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Amy Roberts / Richard Exall Quintet

Amy Roberts/Richard Exall Quintet, All Saints Church, Hereford, 30/07/2015 part of 3 Choirs Festival

Photography: Photograph of Richard Exall and amy Roberts sourced from the Thrre Choirs Festival website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

July 31, 2015


Superb musicianship and a lively, informative and entertaining presentation. The Roberts / Exall Quintet did a great job as ambassadors for, and popularisers of, the music.

Amy Roberts / Richard Exall Quintet, All Saints Church, Hereford, 30/07/2015 (part of the Three Choirs Festival).

The 300th anniversary of the Three Choirs Festival has been marked by an element of diversification in the programming with a greater number of events designed to appeal to jazz and folk audiences. This latest event in the late night concert series at All Saints Church featured the most ‘straight-ahead’ jazz playing of the week from a quintet co-led by multi reed players Amy Roberts and Richard Exall.

Amy Roberts hails from Penzance in Cornwall and studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Although schooled in both classical flute and classical saxophone she has always played jazz and performed the music on the Manchester jazz scene in bands led by bassist Jim Swinnerton and pianist Tom Kincaid. She also studied jazz flute with the acclaimed flautist Rowland Sutherland and despite playing alto sax and clarinet with an equal level of proficiency she still regards herself as primarily being a flute player. Roberts’ versatility eventually led to her getting a call from the veteran trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber and she became the first female instrumentalist to become a member of the Chris Barber Big Band. Extensive touring with Barber reinforced her commitment to classic jazz as well as honing her technique and she also learned a good deal about professionalism and stagecraft from a musician who has been leading bands since 1948. Roberts left the Barber band in 2014 and as a freelance musician has worked with a wide variety of musicians in a broad range of jazz contexts. Full details of her musical activities can be found on her website

The quintet Roberts co-leads with Richard Exall (tenor and alto sax, clarinet, vocals) is an offshoot of the septet the Magnificent 7 Jazz Band which has released two albums to date, “The Good,  The Bad and The Ugly!” in 2014 and “A Jazz Odyssey” (2015). Both reed players are part of the still ongoing Magnificent 7 but stepped away from the larger group to record “Why Not” (2015) in a quintet format with much of tonight’s set list being sourced from that recording.

Exall and Roberts both played together as members of the Barber band before launching these recent projects. The Northamptonshire based Exall trained as a classical clarinettist before turning to jazz and still gravitates between the two musical worlds.

An acclaimed educator Roberts is currently based in the Midlands and acts as a mentor for young musicians in neighbouring Worcestershire. Tonight’s quintet differed from the personnel on the “Why Not” album and included two musicians from the Birmingham jazz scene, young pianist David Ferris and stalwart bassist Tom Hill. The line up was completed by Magnificent 7 drummer Nick Millward. 

As with the Magnificent 7 the focus tonight was on “classic jazz” and featured arrangements by Exall and Roberts of many staples of the jazz repertoire - plus one or two surprises. The programme began with an effervescent take on “Bernie’s Tune” written by the composer Bernie Miller. This proved to be a good introduction to the individual members of the group with Roberts doubling on both alto and flute and taking her solo on the latter, We also heard from Exall on tenor sax, Ferris at the piano, Hill on double bass and Millward with a series of drum breaks. An archetypal, but pleasingly lively, set opener.

The sharply attired band now tackled the song “Sweet Lorraine” with Roberts switching to clarinet and with Exall singing as well as playing tenor sax. Personally I found the vocals less than convincing and much preferred the classy instrumental solos from Roberts on clarinet, Exall on tenor and Ferris at the piano. I was very impressed by the young pianist, a student, or possibly a graduate by now, of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire. I’ve seen him perform a couple of times before in more contemporary jazz contexts and his playing tonight represented something of a departure as he demonstrated his versatility and knowledge of jazz history.

The Cuban classic “Tico Tico” introduced a new front line configuration of Roberts on flute and Exall on clarinet in a complex arrangement that also included elements of Brazilian samba. The pair doubled up on some very tricky melody lines subtly propelled by Millward’s hand drumming. Subsequent solos came from Exall on clarinet and Ferris at the piano, another demonstration of the latter’s versatility.

Earle Hagen’s “The Harlem Nocturne” is best known as the theme tune for the TV series “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer” and an arrangement appears on the Roberts / Exall quintet album. Using a front line of tenor and alto sax this piece was played straight through with no solos. A brief but immediately familiar interlude for many members of the audience.

“Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” featured more vocals from Exall plus a tenor/alto front line. The unison horns were highly effective as were the pithy instrumental solos from Roberts on alto, Exall and tenor and Ferris at the piano. The piece ended with Roberts replying on alto to Exall’s vocal lines.

The Dizzy Gillespie tune “Tango” featured an Exall arrangement in the style of Cuban trumpeter Artruro Sandoval and also included a soup?on of samba for good measure. Millward introduced the piece at the drums and clearly relished the opportunity to grapple with the tune’s exotic rhythms. Solos came from Exall on alto, Roberts on flute and Ferris at piano before Millward brought this rousing piece to a climax with a set of exuberant drum breaks.

In a well paced show Roberts now calmed things down with a delightful version of “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” arranged for flute. Ferris introduced the piece at the piano and was joined in a lengthy duet by Roberts before understated double bass and brushed drums were added to the mix. The lyrical solos by Roberts and Ferris revealed a very different side to their musical personalities than the fiery Latin incarnations on the previous tune.

Roberts and Exall share an enthusiasm for the music of the late alto saxophonist Earl Bostic (1913-65), something of a forgotten figure these days. Bostic was a powerful sax soloist who not only played jazz but also had a number of hits on the r’n'b charts including a version of “Harlem Nocturne”. The quintet’s version of Bostic’s “The 8.45 Stomp” was a raucous affair with a full blooded twin alto attack from Roberts and Exall, their blistering individual solos punctuated by a gloriously rollicking piano solo from the increasingly impressive Ferris.

Fats Waller’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A letter” included more Exall vocals plus solos from Roberts on clarinet, Ferris on piano and Hill at the bass. The latter is a key figure on the Midlands jazz scene, American born but Birmingham based he’s a bass player, bandleader and occasional singer and has a parallel career as a voice-over artist - for those who didn’t know he’s the voice of Tony the Tiger on the TV ads - “They’re grrreat!”

The quintet’s concession to the Three Choirs statues as a classical festival came with Exall’s adaptation of John Kirby’s arrangement of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz”. In the 1930s Kirby was the bass player with Fletcher Henderson’s band and subsequently formed his own sextet featuring trumpeter Ernie Shavers and saxophonist Russell Procope. Kirby’s 1940s records were among the first jazz recordings to borrow from the classical tradition and in many ways were ahead of their time. The choice of “Minute Waltz” as an illustration of Kirby’s work was an obvious one given its familiarity as the the theme tune to the Radio 4 programme “Just A Minute”. The Kirby / Exall arrangement was great fun with solos coming from Exall on clarinet, Roberts on flute and Ferris at the piano.

A hard swinging version of Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” was performed by the band in the style of Earl Bostic with Roberts on alto and Exall on tenor. Highlights were a muscular Exall tenor solo featuring some r’n'b style honking and a particularly exuberant outing from the talented Ferris.

Millward’s drums announced the closing “Lime Street Blues” which featured Exall’s clarinet in a delightful series of exchanges with Roberts’ alto sax as the rhythm section brewed up a storm behind them. 

The quintet’s infectious blend of popular and populist jazz drew an enthusiastic response from the late night crowd and Exall put the choice of encore to an audience vote, “Lester Leaps In” or “Sweet Georgia Brown”. I’d have preferred “Lester” but it was almost inevitable that the latter would win out and the band romped through it in a New Orleans style arrangement featuring Exall on clarinet and Roberts on alto. Ferris led off the solos followed by Roberts on alto before a superb Exall solo that saw him duetting with Hill prior to a closing drum feature from Millward. The audience loved it. 

In terms of audience reaction this was one of the most successful of the late night shows at All Saints. The quintet played for an hour and a half and in their smart stage suits and with Roberts and Exall sharing the announcements there was an air of slickness about the presentation that doubtless stemmed from the co-leader’s tenure with Chris Barber. But the between tunes patter was informative too, evidence of their abilities as educators and standard bearers for the music. The standard of the musicianship was uniformly excellent with both reed players demonstrating their considerable chops and with young Ferris also impressing enormously. Hill and Millward were a solid and highly supportive rhythm section.

I was less than convinced by Exall’s vocalising and as a seeker out of new and original music I personally found the programme a little too predictable. However this is a hardened jazz critic speaking, for most members of the audience the evening was a sheer delight thanks to the combination of superb musicianship and a lively, informative and entertaining presentation. Given that some members of the audience may not have heard that much jazz before the Roberts/ Exall Quintet did a great job as ambassadors for, and popularisers of, the music. 

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