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Ben Shankland Trio

Ben Shankland Trio, The Mad Hatter, Oxford, 17/10/2023.

Photography: Photograph of the Ben Shankland Trio at Newcastle Jazz Festival supplied by Ben Shankland

by Colin May

December 13, 2023


While all three musicians impressed with their soloing, their ensemble playing was as strong or even stronger, a case of impressive parts making an even more impressive whole.

Ben Shankland Trio
The Mad Hatter, Oxford.
17 October 2023

Ben Shankland electric piano, Ewan Hastie double bass, Chun-Wei Kang drums

This very talented young trio is further testament to the vibrancy of the Scottish scene. Edinburgh born Ben Shankland is at Birmingham conservatoire but began jazz in his teens playing in Scottish youth jazz orchestras with mentorship from pianists John Turville and Alan Benzie, and from saxophonists Tommy Smith and Mike Williams. He started out playing classical piano, which he still does on occasion, before finding jazz.

Left -handed double bass player Ewan Hastie first played bass guitar before taking up double bass with the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra and is currently in his final year at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire. He won the final of the BBC Young Jazz Musician 2022, and it’s an indication of how good he is that among those he beat was outstanding saxophonist/multi instrumentalist and composer Emma Rawicz.

Chun-Wei Kang met Hastie at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, and plays with a number of groups on the Scottish scene, and both he and Hastie lead their own groups.

Their gig was one of a weekly term-time series put on by Oxford University Jazz Society where a guest band is followed by a student jam session. The venue was once my local pub then called The Cricketers, but which now has been rebranded as a student oriented Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland themed cocktail bar. This results in an audience with average age much younger than at most jazz events.

I’d left my reviewers hat and notebook at home and gone along as a paying customer. However not only did I find the Ben Shankland trio’s contemporary mainstream jazz very engaging but in some inexplicable way they invited you in,  so that it demanded attention more attention, and not only from me but from many towards the back room who forsook talking to friends and checking their phones for listening more closely to the music.

While all three musicians impressed with their soloing, their ensemble playing was as strong or even stronger, a case of impressive parts making an even more impressive whole. It was clear not only were they very comfortable playing together but enjoyed doing so.

Like leader Shankland,  the rhythm team of Hastie and Kang not only have talent but jazz maturity beyond their years, and they contributed significantly to the evening’s entertainment. Hastie’s solos highlighted why he triumphed in the BBC Young Jazz Musician competition. Kang’s drumming was creative and focusing one’s listening on what he was doing was rewarding.

It was Shankland though who set the tone. He has ‘the touch’, a quality which can’t be taught according to Joanna MacGregor, Professor of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music, and was very relaxed whether his fingers were flying across the keyboard as in the energetic ‘Sky Blue’ or playing a slow ballad. There were unexpected twists and tasteful ornamentation but always the melody shone through.

The trio played two sets both of which I think consisted almost entirely of originals. One was by Kang with the others by Shankland who on this evidence already is an impressive composer both of reflective and of upbeat pieces, e.g. the aforementioned ‘Sky Blue’.

The one standard was the trio’s encore, a bravura crowd pleasing take ‘Just One of Those Things’. It had a great high speed walking double bass solo from Ewan Hastie, and all three displayed remarkable digital dexterity as in unison they ratcheted up the pace incrementally to where it seemed likely one more step would result in them surely crashing. Instead they came up with a clever tongue-in-cheek ending.

To sum up the Ben Shankland Trio as ‘promising’ would be a cliché and would do them a disservice in my opinion, as though young both in age and in jazz years they’ve already outgrown that label.

Would I want to see them again? Yes definitely, and should they, or a group led by any of them, happen to be in your area do go see them if you can.

Colin May

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