by Ian Mann
September 06, 2023
There was plenty of excellent singing and playing, with Meek and the Collective presenting a very eclectic and engaging batch of songs.
BMJ Collective with Sarah Meek, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 03/09/2023
Jack Mac (Jack McDougall) – tenor, alto & soprano saxophones, Nick Kacal – double bass, Ryan Thrupp – drums, percussion, with guest Sarah Meek – vocals
The BMJ Collective is essentially the ‘house band’ of Black Mountain Jazz. 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 the JazzKatz sessions the tutors are 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 have 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 vocalist and songwriter Sarah Meek, a previous visitor to the Club and a popular figure with the BMJ audience.
BMJ COLLECTIVE WITH SARAH MEEK
Cheshire born vocalist Sarah Meek gained a Masters Degree in Jazz Performance from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and decided that she liked the Welsh capital so much that she wanted to keep living and working in the city. Meek is a versatile vocalist who ‘earns a crust’ singing with pop, soul, blues, folk and function bands but her first love is jazz. She is also an accomplished pianist who accompanies herself at the keyboard for solo shows, but whenever I have seen her perform she has been in the company of others and has concentrated solely on singing.
Meek first visited BMJ in 2017 as part of a duo with pianist Guy Shotton. The pair played the opening set of a regular Club Night event with Shotton’s trio featuring bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Bob Richards taking over after the interval. Both performances are reviewed here;
Sarah Meek / Guy Shotton Trio - Sarah Meek / Guy Shotton Trio Black Mountain Jazz, The Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 26/03/2017. | Review | The Jazz Mann
In September 2017 Meek and Shotton returned to perform another standards based duo set in the Melville Centre bar as part of the Wall2Wall Festival. Again, this was very well received.
In 2018 Meek and Shotton returned once more as the co-leaders of Sheek Quartet, a group that also featured tonight’s bassist, Nick Kacal, plus BMJ Collective founder Alex Goodyear at the drums. This was another impressive performance with the band members impressing both individually and collectively. As at their duo gigs Shotton and Meek chose an interesting selection of material to work with, drawing on jazz standards and beyond. Meek studied classical piano before becoming a jazz singer and the Sheek Quartet combined her and Shotton’s shared love of French impressionistic composers such as Debussy and Ravel with their love of jazz. The group’s repertoire included jazz standards, jazz arrangements of material by Debussy and Ravel and a smattering of original compositions. Gig review here;
In 2020 Meek was part of the ‘Tomorrow’s Headliners’ livestream event that formed part of that year’s Virtual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. A ‘house trio’ (not yet dubbed the BMJ Collective) led by Alex Goodyear and featuring bassist Ashley John Long and pianist Michael Blanchfield accompanied a variety of guest instrumentalists and vocalists which included Meek plus saxophonists Josh Heaton and Dan Newberry, guitarist Alex Lockheartand trumpeter Thom Dalby. Review here;
Tomorrow’s Headliners, Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival 2020, Abergavenny. | Feature | The Jazz Mann
Meek was originally inspired by Ella Fitzgerald, who remains her primary influence, although Meek also mentions the influence of Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, the other members of the ‘Holy Trinity of Jazz Singing’. Meek cites Fitzgerald’s sense of fun and playfulness and her spirit of adventure, these qualities helping her to stand out as an absolute favourite. Meek also performs in the highly popular “Ella and Louis” tribute show, with Swansea based pianist, trumpeter and vocalist Dave Cottle fulfilling the Armstrong role. “We play it cabaret style, and the audiences love it”, explains Meek.
Meek’s collaboration with Guy Shotton is currently on hold as the pianist is currently undertaking post-graduate studies in New York City. However the singer now leads her own quintet, which includes Kacal, and is also a member of the folk / jazz trio Flame Trees, which performs the music of Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, June Tabor and others. Kacal is also a member of the line up and Meek has previously guested with Kacal’s own group Guerillasound, notably at the 2019 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival.
Meek is also a featured vocalist with the Swansea based Power of Gower Big Band and leads the Cardiff based Accordia Community Choir.
Tonight’s show with the BMJ Collective touched upon many of Meek’s bases as the material embraced jazz standards, inspired covers of pop and rock material and one Meek original.
The ensemble began in familiar standards territory with Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone”, a song that has long been in Meek’s repertoire. This included instrumental solos from Mac on tenor sax and Meek’s regular collaborator Kacal at the bass. The performance included with a series of scat vocal and brushed drum exchanges.
I’ve written before about Meek’s adventurousness as a vocalist. This was epitomised by her choice of the Steve Swallow composition “Ladies in Mercedes”, originally written as an instrumental for vibraphonist Gary Burton but later becoming a song with the addition of a witty and sophisticated lyric by the British vocalist Norma Winstone. The song was later also recorded by the late, great Tina May, Meek’s vocal tutor at the RWCMD. Meek’s version was inspired by Tina’s and thus acted as a kind of homage. Meek’s singing of the technically challenging lyrics was augmented by instrumental solos from Mac on tenor and Kacal on bass, plus a closing drum feature from Thrupp, this including an extensive hand drumming episode.
The choice of the Jule Styne song “I Fall In Love Too Easily” was inspired by a Chet Baker recording but saw the quartet adopting a challenging ¾ arrangement featuring the plaintive sound of Mac’s alto alongside double bass and brushed drums.
Tom Waits is a contemporary songwriter whose works have become increasingly popular with jazz performers. Tonight’s version of “Take It With Me” was ushered in by Kacal at the bass and much of the song featured voice and double bass only, a reminder of Waits’ close working relationship with bassist Greg Cohen. These voice and bass episodes bookended the song, with Mac providing the instrumental solo on soprano sax.
Mac remained on soprano for a second inspired rock cover, an arrangement of the Jimi Hendrix song “Fire” that included off mic backing vocals from the three instrumentalists. Mac took the first solo before the bass / drum dialogue between Kacal and Thrupp evolved into a full on solo from the latter.
After four very adventurous, and very successful, song choices the quartet took us into the interval with something a little more familiar. This was a playful arrangement of the standard “The Way You Look Tonight” with Thrupp’s vigorously brushed drums combining with Kacal’s bass to underpin Mac’s tenor sax soloing.
Meek has an impressive facility for scat vocalising and this was allowed full rein on the opening number of the second set, the Charlie Parker bebop tune “Anthropology”. Meek’s playful scatting was matched by Mac’s often humorous tenor solo and there were also features for Kacal and Thrupp. Parker’s tune is a ‘contrafact’, based on the chord changes of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and eventually the tune morphed into Gershwin’s song, with Meek singing the lyrics.
Bass and brushed drums introduced the ballad “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You”, with Meek’s yearning vocals augmented by Mac’s blues tinged tenor sax.
Meek’s original song “Waves” has featured in her set lists for some time and is at last to be recorded on the forthcoming “Light” EP, which will be produced by Kacal. Inspired by Meek’s love of the sea the piece featured suitably rolling rhythms and included an expansive soprano sax solo from Mac. Meek informed us that the song has been played on Jazz FM’s ‘ Four Corners’ series, representing ‘Jazz in Wales’.
The sea imagery and Brazilian flavourings of “Waves” suggested the influence of Antonio Carlos Jobim, so it was perhaps appropriate that one of his songs should be played next. Inspired by Al Jarreau’s recording tonight’s rendition of “Agua De Beber” saw Meek singing both the Portuguese and English lyrics alongside an alto sax solo from Mac and another Kacal / Thrupp dialogue that evolved into a drum feature.
Another foray into the world of contemporary pop with “Toxically Material”, a piece described by Meek as “a fun number” and a “mash up”. This proved to be a meld of Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic” that proved to be extremely effective – and great fun, as promised. Introduced by Thrupp at the drums the performance incorporated soprano sax, arco bass and a mallet driven drum feature. I often find that modern pop songs such as these work remarkably well in a jazz context – take away the electronics and the sheen of modern production techniques and songs like these actually stand up rather well.
This was scheduled to be the last number of the set, but inevitably the audience loved it and it was no surprise that the Collective and their guest remained on stage for an encore. This was the Duke Ellington blues “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”, with Meek both singing the lyrics and scatting, with Mac adding a rootsy tenor sax solo. As previously Kacal and Thrupp’s engaging bass / drum dialogues again evolved into a full on feature for the latter.
Kacal cuts a distinctive figure in his trademark Panama Hat, which he also wears off stage. During the second set Thrupp sported a couple of hats of his own in a spirit of friendly competition. It’s good to see the rhythm team sharing an ‘in joke’. Why should the singers and front line soloists have all the fun?
And fun this gig certainly was, but there was plenty of excellent singing and playing too, with Meek and the band presenting a very eclectic and engaging batch of songs. It was also interesting to see Meek responding to the challenge of singing with what was essentially a chordless trio, not something that she has to do very often I suspect. It highlighted the flexibility of her voice and her ability as an improviser.
The band seemed very pleased with their night’s work, as did the audience, who went home whistling that ear worm of the closing Ellington tune, the Duke quickly putting Madonna and Britney in their place!
This was a highly successful event with a high audience turnout on a warm summer’s evening and with plenty of the young JazzKatz in attendance together with their families. The next BMJ Collective plus Guest event will be very keenly anticipated.
But first we have the annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, which will take place at the Melville Centre over the weekend of 29th September to 1st October 2023. Details at http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk
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