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Thursday and Friday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 1st and 2nd September 2016.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Thursday and Friday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 1st and 2nd September 2016.

Ian Mann on the first two days of the festival and performances by Lee Gibson and the Dave Cottle Trio, Kevin Fitzsimmons Quartet, Olly Jenkins Duo and Huw Warren's Trio Brasil plus Iain Ballamy.

Photograph of Trio Brasil with Iain Ballamy by Conal Dunn

THURSDAY AND FRIDAY AT WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL ABERGAVENNY, 1st and 2nd SEPTEMBER 2016.

For the fourth annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival promoter and chief organiser Mike Skilton of Black Mountain Jazz retained the same essential format that had made the 2015 event such a success.

The weekend commenced with the Festival Dinner, this time held in the ballroom of the splendidly refurbished Angel Hotel before the Festival moved on for a series of concerts and fringe events at the Melville Centre on The Friday night and all day Saturday.

Sunday saw the return of the popular ‘Jazz Alley’, a free family event held within the confines of Abergavenny’s impressive Market Hall. With food stalls, a licensed bar and a series of free live performances this well attended event has been successful in raising the profile of Black Mountain Jazz within the town. In a slight departure from last year’s model the Market Hall was then used to host a successful ticketed evening event, the ‘Boogie Party’, with music coming from the spirited and entertaining Red Stripe Band.

THURSDAY 01/09/2014, FESTIVAL DINNER, ANGEL HOTEL
LEE GIBSON with the DAVE COTTLE TRIO

The opening event on Thursday evening saw a sell out crowd of 108 people, including the mayor and mayoress of the town, attend the Festival Dinner in the ballroom at the Angel Hotel. Fans enjoyed a two course meal in beautiful surroundings and enjoyed two sets of music from the classy vocalist Lee Gibson, one of the UK’s most accomplished and in demand jazz singers. She was accompanied by Swansea based pianist Dave Cottle and his trio consisting of Alun Vaughan on electric bass and Paul Smith at the drums.

As I was attending this event as a paying customer I don’t intend to give my usual song by song account but essentially it was a set of performances drawn from what has come to be known as the ‘Great American Songbook’ with Gibson displaying the full range of her considerable vocal talents. There were some excellent instrumental moments too, particularly from the impressive Cottle, best known as a pianist but also a talented trumpeter. I also enjoyed the contributions of electric bass specialist Vaughan, a musician whose playing I have always admired.

I’d previously seen Gibson perform at the 2015 Swansea Jazz Festival, an event organised by Dave Cottle, when she fronted the Capital City Jazz Orchestra. That performance demonstrated the astonishing power of her voice so today it was interesting to see her singing in a more intimate context. Yes, there were moments where she really let rip, but there was nuance and subtlety too. Like I said, a class act, and with accompanists to match. The performance was greatly appreciated by the sell out crowd, not all of them necessarily committed jazz fans at what was also something of a ‘civic event’. 

The personable Gibson was to remain in Abergavenny over the course of the weekend checking out the other acts and also conducting a vocal workshop on the Saturday at the St. Michael’s Centre in the town.

Meanwhile the Cottle Trio will return to Abergavenny on September 25th 2016 when they accompany the South African born vocalist Amy Walton at the next BMJ club event at the Melville Centre.

FRIDAY, 02/09/2016, THE MELVILLE CENTRE

KEVIN FITZSIMMONS QUARTET

The first ticketed event at the Melville Centre was a performance by the Essex based vocalist Kevin Fitzsimmons. Billed as “The ‘In’ Crowd; Jazz in the Swinging 60s” this was a selection of arrangements of jazz tunes and other music from the 1960s, including a number of songs from movie soundtracks of the time.

With his cheerful Essex boy wit Fitzsimmons proved to be an engaging stage presence and he was supported by a very classy trio including Leon Greening on piano and Matt Fishwick at the drums with ‘supersub’ Alec Dankworth deputising on double bass for the advertised Adam King. It’s always a delight to see Dankworth play so nobody was complaining too much.

I’ll admit up front that Fitzsimmons’ style of singing isn’t really my favourite genre of jazz but the class of musical company that he keeps speaks volumes for his vocal talents. Greening was very much the singer’s right hand man and I assume that he had a hand in the arrangements and was also acting as musical director. His piano solos on a Roland electric keyboard were consistently engaging and prompted one impressed audience member to comment “he must have lightning in his fingers!”. Meanwhile Fishwick kept the grooves tight and tasty and Dankworth stepped into the breach with his usual aplomb, combining his customary immaculate time keeping with some melodic and highly dexterous soloing.

Introduced by fellow vocalist Debs Hancock the quartet kicked off with a version of “All That Jazz” in an arrangement inspired by Mel Torme. A microphone problem which was mercifully quickly sorted out, hindered Fitzsimmons’ performance but Greening stepped in to save the day with the first of many sparkling piano solos.

“Autumn In New York” was another Torme inspired piece, this one the title track of the ‘Velvet Fog’s’ 1963 album for Atlantic Records. Here Fitzsimmons demonstrated his ability for jazz phrasing alongside a typically assured contribution from Greening on piano.

Fitzsimmons’ elastic phrasing characterised a playful version of the Burt Bacharach / Hal David classic “This Guy’s In Love With You” in an arrangement inspired by Herb Alpert as he interpreted the lyric alongside Fishwick’s brushed drum grooves and Greening’s customary solo.

The singer handed over to Greening and the trio for “The ‘In’ Crowd”, a huge instrumental hit for pianist Ramsey Lewis in the 1960s. Here we heard Dankworth as a soloist for the first time, the ‘dep’ immediately impressing as he shared the limelight with Greening, the whole thing energetically driven by Fishwick’s crisp, swinging drumming. 

60s movie soundtracks proved to be a rich source of inspiration for the quartet with Fitzsimmons returning to sing a ballad interpretation of “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” from the film “My Fair Lady”. He also injected an unexpected dash of humour into the proceedings with some improvised lyrics while the instrumental plaudits went to lyrical and melodic solos from both Greening and Dankworth, both of them accompanied by Fishwick’s subtle brush work.

There were more improvised lyrics plus a passage of scat vocalising on a Latin-esque arrangement of “ On Days Like These”, written by Quincy Jones and lyricist Don Black and sourced from the soundtrack of “The Italian Job”.

The Brazilian music boom in the 60s was explored with a blend of jazz and samba on “Desafinado” with Fitzsimmons singing the English lyric and Greening taking the instrumental honours. The trio then took over for “Groovy Samba”, originally written for a New York based collaboration between Antonio Carlos Jobim and saxophonist Julian ‘Cannonball’  Adderley for the 1962 album “Cannonball’s Bossa Nova”. Here Greening’s feverishly percussive piano solo was followed by an extended drum feature from the impressive Fishwick.

It was Adderley’s version of the Rodgers & Hart song that also provided the inspiration for the quartet’s arrangement of “Little Girl Blue” with Greening’s piano approximating the sound of the raindrops mentioned in the lyrics and embellishing Fitzsimmons’ tender interpretation of the words.
Dankworth’s melodic bass solo was also a highlight with Fishwick providing subtly brushed
accompaniment.

A bossa arrangement of Michel Le Grand’s “Watch What Happens” continued the vaguely Brazilian theme with Fitzsimmons relishing the slightly risqué lyric as Greening tossed in a quote from the inevitable and ubiquitous “Girl From Ipanema” into his piano solo.

The influence of Tamla Motown was acknowledged with an arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Working Day & Night” from the “Off The Wall” album. Although not strictly a 60s tune it remained true to the spirit of the project and was given a jazz/blues treatment that worked well with Fitzsimmon’s vocals augmented by a vivacious Greening piano solo.

The influence of The Beatles on the quartet’s chosen decade was too big to ignore and this found expression in the closing number, a jazz arrangement of “Norwegian Wood” which found Fitzsimmons enjoying himself as he stretched the phrasing of the lyrics out of shape and scatted joyously alongside Greening’s final piano solo.

While this wasn’t entirely my personal cup of tea there was certainly much to here enjoy with Fitzsimmons smooth, but often adventurous, vocalising plus his Essex ‘cheeky chappie’ persona endearing him to some of the ladies in the audience. He and the quartet were generally well received even though the early 6.15 pm start meant that this was the lowest concert attendance of the Festival.

My personal highlights were mainly instrumental, there were several enthralling Greening piano solos to relish and it’s always a pleasure to watch Alec Dankworth perform, whatever the context may be.

OLLY JENKINS DUO

Punctuating the main concert events in the Melville Centre’s theatre space were a number of performances in the bar area, thereby ensuring the “wall to wall jazz” promised by the festival’s title. The first of these featured the young tenor saxophonist Olly Jenkins who performed a number of ‘real book’ standards alongside the equally youthful pianist Coren Sithers.

Originally from Chepstow Jenkins is about to embark on a four year Bachelor of Music course at the Royal Welsh Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff. Already an accomplished soloist he and Sithers performed an enjoyable set that included such staples as “Misty”, “The Girl From Ipanema” “Autumn Leaves”, “All The Things You Are” and Miles Davis’ “So What”. The playing of the young duo was warmly appreciated by a supportive and listening audience.


HUW WARREN’S TRIO BRASIL plus IAIN BALLAMY

The Welsh born pianist and composer Huw Warren is one of the UK’s most respected musicians. He has worked across a variety of musical genres including jazz, folk and classical. In addition to releasing a diverse range of solo recordings he has also been a member of the fondly remembered group Perfect Houseplants and currently works alongside saxophonist Iain Ballamy and vocalist June Tabor in the folk/jazz hybrid trio Quercus.

In 2009 Warren released the album “Hermeto +” which he described as “a celebration, tribute and musical thank you” to the great Brazilian musician and composer Hermeto Pascoal. The album featured Warren alongside the Austrian bassist Peter Herbert and the phenomenally in demand drummer Martin France on a mixture of Pascoal tunes and Heremeto inspired Warren originals.

More than just a tribute recording it was a successful work of art in its own right and the project proved to be the inspiration for Warren’s ongoing Trio Brasil featuring former Perfect Houseplant Dudley Phillips on six string electric bass and Warren’s son Zoot at the drum kit. Tonight they were joined by Iain Ballamy on tenor saxophone for a thrilling exploration of the music of Heremeto Pascoal and other Brazilian composers.

Although obviously Brazilian in origin Pascoal’s music is very different to the bossa and samba popularised by Jobim and others. Famously eccentric Pascoal has developed an individual sound world that has proved to be incredibly influential to other musicians, among them British bands such as Perfect Houseplants and Loose Tubes, the idiosyncratic large ensemble in which Ballamy first made his name.

That influence could be heard on the opening piece, the title roughly translating as “The Lighthouse”, a composition that Warren described as being “one of Pascoal’s most beautiful melodies”. Introduced by Warren at the keyboard the piece featured Phillips playing the melody on electric bass with Ballamy eventually joining the trio on saxophone. All the elements of Pascoal’s music were here, the beautiful melodies, extreme dynamic contrasts and avant garde flourishes such as competing counter melodies. As well as some stunning unison ensemble passages the solos here came from Ballamy on tenor and Huw at the piano, these fuelled by Phillips’ springy electric bass grooves and Zoot’s crisp, economical drumming. Lee Gibson, who had introduced the band, told us of how she’d spotted young Zoot’s abilities at an early age telling Huw “your boy’s got great time, buy him a drum kit!”. 

I don’t speak Portuguese, even Huw had trouble with it at times, so I didn’t get all of Hermeto’s tune titles but at the end of the day it was the quality of the music and the playing that counted – and both were exceptional. The next piece featured some wonderfully vivacious melodic exchanges between Huw, Ballamy and Phillips as Zoot sparked the playing of his older bandmates with some colourful grooves from behind the kit.

The Afro-Brazilian grooves of the highly rhythmic “Maracatu”, played by the core trio, inspired some more great soloing with Huw and Phillips going first followed by a colourful drum feature from Zoot accompanied by dad Huw’s vigorous comping on piano.

Ballamy returned to duet with Huw on a piece that the pianist described as illustrating the “lush and romantic” side of Pascoal’s writing, the saxophonist soloing with an easy fluency as Huw accompanied him with delightful, bird like keyboard trills.

Huw introduced the next piece with a virtuosic and highly rhythmic piece of solo piano before entering into a series of melodic exchanges with Phillips’ bass. Ballamy’s tenor then picked up the melody and incorporated it into his solo before handing the baton over the trio for Huw’s second excursion.

Next up was a vibrant and colourful tune by the percussionist Joao Bosco played by the trio, although Ballamy couldn’t restrain himself and was clapping along happily by the side of the stage as Phillips and Huw stretched out on bass and piano respectively. I’ve seen Phillips perform on both acoustic and electric bass on a number of occasions, including with Perfect Houseplants, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him solo so frequently and expansively as he did in this set. It was hugely impressive and a delight to see and hear.

The title of “Ginga Carioca” refers to the easy way in which the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro move, the reference to the Olympic City giving Ballamy the opportunity to give a name check to Abergavenny’s Olympic cycling silver medallist Becky James. He also cited the tune’s “bizarre time signatures” while adding that it had a “certain lilt”, the ‘ginga carioca’ of the title presumably. As Phillips and Zoot dealt admirably with the rhythmic complexities of the piece Ballamy and Huw soloed powerfully but fluently on saxophone and keyboard respectively.

Pascoal’s “Santa Katerina” was sourced from Huw’s “Hermeto +” album and was played here by Phillips on solo electric bass, the tune teamed with another piece from Phillips’ forthcoming solo album. Using live looping technology he created an overlapping , multi layered sound, making maximum use of the effects available to him but exhibiting a strong melodic quality and retaining a pleasing degree of human warmth. The new record should be well worth looking out for.

Now it was the turn of Huw Warren to take the solo route as he gave a virtuoso performance of the 1930 choro “Uno Cero” written in honour of a famous Brazilian football victory -something that gave the pianist the chance to reference Wales’ football success in the recent European football championships. Following Greening’s earlier keyboard pyrotechnics here was another pianist ‘on fire’ as Huw dazzled with a dizzying display of melody and rhythm.

The quartet concluded a superb performance with a Brazilian dance tune introduced by Phillips melodic bass solo over Huw’s piano comping and Zoot’s rapidly brushed grooves. Further solos followed from both Ballamy and Huw and there were also a series of engaging drum and bass exchanges with occasional sax and keyboard interjections.

This was a memorable way to close an excellent performances from four brilliant musicians who impressed both individually and collectively and who had made Pascoal’s music very much their own through a combination of adventurousness and sheer virtuosity. This was a highly interactive group that was right at the top of its game, extracting the maximum from its chosen material. They were given a great reception by a knowledgeable and appreciative audiences. Terrific stuff and a definite Festival highlight.

 


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