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Poetry & Jazz Improvisation, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 24/03/2024.

by Ian Mann

March 26, 2024

"Evocative and thought provoking". Ian Mann reports on a night of words and sounds from poets Ric Hool, Lyndon Davies & Graham Hartill and instrumentalists Ben Thomas, Ross Hicks & Ian Williams.

Image sourced from the Black Mountain Jazz Facebook page;

Poetry & Jazz Improvisation, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 24/03/2024.

Ric Hool, Lyndon Davies, Graham Hartill – Spoken Word

Ben Thomas – trumpet & flugelhorn, Ross Hicks – piano, Ian Williams – drums

John Clarke - MC

Black Mountain Jazz Club’s 2023 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival included a successful ‘Poetry & Jazz Improvisation’ event that combined the words of three leading Wales based poets, Ric Hool, Lyndon Davies and Graham Hartill, with the instrumental sounds of a quartet featuring saxophonists Martha Skilton and Jack McDougal, bassist Nick Kacal and drummer Ryan Thrupp. McDougal also contributed on flute and keyboard.

This event had taken place at Dance Blast, one of the performance spaces at the Melville Centre,  but I only caught part of the performance as I had been covering another show by the Abergavenny Sax Quartet that was taking place simultaneously in the main theatre. Nevertheless I was intrigued by what I heard and by the effective blend of spoken word and music. Both events form part of my Festival coverage, which can be found here.

The success of the inaugural Poetry & Jazz Improvisation event led to Black Mountain Jazz inviting the three poets back to present a similar performance at the main Theatre at the Melville Centre as part of a regular BMJ Club Night.

The Melville Centre is also the home of the regular ‘Poetry Upstairs’ events which take place in the bar area and which typically the feature the works of three different poets. It all makes for a neat tie-up between the poetry and jazz strands at the Melville. I should perhaps explain that the ‘Poetry Upstairs’ name stems from the days when the series was held in the upstairs room of the Hen & Chickens pub elsewhere in Abergavenny and that the series has been run by Ric Hool for the last thirty years, attracting many leading poets to perform their work in the town.

For this second Poetry & Jazz Improvisation event the three wordsmiths were joined by an entirely new instrumental unit with Ben Thomas on trumpet & flugelhorn, Ross Hicks on piano and Ian Williams at the drums. The changes were partly due to some of the musicians from the first event being otherwise engaged, but variety is the spice of life and the prospect of the poets working with a completely different set of improvisers was very much in keeping with the spirit of jazz. Thomas, whose own work frequently integrates music with both words and the visual arts,  represented a particularly appropriate choice for this project.

The evening began with the jazz trio, who opened the proceedings with a free jazz style intro incorporating the sounds of trumpet squiggles, mallets on toms and cymbals, dampened piano strings and the soft thud of Williams’ bass drum. Eventually a melody emerged as the band began to improvise around the theme of the Wayne Shorter composition “Footprints”, with trumpeter Thomas and pianist Hicks delivering more conventional jazz solos, as Thomas provided sensitive brushed support.

The event was MC’d by John Clarke, who has also been heavily involved with the Poetry Upstairs series. Clarke now introduced Ric Hool, a poet whose work often makes reference to music and musicians and who used to be in a band himself. At the Wall2Wall event his poem “Eleven Views of a Secret” had paid homage to that tragic genius of the electric bass, the late, great Jaco Pastorius. His poem had made clever references to the titles of some of Pastorius’ tunes,  among them “Portrait of Tracy”.

Another work, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” combines elements of Hool’s own life story with those of blues musicians Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton.

Tonight the musical reference was to the great jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins with Hool’s poem “St. Thomas / Air Sea Rescue” combining both musical and maritime imagery as the band improvised around Rollins’ familiar theme. Hool’s work was rooted in a kind of bebop poetry that suggested the influence of Beat Poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and also Langston Hughes.

Hool is more obviously a ‘performer’ than his two poetic colleagues, his reading style becoming increasingly animated as he encouraged and prompted the trio, not quite conducting them but always provoking positive musical reactions.

This was also apparent throughout “Glass Slipper Blues”, a kind of dark, urban, hipster style updating of the Cinderella myth with Hool encouraging the band to play in a “jazz, swing, blues” style, a request to which they responded with great enthusiasm, and none more so than drummer Williams.

Clarke informed us that the Cardiff born Lyndon Davies has published seven volumes of poetry and that he also runs the online poetry forum the Glasfryn Project.

Davies’  piece “There Stands Bentley”, also known as “The Last Boy’s Own Hero” was inspired by a hospital day book that was also adorned with newspaper match reports describing the patient’s sporting triumphs from the 1950s. Described by its author as a ‘mash up’ the words combined both football and medical terminology to evocative and sometimes surreal effect. Cardiff locations from the poet’s own past were also evoked, among them Cowbridge Road and the district of Llandaff. The accompanying music included the fluttering of Thomas’ flugel horn, Hicks’ interior piano scrapings and the sounds of Williams’ deployment of a highly effective combination of mallets, sticks and bare hands.

The first half concluded with Graham Hartill’s brief homage to the late, great jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus, with the poet reading his words accompanied by the trio’s performance of Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle”.  Williams’ vigorously brushed drums propelled the soloing of Thomas on trumpet and Hicks at the piano.

The second half began with Hool opining that all human conversation is essentially improvisation, thus indicating that the fusion of poetry with improvised music is an entirely natural and appropriate exercise, with this particular discourse taking place between voices and musical instruments.

Hool’s next poem, “Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances” embraced a theme of temptation and was another work to include mentions of Welsh place names, among them Llandudno and the Menai Straits. The musical responses included solos from both Thomas on trumpet and Hicks at the piano, with Thomas’ deft brush work again providing subtle propulsion.

Hartill’s second homage to a fallen jazz great was “Easter”, his tribute to the late Albert Ayler and a poem with a title appropriate to the timing of tonight’s performance, with Good Friday coming up towards the end of the following week. Hartill’s rich and colourful verbal imagery included such evocative lines as “the golden bell of a trumpet” and the “whipped ensemble of drum skins”, phrases that drew suitably appropriate responses from the instrumentalists.

Although originally from Northumberland Hool has been resident in Wales for many years and very much regards it as his adopted country. However he also spent five years living in the Prades Mountains in northern Spain, an experience that informed his poem “The Last Dream in the Prades Mountains”. This began as a spoken recitation, with the sounds of flugel, small percussion and dampened piano strings slowly and subtly introduced. Hool’s imagery embraced elements of the natural world and included both ornithological and riparian / angling references, including the particularly striking line “hook, line and sinker to catch another heart”. Thomas’ flugel solo saw Williams responding with a combination of sticks and bare hands.

To close all three poets combined to perform a collective homage to their late friend and fellow poet Chris Torrance (1941 – 2021), who had lived and worked in Wales since 1970. March 24th, the date of tonight’s event, was also Torrance’s birthday, making this an especially apposite and poignant tribute. The chosen poem was “The Unexpected Speed of Spring”, sourced from Torrance’s book “Citrinas”, the second volume in Torrance’s “Magic Door” series. Incidentally “Citrinas” is also the title of the latest album from Newcastle based bassist and composer John Pope and his quintet, another neat jazz / poetry link.

This final item represented a genuine celebration of Torrance’s life and work with the three poets reciting alternate lines and even providing the spoken word equivalent of vocal harmonies, making this piece a genuine ‘performance’. Torrance’s vibrant verbal imagery was full of colourful invocations of the natural world bursting into new spring life. Thomas, Hicks and Williams responded with suitably joyous and spirited playing, with Thomas soloing on trumpet. There was to be no following this and no encores were forthcoming.

As was its remit this was an evocative and thought provoking evening of poetry and music, a little ragged and uneven at times, as might be expected from a unique one off collaboration, but bang on the money at others.

It’s not always easy to appreciate the full depth and meaning of spoken or sung words at a live music performance, so my analysis of the poems is far from comprehensive and not in any way definitive.

As far as the musical performances were concerned I was impressed by the contributions of all three instrumentalists, who listened intently to the words and always seemed to find the appropriate real time response. Moving between trumpet and flugel Thomas handled most of the instrumental solos, but I was also hugely impressed by the sensitivity of Williams’ performance behind the kit. I’ve previously seen Williams with the group J4, a quartet co-led by guitarist James Chadwick and pianist Julian Martin that plays jazz arrangements of Beatles tunes. He clearly has a more experimental side to his musical personality and is obviously a skilled and enthusiastic improviser.

Pianist Ross Hicks again displayed an impressive maturity and versatility. I’m grateful to Ross for providing me with a review copy of his debut album release “Three Elms”, a recording that features five of his original compositions played by a trio that also features BMJ favourites Nick Kacal on double bass and Alex Goodyear at the drums. First impressions are that its an exceptional debut. I intend to undertake a fully detailed review of this recording shortly.

A word too for sound engineer Mark Viveash for a sound mix that ensured that both the poets and the instrumentalists were heard to their best advantage, with neither element drowning out the other.

This Poetry & Jazz Improvisation event was a performance that provoked a good deal of audience debate. Some people loved it, others weren’t quite so sure. Personally I was rather ‘on the fence’, it was interesting and different and part of a noble tradition, but not necessarily the kind of jazz event that I’d want to attend on a regular basis.

That said it’s likely that given the Melville Centre tie ups between BMJ and Poetry Upstairs that a similar event, perhaps with a different set of protagonists, is likely to become an annual occurrence, either as a Wall2Wall event or as a regular BMJ Club Night.

My thanks to Ross Hicks, Ben Thomas and Ric Hool for speaking with me during the interval and after the show.


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