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BMJ Collective with guest Ross Hicks

BMJ Collective with guest Ross Hicks, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 09/07/2023.

by Ian Mann

July 10, 2023


A well chosen programme that was more modern than I’d imagined and which also included some excellent original compositions from the pen of Hicks.

BMJ Collective with guest Ross Hicks, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 09/07/2023.

Jack Mac (Jack McDougall) – tenor, alto & soprano saxophones, vocals, Nick Kacal – double bass, vocals, Ryan Thrupp – drums, percussion
with guest Ross Hicks – piano

BMJ Collective is essentially the moniker of the Black Mountain Jazz ‘house band’. The name was first coined in 2021 when drummer Alex Goodyear led the first edition of the band at that year’s Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, a hybrid event that featured a series of live summer performances in The Barn, at White House Farm in the village of Llanvetherine near Abergavenny. The Festival also featured a further series of performances filmed at BMJ’s regular home at the Melville Centre that were subsequently streamed later in the year when the Covid restrictions were subsequently tightened once more.

The first BMJ Collective featured Goodyear, Jack Mac on saxes, clarinet on vocals, Luke Archer on guitar and banjo and Clem Saynor on double bass. This quartet traced the “Journey of Trad” as they explored  the history of early jazz, from the American Civil War (or “War Between The States”) to the beginning of World War 2. Both the live performance at The Barn and the subsequent stream from the Melville are reviewed elsewhere on this site.

The name was revived in 2022 when the second edition of the Collective, featuring Goodyear, Saynor and pianist Eddie Gripper performed with vocalist Marvin Muoneke at the 2022 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. Fortunately things were back to normal by this time and this was a well attended show at the Melville Centre in November, that is reviewed as part of my Festival coverage here.

In January 2023 the trio of Goodyear, Saynor and Gripper, again under the BMJ Collective name, accompanied twin saxophonists Alex Clarke and Dan Newberry at another excellent show at the Melville that is reviewed here;

The encouragement and nurturing of young jazz musicians has always been an important part of the BMJ remit and the organisation’s latest youth project is the BMJazzKatz, which brings together young people aged eleven to nineteen for monthly jazz sessions at the Melville Centre, with the intention of forming a youth big band. More on BMJazzKatz can be read in the news story that can be found here;

For this inaugural JazzKatz session, which took place on the afternoon of today’s gig, the tutors were Jack Mac, who is heading the programme, Nick Kacal and Ryan Thrupp, these three thus becoming the latest edition of the BMJ Collective. The idea of the tutors then performing for the public in the evening is not only for ticket sales to contribute towards the teaching costs but also for the students to see their tutors performing at their best and embodying the JazzKatz motto of “work, play, inspire”.

As these BMJ Collective gigs will now become regular events it is intended that a different guest musician will be invited to perform with the group each time. Tonight the core trio were joined by pianist and composer Ross Hicks, a graduate of the jazz course at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff.

A busy presence on the South Wales jazz scene Hicks has performed with BMJ’s own Debs Hancock (vocals) and with the bands Bunker and Freshly Cut Grass. He was part of the Freshly Cut Grass line up that visited BMJ in September 2022. Review here;
Freshly Cut Grass had also featured at the 2022 Brecon Jazz Festival.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from tonight’s performance. I’d assumed that it would be standards based and following the “Journey Of Trad” shows that it might veer towards that end of the jazz spectrum.

In the event I was pleasantly surprised as the quartet delivered a programme that was more modern than I’d imagined and which also included some excellent original compositions from the pen of Hicks. There were some standards in there, but there were also plenty of surprises, but more on those later.

During the course of the afternoon the Collective has worked with the youngsters on the tune “C Jam Blues”, developing the piece and encouraging their improvising skills. The young participants all agreed that they’d had a great time and many were there with their parents to see the evening show, alongside with a good number of BMJ regulars. Organiser Mike Skilton seemed to be reasonably happy with the turn out for this ‘extra curricular’ gig.

The quartet kicked things off with a version of the Sonny Rollins composition “Sonnymoon For Two”, another tune that had been worked on during the afternoon. This featured the versatile Jack Mac on alto saxophone as he shared the solos with Hicks, on the Melville Centre’s upright acoustic piano, and Thrupp at the drums. Eagle eyed readers may have spotted the young drummer on their TV screens recently when he performed with the Guinea born, Cardiff based balafon player and singer N’Famady Kouyate at Glastonbury Festival. It was one of the best things that I saw from the ‘Glasto’ weekend.

The Bud Powell composition “Strictly Confidential” proved to be something of a feature for Hicks, who soloed expansively, subtly propelled by Thrupp’s vigorous brush work. Mac again featured on alto, followed by the always excellent Kacal, ‘the cat in the hat’, on double bass.

The first original of the night was Hicks’ Latin tinged “Quarentena”, the title the Portuguese word for “Quarantine”. Introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano this piece saw Mac moving to tenor as he shared the solos with the composer. The increasingly in demand Thrupp was featured at the drum kit towards the close.

A second Hicks original followed, a gentler, more lyrical offering that contrasted well with the more upbeat “Quarentena”. “Three Elms” was inspired by childhood family holidays at a caravan park in Porthcawl and the music had a suitably wistful and nostalgic feel about it, commencing with an atmospheric intro featuring piano, wispy tenor saxophone and Thrupp’s delicate, filigree cymbal work. Hicks embarked on a lyrically expansive solo with the group in piano trio mode, before eventually handing over to Mac’s tenor. Kacal was also featured as a soloist with a delightfully melodic excursion on double bass.

I have to say that I was hugely impressed with the quality of Hicks’ writing on both of these tunes. He later told me that he hopes to record a five track EP / mini-album very soon and I shall look forward to hearing the results. Following the excellent reception accorded to Gripper’s recent début album “Home” I also have high hopes for BMJ Collective’s other talented young pianist / composer.

The first set concluded with an ingenious arrangement of the Madonna hit “Material Girl”, which was delivered in a contemporary New Orleans style with Mac soloing on sinuous soprano sax above Thrupp’s martial drum rhythms. Thrupp continued to give colourful support during Hicks’ piano solo and there were also features for both bass and drums as the Collective went into the interval in playfully energetic fashion, with the audience giving them an excellent reception.

The second set began with the gentle swing of “Easy Does It”, something of a showcase for Hicks at the piano, with Thrupp again offering vigorously brushed support. Mac was featured on alto and Kacal on double bass, but the latter’s solo was punctuated by a monstrous howl of feedback, which the sound engineer was able to banish fairly quickly, winning the applause of the audience in the process.

The Hicks original “Short and Sombre” didn’t do quite what it says on the tin. The introduction was reflective enough, solo piano at first, joined by bowed bass, soprano sax and brushed drums. Mac’s soprano solo probed more deeply as Thrupp switched to sticks and Kacal put down the bow. The composer’s own solo was more gentle and lyrical, and incorporated a further unaccompanied piano passage. Mac eventually reprised the theme on soprano. It represented another intelligent and intriguing piece of writing from the guest pianist.

There’ was a degree of light relief as Mac and Kacal shared the vocal on “If I Only Had A Brain”, a song from “The Wizard Of Oz” that has proved to be a surprisingly popular vehicle for jazz musicians over the years. Tonight’s performance was also notable for instrumental solos from Mac on tenor and Hicks on piano, both of whom alluded to or quoted from other songs. Kacal was also featured on the bass while Thrupp’s colourfully accentuated drumming was a factor throughout.

I wasn’t expecting to the group to play something as modern as the Dave Holland composition “Processional”, a piece from the great bassist and composer’s 1990 ECM album “Extensions”. OK, so it’s more than thirty years old but in jazz terms it’s definitely still ‘modern’. Anyway, this was a terrific performance, ushered in by Kacal at the bass, accompanied by Thrupp’s mallet rumbles. The addition of piano and sax saw Mac embarking on a stunning tenor solo, probing deeply and expansively and delivering his best playing of the night. Hicks’ thoughtful piano solo was skilfully augmented by Thrupp’s nuanced drumming, sometimes with his bare hands. A superb collective performance all round.

From one great jazz composer to another and a version of the late, great saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Beauty and the Beast” from Shorter’s 1975 release “Native Dancer”. Combining airy Brazilian inspired melodies with odd meter rhythms this was another tour de force with exploratory solos from Hicks at the piano and Mac on soprano sax,  with the consistently impressive Thrupp also featuring at the drums.

The audience loved this and the deserved encore was an arrangement of the Kenny Garrett tune “Wayne’s Thang”, presumably named in honour of Shorter. This saw Mac moving back to alto, also Garrett’s main horn, and saw him sharing the solos with Hicks. Thrupp’s dialogue with Kacal’s bass eventually morphed into a full on drum feature, before Mac returned, this time soloing on soprano. A memorable end to an excellent evening.

This was a performance that had exceeded my expectations. Mac proved to be an excellent soloist on all three horns and his playing ranged way beyond the trad forms I had previously associated him with. He also handled the announcements and presented the show with wit and warmth. Hicks also impressed at the piano, and, perhaps more significantly as a composer. His début recording will be eagerly anticipated. I’ve seen both Kacal and Thrupp on numerous occasions recently and would expect nothing less than excellence and reliability from both. Thrupp is clearly something of a rising star, a conclusion affirmed by that recent ‘Glasto’ appearance.

The first BMJazzKatz / BMJ Collective event proved to be a great success and the next one will be keenly awaited, whatever the line up and whoever the guest. I believe a version of the BMJ Collective will also be accompanying saxophonist Simon Spillett when he visits Abergavenny on Wednesday 23rd August 2023.


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