by Ian Mann
September 04, 2018
"Enjoyable, entertaining and educational". Ian Mann on an evening of music that brought the sounds of New Orleans to Abergavenny via Yorkshire, with performances by Dale Storr and Enrico Tomasso.
Photograph of the Enrico Tomasso Quartet by Pam Mann
THURSDAY & FRIDAY at WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL, ABERGAVENNY,
30th and 31st AUGUST 2018
Now settled into a well established format the sixth annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, co-ordinated by the Black Mountain Jazz Club, presented a very full weekend of jazz and more at various venues around the town.
The Festival commenced on Thursday evening with the Festival Dinner, held for the third successive year in the ballroom of the splendidly refurbished Angel Hotel, before moving on for a series of concerts and fringe events at the Melville Centre, BMJ’s regular HQ, on the Friday night and all day Saturday.
Sunday saw the fourth edition of the popular ‘Jazz Alley’, a free family friendly event held within the confines of Abergavenny’s impressive Market Hall. With food stalls, a licensed bar and a series of free live performances embracing a wide variety of music this well attended daytime event has been successful in raising the profile of Black Mountain Jazz within the town.
Sunday night saw the third ticketed ‘party’ event in the Market Hall, closing the Festival on a celebratory note. 2016 and 2017 featured the music of the Red Stripe Band but this year offered the party goers a new experience in the shape of the young Birmingham based ‘retro-swing’ act The Electric Swing Circus. 2018 also saw the Jazz Alley and Charity Swing Party events supporting the Music Therapy programme at the Ty Hafan Children’s Hospice, a charity covering the whole of Wales and based at Sully in the Vale of Glamorgan.
FESTIVAL DINNER feat. BECKI BIGGINS with the GUY SHOTTON TRIO, THE ANGEL HOTEL, 30/08/2018
The Festival Dinner has become something of a civic occasion in Abergavenny with over 100 diners enjoying a two course meal followed by musical entertainment provided by vocalist Becki Biggins accompanied by pianist Guy Shotton and his trio. The town Mayor was in attendance together with other local dignitaries, including local businessman Alun Griffiths, the Festival’s main sponsor.
As I attended this event as a paying customer I don’t intend to give my usual song by song account but I enjoyed both the meal – the Angel has an excellent reputation for the quality of its food – and the music with Becki Biggins earning a great reception from the audience at the Angel.
Originally from Shrewsbury Biggins began singing with a local youth big band before studying tenor saxophone at Leeds College of Music. She later returned to singing, collaborating on a series of ‘smooth jazz’ recordings with musician, DJ and producer Paul Hardcastle.
Biggins has also released a more orthodox jazz album “The + VE” which features pianist and arranger Laurie Holloway and his trio with Dave Olney on bass and Harold Fisher at the drums. She has also worked regularly with pianist and musical educator Malcolm Edmonstone.
Now the mother of two young children Biggins has been ‘off the scene’ for a while but is now making a return to the musical front line. She is currently based in Chepstow and this Wall2Wall performance represented something of a local gig for her. Biggins is also currently working with a Bristol based quartet featuring organist John Paul Gard, saxophonist Ben Waghorn and drummer Andy Tween. She also sings with the Jonathan Wyatt Big Band.
Biggins was accompanied by Cardiff based pianist Guy Shotton, a regular and popular visitor to BMJ. Shotton was last in Abergavenny for a club date in May 2018 co-leading, with vocalist Sarah Meek, the Sheek Quartet. This line-up also included Shotton’s regular trio colleagues Nick Kacal (double bass) and Alex Goodyear (drums).
Tonight’s performance, spread over two sets before and after the main food course, comprised entirely of standard material, some of it sourced from the “+VE” album and with an emphasis on songs associated with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Biggins proved to be an accomplished and adventurous soloist who presented the show with charm and a bubbly good humour. As you’ve just read she’s also a talented saxophonist and periodically picked up her tenor to deliver the occasional solo. Personally I’d have liked to have heard a little more of this side of her talent. Nevertheless the audience loved her.
Instrumentally, the Shotton trio were also highly impressive. They have kicked on even since the Sheek Quartet gig and have cohered into a highly interactive and adventurous musical unit. Kacal, formerly a professional musician on the London jazz circuit has recently moved to the South Wales Valleys and represents a highly significant addition to the South Wales jazz scene. Goodyear is still a student at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff and is a versatile musician who plays across a variety of genres, including pop and classical. He’s an innately musical drummer and his skilfully constructed solo features were particularly well received by the Abergavenny audience. Shotton himself is a highly accomplished piano soloist but also seems to have a particular affinity for accompanying vocalists, as he has demonstrated through his work with Biggins, Meek and BMJ stalwart Debs Hancock. “It’s a useful skill for a pianist to have” he says, modestly.
My thanks to Guy Shotton and Becki Biggins for speaking with me, we were on the same table at the dinner, and to Becki for the gift of her “The D ICY. EP”, a home recording on which she sings and plays everything herself. The instrumentation includes saxes and other woodwinds, keyboards and various household implements. It represents an enjoyably quirky listen and features four Biggins originals, including co-writes with Malcolm Edmonstone and Joe Stilgoe, plus covers of Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”.
So thanks to Becki, Guy, Nick and Alex for getting the Festival off to a great start. And if you were wondering (as I was), yes, Becki is the daughter of former Shrewsbury Town striker Steve Biggins who played for the club between 1977 and 1982 before moving on to Oxford United.
DALE STORR, THE MELVILLE CENTRE THEATRE, 31/08/2018
Probably by accident rather than design the Friday night programme at the Melville Centre had something of ‘trad jazz’ theme with the two main acts being New Orleans style solo pianist / vocalist Dale Storr followed by a quartet led by the Louis Armstrong inspired trumpeter and vocalist Enrico Tomasso. These two performance were punctuated by a set in the bar area from Cardiff based jazz harp player Ben Creighton Griffiths.
Based in Sheffield Dale Storr acquired his love of New Orleans piano styles from his parents’ record collection which was jam packed with early r’n’b and rock ‘n’roll. Little Richard, Fats Domino and Elvis Presley were early favourites but the young Storr, who started on the piano at the age of six, was also drawn to more obscure figures such as Professor Longhair, Lloyd Price, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry and Huey ‘Smith & The Clowns, all these from the great musical city that is New Orleans.
While other kids his age were listening to the pop music of the 1980s Storr embarked upon a musical voyage of discovery to the Crescent City that introduced him to the playing of Dr. John, Tuts Washington, Henry Butler, Allen Toussaint and more. But his biggest inspiration remains the tragic figure of James Carroll Booker (1939 -83), regarded by many as a musical genius, but one who lived a short and turbulent life.
Dr. John dubbed Booker “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced”. The flamboyant Booker was known by several different nicknames including the “Bronze Liberace”, the “Bayou Maharajah” and the “Piano Prince”. He enjoyed considerable acclaim in Europe but remained under appreciated in his homeland, serving a jail term for drug possession and dying of renal failure at the early age of forty three.
Storr’s performance was both enjoyable and educational as he gave us a musical tour of New Orleans and its various musical styles, beginning with the traditional “Dance A La Negres” with its syncopated left hand bass lines and infectious left hand melodies.
Storr reminded us that New Orleans music contained elements of jazz, blues, r’n'b, Latin and even classical. It was a salutary reminder that virtually every branch of what we now refer to as ‘popular music’ has its roots in New Orleans. As if to emphasise the point we now enjoyed his playing and singing on “Poor Boy Blues” with its mix of blues and boogie woogie and the combination of muscular left hand bass lines and mercurial right hand runs that helped to shape early rock’n’roll.
Storr praised the versatility of the New Orleans pianists but was also quick to extol his fellow British practitioners of the style included London based Dom Pipkin and the Midlands based Steve ‘Big Man’ Clayton. H e also made reference to the British born Jon Cleary who made a name for himself in ‘The Big Easy’ itself. We also heard about Champion Jack Dupree (1910-92) who made the journey the opposite way, moving from New Orleans to Europe and eventually settling in Halifax, Yorkshire.
Jessie Hill (1932-96) was a New Orleans singer, songwriter and drummer/percussionist. A pioneer of r’n’b he drummed for both Professor Longhair and Dr. John. Known for his nonsense lyrics he’s best known for the 1960 hit “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”. Storr chose to cover Hill’s “Sweet Jelly Roll” with its decidedly salacious lyrics.
An instrumental version of the well known “Sunny Side Of The Street” was delivered as a piano instrumental in the New Orleans manner with the focus very much on the style of Booker, whose playing Storr discovered on an old cassette tape of the album “Junco Partner” sometime in the early 1990s.
At the age of fifteen Booker had recorded the Dave Bartholomew song “Hambone”, a tale of a down on his luck New Orleans character who drank whisky and gin, sold water melon for fifty cents and jumped off a bridge into the Mississippi to end his misery. Storr sang this tragic story accompanying himself in a piano style embracing blues and boogie elements.
The final item in a series of Booker themed pieces was a “Booker Melody” played in the style of the great man and incorporating such popular songs as “Besame Mucho” and “A Taste Of Honey”.
Another touchstone for Storr has been Dr. John, particularly when the good Doctor has been focussing on his role as a pianist - “Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack”, a set of solo piano pieces is a particular Storr favourite. Tonight he chose to sing one of the Doctor’s best known compositions, “Such A Night”, a song immortalised in The Band’s film “The Last Waltz”. As Storr played the Melville’s venerable upright piano it seemed a touch incongruous to see him reading the lyrics from his mobile phone, a fact that he acknowledged with his typical good humour.
The instrumental “Keep On Gwine” returned us to the Booker repertoire as Storr told us of Booker’s success in Europe between 1976-8 when the pianist was at the peak of his creative powers, winning the Grand Prix du Disque for a live album recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival. For his own part Store has been featured on Paul Jones’ blues programme on Radio 2, raising his own profile in the process.
Storr has never had much time for Dr. John’s psychedelic blues “Night Tripper” persona, preferring to concentrate on his role as a solo pianist. John’s “Dorothy”, a tribute to his late mother, proved to be particularly beautiful and poignant. It was, of course, sourced from the 1980s “Plays Mac Rebennack” album.
Storr closed a hugely enjoyable set with a rollicking piano and vocal rendition of Fats Domino’s “Ready Willing and Able” that left the crowd shouting for more. With a second act scheduled to appear timings didn’t permit this, but at the suggestion of the ever resourceful Debs Hancock Storr agreed to ‘process us out’ as the audience filed out to the theatre bar. A nice, spontaneous touch.
I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this lively and informative show. Storr’s love for his subject shone through, as did his pianistic mastery of the various styles that he played. His vocals were less strong, as he’d probably admit, but were actually pretty decent and perfectly adequate for his chosen material.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Storr afterwards and hearing about his travels to New Orleans and the American South. I purchased a copy of his 2009 EP “Qualified” but on learning of my journalistic status he also presented me with copies of his full length albums “New Orleans Piano Live” and “Jammin’ With The Wind”, the latter a James Booker tribute. Thanks Dale. I’m pleased to report that all three recordings stand up very well in the home listening environment.
BEN CREIGHTON GRIFFITHS, MELVILLE CENTRE BAR, 31/08/2018
This Festival really does deliver on its promise of ‘wall to wall’ jazz. As soon as Storr’s performance had finished in the Main House harpist Ben Creighton Griffiths started his interval set in the bar.
Creighton Griffiths is a young Cardiff based musician and one of a very few to play jazz on the Welsh harp. He’s been a previous visitor to BMJ and Wall2Wall and in November 2016 played a club date in the Melville Centre Theatre as part of a double bill with bassist and composer Aidan Thorne’s band Duski. My account of that evening can be read here;
Creighton Griffiths has won many friends on his previous visits and despite his set notionally being ‘background music’ the majority of the audience gave him their full attention. It really was very quiet in the bar as Creighton Griffiths delivered a well received set of standards based material.
Creighton Griffiths plays a Camac 47 Big Blue Electro-Acoustic Pedal Harp, and yes, the frame of the instrument really is bright blue. He also deploys a Nord 2 electric keyboard capable of producing piano and synth sounds and at some points could be seen to be producing bass lines on the keyboard with his left hand while soloing on the harp with his right, an impressive feat of musicianship. He also makes judicious use of a variety of effects pedals that enable him to loop and treat his sounds.
Today’s material included renditions of the jazz standards “Autumn Leaves” and “Caravan” plus a nod to Creighton Griffiths’ classical roots with an interpretation of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”.
Creighton Griffiths informed us that he loved the music of pianist and composer Bill Evans but that Evans’ compositions were extremely difficult to play on the chromatic harp. However he rose to the challenge with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Evans’ “Waltz For Debby”, which held the audience in the bar spellbound.
We also heard Luis Bonfa’s “Black Orpheus”, which saw Creighton Griffiths first establishing a synth bass line on the Nord and looping it before improvising above it on the harp.
“Time On My Hands” was another exquisite ballad performance which saw Creighton Griffiths coaxing guitar like timbres from the harp. He closed with an impressive take on Miles Davis’ classic “So What”.
Creighton Griffiths is a major talent who is deservedly coming to wider attention. Earlier in 2018 he performed as part of an all star octet at Llandudno Jazz Festival alongside such jazz luminaries as saxophonist Art Themen, trumpeter Neil Yates and drummer Clark Tracey.
He is also part of the Cardiff based trio Chube alongside bassist Aeddan Williams and drummer Matt Williams. Creighton Griffiths describes their music as ‘electro-fusion’ and it features Ben on electrified harp and synths. It all sounds very intriguing. Hopefully we will get the chance to check the trio out at BMJ or Wall2Wall at some point in the future – hint, hint.
In any event Creighton Griffiths is a prodigious talent that we will surely hear a lot more of.
ENRICO TOMASSO QUARTET, “SWING ‘TIL YOU BOP”, MELVILLE CENTRE THEATRE, 31/08/2018
Born in Leeds in 1961 of Italian ancestry trumpeter Enrico Tomasso is a living link to the ‘Golden Age Of Jazz’.
Jazz runs through Tomasso’s veins, his father was the clarinettist Ernie Tomasso, and as a seven year old child in the 1960s the young Enrico met Louis Armstrong himself when ‘Satch’ came to Yorkshire to play a residency at the famous Batley Variety Club.
Armstrong was highly encouraging of the budding young trumpeter and Enrico has been in thrall to Armstrong and his music ever since. Besides leading his own groups he’s played with the Pasadena Roof Orchestra and with Acker Bilk. But this is the modern world and Tomasso also has a lucrative gig as the trumpeter in Bryan Ferry’s “Jazz Age” band and has appeared with the Roxy Music front man at many major festivals.
In 2014 I enjoyed a performance by Tomasso and his sextet at the fifth and final Titley Jazz Festival when the trumpeter presented his “Salute To Satch” show, a tribute to his idol that embraced several periods of Armstrong’s career, but with the accent very much on the 1920s and 30s.
For tonight’s Festival performance Tomasso presented his latest project, “Swing ‘Til You Bop”, an intriguing look at jazz straddling what the trumpeter described as “the crossover period” between the swing and bebop eras. Comparatively modern stuff compared to the Armstrong material he’d performed at Titley.
He was accompanied by an experienced quartet featuring pianist Colin Good, bassist John Day and drummer Rod Brown. The instrumental voices of the band were introduced to the audience as each enjoyed an individual feature on the opening “All God’s Children Got Rhythm”, a tune that features in the Marx Brothers film “A Day At The Races”.
Tomasso deployed a cup mute on his horn for “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, which also featured further solos from Good at the piano and Day on double bass.
Like Storr’s show Tomasso’s performance managed to be both entertaining and educational. Thus we learnt that Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” was one of the first jazz waltzes to be written and that Waller could be considered to be the pioneer of the genre. Solos here came from Tomasso on trumpet and Good on piano with Brown enjoying a final flourish at the drum kit.
The “crossover period” of which Tomasso spoke also featured early examples of the ‘contrafact’ i.e. the writing of a new melody over an existing chord sequence to create a new composition, a method that was widely deployed by bebop artists such as Charlie Parker. Parker and his colleagues built on the earlier experiments of Roy Eldridge, Art Tatum and Coleman Hawkins and it was the latter’s Bean Soup” that Tomasso and his colleagues chose to play, a cleverly titled piece structured around the chord sequence of “Tea For Two”. Good introduced the original “Tea For Two” melody into his unaccompanied piano introduction and also into his later solo. Tomasso and Day also featured as soloists with Brown also enjoying a series of crisply brushed drum breaks.
Tommaso still found time to pay homage to his hero Louis Armstrong and added his Satchmo style vocals to the risqué lyrics of Irving Berlin’s “Without My Walking Stick”, a song also recorded by the Mills Brothers. As an Armstrong styled vocalist Tomasso proved to be highly convincing and he was also featured deploying a plunger mute on his trumpet to create a vocalised wah wah sound.
Like Tomasso, pianist Good has also worked extensively with Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music but it was his wide knowledge of jazz piano styles that this supremely versatile musician brought to the fore tonight. Tomasso and the rhythm section filed off stage as Good delivered a solo piano rendition of Earl Hines’ “Blues In Thirds”, a piece originally written in 1928 as “Caution Blues” and a piece that the composer revisited many times during his career. “It’s actually in fourths” explained Good as he gave a solo piano performance that was just as convincing as Storr’s had been, a great demonstration of stride piano with its syncopated left hand bass lines and twinkling right hand runs.
One of the inspirations for the “Swing ‘Til You Bop” project was the late 30s / early 40s music of bassist and band-leader John Kirby’s sextet, a group featuring trumpeter Charlie Shavers. The Kirby band’s output was more tightly arranged than much early jazz and owed something to the influence of classical music. Tomasso chose to cover the sextet’s version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”, one of the pieces in the repertoire suitable for performance without reeds. Solos here came from Tomasso on cup muted trumpet, Good at the piano and Day on double bass.
“Dawn On The Desert” introduced a Middle Eastern feel to the proceedings with Tomasso’s cup muted horn projecting a lightly vocalised sound as he shared the solos with Good and Day.
Also from the Kirby repertoire Shavers’ composition “Undecided” was unmistakably boppish with its tricky head providing the jumping off point for thrilling solos from Good, Tomasso and Brown plus a series of drum breaks from Brown. Tomasso’s playing remained resolutely Armstrong-esque, but there was still that sense of a divide being crossed.
Next up was a demonstration from Tomasso of how Ellington trumpeters Cootie Williams and Bubber Miley got that distinctive, growling “Jungle Sound”, a combination of the straight mute, widely used in classical music, and the plunger mute deployed by early jazz trumpeters. The sound was demonstrated on a version of “Lord Ain’t The Gravy Good” which also featured Tomasso’s Armstrong style delivery of the double entendres of the lyrics.
The evening concluded with an arrangement in the Kirby style of the early 20th century tune “That’s A Plenty” that saw Tomasso playing both with and without the mute, and which concluded in a stunning bare hands solo from drummer Rod Brown.
This was another excellent performance that was well received by the Wall2Wall crowd. I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this evening of predominately ‘old school’ music, which was a tribute to the performers, who helped to keep it sounding fresh and interesting as well as delivering some great playing.
Enjoyable, entertaining and educational, this was an evening of music that embodied the Reithian ideals as the sounds of New Orleans and beyond came to Abergavenny via Yorkshire.
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