by Ian Mann
September 08, 2019
The final day of the Festival and performances from Tango Jazz Quartet, Renewal Choir and Claire Victoria Duo.
Claire Roberts and Guy Shotton celebrate a successful performance as Claire Victoria Duo. Photograph by Pam Mann.
SUNDAY AT WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL 2019
1st SEPTEMBER 2019
TANGO JAZZ QUARTET, MELVILLE THEATRE
The final day of the 2019 Festival began with a welcome return visit from Tango Jazz Quartet.
The hard working Argentinian four piece were once more in the middle of an extensive European tour – and this was only their first gig of the day. In the evening they were due to appear at Café Jazz in Cardiff as part of the monthly ‘Hot Club’ series co-ordinated by Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon of Brecon Jazz Club.
Formed in 2008 in Buenos Aires and led by tenor saxophonist/clarinettist Gustavo Firmenich the group also features pianist Horacio Acosta, bassist Federico Hilal and drummer Alejandro Beelmann. TJQ 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 with jazz harmonies and improvisation.
TJQ first played Wall2Wall in 2016, quickly winning over the audience with their distinctive amalgam of jazz and tango. The following year Firmenich returned leading the fourteen piece Sotavento Big Band, a saxophone dominated ensemble that alternated arrangements of American big band classics from the likes of Count Basie with traditional Argentinian tangos and milongas. This ensemble also featured the singing of Firmenich’s wife, vocalist Patricia Leguizamon.
Also in 2017 the alliance between Argentina and Abergavenny was cemented yet further as Firmenich returned once more as he and Beelman co-led the octet Orquesta de Monte, an ensemble linked to the educational facility at San Miguel de Monte, near Buenos Aires. Essentially this was a student ensemble whose repertoire again moved between the American jazz canon and the folk and tango traditions of Argentina.
As before I don’t intend to give a blow by blow account of TJQ’s performance. By his own admission Firmenich isn’t the most fluent of English speakers, and my Spanish is virtually non existent, so most of the tune titles inevitably got lost in translation. I did approach the band for a set list after the show but the combination of the language barrier and the need for them to rush off to Cardiff ultimately precluded this.
As this event’s MC, Nigel Jarrett, observed most jazz is played in 4/4, ensuring that the rhythms and meters of tango initially sound a little strange and exotic to North American and Western European ears. As on TJQ’s previous visit it took me little time to acclimatise to the group’s music, but as before I found myself becoming increasingly drawn into their sound world.
If anything the playing was even better this time round. Firmenich’s tone on tenor was smoother and his soloing more fluent. He also made greater use of the clarinet than I remember from before, and I was particularly impressed by his playing of this instrument.
Hilal and Beelmann formed an effective rhythm team, negotiating the complex twists and turns of the tangos and milongas with practised aplomb. We were also able to enjoy Hilal’s Jaco Pastorius inspired flights of fancy on his six string electric bass, his fluent and melodic solos again inviting comparisons with such British exponents of the instrument as Kevin Glasgow and Dudley Phillips.
But for many listeners it was again TJQ’s pianist Horacio Acosta who represented the group’s star instrumentalist. As previously he began to play with an increased fluency and improvisational abandon as the set gathered momentum, soloing with a feverish and fearsome inventiveness..
TJQ focus on arrangements of traditional tangos and milongas plus other aspects of Argentinian folk music. They also play the more sophisticated nuevo tango and the music of the great composer and bandoneon virtuoso Astor Piazolla was featured regularly throughout the set. This included excerpts from the numerous suites in which Piazolla sought to fuse the sophistication of European classical music with elements of traditional Argentinian tango.
Today’s set represented a very welcome return to Abergavenny by TJQ and the standard of the playing was excellent throughout. The group’s fusion of jazz and tango elements is both impressive and convincing and has won them a wide following throughout Europe.
However it was disappointing to see that attendance numbers were well down on the quartet’s previous visit. There were probably several factors at play here, most significantly the 2.00 pm start. TJQ had enjoyed a prime Saturday night slot on their previous visit and the turn out was significantly higher. The fact that the band and various associated offshoots had visited before may have been a factor, a case of familiarity breeding contempt, and then there was the Cardiff show later on that may have lured some potential listeners. All this plus a choral workshop taking place at the same time that also formed part of Wall2Wall. Overall this was a better musical performance than that of 2016, but a less successful ‘event’.
In purely musical terms TJQ’s set was arguably the highlight of the day, but the poor attendance put something of a dampener on the proceedings. This sense of disappointment was enhanced by the fact that a percentage of the price from each ticket sold was being donated to BMJ’s designated charity Ty Hafan, the children’s hospice located near Barry in South Wales. However the representative of Ty Hafan who visited the Festival declared herself well satisfied with the money that had been raised from ticket sales and from the collection boxes that had been dotted around the Melville for the duration of the Festival.
RENEWAL CHOIR – WORKSHOP & CONCERT, MELVILLE CENTRE
The Renewal Choir is a community choir from South Bristol that was founded in 2005 and specialises in the performance of gospel music, a strand of music that has appeared at Wall2Wall in previous years with visits from other community choirs plus professional performers such as the 606 Gospel Singers, based at London’s famous 606 Jazz Club.
Prior to Renewal Choir’s public performance in the Melville Theatre they had conducted a rapturously received workshop at the Dance Blast Studio elsewhere in the Melville Centre.
Jazz vocalist and BMJ stalwart Debs Hancock, who started her singing career in a community choir, offers her thoughts on the joys of the Workshop experience below;
“I feel good! I knew that you would!” says the infamous song and he must have been talking about Gospel singing.
Community Singing has been scientifically proven to be good for the heart, the soul, the head; and is regaining momentum across the country with TV’s Gareth Malone and the popular Only Men and Only Boys Allowed groups leading the way.
Attracting a large group of mixed aged festival goers, the three hours passed swiftly amid much laughter and energetic singing.
Lead by choral leader Kim and supported by members of the choir, the singers quickly learnt and performed four simple and uplifting gospel songs, with opportunities created for improvisation and soloing, it was great fun.
In the words of James Brown, the festival Renewal Gospel choir workshop delivered the “feel good factor” in spades.
Many of those who had attended the workshop purchased tickets and stayed on for the concert, ensuring that there was a near capacity audience in the Melville Theatre for this event.
In total the Renewal Choir has over seventy members and today seventeen of this number turned up to sing for, and with, the good folk of Abergavenny. Those seventeen voices were conducted by leader Kim Samuels, who occasionally picked up the announcer’s mic to add her own lead vocal to the proceedings. Also vital to the performance was pianist Phil Barclay, whose skilful accompaniment represented the backbone of the music, the framework around which the singers could harmonise and soar.
Today’s group was mixed race and mixed gender, although the male singers, among them Kevin Francis and Glenn Mower were very much in the minority. Samuels explained that the membership of the choir was open to “all faiths or none” and that not everybody in their ranks was a church goer, but nevertheless one sensed that probably all of today’s performers were committed Christians, and their repertoire very much reflected this.
Eschewing the choral arrangements of pop hits favoured by many other community choirs today’s set list was comprised almost entirely of bona fide gospel songs, which the members of the Renewal Choir probably sing in church.
Opener “It Is Good Praise The Lord” featured joyous gospel harmonies with leader Samuels adding her own amplified lead vocals.
“Every Praise” featured the choir’s few males leading the vocals, and also encouraging the audience to clap along.
“You Are God Alone” and “You Covered Me” continued the gospel theme, the latter straight out of the evangelical tradition.
Next came the first ‘pop’ hit, a song surely familiar to everybody in the audience. This was the Ben E. King hit “Stand By Me”, a song with its roots in an earlier gospel hymn/spiritual and that here featured male lead vocals, female harmonies and even an acapella section.
It was back to the hard core gospel repertoire for “My Life Is In Your Hands” and “Lord I Lift Your Name On High”, the latter enhanced by suitable hand gestures from the massed singers.
Another familiar pop hit came in the shape of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me”, which saw Samuels conducting some vigorous audience participation. Those that attended the earlier workshop were more than ready to add their voices to those of the seventeen on the stage. Caught up in the whole experience even I was seen to join in.
“Shackles”, one of the best known gospel songs, featured more audience participation and a lead vocal (with microphone) from Astrid Glover Rand.
A stirring “Total Praise” preceded the last of the ‘secular’ songs, “Lovely Day”, another hit for Bill Withers. More audience participation here, with the men holding that famous sustained note as the ladies harmonised around them. The arrangement also featured alternative ‘gospel-ised’ lyrics.
I have to confess to being a devout unbeliever and normally this wouldn’t have been my cup of tea at all, but it was hard not to buy into the enthusiasm of both the choir and its audience, the majority of the latter having also been workshop attendees.
Finally a song that conjured up childhood memories for me, and I suspect many others, a rousing rendition of “O Happy Day”, complete with more audience participation.
This was an amateur community choir and not a professional troupe, so it’s probably fair to say that I’ve heard gospel music performed more slickly elsewhere, but there could be no doubting the success of today’s performance as an event. Seated at the back of the hall I was something of a detached observer but nevertheless was still able to tap in to the excitement of others and enjoy the experience overall.
The inevitable encore was an intensely devotional rendition of the gospel song “He Gave Me Everything”
My thanks to Kim Samuels for speaking with me afterwards and for providing me with a set list and other useful information.
Renewal Choir have recorded a full length album and a charity single. Kim also informed that on November 30th 2019 they will perform a special early Christmas concert at St. George’s Arts Centre in Bristol.
Please visit http://www.renewalchoir.org for further details of this and of the choir’s other activities.
CLAIRE VICTORIA DUO, JAZZ LOUNGE, THE KINGS HEAD
A successful Wall2Wall 2019 ended where it had begun, in the Jazz Lounge at the Kings Head for the last of four loosely blues themed events.
Successful performances from John-Paul Gard, Lady Nade and Sicknote Steve were followed by this entertaining show from the Claire Victoria Duo featuring vocalist and violinist Claire Roberts.
Originally from Carmarthen Roberts studied music and composition at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music and at Bangor University. She remains based in Manchester, “it’s the kind of place that just sucks you in” she told me. Nevertheless a Welsh lilt remains in her speaking voice and this became more pronounced as this ‘homecoming’ show progressed.
Roberts is a highly versatile musician who was written for classical ensembles large and small but who also plays fiddle and sings with the Manchester based Texas swing ensemble The Swing Commanders. She also performs duo gigs, usually in the company of a pianist, under the name Claire Victoria, these ranging from lounge events to more formal jazz club performances such as this.
Tonight, in the absence of her regular duo partner, Roberts was accompanied by the Cardiff based pianist Guy Shotton. A regular and popular visitor to BMJ and Wall2Wall Shotton is particularly adept at working with vocalists and has previously appeared with Debs Hancock, Sarah Meek and Becki Biggins.
Tonight’s performance featured a mix of jazz and blues material with some of the selections sourced from the Swing Commanders repertoire.
The duo opened with “Undecided”, with Roberts augmenting her well enunciated vocals with her accomplished violin playing. Shotton was on her wavelength immediately and the pair quickly struck up an impressive rapport.
The presence of a photograph of Bessie Smith on the “Blues” banner of BMJ’s “Jazz Through The Ages” exhibition proved to be the inspiration for a version of Smith’s lascivious blues “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl”, with Roberts providing a suitably provocative vocal and a concise violin solo.
A more subtle blues influence informed the duo’s version of Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good”. Here Roberts’ singing was complemented by the lively instrumental interplay between her violin and Shotton’s keyboard.
“East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon” took the music even further into full on jazz territory with a scat vocal episode from Roberts and scintillating electric piano solo from Shotton.
A poignant “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” was followed by the more playful “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, with Shotton and Roberts exchanging instrumental solos.
Roberts provided a sultry vocal, in both English and Spanish, on “Besame Mucho”, one of the pieces sourced from the Swing Commanders repertoire.
The multi-lingual mood continued with the French lyrics of the playful and implausibly infectious “Zou Bizou”.
No blues themed evening would be complete without a homage to Billie Holiday and Roberts’ seductive vocal on “Fine and Mellow” certainly hit the spot, with the instrumental solos from her and Shotton representing a further bonus.
The first set concluded with an emotive reading of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”, but with Roberts delivering the lyric in English.
The first set had delivered an enjoyable and wide ranging performance that had touched many bases, yet still remained in keeping with the overall blues theme. The second half offered similar diversity and was even more playful as the duo warmed to their task.
Unaccompanied piano introduced “Comes Love”, which offered more scat vocals from Roberts, plus a violin solo.
Roberts and Shotton joined instrumental forces to introduce a poignant reading of “Old Rocking Chair”, an item that was particularly well received by the Abergavenny audience.
A playful “Honeysuckle Rose” featured Roberts’ vocal gymnastics and an impressive Shotton solo.
Jobim’s “Desifinado” featured the singing of the lyric in English, but with Roberts shading off into Portuguese at the close.
“Andy Of Mine” saw Roberts relishing in the risqué lyric and soloing fluently on violin.
However this levity was quickly nipped in the bud with an emotive reading of the song “Gloomy Sunday”, another Billie Holiday vehicle, and surely one of the bleakest songs ever written.
The mood was lightened once more with Roberts’ sultry version of the Maria Muldaur hit “Midnight At The Oasis”, followed by a fast paced rendition of “Love Me Or Leave Me”, another song from the Swing Commanders canon.
Those Texas swing inclinations really came to the fore with “Mule Skinner Blues” as Roberts yodelled “I’m a lady mule skinner from way down Tennessee”. Texas and Tennessee may be a long way west of Carmarthen and Abergavenny but the audience loved it and the duo remained on stage for a well deserved encore.
In keeping with the theme of the evening this proved to be “Every Day I Have The Blues” with the versatile Roberts delivering an authentically bluesy vocal, plus a final violin solo.
This relaxed but enjoyable duo performance rounded Wall2Wall 2019 off on a high note. Another pleasingly substantial crowd gave Roberts and Shotton an excellent reception, and justifiably so. This was a wide ranging performance that covered a mix of emotions and a variety of musical styles with the audience never quite knowing what to expect next. Roberts’ flexible and versatile singing was well complemented by her classically honed violin playing, while Shotton again displayed his customary empathy and versatility at the keyboard.
My thanks to Claire and Guy for speaking with me afterwards and to Claire for providing with a review copy of the Swing Commanders album “In Transit”, which I intend to take a fuller look at in due course. However I can tell you that it’s great fun and I would imagine that a Swingcos live show would be an energetic and enjoyable party experience.
Wall2Wall 2019 was a great success, presenting a typically diverse programme featuring some exceptional singing and playing. On the whole attendances were healthy, with John Law, Chube with Dennis Rollins, Sarah Gillespie and the Renewal Choir all playing to near capacity audiences at the Melville Theatre.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect for the organisers was how successful the new strand of events at the Kings Head proved to be, with every performance there being both well attended and rapturously received. This was an experiment that succeeded brilliantly and I would imagine that it’s almost certain that it will be repeated in 2020.
Congratulations to Mike Skilton, Debs Hancock and the rest of the BMJ / Wall2Wall team for another successful Festival.
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