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Dan Stern Group

Live: Kings Arms Abergavenny 19/10/2008


by Ian Mann

October 20, 2008


A sell out crowd and an evening of excellent music from the talented Stern group and their illustrious guests.

The decision to invite a big name like Andy Sheppard to one of their regular gigs represented something of a gamble for Black Mountain Jazz, the promoters of this event. Their bravery was rewarded with a sell out crowd and an evening of excellent music from the talented Stern group and their illustrious guests. It was a pleasure to see a jazz club full and even better to note that this was a listening audience, at times you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

I last saw Stern and his group at this year’s HSBC Brecon Jazz Festival and despite some high quality playing they suffered from appearing at an unsympathetic outdoor venue in less than perfect weather conditions. Tonight they rose to the challenge delivering two sparkling sets of Stern’s original material peppered with excellent solos, especially from the two reed men Stern and Sheppard.

Joining the two front liners were Sheppard’s long term musical associate Steve Lodder on keyboards, young bassist Will Collier and power house drummer Asaf Sirkis.

The group opened with “Less Is More”, a number constructed pretty much along theme/solo/theme lines. The twin tenors of Stern and Sheppard began the piece before solos came from Sheppard, Lodder on electric piano and Stern also on tenor. The tricky bop inspired theme subsequently returned to close the piece with both horn men linking up again. This was to prove the exception rather than the rule. In the main Stern and Sheppard kept well out of each other’s way but with both musicians moving between tenor and soprano and with Stern also appearing on clarinet they produced an impressively wide array of sounds and colours.

Stern’s writing is thoughtful but accessible and the quietly probing “Trio” featured Sheppard on soprano and the composer on clarinet, both soloing ruminatively as well as occasionally coalescing.
A typically resonant bass solo from the talented young Collier was also a highlight.

The angular funk of the typewriter inspired “Qwert” proved a big crowd favourite with Stern soloing powerfully on tenor followed by Sheppard’s mercurial soprano (arguably his best horn) in which he demonstrated for the first time his remarkable circular breathing technique. Collier’s booming bass and Sirkis’ muscular drumming provided the soloists with the necessary propulsion.

The ballad “Third Door” commenced with twin tenors, Stern subsequently switching to soprano for his solo. Sheppard soloed on tenor with Lodder on electric piano.

Lodder switched his Yamaha keyboard to acoustic piano mode for the lengthy solo introduction to the impressionistic “For The Birds” which closed the first set. Both horn men were on tenor with Stern providing the main solo followed once again by Lodder on piano. Sirkis’ atmospheric percussion and occasional vocalisations featured on the eerie long fade out.

The second set commenced with the stately “Rhapsody”, Stern’s tenor solo followed by the remarkable soprano flutterings of the brilliant Sheppard.

“Wide Open” was described by Stern as his tribute to the great John Coltrane. The piece opened with a remarkable dialogue between a soprano toting Sheppard and the volcanic Sirkis at the drums.
Beginning quietly the pair stoked the fires to reach a scalding intensity One senses that Trane and Elvin Jones would have approved. Lodder’s keyboards provided the bridge into the next section with Sheppard now soloing on tenor followed by Stern on soprano. Stern is a brilliant saxophonist in his own right and was in no way overshadowed by his one time hero. This saxophone summit was very much a meeting of equals.

The brooding “Pace” featured a duet between Stern’s probing soprano and Lodder’s piano, the keyboard man laying down dense,funereal left hand figures.

Sheppard revealed that his next gig after Abergavenny was in Sao Paulo, Brazil (with Carla Bley and the Lost Chords). Quite a contrast.
“Top Of The Middle” proved a rousing, good natured set closer with solos from everybody. Sheppard’s contribution on tenor was outstanding, one of the solos of the night, but Collier, Lodder, Stern on soprano and Sirkis were dazzling too. A hugely appreciative audience just loved it.

MC Mike Skilton coaxed the band back on stage for an encore , an enjoyable work out on the theme of “Billie’s Bounce” with Lodder clearly enjoying himself in Hammond mode as Sheppard and Stern traded tenor solos and young Collier enjoyed another spell in the limelight.

None of the pieces featured tonight appear on Stern’s excellent debut recording “Traces”. He clearly has enough material for a new album and it is to be hoped that he gets the opportunity to record again soon. See for more information on “Traces”

Congratulations on an excellent evening go to the musicians involved but also to Mike Skilton and the Black Mountain Jazz team for putting on such a successful gig. BMJ have found a new regular home at the Kings Arms so let’s hope they can build on tonight’s success. See for details of future events.

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