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Third Stourbridge Festival of Improvised Music, Claptrap The Venue, Stourbridge, West Midlands,14/11/2021.

by Ian Mann

November 15, 2021

Ian Mann enjoys an afternoon of musical spontaneous creation featuring a collective of the Midlands' finest improvisers.

Photograph sourced from the Claptrap Facebook page.

Third Stourbridge Festival of Improvised Music, Claptrap The Venue, Stourbridge, West Midlands,14/11/2021.

It was the gods that put me here.

The fourteenth of November would normally find me in London covering the annual EFG London Jazz Festival. Understandably the relatives that normally accommodate us are reluctant to do so this year due to the Covid situation. After having exercised caution themselves for over eighteen months they are naturally wary of hosting visitors who will spend ten days dashing all over the city on the tube visiting crowded music venues. Obviously it’s disappointing for me, but I totally understand the reason behind it and fully respect their wishes.

Nevertheless a live music addict like me is bound to be looking elsewhere to get my jazz fix. I started returning to local gigs in July and have since covered a number of events in a variety of locations in Wales and the Midlands.

Initially this afternoon was due to find me in Redditch covering a performance by the American born, Barcelona based drummer and composer Robert Castelli. I first met Castelli when he performed with a London based quartet at the 2010 Brecon Jazz Festival. We have remained in e-mail contact ever since and I have subsequently reviewed a couple of his albums and publicised his regular visits to the UK. He was due to play with his trio and to host a drum clinic at the Rhett Theatre in Redditch but this was ultimately cancelled due to Covid related reasons. This was a shame as it would have been good to meet up with Robert again after all this time. He still has a number of performances and workshops scheduled in London during Festival week before returning to Barcelona. Details at

Undeterred I decided to make a visit to Stourbridge instead for another afternoon event in a Midlands town not too far from my Herefordshire base. I had heard about the Stourbridge Festival of Improvised Music the previous weekend when I had attended a double bill of the Bianco Brackenbury duo and the John Pope Quintet in Birmingham, an event promoted by the Fizzle organisation. Review here;

Until today Stourbridge and its environs is a place that I’ve always associated with the indie music of the late 80s and early 90s. Remarkably the town produced three of the leading indie acts of the day, Pop Will Eat Itself, The Wonder Stuff and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Just briefly the ‘Stourbridge Scene’ generated national attention, challenging ‘Madchester’ for the attention of the rock media. I still harbour an affection for all three Stourbridge bands, particularly the ‘Stuffies’ and the ‘Neds’, two terrific live acts that I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of seeing on numerous occasions. In fact prior to today I think the last time I visited Stourbridge was in 2006 for a hometown show by The Wonder Stuff at the Rock Café venue, I wonder if that’s still going. After parking up today one of the first landmarks I spotted was the famous Mitre pub, where the ‘Poppies’, the ‘Stuffies’ and the ‘Neds’  all played their first gigs.

Historically Neds and Stuffies gigs have seen me barging around in the mosh pit with a pint in my hand, although I admit I’m getting a bit old for that now. It’s certainly very different from soberly sitting and taking notes at jazz events such as today’s.

But from now on Stourbridge has taken on a second identity for me as the home of this annual festival of improvised music, featuring many of the leading jazz and improv musicians in the Midlands.

Promoter Richard Clay has organised all three editions of the Festival to date. It has its origins in a UK tour being undertaken by a band led by trombonist Sarah Gail Brand and featuring drummer Mark Sanders. Unable to secure a suitable Birmingham venue Clay put the event on at Claptrap, a fairly new Stourbridge venue that prides itself on being both “alternative” and “independent”, qualities particularly appropriate to the art of improvisation. The success of the Brand event, plus other events staged by Clay at the venue, eventually led to the first Stourbridge Festival of Improvised Music, featuring many of the musicians appearing again today.

Having seen the line up advertised on Facebook I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a single improvising large ensemble, along the lines of Keith Tippett’s Centipede, or whether it constituted a ‘pool’ of musicians that would be broken down into smaller groups. I suspected that it would almost certainly be the latter and this did indeed prove to be the case. Featuring leading improvisers from all over the Midlands, but with the emphasis inevitably on Birmingham, today’s fifteen strong pool was;

Paul Dunmall – tenor sax
Alicia Gardener-Trejo – baritone sax, flute, piccolo
Bruce Coates – soprano & tenor saxes
Lee Griffiths – alto sax
Rick Nance – trumpet
Steve Tromans – piano
Andrew Woodhead - synthesiser
Phil Gibbs – guitar
Sarah Farmer – violin
Trevor Lines – acoustic & electric bass
Amy Coates – double bass
Si Paton – electric bass
Ed Gauden, Tymek Jozwiak, Lee Allatson – drums

Pre-event publicity had hinted at doors at 2.00 pm with a 3.00 pm start. I arrived at around 2.30 pm to find that things were already under way and I missed virtually the whole of the first improvisation by a sextet featuring the talents of Paul Dunmall (tenor), Lee Griffiths (alto), Amy Coates (double bass), Phil Gibbs (guitar), Andrew Woodhead (synthesiser) and Ed Gauden (drums).

Claptrap, which functions as a multi purpose venue hosting rock, DJ nights, spoken word etc. proved to be a pleasingly friendly,  Bohemian space well suited to the staging of improvised music. An attentive and supportive audience comprised of musicians and music fans made for a relaxed atmosphere highly conducive to spontaneous creativity.

The first ensemble that I was able to enjoy in full was a saxophone quartet featuring Alicia Gardener-Trejo (baritone), Paul Dunmall (tenor), Lee Griffiths (alto) and Bruce Coates (curved soprano). I was entranced by the meshing, interlocking patterns as melodic and rhythmic lines intertwined, with the lead changing hands rapidly. Garrulous, squabbling passages contrasted neatly with quieter episodes featuring melancholic, long melody lines. Impressive playing from all concerned, both individually and collectively.

The next grouping featured Leicester based trumpeter Rick Nance together with Sarah Farmer on violin, Phil Gibbs on guitar, Trevor Lines on double bass, Tymek Jozwiak at the drum kit and Steve Tromans on the venue’s upright piano. Tromans made effective use of the instrument’s innards, plucking and scraping the strings as well as pounding the keyboard in the manner of a Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett or Myra Melford during the more vigorous sections. Guitarist Phil Gibbs was another musician to make use of extended techniques, placing the guitar on his lap and deploying the ‘hammering on’ technique to deliver a spidery, pointillist guitar sound that combined well with the eerie drones produced by Farmer on violin and Nance on muted trumpet.

The final improvisation of the first set featured the trio of Bruce Coates on curved soprano, Si Paton on electric bass and Lee Allatson at the drums. This was an intense performance that featured squalls of Coleman-esque sax melody above the violent stabbing and vigorous strumming of Paton’s bass and the polyrhythmic rumble of Allatson’s drums. After this everybody needed a breather and there was a short interval before the start of the second set.

Set two commenced with Bruce Coates solo, playing an extraordinary looking saxophone that Clay later informed me was a “straight tenor” - I’d certainly never seen one before. Curved soprano, straight tenor, Coates is clearly a musician who likes to avoid the obvious, a quality that also finds expression in his playing. Following a passage of unaccompanied sax improvising (did I really hear a quote from “I Could Have Danced All Night” in there?) Coates was joined by Farmer on violin,  Gibbs on guitar and Allatson at the drums, plus Amy Coates on double bass, no relation Clay later informed me. The collective improvisation that followed put the emphasis on atmosphere and eeriness with Amy Coates deploying both arco and pizzicato techniques and Farmer entering into the realms of extended technique in violin.

The next combination featured Dunmall on tenor, Nance on trumpet, Gardener-Trejo on flute and piccolo, Tromans at the piano, Paton on electric bass and Jozwiak at the drums.  This commenced with the soft, breathy sounds of the three wind instruments above the gentle rumble of piano, bass and drums. Dunmall is arguably the best known of the musicians in the fifteen strong pool, and as the music gathered momentum and intensity he was prominently featured here with a powerful tenor sax ‘solo’. He was swiftly followed by the resurgent Tromans at the piano.

The final permutation of the second set featured the quartet of Lee Griffiths on alto,  Andrew Woodhead on synthesiser, Trevor Lines on double bass and Ed Gauden at the drums. Griffiths’ melodic sax meditations floated above the drone of arco bass, with Lines occasionally using the body of the instrument as a form of auxiliary percussion. Woodhead’s synth provided additional colour and texture. Lines was to play a particularly prominent role, duetting first with Gauden and later picking up the bow again to combine with Woodhead’s spacey synth sounds. Griffiths subsequently came to the fore once more to solo more incisively above the sounds of bubbling synth and bustling bass and drums.

The beginning of the third set saw the largest ensemble yet, Griffiths remaining on stage as part of an octet featuring Gibbs on guitar, Bruce Coates on curved soprano, Amy Coates on double bass, Nance on trumpet, Tromans on piano and the twin drums of Jozwiak and Gauden. This was introduced by the atmospheric sounds of soprano sax, trumpet and bowed bass, before embracing an almost ‘big band’ sound featuring the carousing of the horns above the powerful, interlocking rhythms of the two drummers. Tromans’ piano feature was appropriately percussive, while Gibbs delivered a series of guitar lines that were alternately slippery and jagged. Gibbs has played at the Queens Head in Monmouth, one of my regular free jazz haunts, but somehow I have always contrived to miss him. Indeed he there last Wednesday (10/11/21) but on that evening I didn’t have access to a vehicle. I had heard about his extraordinary guitar technique, so today provided a welcome opportunity for me to finally witness his playing.

In the hometown of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin it was only appropriate that the final ensemble of the day should feature two electric basses, Paton on four string and Lines on six string. They combined with Dunmall on tenor, Farmer on violin, Woodhead on synthesiser and Allatson at the drums. An atmospheric intro featuring just synth, violin and tenor sax led to a more complex, rhythmic passage featuring the distinctive interplay of the two basses, this leading to a powerful tenor sax feature from Dunmall, who maintained the lead as he motioned to all the other musicians to join him on stage for the grand finale.  With Jozwiak and Gauden sharing one of the two drum kits this proved to be a joyous,  humungous collective mash up, that seemed to be based around a variation of the Kinks’ famous “You Really Got Me” riff.

This represented a terrific way to round off a stimulating afternoon of music making conducted in a convivial atmosphere and with the spirit of mutual co-operation very much in evidence throughout. The sheer variety of the instrumental permutations ensured that the listener’s attention remained engaged throughout and no single improvisation was allowed to outstay its welcome. No tune titles of course, in improvised music these only get attached after the performance, and that’s only if the gig has been recorded for album release. I suspect that didn’t happen today, although it would be nice if it had been. All of the musicians performed well and this very much a collective enterprise, which is exactly as this music should be.

My thanks to Richard Clay for speaking with me at length and for providing much valuable information, and also to musicians Andrew Woodhead, Steve Tromans and Ed Gauden, with whom I also talked.

Richard informs me that he plans to present other Sunday afternoon jazz events at Claptrap.  Having now discovered the venue I hope to return for these as Stourbridge now begins to become synonymous in my mind with a very different brand of music to the indie of my (comparative) youth.

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