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Debs Hancock and The Jazz Dragons

Debs Hancock and The Jazz Dragons, Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 29/03/2015.

Photography: Photograph by Conal Dunn

by Ian Mann

March 31, 2015


A performance of unpretentious, swinging jazz executed by a highly able group of local instrumentalists and an increasingly confident and competent vocalist.

Debs Hancock and The Jazz Dragons, Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 29/03/2015.

Debs Hancock is jazz vocalist based in Usk who uses the generic name The Jazz Dragons to describe her accompanists, whoever they may happen to be on any particular occasion. I’ve caught previous glimpses of the band, featuring two entirely different line ups, at festival performances at both Brecon and Abergavenny, but both of these were brief encounters en route to other performances, such being the nature of festival life. I have made brief references to these appearances elsewhere on this site but tonight was my first opportunity to witness a Debs Hancock show in its entirety.

Tonight’s line up included some well known jazz talent from South Wales and the Welsh Borders. Cardiff based pianist Gareth Hall and Hereford based bassist Erika Lyons are both regular Hancock collaborators and both had been part of the band at Brecon. The line up was completed by the experienced drummer Keith Niblett from nearby Pontypool. Others with whom I have seen Hancock perform include saxophonist Tamasin Reardon, guitarist Geraint Rees and the young drummer Iori Haugen. 

Hancock is a fairly recent convert to the jazz cause but has embraced the music with a passion. She is a volunteer steward at the Brecon and Wall2Wall (Abergavenny) jazz festivals and does much to promote the well being of the music in South Wales. As a singer she has studied with the acclaimed vocalist Lee Gibson and purely from a technical standpoint her performances are becoming increasingly assured -  I felt that tonight I detected a perceptible improvement upon last summer’s festival appearancess.  Indeed one of the awards for Hancock’s hard work will come on the afternoon of Sunday April 19th 2015 when she will sing three numbers on the stage at London’s prestigious 606 Jazz Club as part of a Workshop Concert co-ordinated by Gibson who will be hosting a vocal workshop at the club on the previous day. 

Turning now to tonight’s performance which featured a range of songs from a variety of different sources but linked by a common theme of love, mainly of the romantic kind, and human emotion.  Hancock is a confident and effusive stage performer who linked her song selections with a cohesive and engaging narrative thread. For a relatively inexperienced performer she has worked hard at her stage craft and is a warm stage presence with a ready wit and an obvious love of her material, much of it sourced from the Great American Songbook.   

The performance began with the sound of the instrumentalists with Hancock introducing the members of the band individually as she took to the stage. Following this musical “Intro” the first song proper was “September In The Rain” which included opening solos from Hall and Lyons and the sound of Niblett’s brushed drums.

The ballad “The Man I Love” was ushered in with a voice and piano duet, with Hancock’s warm vocal later supplemented by Lyon’s deep, rich bass undertow and more sensitive brush work from Niblett.

Hancock managed to accommodate a playful arrangement of the Duke Ellington classic “Caravan” into her love themed set with Niblett picking up his sticks for the first time and enjoying something of a drum feature as he shared the solos with Hall, the latter playing a Roland RD 150 electric piano.

The blues infused ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is” represented the flip side of love’s young dream with Hall again the featured instrumental soloist.

“Have You Met Dai Jones” saw Hancock cheekily changing the lyrics to accommodate both the gender of the singer and the location of the performance, a nice touch. Propelled by Niblett’s sticks the playful arrangement included Hancock’s scat vocals alongside instrumental solos from both Hall and Lyons.

There was more scat vocalising in a breezy arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s popular bossa “Wave” which featured Hancock singing the English lyrics as Hall again took the instrumental honours.

Following Jobim’s sunny bossa we were treated to a complete contrast with Hancock’s sultry blues vocalising on “Black Coffee”, a song written in 1948 by Sonny Burke with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster. The much covered song has been recorded by such jazz vocal icons as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Peggy Lee. Tonight the Jazz Dragons version served the song well and did it full justice.

“I’m In The Mood For Love” returned the music to lighter territory, again with a cheerful bossa style feel. Hancock delivered the lyrics in both English and French with Lyons featuring as the instrumental soloist.

The first half concluded on a sad but beautiful note with a duo version of the song “Calling You” which originally appeared on the soundtrack of the 1987 film Baghdad Café. Written by Bob Telson the song was first recorded by Jevetta Steele before becoming a hit for Celine Dion in 1994. Tonight’s version featuring Hancock and Hall was beautiful and genuinely moving, an excellent example of Hancock’s growing maturity as a vocalist with Hall providing empathic accompaniment. Introducing the song the singer described it as a “lament”.

A shorter second set began with Hancock redressing the emotional balance on a breezy version of “Lullaby Of Birdland” that included features for all three instrumentalists.

Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness Of You” began with an exquisite voice and double bass duet and also included some of Hall’s most lyrical work at the keyboard.

In a well judged programme with plenty of variation in terms of mood and pace “Almost Like Being In Love” was treated as a bit of a romp with solos coming from Hall, Lyons and Niblett. The drummer was given a lot more scope to express himself in the second half and clearly relished being given the opportunity to do so.

“Why Don’t You Do Right?”, another one time Peggy Lee hit, re-introduced the quartet’s blues leanings and again included features for all three instrumentalists. Hancock delivered the lyrics of this much covered “woman’s blues” song with feeling in an engaging interpretation.

The bossa “Estate” (I think it means ‘summer’) lightened the mood again with Hancock singing the English lyric and with the versatile and reliable Hall delivering the instrumental solo.

A swinging “The Way You Look Tonight” rounded off the second set and also served as the “outro” with Hancock again announcing the names of the band prior to their individual features.

The performance had been a highly successful event with the jazz fans of Abergavenny and its environs turning up in sizeable numbers to offer their support to an emerging local jazz talent. Mike Skilton of Black Mountain Jazz was delighted with the turnout and had little difficulty in coaxing the band to perform an encore.

This proved to be Gershwin’s “Summertime”, performed her as a slow blues with Lyons’ deeply resonant bass undertow at the heart of the piece. Her subsequent solo was probably her best of the night, simultaneously melodic and highly dexterous. Hall also featured for the final time but Niblett’s drum solo seemed a little out of place in the context of the arrangement, a case of band democracy being stretched a little too far.

However I don’t want to end with a gripe at the end of what had been a very enjoyable evening. This was a performance of unpretentious, swinging jazz executed by a highly able group of local instrumentalists and an increasingly confident and competent vocalist who presents her material with considerable warmth and charm. Despite the occasional shuffling of sheet music and “what are we going to play next” moments this was a show that was relatively slick with Hancock obviously paying a good deal of attention to her style of presentation.

A word here too for Lyons whose expert double playing has graced the jazz scene in the Welsh Borders for many years. Under her maiden name of Erika Howard she was a professional musician on the London jazz scene in the late 70s and early 80s before fleeing the capital for a more rural existence. With drummer John Gibbon and pianist Phil Mead she backed a whole raft of London based soloists on their visits to the Borders as part of a series of rural tours instigated by Gibbon. In addition to this she’s also worked with the cream of local jazz talent including pianist Dave Price and trumpeter Ben Thomas. She also appears on the album “Back In Your Own Backyard”, a recent release by trumpeter Chris Hodgkins that also features Dave Price. I intend to take a look at this recording very shortly. 

I’ll readily admit that vocal readings of standards aren’t really my favourite style of jazz but I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this. I predict that Debs Hancock will become an increasingly popular presence on the local jazz scene. In the meantime good luck at the 606.     


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