by Ian Mann
September 04, 2014
Ian Mann on the second day at Wall2Wall including performances by Kevin Figes, Bannau Trio, Moonlight Saving Time, Tony O'Malley and Moscow Drug Club.
Photograph of Moonlight Saving Time sourced from http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk
Sunday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 31/08/2014.
My second day at Wall2Wall 2014 found me exploring the Stroller Programme once more and dipping in and out of a typically diverse range of performances. Brighter, warmer weather ensured that there was more of a festival atmosphere although attendances at some events were again rather disappointing.
Once again the day began with a free event in the Castle grounds with a triple bill featuring the Red Rug Jazz Band, the Tenovus Community Choir and Debs Hancock & The Jazz Dragons. First to appear were the Red Rug Jazz Band, a quintet of talented fourteen and fifteen year olds who had been brought together under Gwent Music’s youth development scheme. Keyboard player Tom Marley appeared to be the leader and he was joined by drummer Dylan Sluiter, double bassist Joe Archer, trumpeter Rory Gordon and the band’s most recent recruit, Dafydd John on guitar. Quickly conquering their nerves the young five piece performed creditable versions of Miles Davis’ “So What”, Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and a couple of Herbie Hancock pieces including the ever popular “Water Melon Man”. The core trio of Marley, Sluiter and Archer were particularly impressive and John wasn’t afraid to bring something of his rock background to the proceedings.
I wasn’t impressed by the fact that some members of the Tenovus Community Choir who were due on stage next talked loudly through the latter stages of the lads’ set, a little bit more respect wouldn’t have gone amiss, I don’t suppose for a minute that they’d take kindly to somebody talking through their own performance. I for one was impressed with Red Rug (their name comes from the piece of carpet Sluiter places under his drum kit at rehearsals) and even caught a bit of their second set at the Priory stage in the afternoon where I heard Hancock’s “Chameleon” and Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train”. This performance on the Stroller Programme was as deps for Brass Jaw who had played at the festival on Saturday but had to rush back to Scotland at short notice on Sunday morning following news of a family illness. Hopefully all is now well but Brass Jaw’s misfortune constituted a lucky break for Red Rug who again performed well and impressed their audience. Who knows, we have seen some of the jazz stars of the future.
The rash of choir programmes on TV, all of them seemingly featuring Gareth Malone, ensured that the Tenovus Choir, an offshoot of the Welsh cancer charity, had a supportive audience who were more than happy to sing along with self asserting anthems such as Labi Siffre’s “Something Inside So Strong” and Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me”. They concluded their performance with a joyous rendition of Katrina & The Waves’ pop hit “Walking On Sunshine”. Involving a local charity and local people was a nice touch from the festival organisers and the choir were very well received. It appeared that it was only my wife and I who seemed to have a gripe with the behaviour of some of their number earlier on.
I saw Usk based vocalist Debs Hancock performer with her group The Jazz Dragons as part of the Fringe at Brecon Jazz Festival. Today she appeared with a totally different edition of the band, a trio featuring saxophonist Tamasin Reardon and the young Cardiff based guitarist Geraint Rees. Reardon was featured on both tenor and alto saxophones in an enjoyable standards set that included “Summertime”, “Satin Doll” and “Moon River” among others. Hancock is a confident performer with an effusive stage presence and she was well supported by her two colleagues who both delivered some enjoyable instrumental solos with Rees’ guitar also fulfilling the harmonic and rhythmic function at the heart of the music. Again the trio were very well received.
KEVIN FIGES QUARTET
At the Priory stage Bristol based saxophonist and composer Kevin Figes led a quartet featuring some of the West Country’s most accomplished jazz musicians in the shapes of keyboard player Jim Blomfield, bassist Will Harris and drummer Mark Whitlam. This line up appeared on the excellent album “Tables And Chairs” (2013) from which some of today’s set was sourced alongside a greater number of newer, as yet unrecorded compositions .
The Figes quartet play in a post bop style influenced by the great American alto saxophonist David Binney. The opening “Scrapboard” from “Tables And Chairs” mixed bop and funk elements with solos from Figes on alto and Blomfield on electric piano plus a drum feature from Whitlam, a musician who seems to get better every time I see him.
The as yet unrecorded “Sketches” was an episodic composition that moved through several different section and featured Figes on alto and Harris on five string electric bass.
Figes described the following “Empathy”, another new piece as a “swinger” and this more straightforward item included solos from Figes and Blomfield, the latter a consistently inventive soloist on the electric piano.
“The Point” , a new tune about “being different” featured a tricky bebop inspired theme punctuated by freer episodes featuring Blomfield’s synth. Solos came from Figes, Blomfield and Harris plus a closing Whitlam drum feature.
The three part “Weather Warning” was written in response to the flooding of early 2014 that affected the West Country so badly. The piece won the approval of a watching Gareth Roberts who was passing by en route to playing trombone with the Ceri Williams Band.
The Figes quartet concluded their set with “New Clothes”, a tune from “Tables And Chairs” but given a funk twist that recalled the music of another Figes band , 4 Sided Triangle (with Mike Outram-guitar, Dan Moore ? Fender Rhodes and Daisy Palmer ? drums).
I’ve always enjoyed Figes’ music and today’s performance was no exception. It’s just a shame there weren’t a few more people around to enjoy it with me.
CHRIS RIDGEWAY SEXTET
I was only able to catch the very last number of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Chris Ridgeway’s set at the Kings Arms. The Cardiff based musician is an experienced campaigner whose music embraces folk, roots and blues. His band here featured a lead guitarist, violinist, double bass and drums. Whilst not exactly jazz this tantalising glimpse suggested that Ridgeway’s music is worthy of future investigation.
TONY O’MALLEY TRIO
The veteran pianist and vocalist Tony O’Malley was a popular visitor to Black Mountain Jazz in September 2013. A founder member of the 70s jazz/soul/funk outfit Kokomo he still performs occasional reunion shows with that fondly remembered group.
With his soulful voice and accomplished piano technique O’Malley is a great entertainer who really knows how to work a crowd. I caught part off his afternoon set with a new trio featuring electric bassist Yolanda Charles and drummer Phil Gould as they entertained a rather more substantial audience at the Castle stage.
I arrived for “Get My Baby Back” which featured O’Malley’s passionate vocals and pounding piano alongside Charles’ funky bass and Gould’s solid drumming. This was a trio that really knew how to lock into a groove.
I remembered O’Malley’s blue eyed soul version of “It Ain’t Easy Being Green” (originally sung by Kermit the Frog!) from his previous show at Abergavenny. Similarly his take on Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day”, an audience participation number which saw O’Malley climbing out from behind his keyboard to conduct the crowd.
The blues staple “Sweet Home Chicago” saw O’Malley changing the lyric to “Sweet Home Kokomo” in honour of his old band.
Finally a cod classical intro heralded a supremely funky and hard grooving “Unchain My Heart” which concluded a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining set.
The O’Malley trio played a second set at the same venue in the early evening, this time with Cardiff based singer Helena May in a guest vocalist role. At first I got the impression that this was a genuinely impromptu appearance and that O’Malley and May hadn’t worked together before. Nevertheless she fitted in superbly as she demonstrated her skills as an accomplished vocalist and a born entertainer with a confident, bubbly personality. Subsequent research revealed that May’s group Man May’d had supported Kokomo on their recent series of re-union gigs and that she had even depped for Kokomo’s Dyan Birch on occasion.
Again I didn’t see the entire performance and there was a degree of overlapping with the first set with “Lovely Day” getting another airing. O’Malley and May also shared the vocals on “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone”, “Stand By Me” and a gospel infused “Naked Flame” A splendidly funky version of the recently departed Bobby Womack’s “I Can Understand It” rounded off another uplifting set from the popular O’Malley, ably assisted by his trio and their guest.
NIA LYNN’S BANNAU TRIO
The Welsh born vocalist, lyricist and songwriter Nia Lynn is now based in London following her graduation from the Guildhall School of Music. She has since become an acclaimed educator and vocal coach with a post at the Royal Academy of Music.
Lynn is no stranger to Abergavenny and visited Black Mountain Jazz with this same trio for a successful club event back in 2009. Bannau Trio take their name for the Welsh word for “beacon” as in Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons), Lynn’s birthplace, and feature Gareth Lockrane on a variety of flutes (standard, alto and bass) and the always excellent Ross Stanley on piano. The trio’s blend of chamber jazz was initially inspired by the classic Norma Winstone album “Somewhere Called Home” and it was fitting that Winstone made a guest appearance on the latest Bannau Trio album (their third) “Points Of View”.
Like Will Butterworth the previous day Stanley was forced to deploy an electric keyboard but at least he’d brought his own, a Nord Stage that performed satisfactorily throughout. The trio is a highly interactive unit, it’s far more than just a singer plus backing musicians, and both Lockrane and Stanley were afforded generous amounts of solo space in virtually every song.
The programme comprised of a mixture of jazz standards, original songs and vocalese adaptations of existing melodies by celebrated jazz composers. The standards included Johnny Mercer’s “Midnight Sun” and Anthony Newley’s “Who Can I Turn To”.
Lynn’s original songs also impressed, among them the memorably melodic “Precious”, the evocative and atmospheric “Lonely Ghosts” and “Two Points Of View”, a writing collaboration between the singer and another fine pianist, the brilliant Gwilym Simcock.
Lynn’s vocalese version of Kenny Wheeler’s “Heyoke” from the trumpeter’s classic 1975 album “Gnu High” has long been a staple item of the Bannau Trio. I think I’m correct in stating that “Gnu High” represented Keith Jarrett’s last ever appearance as a sideman.
Another constant in the Bannau repertoire is their signature tune, an adaptation of A Welsh folk tune, the reel “The Bannau Brycheiniog”, a fun piece that showcases Lynn’s wordless vocal gymnastics alongside Lockrane and Stanley’s sparkling instrumental passages. Today’s version was an enjoyable and fun conclusion to an absorbing set that contained many moments of genuine beauty and embodied a genuine sense of adventure and group interaction. It was much appreciated by a number of other musicians and singers who formed part of the audience including Debs Hancock and members of both the Kevin Figes Quartet and Moonlight Saving Time.
MOONLIGHT SAVING TIME
The next act to feature at the Priory stage was Moonlight Saving Time, the Bristol based quintet fronted by vocalist and songwriter Emily Wright and featuring the rhythm section of bassist Will Harris (this time on upright acoustic) and drummer Mark Whitlam who had both appeared previously as members of the Kevin Figes Quartet. The keyboard chair was taken by Dale Hambridge and the line up was completed by trumpeter Nick Malcolm, a successful band leader in his own right.
Taking their name from an obscure Blossom Dearie tune MST released an eponymous EP in 2013 and also attracted a compelling amount of critical acclaim for their live appearances. The EP focusses mainly on outside material but it represents an eclectic selection with distinctive and innovative arrangements, mainly by Harris but often involving the rest of the band.
A full year on from the release of the EP it was immediately apparent just how much MST have progressed. A full length album is in the pipeline and most of today’s material was sourced from within the ranks of the band. I was highly impressed both with the quality of their song writing and of their playing, which had the relaxed tightness of a regular working group.
Playing outdoors on a glorious summer evening MST attracted the largest crowd yet to the Priory stage, a sign perhaps that this is a group who are beginning to build something of a following. Unfortunately they had to compete with the sounds of evensong emanating from the neighbouring St. Mary’s Church which resulted in some amusing moments but overall the sounds of “the devil’s music” won the day!
Lyrics are important to Wright and the group began with “Clouds”, a tune by Will Harris with words supplied by Wright’s father and with Hambridge the featured soloist.
“Meeting At Night” took the words of Robert Browning and merged them with Whitlam’s hip hop grooves and the occasional free jazz squall, an interesting and innovative juxtaposition featuring Malcolm’s trumpet and Hambridge’s keyboards.
Malcolm’s “Views” featured his own trumpet on an unaccompanied introduction, Harris’ bass melody and subsequent solo and Wright’s soaring wordless vocals. For this listener of a certain age Wright’s singing reminded me less of Norma Winstone than of Amanda Parsons, once of “Canterbury Scene” progsters National Health and Hatfield & The North.
Hambridge’s thoughtful episodic “Desire For Nothing Known” embraced a number of sections and a series of dynamic changes and included features for himself and Harris.
“Douala”, a tune from the group’s EP added Wright’s lyrics to a tune by the American guitarist David Gilmore who has played with pianist Vijay Iyer and many other leading US names. In the absence of a guitar the instrumental honours were taken here by pianist Hambridge.
The Wright/Harris composition “Silence is Here” contained lyrics inspired by Wright’s mother and her love of gardening. An effective arrangement saw the singer duetting delightfully with first Hambidge’s keyboards and, later, Malcolm’s trumpet.
Family is obviously very important to Wright and the singer’s “Arthur’s Dance” was a delightful lullaby for her young nephew, a piece that featured the gentler side of Malcolm’s trumpet playing.
“|Not Alone”, written by Calvin Harris and arranged by the unrelated Will represented an unexpected choice, totally left-field but totally effective with its solo piano introduction, a beguiling voice and bass duet and a vocalised Malcolm trumpet solo.
MST have been together for four years and took much of their early inspiration from Chick Corea’s original Return To Forever group featuring vocalist Flora Purim. The MST EP features an excellent arrangement of Corea’s “Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly” and this was the final item here, an uplifting conclusion to an excellent group performance featuring superb contributions from all five musicians with drummer Whitlam featuring prominently here alongside Hambridge and Malcolm.
Wright’s pure and flexible voice is the obvious focus of this excellent band but the contributions of the instrumentalist are equally significant. MST seem to be entering a new and important phase of their career and the release of their first full length album should constitute a highly significant event on the UK jazz scene.
CERI WILLIAMS BAND
Due to the enforced absence of Brass Jaw versatile trumpeter Ceri Williams found himself covering a Stroller Programme slot up at the Kings Arms. This was his trad jazz outfit, sometimes referred to as the Good Old Spit & Dribble Jazz Band or as The Crow Valley Hot Five and this line up had also played a number of pop up gigs around the town.
Totally acoustic and rooted in the music of the 1920s this couldn’t have been more different to Williams’ Project X funk and fusion band which had played at the Priory the night before.
Today’s line up featured Williams on trumpet, Gareth Roberts on trombone, Martin Butterworth on clarinet, Sarah Thatcher on banjo and Steve Davies on the mighty sousaphone (“he’s a monster!” enthused Williams).
I only caught the last couple of numbers of a fun set that was enthusiastically received by the Kings Arms crowd who were denied an encore only because Thatcher had to dash off to another gig. I managed to hear Hoagy Carmichael’s “Honeysuckle Rose” and Fats Waller’s “Christopher Columbus”, an “I Got Rhythm” variant. Williams, Roberts and Butterworth all delivered enjoyable solos but inevitably it was Davies’ rasping sousaphone feature that stole the show. I’m not a huge fan of trad but Williams put a tongue in cheek modern twist on it and I’d have been happy to have heard more of this. Great fun, well done guys ? and girl.
MOSCOW DRUG CLUB
The Kings Arms programme concluded with a performance from yet another Bristol based band, Moscow Drug Club. Fronted by singer Katya Gorrie this group take elements of gypsy jazz, cabaret, East European folk music, klezmer and tango to create a heady brew that has proved extremely popular with audiences and would probably get a nod of approval from Tom Waits.
Moscow Drug Club have acquired something of a cult following and are one of the favourite bands of festival organiser Mike Skilton so they represented a natural choice to round off the festival. They attracted the biggest crowd of the weekend to the gigs and their high energy performance (despite most of the band remaining seated throughout) also attracted the most fervent crowd reaction.
Joining Gorrie were guitarist Denny Ilett, accordionist Mirek Salmon and double bassist Andy Crowdy (the latter here yesterday with John Etheridge) all of whom also provided backing vocals, plus trumpeter Jonny Bruce, a new addition who brings a welcome additional jazz touch to the proceedings.
However Moscow Drug Club is more about songs and attitude than instrumental virtuosity, good as all these players undoubtedly are ? Ilett, for example works regularly with star saxophonist Andy Sheppard. And there’s no doubt that they’re very good at creating a a Berlin cabaret style ambience on songs like “Jezebel”, a hit for both Frankie Laine and Edith Piaf.
They certainly cover interesting material including songs by such brilliant writers as Jacques Brel (“Funeral Tango”) and Tom Waits (“Jockey Full of Bourbon”). Then there’s Peggy Lee’s “The Gypsy With The Fire In His Shoes”, Russian folk tunes like “Two Guitars” and Django Reinhardt style gypsy jazz on “Belleville”.
Novelty songs are also on the menu including the audience participation number “Istanbul Not Constantinople” and the group’s signature tune “Moscow Drug Club” (“where the reds play the blues”) delivered here as an encore. And who can forget that original number with the hook line “we don’t give a shit”.
Led by the charismatic Gorrie Moscow Drug Club have established a distinctive sound world that sounds both glamorous and dangerous. There were also plenty of excellent instrumental moments from Ilett, Salmon and Crowdy and particularly from Bruce, once of the Dave Stapleton Quintet, whose flamboyant solos included screaming high register passages and vocalised techniques. I’m a great admirer of Bruce’s playing and it’s always good to see him perform.
Tonight’s gig was clearly a triumph for Moscow Drug Club and they are clearly a much loved act. I enjoyed the energy of their performance and much of the playing but for me it’s all a too bit too much of a pose and a novelty and despite the quality of this live performance I wouldn’t necessarily want to listen to them at home. I guess this live, club style environment is where they’re at their best.
I couldn?t quite believe that I’d attended the entire festival and managed to miss both performances by clarinettist Arun Ghosh who was leading a quintet that also featured Chris Williams of Led Bib on alto sax. However the feedback on them was largely positive and I’ll be checking them out in a more formal concert environment at another of my regular haunts, the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton, on December 4th 2014. I can’t wait.
Congratulations to Mike Skilton and his team for a second enjoyable Wall2Wall festival with an admirably diverse programme of acts. Once again I enjoyed everything I saw and it’s the sheer breadth of the programming that makes the festival such an artistic success.
However on a much more ambitious programme attendances were still disappointing for many events and the use of three stages on the Stroller programme was probably a step too far with audience members being spread too thinly.
I got to attend the festival as a journalist so money wasn’t an issue to me, but I did wonder whether the prices may have deterred others, especially as a series of new ticket offers emerged in the weeks immediately prior to the festival. However I do appreciate that costs have to be covered ? musician’s fees, venue and marquee hire etc. etc. - and that ticket pricing isn’t an exact science and is very difficult to get just right.
The ambition to recreate something of the ambience of Brecon Jazz Festival is a laudable one. At one point on Sunday afternoon I walked from the Priory stage to the Kings Arms passing the Borough Theatre from which the sounds of the 606 Gospel Group were emanating. As I walked past the Hen & Chickens the sounds of vaguely jazz sounding music drifted into the street, albeit not part of the official festival. Then there was Ceri Williams’ trad band playing on a street corner and finally the sounds of jazz within the Kings Arms itself. All that was missing were the crowds.
I do hope that the festival managed to break even again and I’d like to thank Mike Skilton for giving me the opportunity to cover it. Wall2Wall deserves to survive and to establish itself as one of the country’s leading festivals.
From Debs Hancock via Facebook;
“Thank you Tamasin Reardon and Geraint Rees for your fabulous playing and Thank You Ian Mann for your positive words xx All very encouraging.”
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