by Ian Mann
June 08, 2015
A well balanced programme that visited a variety of primarily American music styles and unearthed some of their common roots.
Chris Quinn, Black Mountain Jazz, Abergavenny, 31/05/2015.
Chris Quinn is a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter based in Shrewsbury who has been a popular presence on the live music scene in the Midlands and the Welsh Borders for a number of years, both as a solo performer and as half of a duo with fellow guitar player, singer and songsmith James Hickman. These two once traded under the name The Badgers before adopting the more prosaic Hickman & Quinn with the release of their highly accomplished début album “Times” in 2009, a collection of excellent original songs with both musicians contributing to the writing process.
Quinn is a versatile musician who began performing as a folk singer but whose style now embraces blues, pop and jazz. He has fulfilled the role of rhythm guitarist in groups led by the Shropshire born, Amsterdam based gypsy jazz guitar virtuoso Robin Nolan and has also helped to promote jazz and other music at the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse venue in his adopted home town. He is also an acclaimed educator and teaches guitar across a variety of styles in Shrewsbury and the surrounding area.
In 2012 Quinn released the album “The Odd Couple”, a good natured collaboration with the Dutch guitarist and vocalist Arthur Ebeling, a frequent and popular visitor to the UK. The duo tackle a number of well known songs drawn from a variety of genres and the record is given additional rhythmic impetus by the presence of double bass player Tom Hill. Live shows by Ebeling and Quinn are always hugely enjoyable affairs that combine a high standard of musicianship with a genuine sense of bonhomie.
I’ve seen Quinn perform in a variety of contexts over the years ranging from solo pub appearances to arts centre shows with Nolan’s trio. Tonight’s performance at Black Mountain Jazz fell somewhere between these two extremes - yes, the venue was a pub but this was a fee paying audience that was both supportive and attentive, something of a change from the beer swilling and sometimes frankly boorish crowds that I’ve seen him play to at open house pub gigs in the past. Of course Quinn is experienced enough to deal with these situations but it was still nice to be able to hear him properly for a change and I was also curious to see how he would adapt his act to deal with what was primarily a jazz club crowd. In the event Quinn quickly got the audience on his side by turning immediately to the blues with a powerful rendition of Robert Johnson’s classic “Me And The Devil Blues”.
In deference to the jazz club audience we next heard a bona fide jazz classic, Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, with Quinn’s guitar and vocal version demonstrating both the timelessness and the sheer adaptability of a song that many jazz listeners may know best as an instrumental.
Having won over his listeners Quinn now played one of his original compositions, the song “The World Keeps Spinning Around”, an uplifting tune that appears on the Hickman & Quinn album “Times”. Quinn revealed that despite its bluegrass stylings the tune had actually been written on a visit to Iceland - “that’s the country, not the supermarket”!
The vintage blues repertoire was revisited with Quinn’s interpretation of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee’s delta classic “The Sporting Life Blues”, a song tackled by Ebeling and Quinn on the “Odd Couple” album.
“Shady Grove” marked a return to the bluegrass style and was a tune derived from the Scottish folk ballad “Matty Groves”, a song made famous by Fairport Convention. Quinn explained that his version was a “New World mutation” that had added different lyrics to an existing melody, a common occurrence in 19th century America in the wake of waves of immigration from the British Isles and mainland Europe. The melody was immediately recognisable as the familiar “Matty Groves” but the lyrics seemed to be rather less grim and bloodthirsty!
At this point Quinn switched his “folk guitar” for the “jazz guitar” that he plays with Robin Nolan. This is a facsimile of the 1930’s guitars played by Django Reinhardt and his colleagues in the Quintette du Hot Club de France. These modern day copies with the large sound holes that were designed specifically for the playing of “gypsy jazz” are manufactured by JWC Guitars in the Forest of Dean, a company founded by the Korean luthier Jeongwoo Cho. Nolan and Quinn are both officially endorsed by the company and JWC also supplies rising guitar star Remi Harris, another recent visitor to Black Mountain Jazz.
Hitherto Quinn had stood at the mic and played and sung in the style of a folk singer. Now he clambered onto a tall stool and from a seated position delivered a segue of tunes associated with Django Reinhardt. Both “My Blue Heaven” and “China Town” featured plenty of feverish Django style picking and strumming alongside Quinn’s confident vocals.
The “jazz guitar” was also used to play the blues as Quinn returned to the Robert Johnson repertoire for the enduringly popular “Sweet Home Chicago” in an arrangement that included some extended instrumental breaks in which Quinn demonstrated his virtuosity.
Moving back to his “other guitar” Quinn played an instrumental influenced by the style of fellow guitarist Clive Carroll plus an original song written in New Jersey Airport prior to an imminent return to England. It’s a song I’d heard played at Quinn solo gigs before but the title was unannounced and now eludes me. The lyrics are full of quintessential English imagery and the music was also influenced by folk artists Nic Jones and Martin Simpson.
A hugely enjoyable first set concluded with a rousing version of “Never Tire Of The Road”, a song written by the guitarist Andy Irvine, a musician who has played with Planxty, Paul Brady and Van Morrison. The lyrics addressed the genius of the late, great Woody Guthrie and his political ideals, subjects that remain distressingly pertinent in the 21st century. However I should stress that Quinn is not an overtly political artist and his appeal to the BMJ audience was based almost entirely on musical virtues allied to an affable and humorous presenting style. A richly varied first set that covered a lot of musical ground was very well received.
The second half began with the “folk guitar” and Quinn’s take on “Comin, Down In The Rain”, a song written by the Nashville based singer and songwriter Buddy Mondlock. The best known recording of the tune is by Nanci Griffith and it was her version of the tune and its evocative lyrics that inspired Quinn to cover it.
Quinn’s own “Blues, Blues, Blues” was written specifically for Arthur Ebeling and one could imagine it being sung in the Dutchman’s quirky style.
Quinn’s obvious love of bluegrass was again in expressed in his version of “New River Train”, a traditional American folk song popularised by the blind guitarist and vocalist Doc Watson(1923-2012).
A playful version of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” combined Quinn’s singing of Andy Razaf’s salacious lyrics with a series of “Djangoisms” on the “Folk Guitar”.
A powerful version of Willie Dixon’s “My Babe” saw Quinn returning to blues territory and tipping his hat to the bass playing Dixon with a low register solo on his guitar’s top strings.
“Dream A Little Dream Of Me” featured a more conventional jazz guitar sound but it was a barnstorming version of “I Got Rhythm” on the JWC guitar that really delighted the BMJ crowd. Combining vocals with Django style guitar playing that included some prodigious string bending Quinn gave a remarkable performance that saw his guitar fulfilling both a melodic and rhythmic function. “It’s not easy doing three jobs” he explained to an appreciative audience that included a number of fellow guitar players.
“From Four Till Late” represented a last dip into the Robert Johnson songbook and was followed by a Reinhardt inspired version of the jazz standard “All Of Me”, the latter a song tackled by Ebeling and Quinn on the “Odd Couple” album.
Among Quinn’s chief influences is the Irish guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Paul Brady who first came to prominence alongside Andy Irvine in the band Planxty. Quinn chose to finish with Brady’s setting of the traditional Irish rebel song “Arthur McBride And The Soldier”, another rousing song with a political edge.
A deserved encore saw Quinn performing his own “Fly Away” which combined his urgent guitar playing and impassioned vocals with highly literate lyrics on what was a very good song indeed.
Despite being a performer who is not primarily a jazz musician Quinn went down very well with a BMJ crowd that included many regulars. The warmth of the reception was a tribute to a well balanced programme that visited a variety of primarily American music styles and unearthed some of their common roots. It was a show that was presented with a ready wit combined with Quinn’s thorough love and knowledge of his source material.
More importantly Quinn’s own songs were also highly commendable and he is due to record a full length solo album shortly which will feature a highly accomplished supporting cast including Robin Nolan, American double bass player Larry Melton and percussionist/bodhran player Cormac Byrne who has played with folk rock superstar Seth Lakeman, jazz trumpeter Neil Yates, the band Uiscedwr and others. It’s a release that will be eagerly awaited and should represent a huge step forward for the versatile and talented Quinn. In the meantime a good evening’s work saw him making many new friends in Abergavenny. Engaging Quinn probably represented something of a leap of faith for BMJ organiser Mike Skilton but it was a gamble that paid off to the benefit of all concerned, artist, promoter and audience.
From Chris Quinn via Facebook;
Thanks Ian, I enjoyed reading the review! It’s nice as I think you captured what I was trying to do live in words pretty much bang on. Normally my solo sets are even less jazzy than that nowadays. I’m going for the British/American folk sound which I guess is where my roots are. I save the jazz for when I’m playing with groups, It’s really hard on your own (unless your name’s Martin Taylor or John Etheridge!). Anyway, thanks again for coming and your review.
From Mike Skilton via email;
Thanks for the review - as usual it was also an education - great stuff
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