by Ian Mann
September 14, 2021
Excellent original writing from the two composers in the band, allied to some highly accomplished playing from all concerned.
Andrea Vicari Band featuring Yazz Ahmed, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 11/09/2021.
Andrea Vicari – keyboard, Yazz Ahmed – trumpet, flugelhorn, Dorian Lockett – electric bass, Eric Ford – drums.
Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s September event saw pianist, composer, educator and bandleader Andrea Vicari bringing an all star line up to The Hive. Her latest quartet featured rising star Yazz Ahmed, a composer and bandleader in her own right, plus long term associate Dorian Lockett on bass and Hive favourite Eric Ford at the drums.
Born in the US but raised in the UK Vicari studied at Cardiff University and at the Guildhall School of Music in London. As a composer and bandleader she first came to prominence in the mid 1990s with her eleven piece ensemble Suburban Gorillas, a group assembled to perform music jointly commissioned by the Arts Council and the Peter Whittingham Trust. The resultant material was later released on CD and the band undertook a UK tour supported by the Jazz Services organisation. I remember seeing Suburban Gorillas at Brecon Jazz Festival, which represented my introduction to Vicari and her music.
Vicari’s subsequent recordings include the quintet set “Lunar Spell” (1995), the trio session “Tryptych” (2004), and further quintet offerings “Mango Tango” (2007) and “The Mirror (2015). All of these releases have appeared on the label 33 Records.
I also recall seeing the “Mango Tango” quintet playing material from the album at Warwick Arts Centre way back in 2007. The line up included Vicari, Lockett, saxophonist Pete Wareham, trumpeter Steve Waterman and drummer James Maddren. This was my first ever sighting of Maddren, who was very young at the time but has since become one of the UK’s most in demand drummers, and one that I have seen many times since in a variety of different line ups.
It’s perhaps down to Vicari’s role as an educator that her bands have frequently featured emerging talents who have gone on to become major figures on the scene, among them guitarist Phil Robson (on “Lunar Spell”) and drummer Sebastian Rochford (“Tryptych”). “I know a good drummer when I hear one” Vicari told me, and who can disagree when her bands have harboured such talents as Maddren, Rochford, Nic France and now Eric Ford, a previous visitor to The Hive with the band Partikel.
In addition to her output as a leader Vicari has also worked with bassist Dill Katz, flautist Philip Bent, trumpeter Claude Deppa, clarinettist David Jean Baptiste, vocalists Trudy Kerr, and Jacqui Dankworth, The Vortex Foundation Big Band and many, many more. She has also performed with the late American jazz musicians Art Farmer (trumpet, flugel) and Eddie Harris (saxophone).
She has enjoyed regular commissions as a composer and in her role as an educator holds several teaching posts, notably Professor of Jazz Piano at Trinity Laban in London. She is also the founder and musical director of the long running Dordogne Jazz Summer School, an institution that a number of SJN committee members have attended.
More comprehensive details of Vicari’s broad range of musical activities can be found on her website http://www.andreavicari.com
For many years Vicari has been involved with Jazz ExTempore, a Croatia based project designed to bring European musicians from different countries together with a common goal of developing jazz and touring the music. This has resulted in a fruitful creative alliance between Vicari and the guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and composer Elvis Stanic. Stanic plays guitar on “The Mirror”, while Vicari appears alongside Stanic on the Jazz ExTempore Orchestra album “East & West” (33 Records, 2013).
It was at Jazz ExTempore that Vicari first worked with Yazz Ahmed as part of the British all female band The Jazz Ambassadors. The pair have continued to collaborate in this exciting new quartet and tonight’s performance included a couple of compositions from Ahmed alongside a selection of Vicari originals and a smattering of standards.
Ahmed has appeared regularly on the Jazzmann web pages and has released three albums to date, “Finding My Way Home” (2011), “La Saboteuse” (2017) and “Polyhymnia” (2019). The two most recent recordings have been widely acclaimed and “Polyhymnia” is reviewed elsewhere on this site, as are a number of Ahmed’s live performances. Ahmed is something of rising star in the jazz firmament and also known more widely for touring and recording with Radiohead.
This evening’s event didn’t get off to the best of starts. This was Vicari’s first UK gig outside London in nearly two years and her car suffered a blow out on the M40 en route. Vicari, Lockett and Ahmed had left the capital at mid-day but following their misadventures didn’t arrive in Shrewsbury until fifteen minutes before the scheduled start time of 8.00 pm. Fortunately Ford had arrived independently and already set up his drum kit, so following a rapid sound check the quartet were ready to go by 8.15, a highly commendable effort given the circumstances.
After everything that had happened it was perhaps not too surprising that they sounded a little tentative on the opening number, an arrangement of the standard “Someday My Prince Will Come”, a piece that appears on the “Tryptych” album. This was introduced by a passage of solo piano from Vicari, with Ahmed subsequently joining on flugel and Ford on brushed drums. Solos came from Vicari at her Nord Electro keyboard, on an acoustic piano setting, and from Lockett on electric bass and Ahmed on flugel. Ford switched to sticks as the music gathered momentum and his drums were featured towards the close.
Vicari is a published author, having written the instructional books “Advanced Jazz Piano” and “A-Rhythm-A-Tik”, both published by Lulu Publishing. The latter is aimed at improvising pianists and features twenty seven original pieces in a variety of styles, levels and keys and with the emphasis, as the title suggests, very much on rhythm. Vicari has since arranged some of these solo piano pieces for performance by the quartet, among them “In Equations”, which represented the next item here. This featured some appropriately complex rhythms, which were confidently negotiated by Ford, a powerful presence at the kit. Solos came from an increasingly confident and fluent Ahmed on flugel and the composer on keyboard, imaginatively deploying a range of electric piano (Rhodes) and synth sounds.
This wasn’t a co-led group as such, but Ahmed took up the compositional reins for the next two pieces, also announcing her own tunes. First we enjoyed the title track from “La Saboteuse”, introduced by the ensemble as a whole, before breaking down into a more loosely structured ‘piano trio’ passage, out of which Lockett’s electric bass eventually emerged. Ahmed’s subsequent flugel solo revealed a strong Middle Eastern influence, while the composition as a whole rivalled Vicari’s previous piece in terms of rhythmic interest.
As Ahmed explained she is of British-Bahraini heritage and her second composition, “The Lost Pearl” was inspired by the now declining pearl fishing industry in Bahrain. Also from the “Saboteuse” album this piece was introduced by Ford at the drums and saw Ahmed taking up the trumpet for the first time. Her solo was performed above a complex backdrop of electric bass grooves and busy drumming, with Lockett also emerging as a soloist, Ford later delivered a powerful drum feature above a recurring keyboard motif featuring Vicari’s synth sounds.
The first set concluded with Vicari’s composition “Borovets”, a composition named for a mountain and ski resort in Bulgaria. “I was attempting to capture something of the beauty and the danger of the mountain” the composer explained, “especially the danger”. Introduced by an unaccompanied passage of ‘acoustic’ piano and with Ahmed remaining on trumpet this piece did just that, exhibiting an appropriately Balkan influence and with Vicari delivering a highly percussive piano solo. On trumpet Ahmed also produced one of her most powerful solos of the set. Lockett’s liquid electric bass solo represented the ‘beauty’ and provided a gentle interlude prior to a high octane closing section that concluded with a final drum flourish from Ford.
Despite a slightly shaky start this had been an excellent first half that had featured some excellent original writing from the two composers in the band, allied to highly accomplished playing from all concerned. Set two promised to be even better.
The second half also commenced with a standard, Vicari’s arrangement of “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” with solos from the leader on electric piano and Ahmed on trumpet, plus further features for both Lockett and Ford.
The quartet continued with a second standard, a ballad arrangement of “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano and featuring the velvet melancholy of Ahmed’s flugel on an expansive solo. Vicari and Lockett delivered a similar degree of lyricism in their own solos, with Ford sensitively deploying brushes throughout.
Vicari has enjoyed a close association with the Teignmouth Jazz Festival in Devon. Her composition “Teign Town” paid tribute to the Teignmouth Jazz & Blues organisation, while simultaneously paying homage to Weather Report, and specifically the Jaco Pastorius composition “Teen Town” from the classic 1977 album “Heavy Weather”. It was thus befitting that Lockett’s electric bass was prominent in the arrangement, alongside Vicari’s keyboards as the composer delivered a dazzling solo that was variously reminiscent of both Joe Zawinul and Django Bates. Ahmed was also featured on flugelhorn, with Ford’s dynamic drumming propelling the soloists to fresh heights.
By way of a total contrast Vicari’s “The Bells of Newchurch” evoked a very English pastoral idyll. Named for the place in which Vicari’s brother lives the arrangement combined lyrical ‘acoustic’ piano with string synth textures and the mellow sounds of Ahmed’s flugel, these complemented by liquidly lyrical electric bass and gently brushed drums.
The energy levels were increased for the final number of the evening, the Vicari original “Punching Out”, introduced by Lockett at the bass. Subsequently his stalking bass lines and Ford’s crisp drumming combined to fuel fluent solos from Ahmed on flugel and Vicari on electric piano, prior to a final drum feature from the excellent Ford.
Unfortunately the delayed start meant that a deserved encore was not possible with curfew time at The Hive having already been reached.
Despite the difficult circumstances this had been an excellent evening of music making. Adjustments to the sound had been made ‘on the wing’ as the performance progressed and the band soon settled into their work. The three standards had been included with a provincial jazz audience in mind, but I enjoyed the stimulating original compositions of Vicari and Ahmed far more. SJN audiences have previously proved themselves to be adventurous and more than ready to appreciate new, original music.
I believe the majority of the band were staying over in Shrewsbury before making the trip back to London. Let’s hope the return journey was less traumatic for them.
My thanks to Andrea, Yazz and Eric for speaking with me afterwards. All seemed pleased to be playing live music again despite the trials and tribulations.
Vicari remains something of an unsung figure in the world of British jazz. Her skills as a pianist and composer allied to her role as an educator and a nurturer of new talent really deserve greater recognition.
As far as I’m aware none of the Vicari originals that were played tonight have appeared on disc, so let’s hope that she’s able to make a recording with this stellar quartet.
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