by Ian Mann
December 14, 2016
Ian Mann enjoys this unique double bill featuring jazz harpist Ben Creighton Griffiths and the electro-acoustic band Duski led by bassist and composer Aidan Thorne.
Ben Creighton Griffiths / Duski
Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 26/11/2016.
BMJ’s final event of 2016 was this unique double bill of local talent featuring the remarkable jazz harp playing of the young Cardiff based musician Ben Creighton Griffiths and the band Duski, a group of South Wales/Bristol based musicians led by the bassist and composer Aidan Thorne. There was also additinal entertainment at half time with Martha Skilton playing a selection of jazz standards on the piano in the Melville Centre’s bar area.
BEN CREIGHTON GRIFFITHS
First to take to the stage was Ben Creighton Griffiths who had been invited back to Abergavenny to play a club date after making a big impression on the BMJ audience at the club’s annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival back in September.
At the Festival Creighton Griffiths had performed in the Melville Centre’s bar area and his virtuoso playing on an instrument unusual to jazz not only impressed the BMJ crowd but also the experienced musicians Christian Garrick (violin) and David Gordon (keyboards) who had appeared on the main Festival bill as a duo.
I actually contrived to miss most of Creighton Griffiths’ performance at Wall2Wall as I ventured into town for something to eat but I was already aware at this point that he would be returning to the club in November. Thus it was that I came to tonight’s gig with a fresh eye and enjoyed the performance all the more as a result.
Creighton Griffiths looked frighteningly young to me and is still only nineteen years of age. Something of a child prodigy he has been performing internationally since the age of seven and is also a highly accomplished classical harpist who has performed with an impressive range of orchestras and other classical ensembles. Creighton Griffiths has performed at harp festivals all over the globe, made numerous TV appearances and raised substantial funds for charitable causes including Save The Children, George Thomas Hospice Care and St. John Cymru Wales. He made his recording début aged just six with a charity CD in aid of Children In Need and in 2009 released an album of Benjamin Britten’s Christmas Carols as a fund-raiser for the Llandaff Cathedral Organ Appeal. In the same year a solo classical harp recital in Italy was recorded for a DVD release. More recently there have been two full length audio CD releases featuring jazz harp, including “Pedals & Paws” (2015), from which a number of this evening’s pieces were sourced.
Creighton Griffiths plays a Camac 47 Big Blue Electro-Acoustic Pedal Harp, and yes, the frame of the instrument really is bright blue. He also deployed a Nord 2 electric keyboard capable of producing piano and synth sounds at some points could be seen to be producing bass lines on the keyboard with his left hand while soloing on the harp with his right, an impressive feat of musicianship that had even been appreciated by Messrs. Garrick and Gordon. There were also a variety of effects pedals that enabled Creighton Griffiths to loop and treat his sounds.
All these elements of the young musician’s armoury were brought into play on the opener, an ingenious re-working of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind”.
Looped keyboards formed the bedrock of an interpretation of “Black Orpheus” as Creighton Griffiths impressed with his improvisatory fluency and maturity on the harp, arguably sounding at his best when he actually switched the electrics off.
A version of Miles Davis’ “So What” saw Creighton Griffiths using the harp’s bass strings to play the Paul Chambers’ famous melodic bass motif in addition to more orthodox ‘walking’ lines. All this while soloing with remarkable proficiency and fluency with his other hand!
The centre piece of the recent “Pedals & Paws” album is the title work, a five part suite written by Creighton Griffiths about the life of his pet dog, a miniature schnauzer that goes by the jazz inspired name of Charlie Parker. We once had a pair of cats named Charlie and Dizzy, but I digress.
The “Pedals & Paws” suite deploys a variety of jazz styles and we were to hear just two of the movements tonight, the jazz waltz “At The Top Of The Stairs” and the ballad “Sleeping Schnauzer”, both charmingly melodic pieces played acoustically on the harp. At times the rich timbres and ringing overtones reminded me of the guitar playing of the great Ralph Towner.
Creighton Griffiths is due to release a new album, “1 Man Band” in February 2017. This will include his version of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”, played here on harp and keys with synthesised bass lines underpinning Creighton Griffiths’ harp soloing. Creighton Griffiths described Hancock as “my all time favourite jazz artist” and the “Pedals & Paws” album includes two takes on Hancock’s composition “Chameleon”.
Django Reinhardt is another touchstone for Creighton Griffiths and he sometimes performs with the Stephane Grappelli inspired violinist Adrien Chevalier. Two solo performances of pieces associated with Reinhardt closed this excellent set with “Time On My Hands” followed by a Balkans inspired arrangement of the traditional “Dark Eyes” with Creighton Griffiths slowing down and speeding up the music in true gypsy jazz fashion.
I was very impressed with this hugely enjoyable performance by Creighton Griffiths. Aside from Alice Coltrane jazz harpists are something of a rarity, off the top of my head I could only really think of Catrin Finch who has regularly dipped a toe into jazz and world music waters, and Rachael Gladwin who plays the instrument with Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Orchestra.
I was worried that I might find Creighton Griffiths a bit too much of a ‘novelty act’ but the sheer quality of his musicianship and the charm of the performances quickly allayed any such fears. The “Pedals & Paws” albums also stands up well in the home listening environment, although I’m in complete agreement with Nigel Jarrett who reviewed this show for Jazz Journal and noted that the percussion of guest musician Matthew Williams who appears on the three ‘bonus tracks’ adds little to the music. Creighton Griffiths really does sound better on his own, with any additional elements being self generated.
Creighton Griffiths will launch “1 Man Band” at a concert at Acapela Studio, Pentyrch, Cardiff on 4th February 2017. For details of this plus other performances by Ben Creighton Griffiths please visit the artist’s website http://www.bcjg.co.uk
Aidan Thorne is one of a clutch of fine bass players to emerge from South Wales, the others including Ashley John Long, Chris O’Connor and rising star Huw V Williams. I’ve seen Thorne playing double bass in a variety of contexts including performances with trombonist Gareth Roberts, saxophonists Ben Treacher and Martha Skilton. drummer Ollie Howell and as a part of the groups Burum, Coltrane Dedication and Slowly Rolling Camera. He has also accompanied the Spanish musicians Arturo Serra (vibes) and Juan Galiardo (piano) and has recorded with Burum, Slowly Rolling Camera and guitarist Dan Messore’s Lacuna group.
Thorne’s own band Duski began back in 2009 as a jazz trio featuring Thorne alongside young tenor saxophonist Greg Sterland and that stalwart of the Welsh jazz scene Mark O’Connor at the drums. The group has now been expanded to a five piece with the addition of old associate Paul Jones on keyboards and synthesiser (the pair have previously worked together in Jones’ Tryfan trio) and first Tom Ollendorf and now Dan Messore on guitar. With Thorne specialising on five string electric bass in this band, Jones manipulating tape loops and playing a variety of keyboards and synthesisers and Messore deploying an array of FX pedals Duski has morphed into an electro-acoustic ensemble that is as likely to appeal to fans of progressive and alternative rock as it is to hard core jazz followers. With this in mind and in an attempt to broaden their listener base the band have performed twice at the nationally famous Green Man Festival in Crickhowell and at the 2016 Swn Festival in Cardiff.
I’ve been lucky enough to see Duski perform live on a couple of occasions at the Queens Head in Monmouth and also gave a favourable review to the quintet’s eponymous début album which was released in the summer of 2016. With this in mind I was very much looking forward to seeing the band in the more formal setting of the Melville Theatre as opposed to the pub environment of the Queens.
It was a little disappointing that tonight’s performance only featured a four piece version of the band with Messore absent. Apparently the ‘Indigo Kid’ was on holiday in Costa Rica, a country that is very much his second home. His remaining band mates acquitted themselves well but I must admit that I did miss the additional colour and texture that Messore’s guitar would have brought to the music. The other members of an audience numbering around forty so were probably less affected by the guitarist’s absence, I suspect that for many this would have been their first experience of the band.
The evening began with a lengthy segue of “Spare Part” and “Simple Song”, two of the compositions from the band’s début album. An atmospheric intro featuring wispy tenor sax, textured keyboards and brushed drums allied to the composer’s low register bass growl took on greater shape with the introduction of Sterland’s sax melody, this juxtaposed with Jones’ more abrasive synth textures. As the music gathered momentum we enjoyed solos from Jones on electric piano and Sterland on tenor; for all their espousal of elements drawn from rock and electronica Duski’s music is very much rooted in jazz with improvisation an essential component.
As “Spare Part” merged into “Simple Song” Thorne set up a buoyant bass groove allied to O’Connor’s rapidly brushed drums, this providing the impetus Sterland’s soaring sax and a Jones solo that saw him accompanying himself with Keith Jarrett style vocalisations as O’Connor adopted a harder edged, hip hop influenced drum sound.
Besides the musical influences of jazz, rock and pop Thorne’s writing also draws inspiration from the cinematic arts with the films, and music, of David Lynch a particularly significant touchstone for Thorne. The quartet’s interpretation of Lynch’s “Laura Palmer Theme”, from the television series “Twin Peaks”, was suitably ethereal and atmospheric with Thorne’s electric bass intro accompanied by O’Connor’s mallet rumbles and the eerie whistle of Jones’ synth. Meanwhile Sterland’s sax probed ever more deeply, sounding almost Garbarek like as his horn pierced the shadowy textures created by his colleagues.
An impressive new composition titled “Flat Holm” and named after one of the islands off Cardiff in the Bristol Channel raised the energy levels once more with O’Connor’s sturdy drumming fuelling powerful solos from Jones and Sterland. The former adopted a dirty, distorted Rhodes sound, the latter included some foghorn like tenor blasts that seemed to allude to the maritime inspirations behind the tune. For many in the audience this assertive and evocative composition represented a definite set highlight.
The final tune was unannounced but began in characteristically atmospheric, almost ambient fashion with Thorne’s bass accompanied by the shimmer of O’Connor’s cymbals. As the piece began to unfold Sterland’s tenor soared melodically above the sound of textured bass and keyboards and a simple but highly effective drum groove. I suspect that this may have been the composition “Lakeside” from the band’s début album, but I couldn’t be totally categoric.
I certainly enjoyed this performance from Duski and it was good to see them performing successfully and being very well received in a concert situation. As alluded to previously the audience included journalist Nigel Jarrett who wrote a very favourable review for the magazine Jazz Journal in which he praised the music of both Creighton Griffiths and Duski.
Nigel’s review can be read here; http://www.jazzjournal.co.uk/jazz-latest-news/1150/
However I can’t deny that I missed the presence of a guitarist and the additional colour, texture and nuance that the instrument brings to Duski’s music. With that in mind it’s probably fair to say that I preferred the group’s two quintet shows in Monmouth to this one due to the presence of that additional musical voice and the extra possibilities that it brought. That said I would still like to have heard more from the four piece Duski. Tonight’s set was rather short and the deserved encore wasn’t forthcoming.
Despite these reservations Duski’s début album is highly recommended and I hope to see the band again next year when they return (hopefully with a full squad) to the Queens Head, Monmouth on Wednesday 14th June 2017. http://www.queensheadmonmouth.co.uk
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