by Ian Mann
October 03, 2023
Ian Mann enjoys a "Jazz Chat" with broadcaster John Hellings and an exceptional musical performance from trumpeter and composer Laura Jurd and her Sextet.
Photograph of Laura Jurd sourced from the Black Mountain Jazz website http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk
Saturday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 30/09/2023.
The second day of Black Mountain Jazz Club’s annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival featured two contrasting events with a ‘Jazz Chat’ with the celebrated jazz broadcaster John Hellings followed by a musical performance by trumpeter and composer Laura Jurd and her Sextet.
JAZZ CHAT with JOHN HELLINGS, MELVILLE CENTRE BAR
John Hellings has enjoyed many years of activity as a jazz broadcaster, both on commercial radio and for the BBC. His Sunday night jazz show for BBC Hereford & Worcester was also syndicated to other BBC local radio stations, including Shropshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire.
Hellings has also been a great friend of Black Mountain Jazz and played a key role on the 2020 Virtual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, filmed behind closed doors at the Melville Centre. Numerous musical performances were filmed for future streaming, with some of the the live footage augmented by interviews with the performers conducted by Hellings. The interviewees included vocalist Zoe Gilby, and the husband and wife team of drummer Mike Cypher and saxophonist / vocalist Kim Cypher.
Together with fellow jazz journalist Nigel Jarrett and vocalist and BMJ stalwart Debs Hancock Hellings was also part of “Jass to Jazz”, a three part video discussion on the history of jazz that was transmitted as part of the Virtual Wall2Wall Festival over the course of three separate evenings in October 2020.
Today’s event saw Hellings in the unfamiliar role of interviewee as he talked about his love of jazz and his broadcasting career to Debs Hancock. With Hancock in the ‘Lauren Laverne’ role the interview resembled a jazz themed episode of Desert Island Discs with Hellings augmenting his anecdotes with a series of well chosen musical illustrations.
The interview was held in the comfortable surroundings of the Melville Centre bar and began with Hancock asking Hellings how he first got into jazz. It turned out that in the late 1950s the teenage Hellings was something of a ‘rebel’, unwilling to listen to the same music as his parents but also reluctant to engage with the then new fangled rock’n’roll (Elvis Presley etc.) that his contemporaries were getting into.
Instead the young Hellings found jazz, initially in a ‘watered down British version’ that was illustrated by the Ted Heath Band’s version of “Skin Deep”, a tune by the Duke Ellington Orchestra that had been written by the band’s drummer Louie Bellson. This represented the first record that Hellings ever bought. The ‘B side’ was a version of the Gerry Mulligan composition “Walking Shoes”, something of a classic and a tune still played by jazz ensembles to this day.
Gradually Hellings came to acquire some records by real American musicians, all 78 rpm discs that were played on the family radiogram. The Heath version of “Walking Shoes” led to fascination with the music of Mulligan and his famous ‘piano-less’ quartet and we were also to hear Mulligan himself playing “Blues Going Up”, a live recording documented at a high school in Stockton, California in 1954. Hellings rued the fact that jazz musicians were never welcomed into English schools in the same way.
Hellings also broadened his jazz knowledge by listening to American Forces Radio and continued buying records from a music shop in Cardiff, the kind of old fashioned record store where friendly and knowledgeable assistants would say “have you heard this?”. It was an invaluable learning resource for a young jazz enthusiast.
More music followed, a version of “All The Things You Are”, featuring the twin saxophones of Mulligan (baritone) and Paul Desmond (alto).
On leaving school Hellings found work as a printer, while also continuing to nurture his passion for jazz. The opportunity for him to share his love for the music with a listening audience came with the advent of BBC local radio and the simultaneous development of commercial radio. Under the terms of an IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority) agreement stations were obliged to broadcast specialist music programmes and turned to enthusiasts such as Hellings to present shows dedicated to jazz and folk. For a while he continued with his ‘day job’ in addition to broadcasting for a number of different radio stations, among them Radio Wyvern, Severn Sound and BBC Radio Wiltshire.
A regular slot with BBC Hereford & Worcester gave him the opportunity to become a professional broadcaster, a decision that represented something of a leap of faith at the time, but one that he has never regretted. Hellings presented jazz and big band programmes for the BBC for many years, developing a loyal following in the process. Debs Hancock commented that the warmth of his voice, allied to the breadth of his jazz knowledge, made him the perfect presenter and Hellings confirmed that in everyday social situations people frequently recognised him by his voice alone. He also revealed that his radio shows had amassed a following outside their syndicated area, most notably in South Lancashire, and Wigan in particular. Hellings was also keen to stress the importance of local radio broadcasting as a support to live music.
The conversation was interspersed with more of Hellings’ music choices. His love of West Coast jazz extended to pianist Dave Brubeck and his famous quartet, of which the aforementioned Paul Desmond was a key member. Hellings chose to ignore the obvious ‘hits’ for his Brubeck selection, choosing instead a live recording of the song “Wonderful Copenhagen”.
We also heard from the coolly elegant Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), featuring pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay, with their version of the standard “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise”.
Hellings’ work as a broadcaster also gave him the opportunity to meet and interview some of his jazz heroes. He recalled interviewing the French pianist Jacques Loussier, of ‘Play Bach’ fame, whose trio performed the music heard on the still fondly remembered Hamlet Cigars advert.
On another occasion Hellings interviewed a then very young, and clearly hungover, Jamie Cullum, during which Cullum acknowledged the influence of the American pianist / vocalist Harry Connick Jr.
A particularly favourite interview was with the American bandleader, composer and arranger Gordon Goodwin.
The changes in broadcasting methods were discussed, with most of Hellings’ shows in recent years having been recorded prior to transmission. He recalled being away on holiday and tuning in to make sure that the show was going out OK.
Hellings’ final music choice surprised me, “Art Deco” by the late, great trumpeter Don Cherry, chosen to demonstrate the fact that jazz is a constantly evolving music.
Of course there was a certain irony about today’s event. The BBC has been cutting back local radio for years and the pandemic gave them the perfect excuse to axe specialist music programmes such as John’s. As far as I can tell the last episode of “Jazz with John Hellings” was broadcast on 22nd March 2020 and the archive remains unavailable. It’s all part of an increasing drive towards homogenisation and it’s only going to get worse, with many of John’s former BBC local radio colleagues about to find themselves out of a job very soon. From the listener’s point of view it’s all very regrettable and to me it all reeks of a wider political and cultural agenda, but this isn’t the time or the place to go into all that.
Thanks to John Hellings for an interesting, informative and entertaining talk and to Debs Hancock who proved to be an empathic host and again demonstrated her impressive interviewing skills. A great curtain raiser for the musical performance from Laura Jurd that was to follow.
LAURA JURD SEXTET, MELVILLE THEATRE
Laura Jurd – trumpet, piano Cameron Scott – euphonium, Hanna Mbuya- tuba, James Kitchman – guitar, Toby Yapp – electric bass, Corrie Dick – drums, percussion
It represented a considerable coup for Black Mountain Jazz to persuade the award winning trumpeter and composer Laura Jurd to come and perform at the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival.
Jurd is perhaps best known for her long running quartet Dinosaur (featuring keyboard player Elliot Galvin, bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Corrie Dick) with whom she has recorded three albums, “Together As One” (2016), “Wonder Trail” (2018) and “To The Earth” (2020). The first of these was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize.
In addition to her work with Dinosaur Jurd has issued a number of albums under her own name, these being “Landing Ground” (2012), “Human Spirit” (2015), “Stepping Back, Jumping In” (2019), the digital only “Trio EP (2019) and “The Big Friendly Album” (2022).
Today’s performance focussed on music from “The Big Friendly Album” and featured the unusually configured instrumental line up listed above. The recording features the same instrumentation with Martin Lee Thomson on euphonium, Danielle Price on tuba, Alex Haines on guitar and Ruth Goller on bass. Thus of tonight’s performers only Jurd and Dick remained from the album.
Jurd is a versatile musician and composer whose music also embraces elements of folk and classical music. The previous evening she had performed in Cardiff, playing alongside a string quartet as part of a concert paying homage to the British composer Gavin Bryars on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
It’s a tribute to Jurd’s professionalism that she was present in Abergavenny some five hours before the scheduled start of the performance. Admittedly it had been a short trip from Cardiff but the London based members of her band arrived shortly afterwards to fully rehearse the material and to liaise closely with resident sound engineer Mark Viveash. With its unusual instrumentation this was a difficult band to mix and it’s a tribute to both Viveash and the musicians that the sound at the concert was so good.
In 2022 Jurd appeared at Cheltenham Jazz Festival leading an extended eleven piece version of this group performing material from the “Stepping Back, Jumping In” album, a performance favourably reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann. Unlike the majority of tonight’s audience I had some idea what to expect, but with a smaller line-up and with different material tonight was obviously something else again.
Appropriately the sextet began with “Little Opener”, a tune from “The Big Friendly Album”, but not the one that actually opens the recording. The “BFA” also includes guest appearances from other musicians, with the Norwegian accordionist Frode Haltli featuring on this track. Tonight the performance was notable for the unusual blend of the brass instruments, the remarkable fluency and agility of Scott’s euphonium solo and the flexibility of the rhythms generated by the combination of drums, electric bass and tuba. Other features included an agreeably quirky trumpet solo from the leader and outings for Kitchman on guitar and Yapp on electric bass.
The “BFA” was released in September 2022, so Jurd spoke of tonight’s gig being a “Birthday Celebration”. The next offering was “Sleepless”, another piece to feature Haltli on the recording. This was introduced by Kitchman on guitar and Jurd on piano. Indeed the leader moved constantly between trumpet and piano throughout the set, changing instruments several times during the course of each composition and even playing both instruments simultaneously on occasion. This was music that was densely written, with all the group members reading sheet music, but there was still room given over to individual expression. Jurd’s music is often about contrasts and I enjoyed the contrast between the traditional brass band instruments of trumpet, euphonium and tuba with the technology of Kitchman’s guitar and its range of imaginatively deployed electronic effects.
Originally written for the Dinosaur album “To The Earth” the tune “Mosking” was dedicated to the Norwegian piano trio Moskus, a group with whom Jurd and her associates have close ties. Indeed Moskus pianist Ana Lauvdal co-wrote one of the pieces on the “Stepping Back, Jumping In” recording.
Tonight’s performance was ushered in by a trumpet /drum dialogue between Jurd and Dick, these two then joined by Kitchman’s guitar atmospherics. This was a piece that placed a greater emphasis on improvisation and included expansive solos from Jurd on trumpet and Scott on euphonium. Kitchman’s solo briefly saw the group in guitar trio mode and he was followed by Dick’s drum feature, this evolving into a dialogue with Jurd at the piano, before the leader eventually took up the trumpet once more.
Kitchman’s unaccompanied guitar ushered in “Passing Clouds”, a piece that alternated between the soft and pastoral and the dark and clangorous, perhaps mirroring the moods of the clouds themselves on a typically variable British day. This was one of the few pieces to feature Jurd as a piano soloist.
The first set concluded with “On The Up”, a composition that features violinist Dylan Bates on the recorded version. This was another piece to feature the contrast between the warm harmonies of the brass instruments and the metallic sheen of Kitchman’s guitar, the latter’s solo displaying a distinct rock influence.
The first ‘outside’ item of the evening was “Skin”, a piece written by the late, great pianist and composer Geri Allen (1957-2017), which proved to be a lively introduction to the second half. Introduced by Jurd’s left hand piano vamp this featured rich the blend of the horns, now propelled by Dick’s crisp drumming.
Returning to the “BFA” repertoire “Houseplant” was written in honour of saxophonist and composer Mark Lockheart, Jurd’s one time mentor. Named after Lockheart’s celebrated band Perfect Houseplants (also featuring pianist Huw Warren, bassist Dudley Phillips and drummer Martin France) the recorded version features Lockheart himself on soprano sax. Introduced by a further dialogue between Jurd on piano and Dick at the drums this was a piece with a lilting folk like melody, presumably inspired by the amalgam of jazz / folk that typified the music of Perfect Houseplants. The performance was also to feature Jurd as a trumpet soloist.
Written in January 2020 “Fuzzy” was the first tune that Jurd composed for the “BFA” project.
Ushered in by Jurd and Dick this piece featured Kitchman soloing above Mbuya’s tuba bass lines and included further features for Jurd on trumpet, Yapp on electric bass and Dick at the drums. An upbeat piece centred around strong grooves and rhythms this was music that could almost be considered funky at times. The recorded version features the flute of guest Finn Peters.
Written for Jurd’s young son “Henry” featured a Keith Jarrett like piano melody and later incorporated a set of beguiling melodic exchanges between Jurd on trumpet and Scott on euphonium. The recorded version features Lockheart on soprano sax.
The second set concluded, appropriately, with the anthemic “Here The Tale Ends”, with Jurd, Kitchman and Dick featuring prominently in the arrangement. The recorded version features guest Mandhira de Saram on violin.
During the course of the concert it had been difficult to gauge the audience’s reaction to this unusual and often complex music. There had been little applause for individual solos, but with music so tightly interwoven it’s arguable that this may not have been appropriate. Any doubts I might have had about the BMJ public enjoying it were dispelled as the tension was released and the crowd gave the sextet a great reception, with many audience members getting to their feet to applaud the band.
With no encore prepared Jurd elected to perform the piece that she had played the night before in Cardiff with the string quartet, “Upstream Heavy Tune”. This was played as a trumpet / drum duet between Jurd and Dick, the latter performing with great sensitivity as he added punctuation and commentary to Jurd’s trumpet narrative. I very much appreciated the contrast between the intimacy and sparseness of this performance with the intensity and density of the sextet material. An impromptu, but highly effective, way to end an excellent evening of music making.
My thanks to Laura, Corrie and James for speaking with me during the interval and after the show. I’m now looking forward to seeing Corrie leading his own sextet and performing music from his “Sun Swells” album at the Music Spoken Here event at the Marr’s Bar in Worcester on November 2nd 2023.
James Kitchman is also a bandleader in his own right and his own excellent album “First Quartet” (2022) is reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann, as is “Rain Shadows” (2023), his duo recording with pianist Bruno Heinen. He has also been featured with saxophonist Jonathan Chung’s trio Glasshopper, a group that also features Corrie Dick.
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