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Atsuko Shimada with the Greg Sterland Trio

Atsuko Shimada with the Greg Sterland Trio, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse, Brecon, 10/09/2019.

Photography: Photograph by Pam Mann.

by Ian Mann

September 12, 2019


Ian Mann enjoys two sets of imaginative arrangements and original compositions in this collaboration between Japanese pianist Atsuko Shimada and the Anglo-Welsh trio led by saxophonist Greg Sterland.

Atsuko Shimada with the Greg Sterland Trio

Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 10/09/2019.

Atsuko Shimada – piano, Greg Sterland – tenor sax, Aeddan Williams – double bass, Jon Reynolds - drums

This evening’s Brecon Jazz Club event represented the third visit to Brecon by the Japanese born pianist, composer and arranger Atsuko Shimada.

Shimada first visited Brecon in April 2015 to play at Brecon Jazz Club’s former HQ, the bar area at Theatr Brycheiniog. She performed with a quintet of musicians from South Wales and the Borders that included Greg Sterland on saxophone, Tom Ollendorff on guitar, Erika Lyons on double bass and Phill Redfox O’Sullivan at the drums.

The quintet’s performance, comprised mainly of jazz and bebop standards but also including a smattering of Shimada originals, was very well received by the Brecon audience and in 2017 she was invited back to the town to perform at that year’s Brecon Jazz Festival.

Shimada’s Festival appearance saw her leading a trio featuring bassist Matheus Prado and drummer Paolo Adamo, with guest appearances coming from alto saxophonist Kevin Figes and jazz french horn player Rod Paton. A busy Festival weekend also saw her perform with the Slice Of Life Big Band and as part of a group co-led by alto saxophonist Glen Manby and Ashley John Long, better known as a bassist but here specialising on vibes.

Born in Sapporo Shimada studied at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston before settling in Europe with her Spanish husband, fellow pianist and Berklee alumnus Juan Galiardo. Now living in Southern Spain she plays regularly at the Gibraltar Jazz Society’s regular Thursday night gigs at the colony’s Eliott’s Hotel and is also a respected music teacher.

Shimada initially came to Brecon due to Galiardo’s links with Brecon Jazz Club. In 2014 he visited Wales for a short tour in the company of his compatriot Arturo Serra (vibes) plus some of South Wales’ finest rhythm players. Galiardo currently enjoys a real prestige gig as the pianist in a group led by the veteran improvising vocalist Sheila Jordan.

Tonight’s event saw the popular Shimada renewing her collaboration with Sterland. The former RWCMD student is now based in Bristol and is an active presence on that city’s jazz scene, playing with a variety of ensembles. He also plays a key role in bassist and composer Aidan Thorne’s electro-jazz group Duski, who will shortly be releasing their second album on the American record label Ropeadope.

Shimada and Sterling were joined by the rhythm team of Aeddan Williams (double bass) and Jon Reynolds (drums). The pair had previously visited Brecon Jazz Club as recently as June 2019 when they formed part of a trio led by alto saxophonist Rachel Head.

Williams, who plays both acoustic and electric bass, has also worked with guitarist James Chadwick and is currently part of the exciting electro-fusion trio Chube, led by harpist and keyboard player Ben Creighton Griffiths. Chube, accompanied by guest collaborator Dennis Rollins (trombone), recently played a barnstorming set at the 2019 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in nearby Abergavenny.

Reynolds’ other visits to Brecon have involved large ensemble appearances with the RWCMD Big Band and the Festival Big Band led by trombonist , composer and arranger Gareth Roberts.

Tonight’s set featured the now familiar mix of Shimada’s adventurous and distinctive arrangements of familiar jazz standards plus a couple of her original compositions.

The quartet commenced with the jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street” with Sterland stating the theme on tenor sax and soloing expansively. He was followed by Shimada, who deployed an acoustic piano setting on her keyboard throughout the evening. There was also the first of a series of features for Williams on double bass.

An arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive” began in ballad mode with Shimada introducing the piece with a concise passage of solo piano. Double bass and brushed drums were added to the equation, followed by Sterland’s gently keening tenor sax. As Sterland’s solo developed he began to probe more deeply, with subtle avant garde inflections adding grit to the arrangement. Further solos followed from Shimada and Williams.

Shimada described her arrangement of that most familiar standards, “All The Things You Are” as “modern”. This was probably an understatement, I’d certainly never heard this old chestnut played in quite this way before. Reynolds’ broken beats and an underlying 7/4 time signature gave the piece a highly contemporary feel with Shimada taking the first solo. Sterland then stretched on tenor with Shimada temporarily dropping out as the group switched into sax trio mode. Once again there was also a feature for Williams on double bass.

Following the intense performance of “All The Things” Shimada’s arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance”  lowered the temperature a little as Reynolds switched to brushes and Shimada soloed fluently and expansively with the group in piano trio mode. As Sterland took over on tenor the music began to gather a greater momentum as the saxophonist moved up through the gears. Williams then followed him on double bass.

The first set concluded with Shimada’s original composition “Third Impression”, a piece inspired by, and building upon, both John Coltrane’s “Impressions” and the Coltrane inspired composition “Second Impression” by American saxophonist Eric Alexander. For many listeners this was the pick of the first half performances as Sterland stretched out in suitably Coltrane-esque fashion on tenor while Shimada delivered some of her most impassioned soloing of the set, doubtless inspired by the great McCoy Tyner. The powerful soloing of Shimada and Sterland was fuelled by the brisk and propulsive grooves generated by Williams and Reynolds. The drummer was also to enjoy a substantial feature as the music embraced a freely structured section incorporating numerous avant garde flourishes. This was genuinely rousing stuff and ended the first set on an energetic and satisfying note.

When the quartet returned after the breaking Shimada promised another set of challenging arrangements in the second set. This throwing down of the gauntlet seemed to inspire the band and the second set proved to be even better than the first as the quartet visibly grew in confidence.

The standard “Taking A Chance On Love” set the ball rolling with Sterland again soloing expansively on tenor, followed by Shimada on piano and Williams on muscular, but melodic double bass. Shimada’s arrangement of the song was inspired by vocal versions by the singers Jane Monheit and Anita O’Day.

“Romance”, written by the Russian composer Anton Arensky, a one time teacher of Rachmaninoff, began life as a classical solo piano piece before being arranged by Shimada as a jazz ballad. With Williams at his most melodic and Reynolds deploying brushes this was perhaps the most reflective performance of the evening with Sterland soloing on tenor and Shimada closing out the piece with a passage of unaccompanied piano, a reminder of the composition’s origins.

Reynolds’  drums introduced Shimada’s innovative Afro-Cuban style arrangement of “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, a tune normally performed as a ballad. This treatment was very different with solos coming from Sterland on tenor, Shimada on piano, Williams on bass and finally the irrepressible Reynolds at the drums.

A shorter second set concluded with Shimada’s original composition “Bera’s Waltz”, introduced by a piano and double bass duet. The addition of brushed drums then set the scene for Sterland’s theme statement on tenor with subsequent solos coming from Williams on melodic double bass and then from Sterland and Shimada. This composition was very different in style and feel to Shimada’s original in the first half, but in its own way it was equally effective, and again rounded the set off on a high note.

Lynne Gornall of Brecon Jazz Club coaxed the quartet into performing an encore, an arrangement of a tune called “Blue Jae”. Boppish, complex and difficult to play this was a real roller coaster ride and included some of Shimada’s most inventive playing of the set as she soloed with a feverish intensity. Further solos came from Sterland, Williams, and Reynolds with a series of fiery drum breaks. Thrilling stuff.

Shimada’s return to Wales was well received by the Brecon jazz public and overall both the Club organisers and the band themselves were pleased with the way things had gone.

However, despite the inventiveness of Shimada’s arrangements it would be a valid criticism to observe that most of the performances were delivered in the same format with the written passages punctuated by lengthy, highly discursive solos, usually delivered in the same order. At times it all sounded a little unfocussed despite the quality of the playing. That said it was the first of two Welsh dates for the trio and rehearsal times had been extremely limited. Shimada had forwarded details of her arrangements to her band mates by email, and some of them, particularly in the second set were remarkably complex and demanding. After the show Sterland and Williams admitted that it all been pretty challenging, but highly rewarding. This was real “flying by the seat of your pants stuff” as they graphically observed. On the whole they rose to the challenge magnificently.

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