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Adam Glasser Quartet

Adam Glasser Quartet, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 24/02/2019.

Photography: Photograph of Adam Glasser sourced from the Black Mountian Jazz website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

February 26, 2019


The distinctive instrumental configuration allied to the high standard of the playing ensured that this was a cut above the usual ‘visiting soloist plus local rhythm section’ club gig,

Adam Glasser Quartet, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 24/02/2019.

The long awaited visit to Black Mountain Jazz by the jazz harmonica player and pianist Adam Glasser was a huge success and got the club’s 2019 programme off to a great start after January’s event, featuring the Bristol based band Radio Banska was cancelled due to illness.

South African born, London based Glasser is the UK’s leading exponent of jazz harmonica and has enjoyed a long and varied musical career performing across a variety of genres including both jazz and rock and including substantial theatre and film soundtrack work.  Starting out on piano he worked with the late South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and was the musical director for the veteran South African vocal group the Manhattan Brothers. As a harmonica player he has been heard on albums by the guitarists Dominic Miller and Carl Orr, Brazilian vocalist Zizi Possi and the trio Wild Card, led by guitarist Clement Regert.

As a leader Glasser has released two albums featuring his harmonica and keyboard playing, 2010’s “Free At Last” and 2012’s “”Mzansi”. Unfortunately both appear to have been deleted with Glasser having no copies of either available at gigs. Nevertheless both recordings won prizes at the South African Music Awards (SAMA), that country’s equivalent of the Grammys.

My first sighting of Glasser’s playing was at the 2014 Brecon Jazz Festival when he appeared as part of the Stroller programme, co-leading the group Township Comets alongside Loose Tubes trumpeter Chris Batchelor. On that occasion the band also included saxophonist Jason Yarde, trombonist Harry Brown, bassist Dudley Phillips and drummer Frank Tontoh plus guest guitarist Chris Montague, who fitted in seamlessly. The band’s vocalist and front woman, the late Pinise Saul, was unfortunately absent due to illness but the Comets still turned in a high energy and hugely enjoyable set despite performing on an outdoor stage in atrocious weather conditions.

In August 2018 Glasser returned to Brecon Jazz Festival to deliver two more highly successful performances. On the Friday evening he co-led a stellar ensemble in the rather more comfortable surroundings of the Guildhall that paid tribute to the memory and music of the late trumpeter Hugh Masekela and to South African jazz in general. The line up included trumpeter Byron Wallen, saxophonist Josephine Davies, guitarist Rob Luft, bassist Daisy George and drummer Corrie Dick.

The following day Glasser’s regular quartet of Luft, George and Dick played in the ballroom at the Wellington Hotel in a show titled “Toots Thielemans and Beyond”. If anything this was even better with Glasser’s virtuoso harmonica playing given greater rein and with rising star Luft also impressing with a series of dazzling guitar solos.

The quality of the two Brecon performances last summer helped to ensure a healthy audience turn out at the Melville Centre with the Abergavenny crowd supplemented by a small contingent from Brecon including Brecon Jazz Club organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon.

Glasser’s accompanists for the evening had been selected by Mike Skilton of Black Mountain Jazz who had arranged for Bristol based organist John Paul Gard to bring along a trio featuring guitarist Adam Hopkins and drummer Billy Weir. The Gloucester based Hopkins was a new name to me but I was already aware of the talents of Weir, a graduate of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire, who had previously visited BMJ as a member of the trio Ferris, Lee, Weir alongside organist David Ferris and guitarist Ben Lee, both also Birmingham alumni. Now based in Bristol Weir has also performed as part of pianist and composer John Law’s Re-Creations quartet.

Also an accomplished pianist Gard is something of an audience favourite in Wales and the West C Country and has appeared on several occasions at both Abergavenny and Brecon, both on Festival and club dates. He usually appears leading an organ trio and his annual Christmas gig in this format at the Queens Head in Monmouth has become something of a seasonal institution. He is due to return to BMJ in May 2019 as part of the trio accompanying vocalist and songwriter Becki Biggins.

Incredibly Glasser had never met Gard, Hopkins and Weir before this evening but the newly formed quartet was incredibly together from the word go “we’ve never played together before, but we speak the same language”  Glasser explained.

Inevitably the programme was tilted in favour of jazz standards but nevertheless Glasser managed to bring his musical personality to the proceedings and to give much of the music an unmistakable South African feel.

The quartet eased themselves in gently with the standard “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” with Glasser demonstrating a remarkable facility on the chromatic harmonica as he took the first solo, followed by left handed guitarist Hopkins. Gard plays a two manual Viscount Legend organ and supplements his sound with a Nord pedal board. His nifty footwork was much in evidence here as his pedal generated bass lines complemented the solos of both Glasser and Hopkins. Eventually Gard was let off the leash, his solo followed by a series of drum breaks from Weir as the members of the band all took the opportunity to introduce themselves to an attentive and supportive audience.

Glasser also had an electric piano on stage, facing Gard’s set up, and he turned to this now for “Stay Cool”, a tune by the South African musician Tete Mbambisa which brought a real feel of the Townships to Abergavenny. Gard took the first solo on organ, adding a dash of American gospel music to an already heady and infectious mix. Glasser himself then moved to the chromatic harmonica for his own solo.

Glasser is something of an evangelist for the chromatic harmonica, an instrument capable of playing in multiple keys and with a range equivalent to that of a flute. Its use in jazz was pioneered by the Belgian multi-instrumentalist Toots Thielemans, who undertook solos that would normally be played on trumpet or saxophone, effectively turning it into a convincing vehicle for jazz soloing, although its use still remains rare. Designed by an engineer at the Hohner company the instrument has no screws and can be easily assembled and disassembled for cleaning and maintenance.

Glasser demonstrated his remarkable fluency on the instrument as the quartet tackled the Dizzy Gillespie composed bebop standard “A Night In Tunisia” in an innovative arrangement that also included features for Hopkins, Gard and Weir, with the drummer contributing the first of several neatly constructed full length solos.

The leader may not have had any CDs for sale but for £20 he was offering aspiring musicians the opportunity to purchase a Melody Star harmonica, a smaller, less complex version of the chromatic with a future Skype lesson from the master as part of the deal. Higher in pitch the Melody Star is also a convincing jazz instrument as Glasser demonstrated on a delightful version of “My Romance” which emerged out of a dialogue between himself and guitarist Hopkins. With Weir offering tasteful brushed support we also enjoyed solos from Gard on gospel tinged organ and
Hopkins with a typically elegant contribution.

Written by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard I’m used to hearing “Little Sunflower” played on that instrument, notably by Birmingham based trumpeter Bryan Corbett. But Hubbard’s delightful melody was equally effective in the hands of Glasser who soloed effectively on the chromatic harmonica above the infectious soul/jazz grooves generated by his colleagues. We also enjoyed a solo from Gard at the organ as Glasser doubled on both piano and shakers.

The first set concluded with a stunning rendition of Charlie Parker’s bebop classic “Anthropology” with Glasser displaying an astonishing agility on the chromatic harmonica as he tackled Parker’s slippery melody lines, Gard matching him with his nimble footwork on the pedals. Further solos came from Hopkins on guitar and Gard on organ, the pair spurred on by Weir’s crisp and propulsive drumming. Weir then enjoyed a series of brisk drum breaks before being given the nod by Glasser to launch into a full blown solo, thus bringing a hugely enjoyable first half to an energetic close.

Having already paid homage to his South African roots Glasser now acknowledged the influence of Thielemans with a version of Toots’ tune “Bluesette”, a piece that he had also performed at Brecon. Along the way Glasser informed us that the multi-talented Thielemans had once been George Shearing’s guitarist!  Glasser began with a passage of unaccompanied chromatic harmonica with later solos coming from Hopkins and Gard. Unfortunately technical problems with Glasser’s harmonica/mic set up detracted from the performance.

The difficulties were resolved for the quartet’s intriguing arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” with Glasser soloing on harmonica but again doubling up on piano and shakers to accompany Hopkins’ quote laden solo. A particularly intriguing aspect was Weir’s colourful drum feature, his percussive explorations underpinned by Gard’s extraordinary pedal bass lines.

We returned to South Africa for one of Glasser’s favourite tunes,” Zandile”  by Victor Ndlazilwane, saxophonist of the South African jazz group The Jazz Ministers. The Ministers played the famous Newport Jazz Festival in the US in the 1970s, helping to bring South African jazz and the political struggles associated with it to the attention of American audiences. With Weir laying down an insistent Township groove Glasser soloed on both piano and harmonica, his features punctuated by a solo from guitarist Hopkins.

Hopkins was also to feature prominently on the classic Wes Montgomery composition “Four On Six”, sharing the solos with Glasser and Gard and getting a nod of approval from the leader, who told the guitarist that Montgomery himself would have been impressed by him.

Glasser’s arrangement of “How Deep Is The Ocean” was included on his award winning “Mzansi” album, a recording that mixed jazz standards with South African Township tunes. The chromatic harmonica proved to be an effective vehicle for a sensitive ballad interpretation of Irving Berlin’s tune, even though those earlier technical difficulties temporarily resurfaced again. Further solos came from Gard and Hopkins prior to a solo harmonica cadenza at the close.

Another well known standard, Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned”, was given a distinctive South African twist, the groove fuelling solos from Glasser on both piano and harmonica, Hopkins on guitar and Gard on organ.

This was scheduled to be the final number of the evening but such was the enthusiasm of the crowd that BMJ’s Debs Hancock had little difficulty in persuading the band to stay on stage for an encore. In effect we got two for the price of one with Glasser switching to the smaller Melody Star for a quick romp through Miles Davis’ “Milestones”.This piece designed to showcase the qualities of the smaller harmonica and acted as a kind of commercial for Glasser’s instrument plus lesson package.
He then switched to the chromatic as the quartet segued into a similarly joyous rendition of Daniel Flores’ “Tequila”, with Weir’s cowbell heavy Latin grooves fuelling fiery solos from Glasser, Hopkins and Gard and with Weir also enjoying a final series of drum breaks.

This had been an excellent performance from a one off quartet that gelled very effectively right from the beginning. Glasser is not only a virtuoso soloist but is also an excellent communicator who was able to convey his obvious enthusiasm for the music to bandmates and audience alike.

Despite the similarity of their timbres the combination of organ and mouth organ (I bet Adam hates hearing the harmonica called that) actually worked very well with Glasser and Gard never getting in each other’s way. Gard also impressed as a soloist, as he always does, and as an accompanist too, his distinctive pedal bass lines and keyboard comping adding greatly to the success of the music. Hopkins and Weir also impressed with their contributions, both as soloists and as all round team players.

Glasser had delivered on the promise shown by his two Brecon shows and the distinctive instrumental configuration allied to the high standard of the playing ensured that this was a cut above the usual ‘visiting soloist plus local rhythm section’ club gig, the occasional technical glitch notwithstanding.

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