by Ian Mann
August 24, 2021
Ian Mann enjoys the music of two projects assembled specifically for the Festival, Paula Gardiner's 6.0 and Swing Strings Trio.
“Wherever You Are”, Brecon Jazz Festival 2021, The Castle Hotel, Brecon, 22/08/2021.
Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon, organisers of both Brecon Jazz Club and Brecon Jazz Festival, have an enviable record of bringing musicians together in unique collaborations, instinctively sensing which combinations will work, to the obvious delight of both musicians and audiences alike.
Today’s two live performances in the ballroom at the Castle Hotel represented the perfect embodiment of this. The afternoon set saw the début of a new sextet, simply named 6.0, led by the multi-instrumentalist and composer Paula Gardiner, while the evening show featured the newly convened Swing Strings Trio, assembled by violinist Xenia Porteous and featuring harpist Ben Creighton-Griffiths and bassist Ashley John Long.
PAULA GARDINER’S 6.0
Paula Gardiner – guitar, Dionne Bennett – vocals, Simran Singh – violin, Rebecca Nash – keyboard, Ursula Harrison – double bass, Lizzie Exell – drums
Paula Gardiner’s name is synonymous with Brecon Jazz and she has appeared at every Festival since 1986. She is best known as a jazz double bassist and during the 1980s and 90s was practically Brecon Jazz Festival’s ‘house bassist’.
I first recall seeing her play at the 1995 Festival when she played a memorable set on the Fringe Programme leading a quartet featuring former Loose Tube John Parricelli on guitar, plus Mark Edwards on keyboards and Ron Parry at the drums. This was the line up that made the excellent album “Tales of Inclination”, released on the Sain record label in 1995 and an album that remains something of a personal favourite.
Today’s project carried echoes of Gardiner’s next album release, simply titled “6”, which was released in 1999 and featured a new sextet line up with Gardiner joined by Lee Goodall (reeds), Gethin Liddington (trumpet), Andy Maule (guitar), Richard Roberts (keyboards) and Mark O’ Connor (drums). I remember seeing this group perform at the Festival too, which must have been in 1999 or maybe 2000.
Gardiner’s next outing as a leader didn’t come until 2008 with the release of “Hot Lament” on Dave Stapleton’s then fledgling Edition label. This featured a pared down trio line up with Gardiner joined by Goodall and O’Connor and was another excellent recording, one that brought her talents as a musician and composer to a national jazz audience. Review here;
In recent years Gardiner has become better known as an educator in her role as Head of Jazz Studies at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff. She has regularly brought student ensembles to both the Brecon Jazz and Hay festivals and many of her former charges have gone on to enjoy successful careers as professional jazz musicians, among them Dave Stapleton, pianist, keyboard player, composer, bandleader and head of the Edition record label. Gardiner was a regular member of Stapleton’s quintet (DSQ) during the early 2000s and has also worked with the Welsh Jazz Composers Orchestra and with pianists Huw Warren, Paul Jones and Jen Wilson, trumpeter Steve Waterman and guitarist Maciek Pysz, among many others.
Gardiner has also been Honorary President of the Swansea based Women in Jazz Association and is a member of the Ivors Academy Jazz Committee. She has also been involved with the staging of the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition and has been the bass accompanist in the televised finals.
Today’s performance was given a bilingual introduction by pianist Rachel Starritt, who mentioned Gardiner’s work with Women in Jazz and pointed out that the line up of Gardiner’s new group was entirely female.
I’ll level with you here – until this fact was brought to my attention it hadn’t even registered with me. My first thought when I saw the personnel of 6.0 listed in the Festival programme was “Wow!, that looks like an interesting line up”, a conclusion based upon the musical history of the performers, rather than their gender.
Apart from Gardiner herself here was Dionne Bennett, former singer with Stapleton’s jazz/trip-hop ensemble Slowly Rolling Camera, drummer Lizzie Exell of the group Nerija and keyboard player Rebecca Nash, a bandleader in her own right and a member of saxophonist Dee Byrne’s quintet Entropi. Indeed Byrne and Nash had co-led an excellent quartet at a Festival event in this very room a mere week previously. Violinist Simran (Simmy) Singh is a member of the Amika String Quartet and has regularly played in a jazz context. Amika recently appeared on “Joy in Bewilderment”, the latest album from Manchester based bassist, composer and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Cavanagh- Brierley. The only name that was new to me was that of the group’s young bassist Ursula Harrison, Gardiner’s daughter apparently.
My point here is that in the fifteen years I’ve been writing about jazz the incidence of female instrumentalists has increased markedly, it’s simply not a novelty any more. Absolute parity may not have been achieved as yet but things are very much moving in the right direction and I do wonder whether it’s time to stop commenting about ‘all female ensembles’ and to just concentrate on the players as musicians first and foremost.
For me the biggest novelty about this line up was seeing Gardiner performing exclusively on guitar, after years of regarding her as a bass specialist. Admittedly both “Tales of Inclination” and “6” feature her doubling on acoustic guitar and flute, but these are relatively brief cameos. Today’s show revealed her to be a genuine multi-instrumentalist.
6.0 had been assembled specifically for the Festival and the programme saw Gardiner revisiting her back catalogue with some fresh arrangements of old compositions. There were also some newer songs written with Bennett in mind and a surprise cover for an encore. More on that later.
Appropriately the performance commenced with an updating of “Six”, the title track from Gardiner’s 1999 album, introduced by Gardiner on her semi-acoustic guitar (it’s double bass on the recorded version), subsequentlyjoined by violin, bowed bass and shimmering keyboards on an atmospheric opening that also featured Exell’s percussion shadings, these generated via a variety of brushes, sticks and mallets. Eventually a groove emerged, centred around Gardiner’s guitar motif, which formed the basis for solos from Gardiner on guitar, Nash on Nord keyboard, adopting a classic electric piano sound, and Singh on violin.
From 2006 the song “Mother Venus” introduced the soulful vocals of Bennett in an intimate duo performance featuring the sounds of just voice and the leader’s guitar.
The new song “Hold Your Breath” again featured Bennett’s vocals, with the lyrics addressing a topical environmental theme, the threat to the planet expressed not only via the words but also through Gardiner’s ominous guitar effects, Harrison’s deep, brooding bass lines and Exell’s fidgety brushed drum grooves. Bennett’s powerful vocals were also complemented by Nash’s keyboard solo.
Gardiner was involved in a collaboration between Welsh and South African musicians for the Cultural Olympiad of 2012. From this project came “I Will Sing You A Song”, the tale of a romantic relationship between persons from each country. Commencing with just voice and guitar the performance also included Singh’s melancholic violin melodies and the subtle textural and rhythmic shadings of keyboard, bass and drums.
One of the few pieces not written by Gardiner was a new tune composed by Ursula Harrison. “They All Have Serious Faces” featured the composer’s melodic bass soloing in addition to further solos from Singh on violin and Nash on keyboards. Following these lengthy instrumental episodes Bennett’s singing of the slightly tongue in cheek lyrics was featured towards the close.
The newness of the project was emphasised as Gardiner uttered the words “Good luck everybody!” as this unusually configured sextet launched into the challenges of “Retrograde Submersion”, a particularly complex composition from the 1999 “6” album. This new ‘vocalese’ version featured Bennett’s wordless ‘scat’ singing alongside solos from Gardiner on guitar and Nash on keys.
In 2012 Gardiner had presented an ‘RWCMD Showcase’ at that year’s BJF. Among the repertoire had been her settings of the Emily Dickinson poems “Dying, parts 1 & 2”. These were revived here with the band members humming and snapping their fingers in support of Bennett’s soulful, gospel style lead vocals. Subsequent instrumental solos came from Gardiner on guitar and Nash on keys before the piece ended as it began with Bennett singing Dickinson’s words above a backdrop of humming and finger snaps.
This was an effective and emotive way to conclude a performance that elicited a highly positive response from a pleasingly large audience at the Castle Hotel, and presumably from those watching on line too.
The deserved encore was an arrangement of the song “Colors” by the contemporary American band Black Pumas, which represented a chance for Bennett to really demonstrate the power of her soul influenced vocals, with Singh taking the instrumental honours on violin.
Gardiner’s projects are always intriguing and it will be interesting to see if today’s performance develops into something more than just a one off. There was much to enjoy here with each individual performing admirably, although it sometimes felt as if there was almost too much going on, with several of the instruments in this unusual line up, i.e. guitar, violin and keyboards, occupying a similar range. That said it sometimes felt that Bennett was being under deployed, with several of the pieces being essentially instrumental. A little bit of a ‘curate’s egg’ then, but still essentially enjoyable as an event and with considerable potential as a longer term project.
It will also be interesting to see how the career of Ursula Harrison develops, a young musician with considerable potential who is a composer in addition to being a performer. One to watch out for in the future.
SWING STRINGS TRIO (Pictured)
Xenia Porteous – violin, Ben Creighton-Griffiths - harp, Ashley John Long – double bass
The evening concert in the Castle Hotel ballroom featured another act with an unusual, possibly unique, instrumental line up. This ‘all string’ trio was formed by violinist Xenia Porteous at BJF’s request and also featured harpist Ben Creighton-Griffiths and double bass virtuoso Ashley John Long.
All three musicians are great friends of Brecon Jazz. Porteous was a major figure at the 2018 Festival, performing with the gypsy jazz ensemble Hot Club Gallois and also forming part of an ad hoc alliance with guitarists Trefor Owen and Andy Hulme as the hastily assembled trio entertained the audience as they awaited the arrival of a delayed Ian Shaw. She also appeared as a guest with the Czech saxophonist Pawel Zamel and with jazz french horn player Rod Paton.
2020 saw Hot Club Gallois appear as part of the ‘Virtual Festival’, their performance filmed at Ratio Studios in Merthyr Tydfil.
This year sees the launch of the Swing Strings Trio and Porteous has also been filmed and recorded as part of an online hook-up with the Tango Jazz Quartet from Argentina in an exploration of the music of the great Astor Piazzolla. This production will be premièred on August 31st at a screening at Brecon’s Muse Arts Centre.
The young jazz harpist Ben Creighton-Griffiths has made previous visits to Brecon and also to Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny, where his ‘electro-fusion’ trio Chube were involved in an exciting collaboration with trombonist Dennis Rollins as part of the 2019 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival.
Creighton-Griffiths is a versatile musician, classically trained but capable of playing across a variety of musical genres, including numerous jazz styles. In addition to working with the Chube trio he also gives solo harp performances.
Ashley John Long has been a frequent visitor to Brecon over the years at both Festivals and regular club nights and is another supremely versatile musician, capable of playing right across the jazz spectrum from trad to the avant garde. He’s played in the town literally dozens of times, too many to mention here, but always plays with immaculate timing and a truly virtuoso technique. Occasionally he has been featured performing on his ‘second’ instrument, the vibraphone, on which he is also highly accomplished.
As the group name suggests the Swing Strings Trio plays music from the swing era, in a style sometimes reminiscent of gypsy jazz, but sounding substantially different thanks to the unusual instrumental line up.
The new trio were quickly out of the blocks with a delightful version of that most familiar of jazz standards “All Of Me”, investing it with a real joie de vivre and with the rhythmic interplay and counterpoint between the harp and double bass particularly interesting. Creighton-Griffiths and Long have played together before, but this was the first time that Porteous had worked with either of them, making this trio a genuine first time collaboration. Solos here came from Creighton-Griffiths on harp, who revealed himself to be a true virtuoso on the instrument, and Porteous on violin, her bow dancing lightly and nimbly over the strings.
Porteous and Creighton-Griffiths took it in turns to handle the announcements and next up was Manha de Carnaval” aka “Black Orpheus” a bossa nova composed by the Brazilian musician Luiz Bonfa. The harpist stated the theme, with violin embellishments supplied by Porteous. The latter then took over to deliver the first solo, followed by Creighton-Griffiths and Long, the latter enjoying his first opportunity to stretch out.
Dating back to 1924 the jazz standard “It Had To Be You” saw Porteous stating the theme on violin before handing over to Creighton-Griffiths for the first solo. The violinist then took over again, her explorations punctuated by a double bass solo from Long.
The trio displayed a relaxed virtuosity throughout, nowhere better expressed than on the bolero “Besame Mucho”, which saw Long and Creighton-Griffiths sharing the rhythmic duties as they backed each other solos, before combining to underpin Porteous’ flights of fancy on the violin.
Violin and harp introduced a beautiful version of Errol Garner’s “Misty”, with Porteous stating the theme and adding jazzy variations, before handing over to Creighton-Griffiths for the first solo as Long finally made his entrance. Porteous then took over the soloing on violin and we fleetingly enjoyed the spectacle of two bows being flourished with Long’s brief passage of arco bass at the close.
Porteous introduced the Bart Howard song “Fly Me To The Moon” as a “swing classic”. It is, of course, routinely associated with Frank Sinatra but this lively instrumental version was a real joy as the trio increased the tempo Porteous stating the familiar theme on violin before Creighton-Griffiths soloed on harp over Long’s rapid bass walk. Porteous then took over on violin before Long rounded things off with a typically brilliant bass solo.
“Nature Boy” is another song closely associated with a particular singer, in this case Nat King Cole. Written by Eden Ahbez the song represented an unexpected choice here but the trio delivered a particularly beautiful performance, introduced by harp and violin with Porteous at her most melodic as she eventually shared the solos with Creighton-Griffiths and Long.
Equally delightful was a version of “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square”, again ushered in by harp and violin, with features for Creighton-Griffiths and Porteous followed by one of Long’s most compelling bass solos, combining a strong melodic sense with extreme virtuosity.
The trio rounded things off in rousing fashion with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” with virtuoso soloing from all three participants.
The audience was smaller than it had been in the afternoon, but was still pleasingly substantial, and its members gave the trio a terrific response. The applause was definitely louder and more sustained than it had earlier and the question of an encore was never in doubt. The newly named Swing Strings Trio signed off with a version of “Shine”, played in a genuine ‘Hot Club’ style and with dazzling solos from all three musicians.
Swing Strings Trio went down a storm with the crowd and one suspects that this combination of musicians could become a highly popular attraction on the South Wales jazz circuit and beyond if they decide together. Xenia announced herself delighted with the way that things had gone and the three musicians appeared to enjoy themselves immensely, quickly establishing an excellent rapport on familiar material, but also bringing their own twist to it. This was ‘gypsy swing’ with a big difference.
An undeniable success as a one off collaboration Swing Strings Trio looks to be a project with many more potential miles in it.
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