Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Claire Victoria Roberts

Claire Roberts Trio - Carmen McRae Sings Monk - Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival 2020, Abergavenny.

by Ian Mann

October 16, 2020


A highly impressive performance from the young, Welsh born musician, who tackled some pretty challenging and complex material with considerable aplomb.

Claire Roberts Trio, “Carmen McRae Sings Monk”

Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival 2020,

Filmed and recorded at the Melville Centre, Abergavenny

Performance first streamed 15/10/2020, available via ticket only until 28/11/2020

Tickets available from;


From the Black Mountain Jazz website

The Corona virus pandemic has frustrated plans for most live music events and the need to find alternatives has been a priority.

The wall2wall Jazz Festival, promoted by Abergavenny’s Black Mountain Jazz, has been no exception and this year it will be a ‘virtual’ event.

There are different ways of producing a ‘virtual’ music event.  Our approach has been to record the programme live during the summer months and then – keeping to the planned October festival dates – stream the resulting videos.

Eight of the videos were produced in Abergavenny’s Melville Theatre and the other was commissioned and filmed in Argentina.

At the early planning stage, we took two important decisions:

that artists should be paid the full fee that they would expect for a live performance; and

that we would engage the very best sound, camera and editing technicians.

These decisions have cost implications and ticketing the festival’s programme is necessary.  However, we have kept ticket prices low.


Claire Roberts – vocals, violin, George King – piano, Grant Russell – double bass

Originally from Carmarthen Claire Victoria Roberts was first introduced to the sounds of jazz by her father, a gypsy jazz violinist. She went on to study classical music and composition at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music and at Bangor University, and remains resident in Manchester.

Roberts is a highly versatile musician who was written for classical ensembles large and small, and also for dance and theatre.  She has also worked with Manchester based pianist, composer and improviser Adam Fairhall as part of his “The Imaginary Delta Project”.

A major part of her musical career is as fiddle player, pianist and joint lead vocalist with the busy and popular Manchester based Texas Swing ensemble The Swing Commanders.

She also performs duo gigs, usually in the company of a pianist, under the name Claire Victoria Duo, these ranging from lounge events to more formal jazz club and festival appearances.

In 2019 she returned to Wales to perform a successful set at the 2019 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival alongside Cardiff based pianist Guy Shotton, the latter a regular visitor to Black Mountain Jazz and to the Wall2Wall Festival. Performing as the Claire Victoria Duo the pair delivered a loosely blues themed set at the Jazz Lounge at the Kings Head. That performance is reviewed as part of my Festival coverage here;

After speaking with Claire following the gig I subsequently reviewed the most recent Swing Commanders album “In Transit”. My account of that recording can be read here;

In early 2020 Roberts released her first full length solo album “Cheating Hearts”, which was similar in style to the Swing Commanders release and which featured a programme of songs sourced from previous musical eras, plus one original composition, the song “Clumsy Goodbye”. The album was also notable for a guest contribution by Claire’s father, Norman Roberts, who appeared on both violin and slap bass. My review of the album can be read here;

Roberts was due to return to Abergavenny in April 2020 in the company of bassist Grant Russell, who makes a substantial contribution to “Cheating Hearts”, and pianist George King. At the time it was intended that the trio should showcase material from the “Cheating Hearts” release, but sadly that performance never took place, the gig falling victim to the Corona Virus during the period of maximum lockdown.

Once Black Mountain Jazz had taken the decision to make the 2020 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival a ‘virtual’ event they approached the artists who had had club events cancelled due to the pandemic, inviting them 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 vocalist Roberts has also 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 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 each tune was given a new ‘vocalese’ title in order to avoid copyright issues.

Roberts’ performance was filmed and recorded at BMJ’s regular home, the Melville Centre, and featured her in the company of the two musicians she had intended to bring to the venue in April, bassist Grant Russell and pianist George King.

The finished video features the Roberts Trio’s interpretations of songs from the “Carmen Sings Monk” album, interspersed with Roberts’ spoken commentary, which offers an insight into the story behind the recording, the life and career of Carmen McRae, and McRae’s influence on Roberts.

“This is a tribute to a tribute”, explains Roberts at the beginning, before going on to describe McRae’s influence on her, notably the late singer’s ability to interpret a lyric, with Roberts praising McRae’s abilities as a story teller.

Roberts also provided some biographical detail regarding McRae’s career, including that she was born a hundred years ago in Harlem, New York City and trained as a classical pianist before turning to jazz and specialising as a vocalist. We also heard that McRae was also a talented songwriter who was an admirer of fellow singer Billie Holiday and provided the latter with the song “Dream of Life”, which Holiday recorded in 1939.

The first musical performance was of “Get It Straight”, a vocalese version of “Straight No Chaser” from the “Carmen Sings Monk” album with a lyric by Sally Swisher. “This is going to be fast”, warned Roberts, “hold on to your seats!”. This was a virtuoso vocal performance, predominately entirely solo, that combined scat vocal gymnastics with Swisher’s tongue twisting hipster style lyrics. Roberts’ had spoken of the challenges of taking on Monk’s material, which had never been written with a vocalist in mind, but despite the complex demands of Monk’s habitually unorthodox writing she succeeded brilliantly. This was material that represented far more of a technical challenge than the Swing Commanders catalogue, or even Roberts’ solo repertoire, but it did serve to demonstrate her flexibility and adventurousness as a vocalist.

Despite his often abstract approach Monk is also the composer of a number of beautiful jazz ballads, among them “Ask Me Now”, here retitled “How I Wish”, with a lyric by Jon Hendricks.
The piece was introduced by an extended passage of solo piano from King, played on the Melville’s distinctive upright acoustic. Roberts’ vocals combined purity with genuine emotion, with a further solo coming from King at the piano and with Russell deploying the bow at the close.

Next we cut back to Roberts talking, and describing how McRae had established herself on the jazz scene in 1940s New York, becoming friends with Duke Ellington and with the pioneering be-boppers Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. She was married to drummer Kenny ‘Klook’  Clarke and later to bassist Ike Isaacs. Both marriages ended in divorce, her separation with Clarke prompted by the drummer’s affair with the singer Annie Ross. The 1950s and 60s then brought McRae greater recognition and a contract with Decca Records. In 1965 she won the Downbeat Award as Vocalist of the Year.

The next musical performance was of “Rhythm-A-Ning”, recorded by McRae as “Listen to Monk” with a Hendricks lyric in praise of the great man; “Thelonious can do that, listen to this cat!”. Instrumental solos came from King on piano and Roberts on violin with Russell providing muscular support on the bass. It was unusual to hear the violin in such an obviously bebop context, with Roberts skilfully negotiating Monk’s fragmented rhythms and jagged melody lines.

The ballad “Ugly Beauty” becomes “Still We Dream” with addition of a lyric by Mike Ferro. This was introduced by Roberts’ unaccompanied singing of the melody line, subsequently joined by piano, and eventually double bass. There was a smoky, after hours feeling about the singing and playing here, with Roberts again taking up the violin to provide the instrumental solo.

Roberts’ told us something of McRae’s feisty reputation, notably her propensity for reprimanding other musicians on the bandstand. She speculated as to whether this might be the result of McRae being a woman working in a predominately male environment. In the 1960s McRae teamed up with the pianist and arranger Norman Simmons to form a musical partnership that toured extensively and successfully.

Next up was “I Mean You”, thinly disguised as “You Know Who”, a thrilling duo performance by Roberts and Russell which saw the pair doubling up on the complex scat vocal / double bass melody lines, with the singer subsequently taking solo flight above Russell’s grounding bass lines.
Russell also featured with a powerful and virtuosic bass solo.

McRae’s career continued successfully into the 1970s and 80s and she recorded an album with fellow vocalist Betty Carter in 1987 before moving on to the Monk project the following year.
The personnel on the “Sings Monk” album included pianists Larry Willis and Eric Gunnison, bassist George Mraz and drummer Al Foster plus saxophonists Charlie Rouse and Clifford Jordan. The presence of Rouse, who had worked with Monk himself, represented a particularly significant coup. Most of the tracks were studio performances but two pieces (“Get It Straight” and “In Walked Bud”) were recorded live at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The album was released with the permission of Monk’s family.

Fellow vocalist Abbey Lincoln provided the perceptive lyric for “Monkery’s Blues”, the vocalese version of “Blue Monk”. This also included a suitably ‘Monkish’ piano solo from King, accompanied by Roberts’ remarkable holding of a single note.

“Pannonica”, Monk’s ballad for the ‘Jazz Baroness’ became “Little Butterfly” with the addition of a Jon Hendricks lyric. The introduction featured the unusual (for jazz) combination of violin and arco bass, in addition to piano. Russell subsequently put down the bow to deliver a melodic pizzicato solo.

“Suddenly” is probably better known these days by its vocalese title of “In Walked Bud”. It’s tempting to think of the verbal dexterities of Hendricks’ fun loving lyrics as being something of a forerunner of rap and hip hop. Roberts and the trio had great fun with this, with the singer combining her quick fire lyrical delivery with scat vocal episodes. Meanwhile King’s rollicking piano solo managed to squeeze in a quote from Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing”. This was followed by a powerfully plucked bass solo from Russell.

“Round Midnight” was the only piece on the “Carmen Sings Monk” album not to have its title changed. Roberts’ sang Bernie Hanighen’s lyric with a sense of profound involvement, with the instrumental solos coming from King on piano and Russell on bass. Meanwhile Roberts also featured on violin, providing the intro and outro that bookended the song.

Roberts is an admirer of the French vocalist Cyrille Aimee, and particularly her cover of “It’s Over Now”, the vocalese incarnation of the Monk tune “Well You Needn’t”. Roberts performance here was as much a tribute to Aimee as to McRae and featured a slowed down introductory section for unaccompanied voice, followed by a contrasting speeded up episode that also incorporated a feverish piano solo from King. Roberts delivered Mike Ferro’s defiant ‘kiss off’ lyric with great assurance.

McRae was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for the “Carmen Sings Monk” album, but also admitted that she sometimes felt “out of her depth” when recording the music of a man who used to call round at her apartment to play her piano.

Roberts admitted to sometimes feeling out of her depth too, but on the whole this was a highly impressive performance from the young, Welsh born musician, who tackled some pretty challenging and complex material with considerable aplomb.

She decided to end her performance with a nod to her more usual repertoire, and particularly her ‘parent’ group the Swing Commanders. The closing “The Ballad of Thelonious Monk” was written by Jimmy Rowles and was performed here in the Country and Western / Texas Swing style of the Commanders. This was great fun with Roberts adding a c & w style violin solo to her delivery of the witty lyrics. King then entered into the spirit of things by inserting a number of Monk quotes into his piano solo.

In closing Roberts revealed that she’d relished the challenge of tackling a style of jazz that she’d never previously explored, and thanked King and Russell for taking the journey with her.

The video concluded with the sound of McRae singing “Ruby, My Dear” (or “Dear Ruby”) as the credits rolled.

Overall I was highly impressed with this performance by Roberts and the members of her trio. Choosing to interpret the music of Thelonious Monk represents a considerable challenge for any vocalist and on the whole Roberts acquitted herself superbly, singing with confidence and assurance and displaying great flexibility and technical ability. Her violin playing added a distinctive additional component, rarely heard in a bebop context.

Roberts received excellent support from King and Russell, who both performed with considerable skill and made the most of their numerous soloing opportunities.










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