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Saturday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, The Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 03/09/2016.


by Ian Mann

September 08, 2016

Ian Mann enjoys a day of 'Wall2Wall' jazz with nine different performances including five ticketed concert events.

Photograph of Tango Jazz Quartet by Conal Dunn


The ‘main’ day of the Festival saw five ticketed concerts taking place in the Theatre space of the Melville Centre with another four interim performances by either duos or solo artists taking place in the bar. This was a format that worked extremely well as the Festival literally delivered the ‘Wall2Wall’ jazz promised by its title.

The programme was richly varied, diversity has always been one of the key strengths of this Festival, and also included performances by emerging young musicians. Education and outreach has always been an important part of Wall2Wall as was exemplified by the contemporaneous workshops taking place at the nearby St. Michael’s Centre, some of them hosted by Festival artists notably vocalist Lee Gibson and trombonist Dennis Rollins.


Wall2Wall’s youth friendly policies were epitomised by the opening concert performance of the day featuring the TMC Gospel Choir. This youth choir was established in 2005 under the auspices of Gwent Music and is based at Torfaen Music Centre. Originally conducted by Susie Webb, the vocalist known to local jazz audiences as Bluesy Susie, the Choir has recently come under the baton of the young conductor and musical director Alex Davis and today was their first performance under his stewardship. Rehearsal time had been limited but Davis and the Choir still produced a well drilled performance that was good natured, often humorous and, most important of all, tremendous fun. A supportive audience, including many parents, got right behind the Choir and encouraged them to give of their best.

Over the years the Choir has contained youngsters ranging in age from six to nineteen but I don’t think there was anyone quite as young as six today. Consisting of nine girls and five boys the Choir was directed by Davis from the keyboards and the quality of the both the singing and the arrangements were obvious from the very beginning and the Choir’s take on the Toto song “Africa” with its rich and often complex vocal harmonies.

Next came a medley of tunes from the “Hairspray” film / musical beginning with “Welcome To The Sixties” which saw Choir members Harry, Beth and Alex making brief solo cameos. The tongue twisting lyrics of “You Can’t Stop The Beat” then tested the Choir’s technique to its limits – they weren’t found wanting.

“Joyful, Joyful” saw soloist Molly Pugh in the spotlight while Bill Withers’ choir staple “Lean On Me” saw Alex Courtney again stepping forward before the boys in the band took over with a spot of deep voiced accapella.

The TMC Gospel Choir have performed at a number of prestigious, including the Royal Albert Hall as part of the 2014 Music for Youth School Proms. They have also sung at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff where they performed an arrangement of the Tim Minchin song “Revolting Children” which was written for the musical version of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda”. This was reprised here with the Choir having great fun as they tackled Minchin’s witty and amusing lyrics.

An impressively tender rendition of Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” varied the mood but the sound of such young voices (including soloists Jamie and Bethan) addressing the adult themed lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, even in an arrangement inspired by the Jeff Buckley version of the song, seemed a little incongruous. 

Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” seemed a much more appropriate choice and Davis encouraged the members of the audience to clap along with the choir – they needed little second bidding.

Alex Courtney provided the hand-claps and ‘cuppertronics’ for the splendid accapella version of “When I’m Gone” the “Cups” song from the film “Pitch Perfect”.

The Choir were clearly loving it by now, the nerves banished as the members began to revel in a bit of showmanship. This was exemplified by the five lads in the group plus conductor Alex Davis as they breezed their way through an unmiked accapella segue of the Billy Joel songs “The Longest Time” and “Uptown Girl” with all the dance moves down pat.

The choir staple “Higher And Higher” featured soloists Bethan, Chris and Daniel, Chris also having been the most eye catching performer in the Billy Joel sequence as he strutted his stuff.

To close the show all of the choir members were involved in a carefully choreographed version of “Brand New You” from the musical “13”, the hand movements complementing the joyful singing. This went down a storm with the crowd and Davis got the choir to sing it once more, albeit with a slight twist to the arrangement, as part of a deserved encore.

I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this performance. It wasn’t strictly jazz, it wasn’t strictly gospel but it was great fun with the youthful exuberance of both the singers and their conductor, who didn’t look much older than some of the Choir members, shining through. I’d guess that Davis was probably part of the Choir himself before taking over as leader.

Obviously the parents and other family members in the audience loved it but there was also much for the more detached listener to enjoy as the young singers tackled the technical challenges of the arrangements with considerable aplomb, while still finding time to charm and entertain their audience along the way. Yes, there were the occasional mistakes and the feeling that it might all fall apart at any moment was omnipresent throughout, yet somehow this all added to the excitement and enjoyment.

However the abiding impression was that this was a fine first performance under the baton of the new conductor with Davis singling out new member Megan for special praise on what was her very first performance with the Choir. However it’s invidious to single out individual members too much, this was a great collective performance by a group of young people who were genuinely “all in it together”.


The first session in the bar saw the return of young Coren Sithers who had played piano the previous evening as part of a duo led by tenor saxophonist Olly Jenkins.

Today Sithers was playing alto sax alongside pianist Tom Morley who had previously appeared at Wall2Wall in 2014 and 2015 playing keyboards with the five piece RedRug Jazz Band. Meanwhile the seventeen year old Sithers is one of the principal soloists in the Greater Gwent Youth Jazz Orchestra.

An attentive and appreciative audience in the bar enjoyed hearing these two talented young musicians deliver a set of ‘real book’ jazz and bebop standards comprised mainly of familiar tunes.


Over in the theatre the next ticketed event featured three prominent local musicians. Cardiff based pianist Gareth Hall is a stalwart of the South Wales jazz scene, a prolific sideman who has performed with a wide variety of instrumentalists and vocalists and appeared several times at Black Mountain Jazz events.

Saxophonist Martha Skilton is the daughter of BMJ and Wall2Wall promoter Mike Skilton. A graduate of the Jazz Course at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff she has also been a BMJ and Wall2Wall regular and sometimes ventures outside the boundaries of jazz to perform other genres of music.

Billed as Gareth & Martha it was the intention of the pair to play a set of tunes “Reflecting the 40s” as they investigated the music of the war years and beyond. However their plans were nearly scuppered when their guest vocalist Naomi Rae, Skilton’s colleague in the Colibri Soul Band, declared herself unavailable due to a cruise ship booking. Into the breach stepped singer Debs Hancock, already a vital presence at Wall2Wall thanks to her organisational and stewarding skills but now stepping up to the plate as a performer. Hall regularly plays piano in Hancock’s Jazz Dragons group and this ongoing musical relationship was hugely beneficial as the programme that Hall and Skilton had prepared entailed Hancock learning at least six songs that she had never performed previously. As it was the singer rose magnificently to the challenge as the trio delivered an excellent set that came across as extremely well drilled and professional despite the lack of rehearsal time.

Of course the familiarity of the material probably helped as the duo of Hall and Skilton kicked off with instrumental versions of “Take The A Train” and “Lover Man” with Skilton featuring on soprano on the first and alto on the latter.

Hancock joined the pair to add her sassy vocals plus a chorus of whistling to a jovial arrangement of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehaving”, sharing the solos with Hall’s keyboard and Skilton’s soprano.

The saxophonist stayed with the straight horn as the trio breezed through a lively“Fly Me To The Moon” before altering the mood with a slow blues arrangement of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” featuring the breathy sound of Skilton’s tenor sax.

An instrumental version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” saw Skilton playing both soprano and tenor either side of Hall’s piano solo.

Hall shared the announcing duties with Hancock and in introducing Leeds based classical composer Bill Kinghorn’s arrangement of the jazz standard “Everything Happens To Me” he suggested that some classic jazz solos were perhaps not quite as spontaneous as listeners have been led to believe - as he demonstrated with this piece for solo piano.

Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” saw the pianist joined by Skilton on soprano with the saxophonist then moving to tenor for a Chet Baker inspired arrangement of “Time After Time”.

Skilton sat out as Hancock joined Hall on a version of “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, a song that the duo had performed on Jamie Owen’s show on Radio Wales to publicise the Wall2Wall Festival. 

Skilton returned to wail gracefully on tenor on a trio version of Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and the set concluded with an effervescent “Blue Skies” sung by a confident, finger snapping Hancock as Skilton again soloed on tenor alongside Hall’s keyboard.

The trio were well received by a supportive local crowd and returned for a deserved encore of “Sunny Side Of The Street”, an ironic choice given the appalling weather in South Wales this afternoon, the rain so heavy that Newport County’s football match just down the road had to be abandoned due to a waterlogged pitch! However the sun was shining indoors at the Melville Centre thanks to the combination of Hall’s piano, Skilton’s clarinet like soprano and Hancock’s playful improvised lyrics.

This was a vivacious performance from the three protagonists that included some fine singing and playing. I’d feared that a whole set of familiar standards might prove to be a bit too predictable but the quality of the arrangements and the brightness of the performances soon banished these concerns. Hall proved to be an excellent accompanist and a highly capable soloist and it was a delight to watch Martha Skilton perform again at a Black Mountain Jazz event. I was pleased to see her feature three different horns which added spice and variety to the arrangements. I think it was the first time that I’d seen her play alto, “I usually just use it as my teaching horn” she later explained, and it was good to be reminded of just how accomplished a saxophonist she is. Meanwhile Debs Hancock did a fine job of slotting into the breach at relatively short notice, her increasing vocal prowess and ‘can do’ spirit very much carrying the day.


The next performance in the bar was billed as being by ‘Stainless Steve’. I was expecting another Seasick Steve imitator, Wall2Wall hosted Sicknote Steve last year, but instead we got a highly enjoyable duo featuring ‘Stainless’ Steve Garrett on mandola, mandocello and vocals and Christine Heath on soprano saxophone.

Trading under the band name Lost Luggage the pair performed an engaging series of instrumentals and original songs in a kind of folk/jazz/roots crossover. The original songs tended to have geographically inspired title such as “Paris” or “Moscow Dawn” and one sensed that Garrett’s music has allowed him to travel far and wide.

Garrett normally plays guitar and also has the blues as part of his repertoire and one sensed that today’s performance was specifically tailored for this festival with Heath’s soprano adding an authentic jazz presence to the proceedings.

The standard of musicianship from both players was consistently high throughout and Garrett also impressed with his confident but undemonstrative vocals. All in all a very pleasant surprise from two performers who should be well worth keeping a future eye on , irrespective of the musical context.


Christian Garrick is arguably the UK’s foremost jazz violinist, a highly versatile musician capable of playing in a variety of jazz styles, both acoustic and electric. Garrick covers territory ranging from the Hot Club stylings of Stephane Grappelli to the wigged out fusioneering of Jean Luc Ponty – and all points in between, with influences ranging from jazz, folk, pop and classical music.

David Gordon, who plays keyboards with Garrick’s electro-acoustic quartet is a similarly broad minded musician. He also leads his own piano trio, a group that reflects his thorough knowledge of jazz and world music styles, plays accordion with the tango group Zum, and is an acclaimed classical harpsichordist.

The duo’s musical relationship has been forged over a decade or more of performing together although they have yet to record in the two piece format. Garrick has however released duo albums with the guitarist John Etheridge and today’s performance with Gordon captured something of the wide ranging eclecticism of those records. Garrick has always had an ear for a good tune, regardless of its origins or genre, and the music of both the Etheridge and Gordon duos reflects this with both units drawing on a rich well of tradition spanning the various musical boundaries. Perhaps Garrick’s ‘Biffy Clyro’ T shirt should have given us some idea of the duo’s eclectic range of influences.

The pair’s love of classical music was expressed by their performance of Sir William Walton’s “Touch Her Soft Lips And Part” which opened the proceedings., but with the duo tackling it in an emphatically jazz like manner with plenty of room being allowed for collaborative improvisation.

A lively “Afternoon in Paris”, written by pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) took the music into more overtly jazz territory with the duo trading solos with good humour and great virtuosity. With his almost prehensile fingers Gordon rose admirably to the technical challenges thrown down by Garrick.

Even more complex and demanding was “Coffee Time”, written by the late, great pianist John Taylor for the group Azimuth. With trumpeter Kenny Wheeler also gone it’s difficult for jazz fans to reconcile themselves to the fact that vocalist Norma Winstone is the only surviving member of that influential trio. I’ve always loved this tune and I relished the way in which the pair tackled its percolating rhythms and complex but accessible and invigorating melody lines.  Garrick made frequent use of pizzicato techniques throughout the concert but here he played the instrument almost like a guitar, or perhaps more accurately a ukulele as Gordon soled on his Technics P30 keyboard.

The duo continued to range far and wide as Gordon’s arrangement of a piece by C.P.E Bach (son of J.S.) that primarily featured his own keyboards was followed by the Stevie Wonder song “Isn’t She Lovely”. Here Garrick’s violin pyrotechnics were underscored by Gordon’s funky, clavinet like keyboard bass lines – I told you this guy was versatile! 

It was back to more orthodox jazz territory as the duo paid homage to Bud Powell by playing the ill fated pianist’s “Celia” with Garrick improvising with an almost horn like sensibility on violin. This was followed by the Powell inspired original “Last Twelve” which featured the distinctive sound of Garrick’s five string violin alongside Gordon’s piano.

Gordon’s original piece “English Isobars” saw him sketching folk like melodies on the piano as Garrick’s pizzicato strings mimicked the sound of the rain that had been falling on Abergavenny practically all day. When the violinist finally picked up his bow he and Gordon combined to crown the tune with a soaring, anthemic magnificence.

A solo violin introduction paved the way for a very open version of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” before the pair tackled the complexities of Chick Corea’s “Spain” with virtuosic gusto as Garrick deployed both pizzicato and arco techniques.

The performance concluded with the duo playing a composition written by Abdullah Ibrahim dating from the time that the pianist was known as ‘Dollar Brand’. I believe it was the song “M’Sanduza”, the township tune often played by John Etheridge as a solo guitar piece. Here Garrick’s pizzicato plucking helped to give the music an authentically African flavour as he mimicked the sounds of a kalimba or mbira.

This had been a hugely enjoyable and entertaining performance that combined superb musicianship with a stimulating and varied programme of music, cherry picked from a wide variety of sources. There was a obviously a great sense of rapport between two players who were prepared to take musical risks and enjoy some real musical fun. Garrick’s humorous presenting style also helped to make this essentially acoustic show a genuine ‘event’. 


In the bar area Festival goers were entertained by the young local musician Ben Creighton Griffiths who is one of the few musicians to play jazz on the Welsh harp. He also had a keyboard with him and was, at one point, seen to be playing both instruments at once, a feat that impressed both Garrick and Gordon who came in to check him out.

I didn’t see a lot of this set as I had to brave the rain and venture into the town centre in search of something to eat (i.e. the local chippy). However there was method in my madness as Creighton Griffiths will be returning to the Melville Centre on November 27th 2016 when he shares the bill with bassist Aidan Thorne’s group Duski at a Black Mountain Jazz club night - so I’ll get the chance to cover his performance more fully then. In the meantime everybody at Wall2Wall seemed to be impressed with his virtuosity so this bodes well for November.


Trombonist, composer and educator Dennis Rollins first formed his Velocity Trio in 2009 and has gradually developed the group into the highly distinctive and effective unit that it is today. The combination of trombone, Hammond organ and drums is pretty much unique and the line up has stabilised at Rollins, organist Ross Stanley and drummer/percussionist Pedro Segundo, this being the personnel on the trio’s two albums to date, “The Eleventh Gate” from 2011 and 2014’s “Symbiosis”.

Rollins and Velocity played a fondly remembered show at BMJ’s former HQ the Swan Hotel back in 2013. More recently they played at the 2016 Brecon Jazz Weekend with drummer Tim Carter standing in for Segundo. Today it was Stanley who was unavailable and his place was brilliantly and flawlessly filled by Liam Dunachie whose advanced sight reading skills allowed him to tackle Rollins’ often complex music without a single glitch. Some commentators remarked that his performance was probably the most remarkable one of the entire Festival.

Essentially Velocity’s set was the same one that they had delivered in Brecon as they kicked off with the rousing “Utopia” which saw Dunachie immediately impressing as he shared the soloing with Rollins. Meanwhile Segundo, a hugely talented and flamboyant drummer/percussionist also began to impose his own unique stamp on the proceedings.

“Emergence” was inspired by the classic Larry Young album “Unity”, released on Blue Note Records in 1965.  Dunachie continued to make the Hammond chair his own as he channelled the spirit of Young in his fiery exchanges with Rollins. Meanwhile the effervescent Segundo, ever the showman, brought auxiliary elements, such as the legs of an adjacent table, into his sparky drum feature.

During the lifetime of the Velocity Trio Rollins has made increasingly sophisticated use of electronic effects, convincingly adding these elements to his trombone playing. There was evidence of this on his unaccompanied intro to the Bob Marley inspired “Ujamma” with its effective mix of jazz and reggae. Indeed Rollins, a great educator had previously conducted a festival workshop entitled “The Marriage Between Acoustic and Electronic Instruments”.

Perhaps an even better example of Rollins’ use of electronic components was to be heard on the atmospheric “The Other Side” which saw the trombonist live sampling elements of Segundo’s solo drum introduction to create a multi layered rhythmic backdrop , a combination of electronic and acoustic grooves that buoyed Dunachie’s gothic, church like Hammond and Rollins’ anthemic trombone as the piece unfolded mesmerically and with no little grandeur. Inspired by the notion of a plane between life and the afterlife -purgatory, if you will - “The Other Side” is one of Rollins’ most atmospheric and effective compositions, a corner stone of any Velocity Trio set.

Next came the hard hitting “Symbiosis” with its walloping grooves and a further feature from Segundo, the one man rhythm machine with his dizzying array of percussive devices including thunder sheets and rain sticks and a variety of shakers.

Segundo may be something of a showman but so is his leader, as Rollins demonstrated on the now familiar stop-start arrangement of Pink Floyd’s “Money” with Dunachie’s left hand bass lines helping to fuel Rollins’ trombone solo before the dep took over to explore the full scope of his two manual keyboard.

Having got a large and appreciative audience in the palm of his hand Rollins had the crowd clapping along to his arrangement of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance”. Another Velocity ‘set piece’ this saw the trio shooting off on improvised tangents but always returning to the same core beat, the cue for those of us in the cheap seats to start putting our hands together again.

The deserved encore was Rollins’ arrangement of the Amanda McBroom song “The Rose”,  variously a hit for Bette Midler, Elaine Paige and Westlife. With Segundo hanging back on brushes Rollins’ version was gospel tinged and anthemic, the perfect way to close a typically polished show that boasted an exceptional sound thanks to Rollins’ travelling sound engineer.

But of course the music and the playing was terrific too with Dunachie doing a superb job as a dep alongside the extrovert presences of Rollins and Segundo. I’ve seen Rollins deliver the same basic set on a number of occasions but the combination of his irrepressible enthusiasm plus the sheer quality of the music has ensured that I’ve never begun to tire of it. I may have heard it all before but this was still an undeniable Festival highlight.


In the bar the similarly irrepressible Debs Hancock performed her second set of the day, this time accompanied by pianist Guy Shotton, a replacement for the advertised Julian Martin. 

Based in Cardiff Shotton is a fairly new presence on the South Wales music scene having graduated from Cardiff University in 2013.  He is a skilled accompanist and although it was the first time that Hancock had worked with him she was very impressed, as were the audience members who enjoyed this well executed selection songs from the Great American Songbook, including a return visit by Hancock to “Come Rain Or Come Shine”.  It seems likely that the pair may work together again and with Shotton having made many new friends tonight it’s equally possible that he’ll soon be making a return visit to Abergavenny as part of the BMJ club programme.


The final act of the day were Tango Jazz Quartet, a group of musicians from Argentina currently in the midst of an exhaustive European tour, their sixth, that will take them to ten countries.

Formed in 2008 and led by tenor saxophonist/clarinettist Gustavo Firmenich and featuring pianist Horacio Acosta, bassist Federico Hilal and drummer Alejandro Beelmann the group have recorded four albums to date and have been critically acclaimed both in their native Argentina and internationally for their interesting and innovative blend of tango rhythms and structures and jazz improvisation. 

Getting the band to Abergavenny represented something of a triumph for Wall2Wall promoter and ultimately the quartet didn’t disappoint as they delivered a performance that intrigued and excited in equal measure.

Firmenich’s English wasn’t the best and my Spanish is non existent so I’m not going to try and give a tune by tune account of the set which started with a characteristic merging of jazz and tango elements. TJQ have also established something of a presence in the USA and I felt that there was a definite hint of a New York attitude about the opener as Firmenich’s muscular tenor sax shared the solos with Hilal’s six string electric bass and Acosta’s electric piano. You don’t see a six string bass for months then two come along at once, Dudley Phillips had played one with Huw Warren’s Trio Brasil the night before, maybe it’s an instrument that’s particularly suited to South American music.

I have to admit that it took me some time to acclimatise to the tango patterns and rhythms plus the robust, buzzy, sound of Firmenich’s tenor but once I did I soon found myself becoming more and more absorbed by this initially unfamiliar music. 

TJQ don’t feature original tunes but source their repertoire from the tango tradition with that giant of the music, Astor Piazzolla ranking prominently among the featured composers. Others upon whom the group drew were the Piana/Castillo writing team who provided “Tinta Roja”, a piece on which TJQ offered their jazz variations on traditional tango.

The similarly named Leguizamon and Castilla contributed “Balderrama”, a tune that featured Fiemenich deploying a softer tenor sax sound as he shared the solos with Acosta’s piano and Hilal’s lovely, liquid electric bass. 

Periodically Firmenich would set down his tenor and take up the clarinet as the group performed a series of traditional ‘milongas’,  these mainly being short performances without the jazz extrapolations of the longer saxophone led tunes. They provided excellent punctuation and served as brief, tasty ‘palette cleansers’ between the heavier, meatier fare of the jazz/tango crossover pieces.

On seeing my press pass the band were keen to provide me with a copy of their live recording “Tango Jazz Quartet On Tour” PLUS one of their European Tour T shirts, the gift of the latter definitely generosity ‘above and beyond’ – so thank you guys.

The album represents an absorbing listen, as well as being a great souvenir of tonight’s concert it also represents a successful artistic statement in its own right. Plus it gave me some valuable information that I’ve been able to weave into tonight’s review. Most of the pieces on the album I’m fairly sure got played tonight including the lengthy and richly varied exploration of Piazzolla’s “Invierno Porteno”.

There was a good deal of variety within the tango template with some of the gentler, more lyrical pieces representing the equivalents of jazz ballads. But there was plenty of energy too, with the soloing becoming more unfettered as the evening progressed, particularly from pianist Acosta who began to play with increased fluency and improvisational abandon as the set gathered momentum and the audience got more and more behind the band. Meanwhile Hilal’s fluid solos on six string bass seemed to meld together guitar and bass techniques in a style broadly similar to that of the UK’s own Kevin Glasgow.

The evening concluded with a performance of “Libertango”, one of Piazzolla’s most famous compositions and a piece covered by a number of European and American jazz musicians, among them US vibraphonist Gary Burton. Called back by an appreciative audience for a deserved encore TJQ sent us on our way with a final clarinet led milonga.

This wasn’t easy music to describe for a European listener unfamiliar with the nuances of tango but the TJQ sound was one that I found myself more and more drawn into and the audience reaction at the end suggested that many other listeners had undergone the same journey. The “On Tour” album also convinces in the home listening environment and TJQ are certainly a group whose music I’d like to explore further and would certainly go to see again should the opportunity arise.


This ‘main day’ of the Festival was an excellent musical experience with all of the concert performers ‘delivering the goods’ in their various different ways in a rich, varied, absorbing, educational and entertaining programme.

The artists in the bar also impressed with audiences showing admirable levels of concentration and restraint in this more informal environment.

Focussing all the events in a single location worked extremely well, particularly on a filthy day weather wise, and I can only agree with Mike Skilton’s assessment that the 2016 event has been the most successful Wall2Wall Jazz Festival to date.


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