by Ian Mann
December 10, 2015
Interesting, stimulating and enjoyable. An innovative and intriguing evening of visual art and music making.
Ben Thomas / Ed Rees Quintet, Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 29/11/2015.
South Wales based trumpeter Ben Thomas has been an important figure on the jazz scene in the Anglo-Welsh Borders for a number of years. Born in Pembrokeshire and at one time a resident of Hereford I’ve often seen him performing standards with a variety of local combos, often in the company of bassist Erica Lyons and pianist Dave Price.
At the 2015 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival organised by Black Mountain Jazz Thomas guested with the Made In Wales band, a group featuring several of the region’s leading jazz musicians led by vocalist Debs Hancock. The quality of Thomas’ playing on that gig led to him being asked back to BMJ to lead his own group at one of the regular monthly club nights.
But there’s more to Ben Thomas than simply playing standards. A restlessly creative soul he has released a total of four albums under the name of The Edge Project, all of them a highly personal mix of jazz and other music styles with poetry and song. A variety of vocalists grace the albums, among them Laura Collins, Emily Wright and Tanya Walker and the extensive personnel listings also include some of the leading instrumentalists from South Wales, the Midlands and South West England. The first two albums in the series “We All Fall Down” and “Dark Scrawls” were reviewed by the Jazzmann in 2011 and I intend to take a look at the two most recent recordings, “Within This World Within My Mind” and “Dead Horses And Divorces” very shortly.
Tonight’s performance fell somewhere in between the two extremes of jazz standards and the highly personalised abstractions of The Edge series. Thomas had assembled a quintet featuring Shrewsbury based tenor saxophonist and co-leader Ed Rees and the Birmingham based rhythm team of bassist Trevor Lines and drummer Lydia Glanville, both bandleaders in their own right. The final member of the quintet was Robyn Hobbs, Thomas’ partner who sometimes sings with The Edge Project and also provides the album artwork. It was in the latter capacity that Hobbs appeared tonight, credited with “live art” as she created visual images to complement the music laid down by the four instrumentalists.
The material that Thomas chose for this evening was comprised of his own instrumental compositions, all of them recognisably derived from the jazz tradition, plus a smattering of jazz standards and an interesting and totally unexpected selection of tunes sourced from the pop and rock canon.
The first set opened with three pieces centred around an ‘elemental’ theme beginning with ‘air’ and Thomas’ composition “Moon Alley”. Thomas and Rees stated the theme before the saxophonist took the first solo, his fluent playing reminding me of his role as a featured soloist with the highly accomplished Shrewsbury Big Band. Thomas followed him with a gently probing trumpet solo and there was also a resonant but highly melodic feature from the vastly experienced bassist Trevor Lines.
As well as watching the musicians the audience were also keeping an eye on artist Robyn Hobbs. I’ve witnessed something similar before at London Jazz Festival when the artist Gina Southgate has painted while musicians play. Southgate also paints regularly at the monthly ‘Jazz In The Round’ events presented by Jez Nelson at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone. Her work also adorns the walls of The Vortex in Dalston, with some of it demanding a pretty hefty price tag.
While Southgate’s live art results in a finished product Hobbs’ approach is very different and much more fluid. Using a specially constructed black chalkboard and deploying both chalk and watercolours her work is fluid and constantly evolving with a different piece of work being developed over the course of each tune before being either painted over or erased, fading into the ether in much the same way as the music. In this respect the relationship between art and music was even closer than with Southgate’s paintings, with both the artist and the musicians linked via the ongoing process of improvisation. Sometimes one ‘work’ or ‘image’ would form the basis for the next, a kind of palimpsesting process that has its musical equivalent in jazz, particularly the way in which Broadway show tunes have been shaped into jazz pieces through the art of improvisation.
The second ‘elemental’ piece represented ‘Earth’ in the form of Thomas’ original composition “Stone” with its taut, angular theme the basis for solos from Rees on tenor and Thomas on trumpet, the leader also entering into an engaging dialogue with Glanville before bowing out and leaving the young drummer to construct a particularly musical solo feature. At the blackboard the orb like images that had accompanied “Moon Alley” morphed into the shoal like patterning of rock strata.
To represent ‘water’ Thomas chose a particularly interesting ‘outside’ piece, a cover of Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song” from the celebrated “Rock Bottom” album. Thomas’ slightly lugubrious tone on flugel horn was perfect in the way that it depicted the varying moods of sadness,wistfulness, introspection and fragility that can be heard in Wyatt’s voice on the recorded version. Lines’ bowed bass was also highly effective as was the three way discussion between flugel, tenor and arco bass. Hobbs’ artwork incorporated the written phrases “torn apart” “chaotic” and “murk” while the visual images of waves and reflections mirrored the watery theme.
Thomas remained on flugel for a second outside piece, Sam Rivers’ composition “Beatrice”, an increasingly popular vehicle for contemporary jazz musicians. Double bass and brushed drum grooves introduced the piece before Thomas and Rees stated the theme. Subsequent solos came from Lines, Thomas and Rees with Hobbs’ artwork this time depicting an image of Thomas himself.
Introducing the final number of the first set, the Thomas original “Heebie Geebies”, the trumpeter noted that the group didn’t possess a chordal instrument but that he thought of Hobbs’ artwork as a kind of guitar or piano substitute, an interesting concept. Still, a chordless line up never did Ornette Coleman any harm and I both admired and enjoyed Thomas and Rees’ decision to perform in this format. It certainly kept both the musicians and the listeners on their toes. This piece mixed bebop stylings with more abstract passages and included solos from Rees on tenor and Thomas on trumpet plus a closing bass feature from Lines that incorporated arco and slapping techniques.
Set two placed a greater emphasis on outside composition beginning with an unlikely cover of the little known David Bowie’ song“Bring Me The Disco King”. Lines and Glanville provided a solid rhythmic base above which the horns could soar with both Thomas on trumpet and Rees on tenor delivering solos before a closing bass and drum dialogue featuring the impressive rhythm team. Hobbs’ artwork centred around the phrase “the gates did open, they could see us”. Subsequent research suggests that this is not a line from the song’s lyrics. There was a certain delicious irony in this selection, Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” was being played on the juke box in the bar during the break!
Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” represented another dip into the jazz canon. Rees took the first solo, probing intelligently on tenor above the loose and supple rhythmic framework constructed by Lines and Glanville. Thomas, meanwhile, had moved back to flugelhorn on which he performed absorbing dialogues with Lines’ bass and then with Glanville at the drums, this leading to another highly musical percussion solo featuring the use of soft mallets on both toms and cymbals. Hobbs’ artwork included the phrase “the birds call” and featured impressionistic images of avians –possibly a veiled Charlie Parker reference, possibly not.
The A-Ha tune “Hunting High And Low” represented another unlikely cover but worked very well. The intro saw Glanville responding to the rhythms spelt out by Thomas on tambourine and the hand clapping Rees as Lines rapped the strings of his bass with his bow. Rees eventually picked out the theme on tenor and subsequent solos came from Thomas on flugel, Rees on tenor and Lines at the bass. On this highly rhythmic piece it was appropriate that Glanville should also feature strongly and her solo drum feature developed into a dialogue with Lines, the bassist deploying echo and delay effects via set of foot pedals. This episode provided a linking passage into a delightful version of the celebrated jazz ballad “Body And Soul” which was beautifully played by Thomas on flugel, in many respects I actually prefer him on this instrument, there’s a lustrous patina to his playing that suggests the influence of the great Kenny Wheeler.
Hobbs’ artwork on the above segue depicted “trees and roots” and featured suitably arboreal imagery. She now took the mic to explain that her painting this evening had been entirely improvised with no pre-conceived ideas or images. It was the first time that she had painted in public in this way and she also informed us that her painting had developed out of an ongoing fascination with film and photography.
The set closed with the jazz standard “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” but in an unusual arrangement that included solos from Rees on tenor and Thomas on trumpet while the accompanying artwork depicted “All of Everything”, an uplifting image on which to end an innovative and intriguing evening of visual art and music making.
The group returned for a deserved but unannounced encore introduced by Lines and Glanville and featuring solos from all four musicians with Thomas still on trumpet.
I was impressed by this performance and found it to be interesting, stimulating and enjoyable. Ben Thomas is a musician who is developing an increasingly distinctive creative voice and he received excellent support from Rees, Lines and Glanville. The “live art” experiment also worked very well and added an effective and welcome extra dimension to the performance.
From Robyn Hobbs via Facebook;
Write up of the recent Ben Thomas / Edward Rees ?#?BMJ? performance from the lovely Ian Mann - thanks to Lydia Glanville, Trevor Lines and also Mike Skilton for hosting. Thanks for coming Ian Mann.
From Lydia Glanville via Facebook;
Lydia Glanville I liked this review. Makes a change to be reviewed by someone who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to music! If I was to review this review I’d say it was intelligent and insightful.
From Deborah Hancock via Facebook;
A true reflection of an enjoyable and compelling evening.
From David Hobbs via Facebook;
Great write up. I was proud to see Robyn pioneering this new art/music interface!
From Robyn Hobbs via Facebook;
Thanks for the lovely comments. This is very much a collaboration and wouldn’t be possible without Ben Thomas compositions and enthusiasm. Great to be part of these performances !
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From Edward Rees via Facebook;
What a lovely review from Ian Mann for this super and enjoyable gig with Ben Thomas, Lydia Glanville, Trevor Lines and Robyn RT.