by Ian Mann
October 05, 2023
Ian Mann enjoys a full day of words & music with performances by Abergavenny Sax Quartet, Loz Bridges / Glyn Lewis Duo, BMJazzKatz, Sarah Brown / Colin Good Duo & a Poetry & Jazz Improvisation event..
Photograph of Sarah Brown sourced from http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk
Sunday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 01/10/2023
The final day of Black Mountain Jazz Club’s Wall2Wall Festival featured a full day of music with several different events taking place in the various performance spaces at the Melville Centre.
Presented as a “Community Afternoon” there were three free musical events in the Melville Theatre, gospel singing and tango dance workshops in the adjacent Dance Blast Studio, and videos from previous Wall2Wall Festivals streaming in the bar area.
The day also featured two ticketed events, a Poetry & Jazz Improvisation Session at the Dance Blast Studio and a performance by the acclaimed gospel singer Sarah Brown rounding things off at the Theatre.
As usual I was determined to see and hear as much music as possible, beginning with;
ABERGAVENNY SAX QUARTET, MELVILLE THEATRE
Rod Cunningham – baritone sax, Simon Birch – tenor sax, Penny Turnbull – alto & soprano sax, Sharon Phillips – alto sax
The first free musical performance of the day was an enjoyable set from the locally based Abergavenny Sax Quartet, led by BMJ stalwart Rod Cunningham, who also performs with the Monmouth Big Band.
Lining up as listed above the ASQ played a series of succinct arrangements of both jazz and pop tunes. Many of the latter were very well known, helping to make this a very accessible performance. Several of the arrangements were by the band’s own Simon Birch, so kudos to him for that.
The quartet kicked off with The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna”, driven by Cunningham’s baritone bass lines and featuring some interesting contrapuntal interplay between all the members of the group.
Turnbull moved from alto to soprano for Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk” and soloed on the instrument. The incisiveness of the soprano’s tone ensured that it played a prominent role in the pieces on which it was featured.
Turnbull continued on soprano for George Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day In London Town”, which featured more expansive solos from herself, Philips on alto and Birch on tenor, with Cunningham weighing in on baritone, an instrument referred to by other members of the band as “the central heating”.
Twin altos were featured on Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’”.
Karen Street is a composer who writes regularly for the saxophone quartet format and her composition “Funk Dunk” included features for Cunningham o baritone and Turnbull on soprano.
An arrangement of the Queen hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” represented something of a technical challenge to the members of the quartet, but they carried it off with considerable aplomb.
The first of a number of Simon Birch arrangements featured The Specials’ “Ghost Town”, written by keyboard player Jerry Dammers. This translated well to the saxophone quartet format, with Turnbull’s soprano prominent in the arrangement.
The Madness hit “It Must Be Love”, originally written by Labi Siffre, explored similar territory and saw Turnbull reverting to alto.
Three jazz pieces followed, Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur”, unsurprisingly a soprano sax feature, this followed by two Gershwin tunes, “I Got Rhythm” and “Summertime”, both of which also featured the soprano.
Birch returned to arranging duties for “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”, a song recorded by both Doris Day and Nat King Cole.
Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”, written for Duke Ellington, continued the string of soprano led numbers and the set ended with the “Pink Panther” theme, with Turnbull doubling on soprano sax and triangle.
This was a very enjoyable performance that featured some excellent playing from these four talented local musicians. The arrangements were crisp and pithy and the solos similarly concise, with no piece allowed to outstay its welcome. The familiarity of much of the material helped to ensure that this never became ‘difficult’ listening. The interplay between the four reeds was intelligent and sophisticated, with Birch impressing with his arranging skills in addition to his tenor playing. Cunningham’s announcements were informative and drily witty, with other band members making occasional verbal interjections.
All in all a very enjoyable way to start the day.
POETRY & JAZZ IMPROVISATION, DANCE BLAST STUDIO
Ric Hool, Lyndon Davies, Graham Hartill – Spoken Word
Martha Skilton – soprano sax, Jack Mac (Jack MacDougall) – keyboard, flute, tenor sax, Nick Kacal – double bass, Ryan Thrupp - drums
This ticketed event brought together performers from two of the regular arts events held at the Melville Centre, namely Black Mountain Jazz Club and the poetry strand Poetry Upstairs.
Three prominent Welsh poets came together to read their works with improvised musical reactions coming from the regular members of the BMJ Collective, Jack Mac, Nick Kcal and Ryan Thrupp, the core trio augmented by Martha Skilton, here specialising on soprano saxophone.
The fact that the performance by the Abergavenny Sax Quartet had lasted longer than I had expected meant that I missed the start of this performance, arriving towards the end of Lyndon Davies’ recitation of his own poem and the musical responses of the four instrumentalists.
The event was well attended and the audience were clearly enthralled by the performance with an air of hushed reverence pervading the room. It was all very atmospheric and the musicians seemed to be responding instuitively to the nuances of Davies’ words and the cadences of his speaking voice. One could sense that the musicians were listening hard, ensuring that they always made an appropriate musical response. Mac was playing a Roland RD88 keyboard rather than his usual reed instruments and proved himself to be a highly capable pianist.
Arriving towards the end of Davies’ performance I didn’t rally get a satisfactory overview of his words, but I was very impressed by the musical responses to them and the level of interaction between the poet and the musicians.
In terms of the words I was on surer ground with Hool’s “Eleven Views of a Secret”, his homage to that tragic genius of the electric bass, the late, great Jaco Pastorius. Hool’s poem made clever references to the titles of some of Pastorius’ tunes, “Portrait of Tracy” being one of them. Again the musical responses were intelligent and empathic, with room being found for an impressive soprano sax solo from Martha Skilton.
Graham Hartill’s poem seemed to address a former prisoner named Paul. Hartill has worked with prisoners so this was a subject that was close to his heart. The musical responses featured Mac variously doubling on flute, tenor sax and keyboard. The end of the poem seemed to contain a twist. As I understood it the man that Hartill was addressing wasn’t actually named Paul, his real identity having been changed for his own protection.
All three poets seemed to be very pleased with the musical responses to their work and to the positive audience reaction to the combination of words and music.
Ric Hool, acting as MC, encouraged the band to round things off with an instrumental, a nice touch that was rewarded with an excellent quartet performance, with Mac moving between keyboard and tenor sax.
All in all this had proved to be a highly successful event and collaborations of this nature between poets and musicians looks to be something that Black Mountain Jazz will return to in the future.
LOZ BRIDGES and GLYN LEWIS DUO, MELVILLE THEATRE
Loz Bridges – piano, Glyn Lewis – tenor & soprano saxophones
Local musicians Loz Bridges and Glyn Lewis are well known to BMJ audiences, having regularly provided the interval entertainment in the bar at regular Club Nights.
Today they were afforded the luxury of playing in the Main House, with Bridges able to deploy the venue’s upright acoustic piano instead of his usual electric keyboard. Almost inevitably his playing sounded better as a result.
Normally Bridges and Lewis would only get to play for fifteen to twenty minutes but today they were able to play a full set, this featuring a well chosen selection of standards.
With pianist Bridges handling the announcements the duo began with “There Will Never Be Another You” with Lewis featuring on tenor, his cool, understated West Coast style contrasting effectively with Bridges’ more muscular approach at the piano.
Lewis remained on tenor for the Dizzy Gillespie blues “Birks’ Works” and for a subtle, Latin tinged arrangement of the standard “Autumn Leaves”.
Lewis moved to soprano for an upbeat arrangement of “What Is This Thing Called Love”, which featured a sparkling series of sax / piano exchanges.
A return to tenor for the classic Bobby Timmons composition “Moanin’”, made famous by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and distinguished here by excellent solo from both Lewis and Bridges.
A second Dizzy Gillespie composition, “A Night In Tunisia”, kept the music in roughly the same stylistic area but facilitated a move to soprano, the performance also incorporating an extended solo piano passage from Bridges.
The Errol Garner ballad “Misty” revealed the gentler side of Bridges’ playing and also featured the warm toned tenor sax of Lewis.
Bernie Miller’s self titled “Bernie’s Tune” increased the tempo once more, with Lewis remaining on tenor sax, an instrument that also featured on the duo’s interpretation of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”.
For Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is The Ocean” Bridges drew on the joint inspirations of Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, with Lewis again featuring on tenor.
The duo concluded with the Thelonious Monk blues “Blue Monk”, another piece to feature an extended passage of solo piano, in an appropriately ‘Monk-ish’ style, from Bridges.
This was a very enjoyable set with both Bridges and Lewis justifying their elevation to the ‘big stage’. It was also quite well supported in terms of audience numbers as the venue began to fill up on this ‘Community Afternoon’
BMJAZZKATZ, MELVILLE THEATRE,
There was an even bigger audience for the debut performance of the BMJazz Katz, BMJ’s recently formed youth ensemble, who were accompanied by their tutors, BMJ Collective members Jack Mac, Nick Kacal and Ryan Thrupp.
The last few months have seen regular Sunday afternoon sessions at the Melville with the three mentors tutoring the youngsters. A more recent development has seen the trio of Mac, Kacal and Thrupp then playing a gig in the evening as the BMJ Collective with an invited guest. These events have produced some excellent performances and recent BMJ Collective performances with guests Ross Hicks (piano) and Sarah Meek (vocals) are reviewed elsewhere on this site. The aim of these gigs is to recoup some of the tutoring costs and to allow the young musicians to see their teachers in an authentic live performance situation in front of a live audience.
For this first ever BMJazzKatz public performance the ensemble lined up;
Jack Mac – tenor sax, electric piano, vocals
Nick Kacal – double bass
Ryan Thrupp – drums
Rueban Carter – alto sax
Isaac Jewell – trombone
Harry Ling – French horn
Iona Wilkins – clarinet
Elsa Bennett – cornet
Daniel Keevil – acoustic piano
Paola Scarpetta – acoustic guitar, vocals
Ferdie Thewes – electric guitar
Millie Rees – drums, vocals
Ollie Lawton – drums
The core trio of Mac, Kacal and Thrupp warmed up the audience with a lively rendition of the Kenny Garrett tune “Happy People”, with solos from Mac on tenor sax and Kacal on double bass.
Some of the students were then introduced with Ollie Lawton taking over at the drum kit for “C Jam Blues”. As Mac explained to the audience most of the pieces that the BMJazzKatz had been working on were based on the blues scale, this being one such example. Introduced by Daniel Keevil at the piano the performance also included concise solos from some of the other young musicians, Isaac Jewell on trombone, Harry Ling on French horn, Iona Wilkins on clarinet, Ferdie Thewes on electric guitar plus Keevil on piano and Lawton at the drums.
I think I’m correct in saying that Ferdie Thewes was the youngest member of the ensemble and he impressed on electric guitar as he performed a version of the John Lee Hooker song “Boom Boom” alongside his tutors, with Mac doubling on tenor sax and vocals.
Pianist Keevil, another of the younger players, also stood out as he and Kacal performed “New Kid” as a piano / double bass duet.
The youngsters were given a breather as the core trio performed Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From The Apple”, with Mac and Kacal again the featured soloists.
In addition to learning the blues scale the youngsters had also ben working on 2-5-1 chord progressions and demonstrated their newly acquired skills on a version of the Sonny Rollins blues “Sonnymoon For Two”. Several soloists were to feature here, including Rueban Carter on alto, Bennett on cornet, Keevil at the piano, Thewes on electric guitar and Millie Rees at the drums.
Acoustic guitarist and vocalist Paola Scarpetta sang a delightful acoustic version of the Laufey song “From The Start”, augmented by Rees’ vocal harmonies and Mac’s tenor sax.
“Summertime” represented a showcase for alto saxophonist Rueban Carter, who played alongside Kacal on double bass and Mac on electric piano, with drumming duties shared by Thrupp and Lawton.
The performance concluded with “If I Only Had A Brain” from the Wizard of Oz. Carter on alto and Mac on tenor doubled up on the ‘head’, with Carter also taking the first solo. This final piece also featured solos from numerous other members of the ensemble, including Jewell (trombone), Ling (French horn), Bennett (cornet), Wilkins (clarinet), Keevil (piano) Hughes (electric guitar) and Lawton (drums).
With so may friends and family in the audience the young BMJazzKatz enjoyed a terrific reception, but one didn’t need to be personally connected to appreciate the quality of the playing. Mac, Kacal and Thrupp did a great job of guiding them along and generally encouraging them, and the efforts of the tutors were also warmly applauded. This gig was a big event for these young musicians and they rose to the occasion magnificently. Let’s hope that the BMJazzKatz project is here to stay.
SARAH BROWN / COLIN GOOD DUO, MELVILLE THEATRE
An excellent day of words and music was crowned by a sold out performance from the acclaimed gospel singer Sarah Brown and her pianist Colin Good.
Before embarking on a solo career Brown had acquired a considerable reputation as an in demand backing vocalist working with some of the biggest names in rock and pop. She has recorded with Pink Floyd, George Michael, Stevie Wonder, Incognito and Simply Red and toured with Roxy Music, Simple Minds, Annie Lennox and Duran Duran.
Brown’s solo debut, “Sarah Brown Sings Mahalia Jackson” was released in May 2022 and pays homage to Mahalia Jackson (1911-72), arguably the world’s greatest ever gospel singer and a seminal source of inspiration for Brown.
In between her commitments as a backing vocalist Brown has also been touring her own album and I had received very favourable reports about her appearance at the 2023 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Therefore I was very much looking forward to tonight’s show.
Brown sometimes performs the Jackson material in the company of a full band featuring Good on piano, Luke Smith on Hammond organ, Tom Wheatley on double bass and Jerome Brown at the drums. This line up is scheduled to play at Union Chapel, Islington, London on November 6th 2023.
Tonight’s show was a much more intimate affair, performed as a single set by the duo of Brown and Good, a musician that Brown first met when both were touring with Roxy Music. Good is a hugely versatile pianist with a thorough knowledge of jazz, blues and gospel styles. He had previously visited Wall2Wall in 2018 as a member of trumpeter Enrico Tomasso’s Quartet.
Before the music began Brown was interviewed by BMJ’s own Debs Hancock, which helped to set the scene for the musical performance to follow. We learned that Brown was born in the Buckinghamshire town of Aylesbury of Jamaican heritage to parents who had come to the UK on the Windrush. One of seven siblings she grew up in a family that listened to all styles of music, ranging from Jim Reeves through Mahalia Jackson to Bob Marley.
Brown’s father was something of a ‘loveable rogue’ and she clearly still harbours a degree of affection for him. However she endured a difficult childhood and her parents split up when Brown was fourteen. She sought solace by singing in her local Pentecostal church, where she also began to absorb the musical influence of Sister Rosetta Tharp.
Brown’s talent as a singer was soon noticed and she became one of the lead vocalists in the Inspirational Choir, the first gospel choir to be signed to a major record label as they linked up with CBS.
It was during her ten year tenure with the Inspirational Choir that Brown was spotted by Stevie Wonder, who signed her as a backing vocalist and became the first of several high profile employers, many of whom are listed above.
Brown also spoke of the huge influence that Mahalia Jackson has had on her and of how she first started singing Jackson’s songs as a means of escape from her difficult childhood. She also stressed the importance of Jackson’s influence on all styles of popular music, and particularly on Elvis Presley.
The duo began with the opening track from the “Sings Mahalia Jackson” album, the spiritual “Nobody Knows”. This introduced Brown’ s extraordinary voice, rich, powerful, emotive and compassionate. It’s a formidable instrument and it was immediately easy to see why her singing has been in such great demand from so many big name acts. Meanwhile Good represented the perfect foil, his playing understated but technically flawless.
The enormity of Jackson’s influence is reflected in the fact that all of tonight’s songs were familiar to me, as they probably were for the majority of the audience. “Just A Closer Walk” was one of Brown’s father’s favourite songs and benefited here from Brown’s soulful vocal performance and Good’s jazz tinged pianism.
“Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was a favourite of Martin Luther King and was played at his funeral. Brown and Good approached the song with an appropriate sense of reverence.
In addition to being a phenomenal vocalist Brown is also an engaging personality and encouraged the audience to sing along with “Joshua”, something that they did readily and joyously. Elsewhere Brown charmed the audience with her dancing as Good delivered a series of superb instrumental solos.
“I’m On My Way” featured a highly rhythmic, rhumba style arrangement, with Brown praising the percussive nature of Good’s playing. “Colin doesn’t need a drum”, she exclaimed.
Introduced by a passage of solo piano from Good the Gershwin song “Summertime” was merged with the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. Jackson recorded a similar segue during her own tenure with CBS.
Brown first recorded the hymn “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” in 2006 but lacked the confidence to release it at the time. She has since restored the piece to her repertoire in an arrangement that presents the song in both slow and fast tempos.
This was a superb performance from both Brown and Good and the reaction of the audience was ecstatic, the duo remaining on stage to encore with “Amazing Grace”, famously performed by Jackson at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. They could hardly have chosen anything else.
CD and vinyl sales were brisk after the show with Brown and Good happy to sign autographs and chat to fans. Thanks to both of them for speaking with me.
This was a show that may have been short in terms of length but which was high with regard to quality. A brilliant way to sign off Wall2Wall 2023.
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