by Ian Mann
July 02, 2019
Ian reports on a day of events hosted by Black Mountain Jazz as part of Abergavenny Arts Festival, including a new "Jazz Through The Ages" exhibition & a live performance by jazz-funk sextet Bunker.
Bunker, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 30/06/2019.
Joe Northwood – tenor sax, Jose Miguel Ruiz – keyboard, Chris James – guitar, Matt Thomas – electric bass, Simon Stuart – drums, Chris Stuart – percussion
Tonight’s performance by the Cardiff based jazz-funk sextet Bunker was part of a full day of events organised by Black Mountain Jazz at the Melville Centre as part of the 2019 Abergavenny Arts Festival.
Earlier in the day vocalist Naomi Rae had hosted a ‘Jazz for Little ‘uns’ session designed to introduce the joy of the music for two to four year olds, the third time BMJ had hosted organised such an event.
This was followed by a Jazz Improvisation Workshop run by the Port Talbot based pianist and composer Dave Jones, a regular and popular visitor to BMJ whether leading his own ensembles or playing as a sideman in the groups of others. The workshop was aimed at adult musicians in the early or intermediate stages of learning to improvise in a jazz context and was gratifyingly well attended.
Another important feature of the day was the unveiling of BMJ’s new Jazz Through The Ages Exhibition. The following extract culled from the Club’s website explains something about it;
“Here at BMJ we have created a dazzling series of ‘pop-up-posters’ telling the story of jazz. The thirteen posters – each around 3ft wide and 7ft high- can be easily unfurled and transported, so will feature at other events to signal BMJ’s presence. Jazz is an ongoing and developing music, but like all creative endeavours, it’s history is important, not least for those who are new to it and wish to learn more.”
The exhibition was the brainchild of BMJ founder and promoter Mike Skilton, who sourced much of the material. The banners were created by Abergavenny based graphic designer Jayne Goodwin and her company Art Matters and the text written by former newspaper journalist and current Jazz Journal contributor Nigel Jarrett, who lives locally and is a regular attender of BMJ events.
The new exhibition was available for perusal prior to the Bunker performance and made for impressive viewing. The panels chart the history of jazz from its late 19th century roots in New Orleans and in the blues to the present day. Skilton’s archive material, Goodwin’s clean, economical graphic design, and Jarrett’s succinct text combine to chart the history of jazz. Each poster focusses on a specific musical style or geographical location and features a photograph and words singling out a particularly significant musician associated with that place or musical style.
The history begins in New Orleans with Buddy Bolden and the blues of the Mississippi Delta with Bessie Smith. The next poster follows the migration of the music up the Mississippi with New Orleans born Louis Armstrong making the move to the ‘Windy City’ to pioneer what became known as the ‘Chicago Style’ of jazz. The music also made its mark in sophisticated New York City with Duke Ellington and reached its popularity during the ‘swing era’ of the 1930s and 40s, as illustrated by the ‘King of Swing’ Benny Goodman.
Charlie Parker is chosen to illustrate the bebop revolution while its offshoots of New York based hard bop and West Coast cool jazz are represented by Art Blakey and Gerry Mulligan respectively.
The ‘free jazz’ movement of the 1960s is represented by the radical saxophonist/violinist Ornette Coleman while the iconic, chameleon like Miles Davis is chosen to illustrate the development of modal jazz and jazz-rock fusion.
So far, so American but jazz has become a global music with a particularly strong tradition in Europe where the music has been played and appreciated since the 1920s. Out of many candidates the pioneering gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt has been selected to illustrate the history of jazz in Europe.
The penultimate panel looks at the music in the 21st century and looks toward the future, with bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding chosen depict the growing diversity of the musicians now playing jazz.
The final panel is a quirky glossary of some of the words associated with the music, an insight into the ‘jargon of jazz’ if you will.
The “Jazz Through The Ages” exhibition is an excellent introduction to the story of jazz and should prove to be an excellent investment for BMJ. Professionally produced to a very high standard of design it represents an excellent educational aid and the simplicity and portability of its design and manufacture should ensure that it is widely used. I assume that it will make a re-appearance at BMJ’s annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in late August/ early September but it would also make an excellent temporary exhibition in local schools and libraries.
Tonight’s performance by Bunker saw the band playing surrounded by the posters of the exhibition, a highly effective backdrop as can be seen in the photographic image accompanying this review.
Bunker are a six piece jazz-funk band based in Cardiff. Named after the famous Bunker recording studio in Brooklyn the sextet claims to be leaderless but is fronted by the tenor saxophone of Joe Northwood.
Originally from Shrewsbury Northwood has been based in Cardiff for a number of years following his studies at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. A leading figure on the music scene in the Welsh capital he leads his own groups, including the acclaimed trio Tuk Tuk, featuring bassist Aidan Thorne and drummer Paolo Adamo.
Northwood is also a great organiser, a real mover and shaker on the Cardiff jazz scene who promotes regular jazz events at Tiny Rebel Brewery’s flagship pub in Cardiff under the Echo Music banner. He also organises the regular Banshee Therapy Session jam nights at the Flute & Tankard.
Bunker brings Northwood together with a number of Cardiff’s other leading musicians in a sextet that covers all aspects and eras of the jazz-funk era. It’s a band that puts the emphasis on the groove and on having a good time and their repertoire includes a number of genre classics, some of them written by some very famous musicians. Bunker don’t try to compete, there is no emphasis on original material, but the group’s honest, no nonsense approach gives them a broad appeal, and not just to jazz audiences. They have accrued something of a cult following in South Wales and enjoy a residency at the Harbour Bar & Kitchen in Porthcawl and recently played the Swansea Waterfront Jazz & Blues Weekend.
Tonight saw them kicking off with the Herbie Hancock classic “Canteloupe Island”, a much loved tune that proved to be ideal vehicle for Northwood’s muscular tenor sax soloing above the infectious grooves generated by bassist Matt Thomas, drummer Simon Stuart and percussionist Chris Stuart, these last two presumably brothers, although I didn’t actually ask. Northwood was followed by keyboardist Jose Miguel Ruiz, who deployed an acoustic piano sound on his Nord Stage 2EX keyboard. It was my first sighting of Ruiz and I was highly impressed with the quality of his playing as he coaxed a wide range of sounds out of his keyboards and soloed with considerable flair and great authority. The final solo on this opening number came from guitarist Chris James, who brought a welcome blues element to the sextet’s music.
Bunker upped the funk quotient on US keyboard player Jeff Lorber’s “Tune 88” with a more overt funk groove accompanying the solos from Northwood on tenor, James on guitar and Ruiz on keyboard, this time delivering a combination of electric piano and synthesiser sounds.
“Chick’s Chums”, written by Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist John McLaughlin and presumably named for Chick Corea, kept the funk cauldron bubbling as Northwood shared the solos with Ruiz, the latter again adopting a classic electric piano or ‘Rhodes’ sound.
Bunker seem to have a particular fondness for Lorber’s music and his “C.M.H”, the abbreviation standing for “Chinese Medical Herbs”, maintained the energy levels with solos from James on guitar, Northwood on tenor and Ruiz on ‘Rhodes’.
Funk legend Pee Wee Ellis once played saxophone with James Brown but is now happily settled in the English West Country where he works regularly with musicians on the Bristol music scene. Northwood described Ellis’ composition “The Chicken” as “a crowd pleaser” and this classic of the funk genre featured a bass heavy groove and a Stevie Wonder clavinet style keyboard sound as Bunker strutted their way through the piece. Northwood delivered a rousing tenor sax solo before Ruiz switched to a Hammond organ sound on his keyboards to produce one of the most outstanding solos of the night.
Bunker paid tribute to the recently deceased US trumpeter and composer Roy Hargrove (1969-2018) with a version of his “Strasbourg St. Denis”, arguably Hargrove’s best known tune. This lowered the temperature a little with its softer, soul jazz sound with Ruiz returning to an acoustic piano setting as he shared the solos with James and Northwood.
A highly enjoyable first set concluded with “Bounce”, written by the American drummer, composer and bandleader Nate Smith. This brought an earthy, urban feel to the proceedings, something encouraged by Ruiz’s use of the clavinet sound once more as Northwood soloed on gutsy tenor sax.
After imbibing refreshments at the Melville Centre bar during the interval Bunker seemed to be even more fired up for the second set. A storming version of Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” got things off to a rousing start with Ruiz, on ‘electric piano’, sharing the solos with James and Northwood.
Next up was a hugely enjoyable instrumental take on the Steely Dan song “Peg”, sourced from the classic “Aja” album. This was very much a feature for Northwood who played the vocal melody line on tenor as well as acting as the principal instrumental soloist. Perhaps wisely James declined to try replicating Jay Graydon’s notoriously difficult guitar solo from the album recording.
It seemed to be classics all the way in this second set as drummer Billy Cobham’s fusion masterpiece “Red Baron” followed with Ruiz effecting a synth sound for his solo, followed by James on heavily distorted, rock influenced guitar and finally Northwood on tenor.
Chick Corea’s “Spain” brought some of the other players into the spotlight. Northwood’s opening tenor solo was followed by an extraordinarily fast and fluent bass feature from Harris that elicited one of the biggest cheers of the night, with guitarist James capturing the moment on his camera phone. Ruiz featured on ‘acoustic piano’ while percussionist Chris Stuart, an integral figure in the arrangements throughout, also cut loose on congas, bongos and numerous other percussive devices.
The old Average White Band hit “Pick Up The Pieces” encouraged at least one member of the audience to get to her feet and dance as Northwood delivered a blistering tenor solo above the choppy, infectious funk rhythms.
Less well known, but no less well received, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s “Wednesday” featured Ruiz on ‘acoustic piano’ and James on guitar as Northwood took a comparative ‘breather’ following his exertions on the AWB piece.
“Starchey”, by the Snarky Puppy offshoot Forq, brought the jazz-funk story up to date and proved to be something of a sonic juggernaut, headed by Northwood’s incisive tenor and with the saxophonist sharing the soloing with guitarist James.
The sextet’s arrangement of Miles Davis’ “All Blues” was effectively an encore and saw them subtly defusing the situation, closing things out on a slower, gentler note with drummer Chris Stuart picking up the brushes for the first and only time. Solos came from Northwood on tenor, Ruiz on electric piano and James on guitar, the latter bringing an appropriately bluesy feel to the music.
Bunker had delivered two hugely enjoyable and largely energetic sets of jazz funk with Northwood and Ruiz the outstanding soloists, ably supported by James and by a rhythm section that was commendably tight and genuinely funky. No doubt in other, less formal settings they get loads of people up and dancing but this listening, jazz club audience responded to them in a more cerebral way, genuinely appreciating the quality of the musicianship and giving them a great reception.
There may not have been anything startlingly original here but Bunker played their chosen material, many of the pieces being solid gold classics, with skill, verve and genuine affection. Their unpretentious, hard grooving approach communicated itself well to the audience and I, for one, would have no hesitation about going to see this band again. They haven’t been together for that long and will surely become even sharper and tighter as they continue to play together.
My thanks to Joe Northwood for speaking with me afterwards and providing details of some of the more obscure pieces in the Bunker repertoire.
A word too for Bath based Nick Steel, aka ‘The Wind-up Merchant’ who provided the musical backdrop to the Jazz Through The Ages exhibition and also entertained the crowd in the bar between Bunker’s sets with his vintage wind-up gramophones and collection of similarly vintage 78s. The material included classic jazz from the likes of Django Reinhardt and other musicians featured in the Exhibition to early rock’n’roll from artists such as Bill Haley during the break.
I rather enjoyed Steel’s contribution to BMJ’s ‘Day of Jazz’ at Abergavenny Arts Festival. It also brought back fond memories of the visit to the club by the similarly inclined Hugh Parry aka “The Sheik of Shellac” back in 2016 for a more extended presentation in the main house as part of a double bill with alto saxophonist Glen Manby’s quartet. Review here;
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