering the fact that he began his career as a stand up comic before turning to music.

Shaw’s voice is an extraordinarily flexible instrument, capable of improvised scats that have the fluidity of horn lines and possessed of a remarkable dynamic range that peaks with an almost implausible falsetto. He interrupts himself constantly, peppering his songs with jokes, anecdotes and other asides which frequently make audiences guffaw with laughter. At other times his interpretations, both of his own songs and other people’s, are deeply moving. Ian Shaw is a unique entertainer, and, although he probably wouldn’t want to be thought of as such, should be considered something of a national treasure. As a fan of primarily instrumental jazz I’ve rather ignored him in the past so this afternoon represented some much needed catching up.

Shaw’s shows are a mix of stunning vocal pyrotechnics and a knowing, sometimes outrageously camp humour. He peppers his repartee with four letter words and a jazz lovers’ insider humour. His wit is rapier sharp and his improvised banter with the audience sees him always thinking on his feet
When he revealed his North Walian origins-he’s now a bona fide Londoner-he hadn’t reckoned on a feisty exchange in Cymraeg with my South Walian wife. Little did she know what she was letting herself in for!

And so to the music, stunning, sometimes hilarious versions of “A Rainy Night In Georgia” and “Stuck In The Middle With You” rubbed shoulders with “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” and “Blues In The Night” the latter two moving between laughter and pathos in the course of a single song.

Shaw clearly loves words and language and Al Jarreau’s tongue twisting vocalese lyrics to Chick Corea’s “Spain” were a good test of Shaw’s vocal gymnastics. With typical quick wittedness he somehow integrated the distant barking of a dog into the performance. This was remarkable stuff and it was unfortunate that due to time constraints Shaw’s first set had to be cut rather short. By this time he’d got the audience metaphorically eating out of the palm of his hand. 

The second set commenced with Shaw taking over where Steve Ajao had left off and starting with a jaw dropping “In Walked The Blues” including a stunning vocalised “harmonica” solo.

Audience participation is a big thing in Shaw’s shows. He toyed with the audience in the first half during “Stuck In The Middle With You” but now he had us whispering the “Fire And Ice” refrain in a playful version of Joni Mitchell’s song “Be Cool”. 

Now in his mid forties the tubby, balding Shaw-“of course if I owned some suits and was thin I’d be hugely famous” he says with more than a little justification-finds his own songs turning to thoughts of mortality. “Somewhere Towards Love”, inspired by the writings of Diane Athill and “Forty Two”, about always staying at the perfect age and written for Liane Carroll, were both genuinely moving. They were sandwiched by Shaw’s updating of “Makin’ Whoopee” which saw him including an extra verse of his own in the lyrics.

The longer second set saw him calling some of the members of the Jay Phelps group on to the stage including fellow vocalist Michael Mwenso and the young Russian alto saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev. Shaw and Mwenso delivered an improvised scat duet before Strgalev took over for an alto solo this section finishing with Shaw and Strigalev trading phrases with each other. The young saxophonist is one of an impressive cast of musicians to be featured on Shaw’s latest album “The Abbey Road Sessions”.

Next Shaw called pianist Jonathan Gee to the stage to demonstrate his own considerable vocal abilities on the song “My Foolish Heart”. Gee had warmed up with a bit of Keith Jarrett vocalising whilst soloing with the Jay Phelps group. Even Shaw inadvertently bashing him in the mouth with the mic (“Jonathan Gee on piano, vocals and no teeth!”) couldn’t stop him. Strigalev provided suitable punctuation with a terse alto solo.

Shaw and his guests closed a supremely entertaining second set with a segue of “Darn That Dream” and “Blue Monk”,a good natured blend of scat vocals from the two singers, alto sax and piano.

I’m sure all this was unscheduled, typical Shaw, taking a chance and succeeding brilliantly. The man has a jazz improvisers mind set but he’s also a hugely talented cabaret performer. Non jazz fans could easily get Ian Shaw and I’m genuinely surprised that he isn’t better known. With his blend of humour, showmanship and supreme musicality there’s something for everybody in an Ian Shaw performance. I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this and would certainly go again given the opportunity. Shaw’s improviser’s mentality ensures that every show is genuinely unique and he’d be great at a general arts festival as well as more specialised events such as this.


Trumpeter Jay Phelps first appeared at the RAJB as a member of Empirical back in 2007. He quit the band after the release of their first album and released his first solo record “Jay Walkin’” in 2010.

The group Phelps brought to Lichfield included album personnel Jonathan Gee on piano and Karl Rasheed Abel at the bass plus Zhenya Strigilev on alto sax (replacing tenorist Shabaka Hutchings) and James Maddren at the drums, playing his first gig with the band and deputising for Gene Calderazzo.

Phelps and his colleagues played material from the “Jay Walkin’” album plus a number of standards and opened the first set with the tricky, boppish “Jay Walkin” itself. This included solos from Phelps, Strigilev and Gee with the pianist just shading the honours. Gee is something of an underrated talent in the UK, he’s a talented soloist and a brilliant accompanist and as we were to hear later he’s a pretty decent singer too. He adds something to every band he appears with but is sadly under recorded as a leader. I was particularly impressed with the way he shepherded Pharoah Sanders through his recent Cheltenham festival appearance. Gee is the elder statesman of the Phelps band and the experience he brings to bear is a huge asset to the group sound.

Also from the record “Six Degrees Of Separation” is inspired by the music of Malian master musician Ali Farka Toure. Something of a clarinet feature for Hutchings on the record here it featured the dry alto of Strigilev, sounding a little like Jackie McLean which was appropriate in the light of what we were to hear later, Gee at the piano and Phelps on trumpet. In a rhythmically complex piece the counterpoint between the two horns was also impressive.

Lionel Hampton’s ballad “Midnight Sun” represented an interesting dip into the standards repertoire with solos by Phelps on softly vocalised trumpet and Gee at the piano, the latter also displaying some of that Keith Jarrett style vocalising.

The “plus one” in the equation is vocalist Michael Mwenso, already referred to in connection with Ian Shaw. Mwenso’s hipster pose and scat vocals enlivened “Out Of The Blue”, a piece from the album which marries Jackie McLean’s “Out Of The Blue” with the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler tune in thrilling fashion. The performance here was particularly exciting with Phelps’ trumpet shadowing Mwenso’s scatting, Gee’s exuberant solo being punctuated by staccato horn phrases and with further solo features for Phelps, Strigilev and Maddren. The drummer fitted into the group seamlessly, a player normally noted for the fine detail of his drumming (with pianist Kit Downes and many others) here he just concentrated on swing and groove and really driving the band. I was impressed.

The Phelps group’s first set was greatly enjoyed by the Lichfield crowd but the second was to be even better. This time they opened with “A Dose Of Aladine”, one of the albums stand out cuts. Structured like a New Orleans funeral this was a strong group performance that built from the dirge like opening through to a boppish, up tempo second section peppered with fine solos. Strigilev’s acerbic alto featured first before Maddren’s drums jump started the second section with dazzling solos coming from Gee and Phelps. The Vancouver born trumpeter is a brilliant technician and here played with something of the verve of the late, great Lee Morgan. Although Phelps clearly loves the hard bop idiom he’s a highly versatile player as his superb contribution to Django Bates’ TDEs band at Cheltenham earlier this year made clear.

Phelps tribute to his mother, and indeed mothers everywhere, “I Love My Mama” strays dangerously close to mawkish sentimentality. It’s saved by the sheer joyousness of the performances, from Mwenso’s part hipster, part preacher vocals to the composer’s pithy incisive trumpet solo. Even Strigilev, who often looked ill at ease, managed to get into the spirit of the piece.
The young Russian has a habit of placing his music stand on a chair so that the manuscript is at eye level. Needless to say it fell off more than once, hence his disquiet. His band mates however seemed to find it hugely amusing, Maddren was practically creased up behind his drums.

Two standards followed, “The End Of A Love Affair” featuring another brilliant Phelps solo and “Don’t Blame Me” which saw Mwenso in crooner mode and included some excellent exchanges between Phelps and Strigilev.

The set closed with the epic “10 Years”, another stand out album track that is a celebration of Phelps’ ten years in the UK. Introduced here by Abel’s bass the piece incorporated elements of hard bop, free jazz and blues and included a powerful solo from Strigilev whose almost impossibly high pitched whistlings seemed to owe something to the spirit of Ornette Coleman. Phelps followed with a fluent statement of his own, playing unaccompanied at one point and then in duo mode with Gee as the rest of the band dropped out. Gee weighed in with a typically sparkling solo before Phelps introduced the band prior to a final blues chorus. This ten minute plus tour de force drew a rapturous reception from the Lichfield crowd and ensured that the Saturday afternoon programme ended on a high.

So four very different performances, each excellent in its own way, that gave a great deal of enjoyment to the crowd. At only £16.00 per ticket, and with another band still to come Lichfield must represent the best value for money on the entire festival circuit.

And the beer’s not bad either.         



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