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Sunday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Market Hall, Abergavenny, 02/09/2018.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sunday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Market Hall, Abergavenny, 02/09/2018.

Ian Mann enjoys the Jazz Alley and Charity Swing Party events at the Market Hall with performances by Wonderbrass, Tarion, Rebelinx and The Electric Swing Circus.

Photograph of Wonderbrass by Pam Mann


JAZZ ALLEY and CHARITY SWING PARTY,
SUNDAY at WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL, MARKET HALL, ABERGAVENNY, 02/09/2018


The final day of the wall2wall Jazz Festival has settled into a well established format. Today was the fourth annual edition of “Jazz Alley”, the family friendly event held in Abergavenny’s impressive Market Hall featuring free musical performances, food stalls and a licensed bar.

Jazz Alley has proved to be a popular event with the people of Abergavenny and has helped to bring jazz to an audience who might otherwise not get to hear it, while simultaneously raising the profile of the Black Mountain Jazz Club and the Wall2Wall Festival within the town.

The ‘family friendly’ nature of the event entails that the performances have to be readily accessible, crowd pleasing affairs and in general the performances on the Sunday of the Festival are less ‘serious’ than on the preceding days with the emphasis very much on fun.

This year Jazz Alley featured an extra dimension with  the Jazz Alley and Charity Swing Party events supporting the Music Therapy programme at the Ty Hafan Children’s Hospice, a charity covering the whole of Wales and based at Sully in the Vale of Glamorgan. We were to hear something about the work of the charity at various junctures during the day.

This fact, combined with an improvement in the weather from 2017 ensured that visitor numbers were up again for the third consecutive year with several people there to support the charity as much as to listen to the music.

The Jazz Alley afternoon featured performances from three very different acts, the Cardiff community big band Wonderbrass, local all female indie rock band Tarion and the Canadian artist known as Rebelinx, the last named playing his final gig of an extensive UK tour.

Following a full afternoon of music the venue was cleared at 6.00 pm in readiness for the ticketed evening event, the Charity Swing Party, again in aid of Ty Hafan, with a large percentage of the ticket price going directly to the charity. The entertainment was provided by the young Birmingham based ‘electro-swing’ act The Electric Swing Circus.


WONDERBRASS

Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary Wonderbrass is a great Welsh institution that has charmed and entertained festival audiences all over the UK. Led by saxophonist, composer and educator Rob Smith Wonderbrass is ostensibly a ‘community band’, a phrase that conjures up images of well meaning amateurism. In reality the standard of musicianship is extraordinarily high for such an institution, which speaks volumes for the quality of Smith’s leadership.

As well as delighting audiences at home and abroad Wonderbrass has also released a series of excellent recordings, the majority of the them in the CD EP format that are both enjoyable and convincing in the home listening environment. Over the years Wonderbrass have collaborated with many leading jazz musicians including trumpeter Claude Deppa, saxophonist Jason Yarde, bassist Paula Gardiner and drummer Mark O’Connor.

The very nature of the band engenders that its line up is very fluid. There have been occasions when the ensemble has numbered in excess of twenty five members but today’s incarnation was a slimmed down thirteen piece version numbering more reeds than brass, the line up featuring two soprano saxes, two altos, two tenors and one baritone plus trumpet, flute, clarinet, keyboards, guitar, electric bass and drums.

Clad in their distinctive yellow band uniforms and with some members of the band displaying exotic head gear Wonderbrass took to the streets of Abergavenny for a New Orleans style jazz parade before filing back into the Market Hall and taking their place on the venue’s stage.

Split over two sets, their performances punctuated by the one from Tarion, their programme included a mix of Smith originals together with a series outside pieces, many of them commissioned specifically for the band. Myriad musical styles were incorporated ranging from New Orleans and Township jazz to folk, funk and ska plus a number of inspired pop and rock covers, presumably arranged by Smith.

Among the latter was the rousing first set opener, a raucous reading of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” inspired by Jagger & Co.’s recent appearance in Cardiff. Other pop covers included Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”,  “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” by Californian rockers CAKE and Bon Jovi’s “Living On A Prayer” which closed the second set and had the crowd bellowing along with the lyrics as members of the band got down off the stand to dance with members of the audience.

But behind Wonderbrass’ crowd pleasing antics and good time façade there’s a good deal of musical sophistication. Other composers to be represented included Mongo Santamaria, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Professor Longhair, Cannonball Adderley and Hugh Masekela. It’s a list that reflects the breadth of the band’s influences and offers evidence of their virtuosity and versatility.

Pieces commissioned specifically for the band included Deppa’s “Commander’s Call” with its strong Township Jazz influence and “Buccaneer Bay” by the New York City based musician King Django, an old friend of the band. Smith’s own pieces included the infectious New Orleans inspired “I Ain’t Got No Sideways” from the latest Wonderbrass EP “What The Actual Funk?”, dating from 2015.

As ever with Wonderbrass the playing was excellent with most members of the ensemble getting to take a solo at one point. The personnel weren’t introduced but the lion’s share of the soloing came from Smith on curved soprano sax and band stalwart Jenny Bradley on baritone. Others to impress were keyboard player Katie, flautist Caroline and trumpeter Catherine (thanks to Jenny Bradley for supplying the names).

I’ve seen Wonderbrass perform many times over the years at jazz festivals in Brecon and Lichfield and have always enjoyed their irresistible blend of high quality musicianship combined with an infectious sense of fun. Smith’s original compositions are consistently engaging (as is his writing for close musical relatives Heavy Quartet) and Wonderbrass also choose to cover interesting outside material with their punchy, colourful, highly inventive versions of well known pop and rock tunes proving to be guaranteed crowd pleasers. The audience loved them and a return visit in 2019 isn’t out of the question. As well as being great fun they’re also musically satisfying.  Personally, I’d like to see them headline the evening ticketed event some time.


TARION

Tarion are an all female band originating from Abergavenny and its environs playing all original music mainly written by lead singer and occasional guitarist Jay Ryan and guitarist and occasional lead singer Clare Francis. The current line up of the band is completed by bassist Judy Coyte and drummer Sally Ann Iles. They describe themselves as “a bit punky, funky, folky, rocky”. They’re certainly not jazz but they had previously appeared at the inaugural Jazz Alley event in 2015 and had obviously been received well enough to be invited back.

I missed their 2015 performance as that first Jazz Alley ran parallel to ticketed events at the Kings Arms so today was my first exposure to Tarion’s music. Basically I’d categorise them as “indie rock” and, for me, there was much to enjoy about their music, although die hard jazz fans might disagree.

I liked the fact that Tarion choose to play their own material rather than the usual pub rock covers fare. Their Jazz Alley performance saw the core quartet augmented by a guest guitarist, introduced only as “Dave”. He proved to be more than just the ‘token bloke’ as he added colour and texture to the group’s music, sometimes deploying a finger slide, at others electronic effects. Tarion’s songs deployed very few instrumental breaks, and certainly no solos in the jazz sense, but in many aspects the mysterious Dave almost functioned as the band’s lead guitarist.

Coyte and the powerful Iles provided a solid and propulsive rhythm section but Ryan’s vocals were ill served by a booming rock style sound mix and it was virtually impossible to make sense of any of the lyrics. This isn’t to cast aspersions on Ryan’s singing, or that of Francis when she took over the lead on her own songs; both singers were more than competent vocalists and probably sound fine on record but the Market Hall acoustics didn’t do any of today’s vocalists any favours at all. Of course the cavernous, high roofed building was never intended for live music but one still felt that turning the volume down a notch or two might have helped.

What I heard convinced me that I’d be quite happy to hear Tarion again in a more sympathetic setting, and I’d like to hear them on disc too. They appear to have a four track digital EP, “Party Hard” available on Bandcamp, from which two of today’s songs, set opener “Taxi” and the later “Finish With a Flourish” were sourced. Other songs heard today included “Ocean Pacific Blue”, “Fool in Love”, the infectious “Spellbound” and set closer “Six Feet From Land”.

Overall the positives outweighed the negatives and there was obvious potential here, but an otherwise promising set was marred by the unsympathetic sound balance.


REBELINX

The final act at Jazz Alley was Rebelinx, a Canadian born artist who was playing the last date of a UK tour. Born in Toronto Richard Lincoln Thorne aka Rebelinx or Linx spent several years in New York, a city he still regards as his ‘second home’. Now based in Vancouver he has also spent time in Montreal, Paris and Prince George, BC.

For this Wall2Wall performance Linx fronted a four piece band featuring keyboards, electric bass and drums. On keyboards was Tony Keshiro, also based in Vancouver but originally from Trinidad. The rhythm section were two Midlands based musicians who had joined Linx for the tour only but whose names were rendered indecipherable by the Market Hall’s acoustics.

Indeed Rebelinx was to suffer the same problems as had been endured by Tarion, particularly with regard to the vocals. Keshiro, also a record producer and acoustic engineer later told me that he was unhappy with the mix but that he acknowledged the difficulties in obtaining a good sound in such a venue.

Linx is a versatile musician whose music embraces elements of jazz, funk, soul and reggae. He sings and plays alto saxophone and with this being a jazz festival his focus today was largely on jazz, soul and funk. The bass and drum team provided a propulsive funk groove in conjunction with Keshiro, who also added splashes of colour and texture via his Yamaha DX7 keyboard.  Meanwhile Linx proclaimed his socially conscious lyrics in a style that reminded of Gil Scott Heron. His vocals were punctuated by incisive alto sax solos played in a style that was sometimes reminiscent of David Sanborn.

Again it was impossible to make sense of much of the lyrics, or even of the talking between songs, but Linx still managed to get his message of love, tolerance and inclusiveness across, while also tackling a range of social issues, especially those particularly relevant to the Afro-American/Canadian community. It was a shame that the words were so difficult to pick up as Linx was clearly a thinking artist with something positive and pertinent to say. The set included such socially conscious material as “Broken Pride”, “Hold On” and “Gone To Crock”.

Nevertheless his energy and enthusiasm, in conjunction to the infectiously funky grooves generated by his colleagues tempted a small knot of dancers on to the floor and there were many who enjoyed his set. As I had been with Tarion I was again frustrated by the quality of the mix but could again take many positives from the performance. I particularly enjoyed Linx’s sax soloing which was less effected by the poor sound quality. Indeed the vocal mic seemed to have an unnecessary degree of reverb on it, something that was also apparent when MC for the afternoon, Pip Williams, addressed the audience.

Linx is a versatile artist who plays across a variety of musical genres. He also has something of a following as a reggae artist and on the previous day had appeared on the bill at the One Love reggae festival in Bruton, Somerset. He and his band finished their show at Jazz Alley with a distinctive and crowd pleasing jazz/funk take on Bob Marley’s reggae classic “One Love” with a snippet of “Get Up, Stand Up” thrown in for good measure.

Again, there was much to enjoy here but with the poor sound balance once more serving to frustrate the listener. Later, as were making our way back to the car after the Charity Swing Party we met Linx and Tony outside the Hen & Chickens pub where they were chatting to one of the locals. We also paused to thank them for their earlier performance and were rewarded with a long and interesting conversation. Linx was particularly happy with my Sanborn and Scott Heron comparisons, stating that he felt he was carrying on Gil’s message. Cheers, guys.


CHARITY SWING PARTY, THE ELECTRIC SWING CIRCUS

The ticketed Charity Swing Party featured the music of the young electro-swing act The Electric Circus. The sextet have released two full length albums, their eponymous début from 2013 and 2017’s “It Flew By”. The three track “Empires” EP appeared in 2016. They also run the annual Swingamajig Festival in their home town of Birmingham.

Formed in 2011 the group currently comprises of Tom Hyland (guitar, vocals), Rashad Gregory (keyboards, samples), Patrick Wreford (electric bass, keyboards), Chandra Walker (drums, keyboards) and dual female vocalists Vicki Olivia and Fe Salomon.

The band play a high energy brand of music that fuses 20s and 30s style swing with modern technology with Gregory’s use of samples and electronics a particularly distinctive element in the band’s sound. Hyland describes it as “the sound of the 1920s with a modern twist”. The use of programmed beats gives the music a contemporary, dance floor friendly edge which combines and contrasts well with the retro trappings of the music, particularly the vocals of Olivia and Salomon, both of whom were sporting elaborate head-dresses.

The band played one short set and one longer set, with the latter in particular tempting more and more dancers onto the floor, yes even me! So this wasn’t a gig for any great analysis, this was music about having a good time and living in the moment.

Tonight The Electric Swing Circus performed such genre classics as “Bei Mir Bist du Schon” and “Everybody Wants To Be a Cat”  alongside their own compositions in the same style such as “Scuttlebutt” “Empires” and “Big Surprise” from their most recent album.

Tellingly the band had brought along their own sound engineer and although far from perfect the sound was an improvement on what it had been for Tarion and Rebelinx. In fact the closer to the stage that you got i.e. the dance floor the better it sounded! I didn’t find the sound quality such an issue for Wonderbrass, despite the presence of electric bass, guitar and keyboards. Theirs was less of a rock mix and their sound was primarily acoustic and much more natural.

The Electric Circus performed with energy, enthusiasm and no little musical skill. The audience, including myself, certainly enjoyed them, although I wouldn’t necessarily want to listen to them at home.

FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

Wall2Wall 2018 was another artistic success with the Saturday of the Festival, the ‘serious’ jazz day,  delivering music of a consistently high quality with the performances by Alison Rayner, Rachel Sutton and Tony Kofi my personal highlights.

The Thursday night dinner at the Angel was an enjoyable affair, a great civic and social occasion for the town of Abergavenny with Becki Biggins and the Guy Shotton Trio providing an excellent evening of vocal led jazz.

The ‘trad’ night on Friday exceeded expectations with Dale Storr and Enrico Tomasso producing highly accomplished performances that both informed and entertained.

Jazz Alley continues to spread the jazz message and this year’s line up embraced a variety of jazz and other music genres with all the performances never less than interesting. Sound quality issues aside the event was great fun and this year helped to benefit a very worthy cause in Ty Hafan. For me Wonderbrass, local heroes of many years standing, were the pick of the performers but I found much to enjoy in the other performances too.

Thanks to Mike Skilton, Debs Hancock and all their volunteer helpers for another successful Festival. Roll on 2019.

 


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