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Ben Thomas / Julian Martin Quartet

Ben Thomas & Julian Martin Quartet, Brecon Jazz Club Bar, Theatr Brycheinog, Brecon, 17/05/2016.


by Ian Mann

May 18, 2016


Ian Mann enjoys this imaginative and informative programme of jazz arrangements of music sourced from TV and cinema.

Ben Thomas & Julian Martin Quartet play Themes from TV & Film, Brecon Jazz Club Bar, Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon, Powys, 17/05/2016.

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 jazz standards with a variety of local combos, often in the company of bassist Erica Lyons and pianist Dave Price.

But there’s more to 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 together 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.

With his partner, the visual artist Robyn Hobbs, Thomas has become increasingly interested in multi media projects, particularly with regard to the interface where music and the visual arts meet. A gig at Black Mountain Jazz in nearby Abergavenny in November 2015 found Thomas co-leading a quintet with Shrewsbury based saxophonist Ed Rees that included fellow musicians Trevor Lines (bass) and Lydia Glanville (drums) with Hobbs painting and drawing in real time to provide visual images to accompany the music. This was an experiment that worked extremely well and that performance is reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann. 

Thomas’s most recent album is “Dog Not Man”, a collection of instrumental recordings in the trio format of trumpet/bass/drums that sees Lines and Pasquale Votino sharing bass duties while Scott Hammond and Paolo Adamo alternate behind the kit. The music is highly contemporary with Thomas often manipulating the sound of his trumpet via a range of FX. My first impressions are that the music exhibits something of the influence of the Vietnamese-American trumpeter Cuong Vu, who has worked extensively with guitarist Pat Metheny, and that “Dog Not Man” represents an impressive work in its own right. However a number of the pieces are designed to be listened to when watching the integrated videos that can be found at Thomas’ website,

When Thomas was approached to make a welcome return to Brecon Jazz Club and asked by organiser Lynne Gornall to come up with something a little bit different to the normal standards set it was perhaps not surprising that his thoughts again turned to some kind of synthesis between the musical and visual arts. Thomas has a long term interest in cinema and turned to Cardiff based pianist, composer and educator Julian Martin to develop a programme based on jazz arrangements of music sourced from films and TV series.

Martin proved to be the perfect collaborator for this project, a musician whose professional career includes writing incidental music for films, documentaries and children’s TV plus the mysterious genre known as “Library music”. In addition to this Martin is an acclaimed teacher and workshop leader as well as being an accomplished and popular jazz pianist on the South Wales live music circuit. Many of tonight’s pieces, most of them very well known, were arranged by Martin and given fresh life by the quartet of Martin, Thomas and a rhythm section featuring two stalwarts of the jazz scene in South Wales and the Borders, bassist Erika Lyons and drummer Greg Evans.

With Martin handling the arrangements and with Thomas acting as spokesman this was a true
co-leadership project and the quartet provided excellent entertainment for another good sized crowd at Brecon Jazz Club. It was my first visit to to the venue for a while and it was good to see that things were still thriving under the leadership of an enthusiastic and dynamic committee.

The performance was much less intense than Thomas’ gig at Abergavenny had been. Instead of largely original material the focus was now on well known tunes, all of them familiar from the cinema and TV, and although the music was ultimately less demanding there was still much to enjoy on a still relatively balmy summer’s evening on the edge of the Beacons.

The first set began with an arrangement of “Suicide Is Painless”, perhaps more familiar as the theme from M*A*S*H . This was introduced by Martin at his Roland RD150 keyboard and featured Thomas playing the theme on bug miked trumpet. Subsequent solos came from Martin, Thomas and Lyons as Evans accompanied the soloists deploying a combination of brushes and sticks. 

A sense of humour was never far away as evidenced by a quirky but hard swinging arrangement of the “Top Cat” theme from the much loved television cartoon series with solos from Martin, Thomas and Lyons, with Greg “Officer Dibble” Evans providing the necessary propulsion. I note that TC and his chums have recently been commandeered for an advert by the Halifax, which is rather unfortunate. I loved ‘Top Cat’ as a kid and even as an adult still find it witty and amusing. But post 2008 I’ve got no time for those bloody HBOS people. Frankly I don’t like the thought of them hi-jacking TC and his gang and sullying my childhood memories.

The song “Days of Wine and Roses” has become a jazz standard but was originally written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer for the movie of the same name. Introduced by Evans at the drums Martin’s lively Latin-esque arrangement included solos from Martin, Thomas and Lyons plus a closing brushed drum feature from Evans.

Thomas moved to flugelhorn for John Williams “Superman” theme which began in piano trio mode prior to solos from Thomas on flugel, Martin on piano and Lyons at the bass. Formerly Erika Howard Lyons was a professional jazz musician on the London scene in the late 70s and early 80s before moving to the Welsh Borders. She remains a supremely accomplished player and a consistently interesting and melodic bass soloist as epitomised by her contribution here.

The arrangement of Luiz Bonfa’s “Manha De Carnaval” from the film “Black Orpheus” was centred around the patter of Evans’ hand drumming with Lyons opening the solos followed by Thomas on trumpet and Martin at the piano with Lyons picking up the bow on the tune’s coda.

The first half concluded with a playful romp through the theme from the “Roobarb and Custard” children’s cartoon series. “I loved this as a kid” enthused Thomas whose rumbustious trumpet was matched by Martin’s rollicking piano and Lyons’ powerfully plucked bass. A great fun way to conclude a highly enjoyable first set.

Set two got off to an equally rousing start as the quartet cantered through Quincy Jones’ theme for the Austin Powers films, Thomas taking the lead on trumpet followed by Martin at the piano and an effervescent Evans at the drums.

Thomas recalled hearing Herb Alpert performing “A Taste Of Honey”, a song that was also tackled by the Beatles during their early days. Solos here came from Thomas on trumpet, Martin on piano and Lyons on double bass, subtly underscored by Evans’ brushed drums.

“My Favourite Things” first appeared on the soundtrack of “The Sound of Music” but jazz fans will know it best from the epic instrumental version by John Coltrane. Closer in spirit to the latter the quartet’s version began with an extended dialogue between Thomas on trumpet and Evans on drums before more conventional solos from Thomas, Lyons and Martin prior to a coda featuring trumpet and arco bass.

There was much infantile snickering as Thomas introduced the next piece. Apparently a version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s much covered “How Insensitive” turns up on the soundtrack to the 2006 TV movie “Fear of Fanny”, a biopic about the life of TV cook Fanny Craddock. Thomas generated an admirable degree of power on his trumpet feature as the tune gathered momentum and delivered arguably his best solo of the night as he once again shared the spotlight with Martin and Lyons.

The jazz standard “There Is No Greater Love” began with an exquisite dialogue between Thomas on trumpet and Lyons on bass before taking a more orthodox turn as Martin soloed on piano accompanied by Lyons’ walking bass and Evans’ crisply brushed drum grooves. Thomas then took over again with another exceptional trumpet solo before a final series of exchanges between double bass and brushed drums.

Finally the quartet paid tribute to the doyen of British cinema writing, the late John Barry (1933-2011) with the theme from “The Ipcress File” which was introduced by Lyons at the bass and included further solos from Martin on piano and Thomas on trumpet.

Lynne Gornall was subsequently able to coax the musicians back to the stage to perform a well deserved encore, Martin’s arrangement of Henry Mancini’s “Charade” from the 1963 film of the same name starring Audrey Hepburn and Carey Grant. Introduced by Martin at the piano the beautiful melody framed solos from all four musicians, including Evans on brushed drums.

This was an excellent way to conclude a highly enjoyable evening of music making which was greatly appreciated by the Brecon audience. Informatively and wittily presented by Thomas it included some imaginative arrangements from Martin and some superb playing by all four participants.

Admittedly this wasn’t music that was designed to pull up any trees but it was still refreshingly different to the usual jazz standards set and contained a number of delightful surprises plus a welcome dash of humour. All in all a very successful event. Well done to all concerned.

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