by Ian Mann
April 22, 2015
An unpretentious but delightful album that still swings impressively despite the absence of drums.
Chris Hodgkins & Dave Price
“Back In Your Own Backyard”
(Bell CDs, BELLCD514)
Chris Hodgkins is perhaps best known for his role as an administrator and has recently retired after twenty nine years as the Director of Jazz Services. A frequent award winner for his Services to Jazz in this capacity he is also an accomplished trumpeter with an encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz styles which he put to good use on the albums “Present Continuous” (2005) and the follow up “Future Continuous” (2007), both recorded with a trio featuring long standing associate Max Brittain on guitar plus Alison Rayner on double bass. The group later expanded to a quartet with the addition of saxophonist Diane McLoughlin and released the album “Boswell’s London Journal”, a suite of fifteen pieces inspired by the writings of James Boswell and co-composed by Hodgkins and Eddie Harvey. Like its predecessors the album was a considerable critical and commercial success.
Following his retirement Hodgkins now presents “Jazz Then and Now”, a weekly show on Jazz London Radio and has also taken the opportunity to play more frequently. “Back In Your Own Backyard” represents something of a return to roots and finds the Cardiff born Hodgkins performing with some of the leading musicians from South Wales and the Welsh Borders. His chief collaborator is pianist Dave Price who lives in the village of Grosmont in Gwent and is a frequent presence on the jazz scene in Herefordshire and the Borders. As well as playing local gigs Price has backed many famous soloists including Art Farmer, Nat Adderley, Kenny Wheeler, Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Peanuts Hucko, Digby Fairweather, Bobby Wellins, Kai Winding and George Melly, an impressive list by anyone’s standards.
The album was originally intended to be a duo recording but Hodgkins and Price subsequently decided to involve two of their favourite bass players in the project. Erika Lyons is a ubiquitous presence on the jazz scene in the Welsh Borders but was once a London based professional (under her maiden name of Erika Howard) and also studied and worked in New York for two years back in the 1970s. Ashley John Long is from a younger generation, a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff he is still based in South Wales and is a superb technician and an inspired soloist with a foot in both the jazz and classical camps. Long is a player with a rapidly burgeoning reputation. In the main bass duties are alternated between Lyons and Long but there are a couple of inspired instances where they are brought together, of which more later.
“Back In Your Own Backyard” follows a similar blueprint to Hodgkins’ two earlier trio albums, pithy, chamber jazz style interpretations of well known tunes embracing different jazz eras and jazz styles along with a couple of originals. The album cover, with its photographs of Cardiff old and new, represents a nod to Hodgkins’ roots. Apparently the album was recorded in Wales but the album credits fail to give the exact location or to acknowledge the engineer or producer, which is a pity as the recorded sound is excellent throughout and unfailingly brings out the best of the musicians.
The programme begins with Hodgkins, Price and Long delving deep into jazz history with “Sweethearts On Parade” with the leader soloing joyously above Long’s rapid bass walk. Price’s piano introduces an easy going sweetness and there’s some delightful interplay between the two front line instruments with Long forming a solid anchoring presence. This is bright, breezy accessible music, and, as is typical for a Chris Hodgkins record, not a note is wasted.
Hodgkins sits out altogether on a beautiful version of “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” which features the lyrical piano of Price alongside twin double basses. The melancholy arco playing, almost certainly by Long, is both moving and effective. The piece is an effective live number too, I recently saw it played as a duet by Price and Long at a recent Hodgkins gig at the Queens Head in Monmouth.
“Drop Me Off In Harlem” acknowledges Hodgkins’ love of the music of Duke Ellington and the piece is given a relaxed reading by the trio of Price, Hodgkins and Long with excellent solo contributions from all three protagonists.
The same trio then combines on “A Kiss To Build A Dream On” with Hodgkins imbuing his trumpet playing with a real sense of blues tinged yearning. There’s also a delightfully melodic pizzicato solo from Long allied to a corresponding lyricism from Price.
Lyons returns to the fray for “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” as Hodgkins tips his hat to jazz trumpet pioneer Louis Armstrong. An opening volley of unaccompanied trumpet paves the way for Hodgkins’ effervescent opening solo followed by an elegantly swinging Price at the piano.
It’s the same combination on a relaxed and swinging “Sunday” which includes further inspired interplay between Hodgkins and Price.
A darkly brooding version of “Angel Eyes” teams Hodgkins’ muted trumpet with the intertwining lines of twin pizzicato double basses. There’s a solo trumpet cadenza followed by the very brief use of the bow(s) right at the end of the tune. Like the earlier “Nightingale” it’s one of the most distinctive and effective pieces on the entire album.
The team of Hodgkins, Price and Long takes over for a relaxed “Almost Like Being In Love” which comes across as a bit of light relief. There’s a flowing solo from Price and some breezy, bitter-sweet trumpeting from Hodgkins with Long providing a steady rhythmic backbone.
Long switches to the bow for “Black Butterfly”, his grainy arco tones combining well with the melancholic ring of Hodgkins’ trumpet as Price sketches a sparse chordal framework.
The same line up then breezes through a playful “Jeepers Creepers” with Long’s propulsive walk fuelling ebullient solos and exchanges from Hodgkins and Price.
At just under two minutes the title track is effectively a delightful miniature. Hodgkins, Price and Lyons imbue the piece with a sense of wistful nostalgia with the co-leaders combining well and the solos little more than cameos.
“I’ve Never been In Love Before” features Hodgkin’s muted trumpet, Long’s solid bass groove and Price’s nimble pianism on another playful and relaxed performance. The mood is continued into “Swinging At The Copper Beech”, an original by Hodgkins and Max Brittain that sounds as if it’s been part of the jazz canon for ever. The team of Hodgkins, Price and Long deliver a delightful version of the tune with the composer’s ebullient trumpeting leading the way. A different version of this composition can be found as the last track on the album “Future Continuous”.
Long remains in the bass chair for the rest of the album beginning with a languidly paced “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” which pays homage to the very beginnings of jazz with relaxed but blues infused solos from Hodgkins and Price above Long’s grounding bass.
Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” is a particularly good show case for the skills of both Price and Long who both deliver excellent solos alongside Hodgkins’ effusive trumpeting.
“VP” is the second original tune of the set, a piece by Hodgkins and Diane McLoughlin that pays tribute to the late guitarist and vocalist Vic Parker with whom Hodgkins played at the Quebec Hotel in Cardiff’s docklands during the 1970s. Again it’s a piece written in the style of a standard that sounds as if it’s always been around. Price and Long impart the performance with a ready swing that combines with Hodgkins fluent trumpeting to generate a genuine sense of celebration of Parker’s life and influence.
The album concludes with the standard “Just Friends”, an apt choice given the relaxed, frequently joyous and always intimate performances on this CD. There’s the real sense of a home coming and of the pleasure derived by Hodgkins from working with old friends. Naturally there are solo opportunities for all three musicians but as on so many of these performances it’s the overall group sound that impresses most. In the exposed setting of a drummer less trio the chemistry and interaction between the players is paramount and this is something that shines through throughout this album.
The brand of jazz purveyed by Chris Hodgkins is rather more old fashioned than my usual tastes but I find myself coming back to his albums time and time again. I think it’s the relaxed nature of the performances, the pithiness of the solos and the general lack of superfluousness or any kind of musical flab. Hodgkins’ approach is inspired by the late Ruby Braff, the great American cornet player who also frequently recorded in the “chamber jazz” format and spoke of the “adoration of the melody” as being one of the principal obligations of the jazz soloist. It’s a philosophy that Hodgkins and his colleagues have taken to heart on this unpretentious but delightful album that still swings impressively despite the absence of drums. Particular praise is due to Long and Lyons in this regard and Hodgkins and Price both respond to their promptings with some great playing. It’s particularly gratifying for me to hear the playing of Lyons and Price, stalwarts of the local scene in my neck of the woods, documented so well on record.
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