by Ian Mann
September 27, 2016
An intimate and sometimes playful duo set featuring a selection of jazz standards alongside arrangements of traditional South African songs, a touch of vocalese and an original composition.
Amy Walton / Dave Cottle Duo, Black Mountain Jazz, The Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 25/09/2016.
Amy Walton is an award winning South African born vocalist, pianist and songwriter now living in North London. Aged twenty three she graduated from the South African College of Music with a B.Mus degree in Jazz Performance and Arranging and has since put these talents to good use in her various roles as a jazz performer and arranger, vocal coach and studio session singer. During her university years Walton was a member of the University of Cape Town’s Jazz Voices Ensemble and was also the featured vocalist with with UCT Big Band.
Walton has family connections in South Wales and on first coming to the UK lived for four months with relatives in Swansea. It was during this period that she attended an open mic night at the Swansea Jazzland club organised by pianist Dave Cottle. Immediately impressed with her advanced harmonic sense Cottle drew her into his orbit and the young vocalist subsequently recorded a CD with Cottle, his bassist brother Laurence and drummer Ralph Salmins ,with a third Cottle brother, Richard, producing the music.
Although now based in Haringey Walton makes frequent visits to Wales and has recently performed alongside Cottle in Swansea, Neath and now Abergavenny. Initially I was a little disappointed to see that tonight’s show was to be a duo performance with Cottle’s regular trio members Alun Vaughan (electric bass) and Paul Smith (drums) conspicuous by their absence. These three had backed singer lee Gibson at the recent Wall2Wall Jazz Festival dinner at Abergavenny’s Angel Hotel and I’d naturally assumed that they were going to do the same for Walton. Instead tonight’s show proved to be an intimate and sometimes playful duo set with Walton performing a selection of jazz standards alongside arrangements of traditional South African songs, a touch of vocalese and even one of her original compositions. However I can’t deny that I missed the presence of Vaughan and Smith, particularly the former who is a distinctive performer and bass soloist.
Given that only around twenty customers turned up it was probably a wise move to limit the line up to a duo, but it must be said that following the success of Wall2Wall it was disappointing to witness such a poor turn out. Perhaps it was just too soon after the Festival, I suspect that next month’s visitor, guitarist and local hero Remi Harris, will attract a more substantial crowd.
Nevertheless Walton and Cottle were out to enjoy themselves and to take their audience, such as it was, with them. Many of the standards that Walton chose to sing were readily familiar but her arrangements of them proved to be admirably adventurous as she sometimes tackled them in unusual keys and also experimented with the phrasing, stretching the fabric of the songs and peppering them with extensive scat interludes. Cottle proved to be a more than willing accomplice in this process with his rhythmic and harmonic knowledge serving the music well as he aided and abetted his younger accomplice’s musical adventures while turning in some impressive soloing of his own. The duo also enjoyed a humorous cross generational rapport as they gently goaded each other, the refreshingly down to earth Cottle has always brought a welcome dash of Welsh wit to the bandstand.
The pair kicked off with Cole Porter’s “Night And Day” with Walton audaciously stretching the verses over Cottle’s accompanying arpeggios. This was followed by an unusually fast version of “Exactly Like You” incorporating Walton’s flexible phrasing and an extended scat vocal episode.
Walton was keen to emphasise her South African roots and sang the traditional song “Chilo Chilo”, from the north west of the country, in the Zulu language. Despite the non English lyrics and the wordless vocal improvising the wistful, yearning mood of the song was inescapable.
A playful “Honeysuckle Rose” saw Walton revelling in the salaciousness of the lyrics as Cottle provided a rollicking, stride piano style solo on his Yamaha S90X5 keyboard and later engaged in a series of playful piano and scat vocal exchanges with the singer.
The mood became more serious as the duo performed Walton’s original ballad “If I Could Change A Thing” with its lost love and weather metaphors. Paradoxically this was an impressively mature piece of song writing despite Walton claiming that “it’s about being young and stupid, I guess”. Hmmm – with self awareness comes maturity – I guess. This featured one of Cottle’s most lyrical solos of the evening and I also liked the enigmatic line “if I could change the clocks to meet the day”.
A breezy take on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Happiness” saw Walton singing the Portuguese lyrics while Cottle adopted an unashamedly ‘electric piano’ sound on his keyboard, the classic ‘Rhodes trill’ enhancing the Brazilian rhythms.
“Like Someone In Love” featured Walton’s vocalising above Cottle’s piano bass lines before opening up to embrace an extended scat vocal episode answered by a Cottle piano solo.
The first set closed with a radically slowed down arrangement of “All The Things You Are” which began with an extended passage of solo piano that incorporated a variety of quasi classical flourishes. The spacious arrangement also incorporated further wordless vocal passages an a more orthodox piano solo from Cottle.
Once again the interval featured Martha Skilton playing the old upright piano in the Melville Centre bar. Now something of a fixture at Black Mountain Jazz Martha’s gentle interpretations of standards primarily serve as background music as audience members discuss the concert in the main hall and replenish their drinks. Nevertheless it’s a nice touch and will hopefully continue, despite Martha being much better known as a highly accomplished saxophonist who played her own gig - with pianist Gareth Hall and vocalist Debs Hancock - in the Theatre during the recent Wall2Wall Festival.
The second set began with the song “Detour Ahead”, best known to jazz fans as an instrumental by the late, great pianist Bill Evans and his trio. It was something of a treat to hear the lyrics as Walton again demonstrated her talent for inventive jazz phrasing.
The familiar standard “All Of Me” was the first piece that Walton sang on that eventful open mic night at Swansea Jazzland. Again she employed unusual phrasings in the lyric sections before stretching out on an audacious scatting episode that proved the perfect counterpoint to Cottle’s rollicking piano solo. It was a far from stereotypical version of the song.
“Georgia On My Mind” was also treated in a highly original manner with more vocal gymnastics from Walton as Cottle adopted a less than usual, at least for this song, Rhodes sound on his keyboard.
The standard “ I Thought About You” featured the duo having fun with improvised lyrics about Swansea and the closure of the Severn Tunnel with Cottle’s piano solo complementing Walton’s playfulness.
Walton accompanied herself on piano as she sang her own arrangement of Bye Bye Blackbird”. Haunting and effective this spookily slowed down version was first fashioned as a university exercise but has since become an indispensable part of Walton’s repertoire.
The standard “But Not For Me” increased the energy levels once more with the singer’s vocal pyrotechnics bookended by Cottle’s equally impressive piano solo. An aspect that was particularly notable was the way in which Walton seamlessly segued from an adventurous scat vocal back into the lyric of the song without missing a beat. Vocal tightrope walking, for sure.
Another item from the singer’s college days featured her setting of a poem by the American Eugene Field (1850-95) to the music of Wayne Shorter’s composition “Infant Eyes”. This was the piece that Walton performed for her final recital at university and it was undeniably impressive.
Following the singer’s impassioned plea for equality of education in South Africa Walton and Cottle concluded their performance with a second song, this time a contemporary composition with a feminist lyric, performed in the Zulu language.
Fellow vocalist Debs Hancock who had hosted the evening was able to tempt the duo back for an encore of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” which featured an unusual fast/slow arrangement, a dazzling piano solo from Cottle and more of Walton’s scatting and elastic vocal phrasing.
Regular readers of this website will know of my preference for instrumental jazz and if I’m honest I personally didn’t enjoy this performance as much as some other Black Mountain Jazz events although I do know that other audience members appreciated it immensely.
That said I could certainly admire Walton’s technique and adventurous spirit. With this in mind I found that the pieces that I personally most enjoyed were not the Great American Songbook standards, but the more unusual ones - notably the two Zulu songs, Walton’s self penned ballad and her highly personalised arrangement of “Bye Bye Blackbird”. By the same token I also appreciated the vocalese adaptation of “Infant Eyes” and the rarely heard lyrics of “Detour Ahead”.
For me these pieces summed up what jazz is supposed to be about – ‘the sound of surprise’. There are already too many standards singers out there and despite her adventurous approach to even the most familiar of songs Walton needs to focus on building her own identity – in her own words “what makes you, you” - if she’s going to stand out from the crowd.
That said Amy Walton is only just starting her jazz career. It will be interesting to see how she progresses.blog comments powered by Disqus