by Ian Mann
November 28, 2023
A mix of jazz standards and songs from various folk traditions. A great way to round off the 2023 Club Programme at Black Mountain Jazz.
Claire Roberts Trio, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 26/11/2023.
Claire Roberts – vocals, violin, Josh Vadiveloo – double bass, Louis Odell – piano
Vocalist, violinist and occasional pianist Claire Victoria Roberts first came to the attention of the Black Mountain Jazz audience when she appeared at the 2019 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival.
Roberts was the final act of the Festival and appeared with Cardiff based pianist Guy Shotton under the band name Claire Victoria Duo. Despite not having worked together before the pair presented a successful and enjoyable set of standards based material, incorporating jazz, swing and blues. My account of that performance at the Kings Head venue can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;
Originally from Carmarthen Roberts learned violin from her father and later studied music and composition at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music and at Bangor University. She remained based in Manchester for a number of years, “it’s the kind of place that just sucks you in” she says.
At the time of the 2019 Wall2Wall performance Roberts was concurrently a member of the Manchester based Texas swing ensemble The Swing Commanders, for whom she played violin and sang. My review of the 2019 Swing Commanders album “In Transit” can be found here;
In 2020 I covered Roberts’ debut solo album “Cheating Hearts”, recorded with a rotating cast of backing musicians including her father Norman Roberts and her Swing Commanders colleagues Dan Smith (guitar) and Stuart Smith (drums). Review here;
Roberts has also worked with Manchester based pianist, composer and improviser Adam Fairhall as part of his “The Imaginary Delta Project”.
But there’s more to Roberts than just her jazz career. Classically trained she is a highly versatile musician and composer who has written for classical ensembles large and small, and has also has also composed for choral, dance and theatre productions and digital installations. She has also worked with numerous folk musicians. Further details of Roberts’ musical activities, particularly in the classical sphere, can be found at her website http://www.clairevictoriaroberts.com
Following her successful appearance at the 2019 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival Roberts was due to visit BMJ for a regular club night in April 2020 to showcase music from the then recently released “Cheating Hearts” album. She was due to be joined by pianist Alex Hill and bassist Grant Russell, both of whom had appeared on the recording, but of course that gig fell victim to the Covid pandemic.
During the lockdown period Black Mountain Jazz did its best to support the musicians whose planned gigs with them had been cancelled. Together with guitarist Remi Harris and saxophonist / vocalist Kim Cypher Roberts was one of the musicians e-interviewd as part of BMJ’s series of “Sorry We Missed You” interviews. You can read what Roberts and the others had to say about their lockdown experiences here;
Black Mountain Jazz took the decision to make the 2020 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival a ‘virtual’ event and invited those artists who had had BMJ club events cancelled due to the pandemic to be part of the online Festival.
Roberts was happy to accept and took on the challenge of a brand new project specifically for the occasion. As a jazz vocalist Roberts has expressed her fondness for the music of Carmen McRae (1920-94), naming the American vocalist and pianist as a primary influence. Other inspirations for Roberts include Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Jane Monheit and Amy Winehouse.
With 2020 representing the centenary of McRae’s birth and with the Festival also featuring two other high profile ‘Remembering’ projects commemorating saxophonist Charlie Parker and singer Peggy Lee, also both born in 1920, Roberts’ decision to honour McRae seemed particularly apposite.
Roberts’ choice certainly represented something of a musical challenge as she elected to pay homage to McRae by performing songs from the 1988 album “Carmen Sings Monk”. This recording, from comparatively late in McRae’s career, saw her singing ‘vocalese’ interpretations of Thelonious Monk tunes, with lyrics provided by Jon Hendricks, Shirley Swisher, Mike Ferro and Abbey Lincoln. As Roberts explained at the time each tune was given a new ‘vocalese’ title in order to avoid copyright issues.
Roberts’ performance was filmed and recorded by Mark Viveash at BMJ’s regular home, the Melville Centre, and featured bassist Grant Russell and pianist George King. The finished video featured the Roberts Trio’s interpretations of songs from the “Carmen Sings Monk” album, interspersed with Roberts’ spoken commentary, which offered an insights into the story behind the recording, the life and career of Carmen McRae, and McRae’s influence on Roberts. The full review of this excellent performance, which was streamed in October 2020 can be found here;
Several of the musicians who appeared as part of the 2020 Virtual Festival have since returned to BMJ to play in front of a live audience. The latest of these was Roberts, who had initially intended to reprise the McRae project but eventually decided to perform a diverse set of songs that meant something more specifically personal to her. This included a mix of jazz standards and songs from various folk traditions. She was to be featured singing in English, Welsh, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
Roberts had travelled to the gig from Carmarthen and was joined by two young musicians from Birmingham, double bassist Josh Vadiveloo and pianist Louis Odell. I was already familiar with Vadiveloo’s playing after seeing him perform twice with saxophonist Xhosa Cole earlier in the year at events in Ross-on Wye and Kidderminster.
Roberts and Vadiveloo had played a number of duo gigs earlier in the year and it was the bassist that brought Odell along to the gig as a last minute replacement. Not only was he a new name to me but he was also a new name to Roberts. Not that you would have known it, such was the quality of his performance.
I’m pleased to report that the theatre at the Melville Centre was again close to capacity, a tribute to the quality of Roberts’ previous appearances in Abergavenny, both live and online. It was also indicative of the fact that Black Mountain Jazz is definitely a jazz club that is booming.
The evening began with Roberts singing “These Foolish Things”, accompanied by Vadiveloo and Odell. The quality of Roberts’ voice was immediately apparent, her vocals were pure and well enunciated and she also exhibited a real talent for jazz phrasing. Vadiveloo took the first instrumental solo on double bass, before handing over seamlessly to Odell at the Melville’s acoustic upright piano.
In 2021 Roberts released the digital EP “Noir”, which was the source of her arrangement of the traditional French song “Aupres de ma blonde”. This began with Roberts playing unaccompanied violin and singing the lyrics in French. The addition of bass and piano saw an acceleration in pace and the piece segued into a Roberts arrangement of a Welsh fiddle tune, which brought a distinct Celtic element to the music.
The Roberts original “Swooping of Swallows” introduced a more contemporary jazz feel, but this was still a song firmly rooted in the jazz tradition. Her vocals and lyrics were augmented by an expansive piano solo from Odell, who sang along to himself in Keith Jarrett-like fashion as he played. Roberts was also featured as an instrumentalist, with high register violin approximating the swooping of the swallows like a kind of musical / avian companion to “The Lark Ascending”. Her performance also included the first of several scat vocal episodes.
Voice and violin introduced the jazz standard “Get Out Of Town”, which again included wordless vocals in addition to instrumental solos for violin, double bass and piano. This was an item that was very well received, as most of the jazz standards were. Personally I was pleased that Roberts had chosen to include songs from outside the immediate jazz tradition too and didn’t just concentrate exclusively on the ‘Great American Songbook’. Nevertheless I have to admit that it was the jazz standards that offered Vadiveloo and Odell with the best opportunities for stretching out and both responded with some thrilling instrumental solos. These, allied to the familiarity of the material and Roberts’ skilled vocal interpretations of it, certainly appealed to the Abergavenny audience.
There was a similarly favourable reaction to “It Could Happen To You”, which saw Roberts put down the violin to concentrate on singing. The performance included a further scat vocal episode plus instrumental solos from both piano and double bass, with another seamless changeover. I would surmise that Vadiveloo and Odell have worked together regularly, and although Roberts and Odell hadn’t met before Vadiveloo was able to act as the bridge between the pair.
Roberts has always exhibited an affinity with the singing and songwriting of Billie Holiday and delivered a particularly poignant and emotive interpretation of “Fine and Mellow”, initially singing with just piano accompaniment as she and Odell quickly established an impressive rapport. Scat vocals were to feature once more, alongside instrumental solos for piano and double bass. Not to be outdone Vadiveloo started singing along to his solos too!
An excellent first half concluded with Roberts’ arrangement of the jazz standard “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”, a song that she recorded on the “Cheating Hearts” album. This was introduced by unaccompanied double bass and featured a passage for bass and voice only. Odell subsequently joined the proceedings and added the final instrumental solo of the first set.
Set two commenced with Roberts delivering a stunning solo vocal performance of “God Bless The Child”, another song from the canon of Billie Holiday. An emotive reading combined fluent phrasing with wordless vocalising, a remarkable introduction to the second half.
Unaccompanied piano ushered in the jazz standard “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”, which featured the assured singing of Roberts, plus instrumental solos from Odell and Vadiveloo and a final pianistic flourish.
The selection of the French song “Le mal de vivre”, which also appears on the “Noir” EP was inspired by a version performed by the French singer Barbara. Initially featuring just voice and piano this was another song that was performed exclusively in French.
Roberts introduced yet another language as she delivered the Portuguese lyric of the Jobim classic “Dindi”, another performance that included an exceptional instrumental contribution from Odell.
Roberts continued to demonstrate her linguistic talents as a traditional Welsh folk song written to celebrate the coming of spring was segued with the Spanish song “Oracion del remanso”, traditionally sung by Spanish fishermen as they ask God to “fill their nets with fish”. The Welsh song was performed by Roberts solo, simultaneously singing and playing violin. The Spanish song featured her voice and Odell’s piano. This was a sequence that was particularly pertinent to Roberts, who no longer lives in Manchester but now divides her time between her native Carmarthen and Barcelona.
There was a return to more conventional jazz territory with a sensuous rendition of “Slow Boat To China”, although the title of the song fitted in well with the overall globe trotting theme of this second set. This was another piece that allowed Odell and Vadiveloo to stretch out with instrumental solos. Again, this was a piece that was very well received by the Abergavenny audience.
It was particularly enjoyable to listen to the rarely heard lyrics of “Body and Soul”, a song usually performed as an instrumental. Roberts’ yearning vocals were augmented by a lyrical and melodic double bass solo from the excellent Vadiveloo and an expansive piano solo from Odell.
Set two concluded with an audaciously fast paced rendition of “Lover Come Back To Me”, with Vadiveloo setting the tempo at the bass. Roberts’ sassy vocal delivery was then augmented by inspired instrumental solos from her two bandmates,
The BMJ crowd had loved both this and “Body and Soul” and the well deserved encore represented the only dip into Roberts’ Carmen McRae inspired repertoire as the trio performed the vocalese version of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser”. A playful performance also incorporated scat vocals plus instrumental solos from piano and bass. A great way to end an excellent evening of music making.
It may have taken more than three years to get Claire Roberts onto the Melville Centre stage in front of a live audience but it was well worth the wait. Everybody that I spoke to after the show said how much they had enjoyed it, with many remarking on the beauty of Roberts’ voice and the enormity of her talent. This had been a great way to round off the 2023 Club Programme at BMJ.
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