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Carmina, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Theatre, Abergavenny, 31/01/2016.

Photography: Photograph sourced from the Black Mountain Jazz website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

February 02, 2016


Ian Mann watches the Bristol based folk/jazz crossover group Carmina get the new era at Black Mountain Jazz off to a great start.

Carmina, Black Mountain Jazz, The Melville Theatre, Abergavenny, 31/01/2016.

A new year and a new start for Black Mountain Jazz at their new HQ, the seventy seat theatre at the Melville Centre in Abergavenny. Housed in the former King Henry VIII Grammar School the Melville Centre is a community project that began as a Drama Centre and is the home of the Gwent Youth Theatre plus several other community groups.

The Melville Centre is becoming an increasingly important focal point for the cultural life of Abergavenny and for 2016 BMJ have decided to move their activities there from their former base at the Kings Arms. Despite a few initial teething problems regarding heating and lighting BMJ’s tenure at their new home got off to a successful start with around fifty five paying customers enjoying this inaugural concert by the jazz/folk crossover group Carmina, a particularly apposite choice given that their performance coincided with BBC Radio 3’s ‘Folk Connections’ weekend.

Carmina are a Bristol based band based around the songwriting axis of Pippa Marland and Rob King. Lead vocalist Marland also plays alto and soprano saxophones plus a variety of Irish whistles. King is an acoustic guitar specialist whose playing forms the backbone of the group’s arrangements.

A glance at the band’s website reveals that they have been together since 1995 and recorded a total of three studio albums, one in Bristol and two in Dublin, plus a live recording made in Cork. The Dublin albums are produced by, and feature the playing of, the leading Irish folk musician guitarist Donal Lunny.

So much for Carmina’s folk credentials but the group have had a fluctuating line up over the years that has included a number of top contemporary jazz musicians including pianist Geoff Castle, saxophonist Julian Nicholas, bassist David Goodier and drummers Nic France and Dave Early – heavy company indeed. The late Pete Jacobsen also performed with the band and was a considerable influence on their music. Marland also cites the influence on her playing of the Irish jazz saxophonist Richie Buckley who appears on two of Carmina’s albums as well as performing regularly with Van Morrison. Tonight’s version of the band was a quartet featuring Marland and King plus Paul Bradley on guitar and vocals and Gina Griffin on violin and vocals.

Carmina’s material includes original songs and instrumentals written by Marland or King plus traditional folk ballads and covers of songs by such respected writers and performers as Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. Kicking off their Abergavenny show the personable Marland described their output as “jazz and other musics” as they commenced proceedings with the original song “Bird Of Paradise” which also incorporated the traditional Irish folk tune “The Maid Behind The Bar” - “it always helps to get the bar staff onside” quipped Marland. The song featured Marland’s pure but expressive vocals allied to the guitars of King and Bradley plus Griffin’s violin. King and Bradley shared lead and rhythm duties as Marland moved between alto sax and whistles but Griffin’s violin was rather too low in the mix, a problem that wasn’t fully rectified until the second set.

Next came “Weather Of The Heart”, the title track of Carmina’s 1995 Dublin recorded début, a very effective song with lyrics inspired by a line in the poem “Storm Warning” by the American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) - “weather abroad and weather in the heart come on regardless of prediction”. Described by Marland as “a song in praise of grumpiness” the intelligent , poetic lyrics were punctuated by instrumental cameos for guitar, violin and alto saxophone.

Similarly effective was “Blessed Are The Broken”, the idea for the song coming from a quote by Groucho Marx - “blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light ”, or something similar, maybe it inspired Leonard Cohen too. Carmina’s song won first prize at the Tipperary Peace Festival in 2007 and its an effective and intelligent piece of songwriting with lyrics that take Marx’s phrase and turn into a hymn for the downtrodden with Marland’s low whistle playing giving the music an authentically Irish flavour.

Carmina’s love of jazz was expressed in “Song For Jim Pepper”, their tribute in song to the late Native American saxophonist and composer Jim Pepper (1941-92). The lyrics tell of witnessing a Pepper live performance at the now legendary Albert pub in Bristol back in the day. The tune incorporates the melody of Pepper’s most famous composition “Witchi Tai To”, itself based on a Native American peyote chant. Jazz listeners are most likely to be familiar with “Witchi Tai To” from versions by Oregon and Jan Garbarek, the latter liked the the tune so much that he recorded it twice, at sessions nearly twenty years apart. Carmina’s song included enjoyable instrumental solos for both alto sax and violin but despite the obvious sincerity of the words I found these rather too cloying and obvious.

As the Pepper song demonstrated many of Marland’s songs incorporate a strong element of autobiography. “Landmarks” was concerned with “memory and musical memory” and included several references to Bristolian locations as well as allusions to the music and lyrics of Duke Ellington, Joni Mitchell, The Smiths and, most poignantly of all, the recently deceased David Bowie as the band members name checked their multifarious musical landmarks and influences in an impressive display of harmony singing (Marland, Bradley, Griffin). Centred around the refrain of “landmarks written on the body and carried in the heart” this effective and intelligent song also included a violin feature from Griffin who often accompanied her solos with wordless vocals in the manner of Keith Jarrett and other jazz soloists.

King’s instrumental “Jenny O’Brien’s Minuet” is scheduled for the band’s new album which is due to be recorded in May 2016. This gave the group a chance to demonstrate their ‘chops’ via a series of guitar exchanges (also featuring Bradley’s wordless vocals) as Marland moved between soprano and alto sax, forming an eerily textured but interesting alliance with Griffin’s violin.

The first set concluded with the band’s imaginative and rousing arrangement of the English folk ballad “Lord Franklin” with its lyrics telling the tale of the ill fated 1845 expedition in search of the North West Passage. Bradley’s use of melodica added an unusual touch to the arrangement alongside Griffin’s violin and Marland’s low whistle and subsequent alto sax. 

Set two began with the new original song “Twentythree (In The Morning)”, which was introduced by an impressive passage of solo guitar from Bradley and included a violin solo from Griffin in which the fiddle could be heard properly at last. I noted that the song itself was in the style of Joni Mitchell, an acknowledged influence on Marland’s writing.

It therefore seemed particularly apposite that a superbly performed version of Mitchell’s own “Edith and the Kingpin” should be up next, a tune sourced from the Mitchell album “The Hissing Of Lawns”.  This featured King re-tuning his guitar in order to play the piece in Mitchell’s own unique tuning. Instrumental solos from Marland on soprano sax and Griffin on violin helped to underline Mitchell’s own love of jazz – her admiration of the music of Charles Mingus is well documented and her touring band once included such jazz luminaries as Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny.

The original song “Love Like Angels” was a tale of unrequited love and represented the title track of Carmina’s album from 2000, recorded at Christchurch Studios in Bristol.

A newer instrumental from the pen of King, provisionally titled “No Riff Raff” was said to be based on a Christmas carol but I failed to detect which one it actually was – as did the rest of the audience I rather suspect. Nevertheless it was an attractive tune with some excellent interplay between the two guitars and between violin and soprano sax with Griffin again accompanying her fiddle solo with her distinctive wordless, quarter tone vocals.

Bradley took over the vocals for a charming piece of whimsy that Marland described as being “an Irish nonsense song” with lyrics telling the tale of a man being tormented in his sleep by ‘the little people’. Griffin’s fiddle solo combined with King’s bodhran to lend an appropriately Celtic atmosphere to the piece.

The band’s admiration for the music of Van Morrison and his band found expression in an arrangement of “Moondance” featuring Marland’s smoky alto sax plus instrumental solos from Griffin and King. Personally I wish they’d sought out something less familiar from the Morrison canon, “Moondance” has been claimed by the supper club crooner set and has become far too over familiar. I’m afraid that I found Marland’s vocals here rather unconvincing too.

I much preferred her singing her own material such as the following “Thin Blue Line”, sourced from “Love Like Angels”. This tale of discontent and domestic unrest represented a strong, intelligent piece of original writing with the instrumental highlights coming in the violin and guitar exchanges and Marland’s playing of both alto sax and whistle.

Carmina concluded their show with a good natured romp through Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, effectively an encore with plenty of room for the musicians to express themselves instrumentally with Marland on soprano sax sharing the solos with Griffin and Bradley. Mitchell’s song then segued into a fiddle led jig (or maybe it was a reel, I never could quite tell the difference) with Bradley using the body of his guitar as percussion, great fun.

Carmina’s performance got the new era at Black Mountain Jazz off to an excellent start and their music seemed to be appreciated by the majority of the crowd. Marland presented the group’s repertoire with considerable wit and charm and there was much to enjoy about the performance, particularly some of the high quality original songs. It was closer to folk than jazz and there were times when I found it a bit too twee for my tastes and I’ll also admit that I sometimes missed the presence of bass and drums -  but the positives far outweighed the negatives. 

The gig was a welcome reminder of the broad range of music that BMJ present and I hope that they can continue to attract similarly high attendances at their new home. 2016 looks set to be an exciting year for Black Mountain Jazz.

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