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Debs Hancock Duo / Azhaar Saffar & Global Wave

Debs Hancock Duo / Azhaar Saffar & Global Wave, Black Mountain Jazz, Abergavenny, 23/04/2017.

Photography: Photograph of Azhaar Saffar sourced from [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

April 25, 2017


Ian Mann enjoys two very different vocal performances from singers Debs Hancock and Azhaar Saffar.

Debs Hancock Duo / Azhaar Saffar and Global Wave, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 23/04/2017.

BMJ’s April club night featured two very different vocal performances from singers Debs Hancock and Azhaar Saffar.

Usk based Hancock is a club stalwart in a variety of capacities and tonight she was wearing enough hats to stock a milliner’s shop as she multi-tasked with alacrity in the temporary absence of promoter Mike Skilton. Even with the ever faithful Patricia taking care of the bar Hancock was still cast in the roles of front of house, band liaison, compère – and vocalist.

Tonight was the first event of a short tour currently being undertaken by Hancock in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald. The show, featuring Hancock’s band The Jazz Dragons, will also visit, Usk, Cardiff, Cheltenham and Hereford with any profits being generously donated to the Alzheimers Society in memory of Hancock’s father and aunt, who both suffered from the disease.

Tonight’s performance, in the half hour ‘support slot’, was billed as “A Short Celebration of Ella Fitzgerald” and offered a tantalising taste of the delights to be enjoyed at the full length events later on in the tour. For tonight’s appetiser Hancock was joined by Cardiff based pianist Guy Shotton who had appeared at BMJ’s March event, impressing the audience as he accompanied vocalist Sarah Meek before playing a lengthier trio set in the company of bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Bob Richards. Previously the duo of Hancocks and Shotton had played a well received set in the bar area at the Melville Centre as part of BMJ’s 2016 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival.

With Hancock so busy with all her other activities the duo were compelled to undertake a brief sound-check in front of the audience, with Hancock’s improvised lyrics coming straight from the Fitzgerald tradition.

Following this the duo launched straight into an up-tempo rendition of the celebratory “Our Love Is Here To Stay” with Hancock’s delivery of the lyrics punctuated by an instrumental solo from Shotton.

Hancock has clearly researched her subject thoroughly and it seems certain that the full length shows will include plenty of biographiical details about Fitzgerald’s life. Here we heard something of Ella’s troubled teenage years following the breakup of her family and of how her life was redeemed by winning a talent competition (it’s not exactly a new concept) and of her subsequent membership of the Chick Webb Orchestra, an engagement that was turn her into a star.

Introduced by a passage of solo piano from Shotton the ballad “Embraceable You” offered Hancock the opportunity to reproduce something of the “velvet” vocal style that made Fitzgerald famous. This was followed by an effective interpretation of “A Foggy Day In London Town”.

Hancock informed us that Fitzgerald had sold a stunning 40m albums globally in a long and glittering career and also talked of the highly commendable charitable work undertaken by the still ongoing Ella Fitzgerald Foundation, founded by the singer in 1993 to help underprivileged American children in a direct response to her own difficult childhood. The Foundation is also listing events being held in celebration in Fitzgerald’s centenary and the ever resourceful Hancock has ensured that her dates have been added to the schedule, the only ones outside the US! Hancock also revealed that the Jazz Dragons’ popular bassist Erica Lyons once studied with Fitzgerald’s husband Ray Brown. A straw poll also revealed that four members of the Aberganny audience had been lucky enough to see Fitzgerald in her heyday.

Back to the music and an intriguing arrangement of “Someone To Watch Over Me” which began as a ballad with a solo piano introduction from Shotton before the duo accelerated the pace to establish a real sense of swing in a more energetic final section.

But the best was saved until last, a stunning ballad interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” with Hancock bringing a real ‘torch song’ intensity of feeling to the piece with Shotton providing suitably sensitive accompaniment. Monk was also born in 1917, as was Dizzy Gillespie, and BMJ’s Wall2Wall festival in September will feature an all star celebration of the year that also gave us the first officially recognised jazz recording.

It was all too brief but this short set augured well for the forthcoming tour which will see an expanded instrumental line up and a more full and cohesive overview of Fitzgerald’s life and career. Over 100 tickets have been sold for the Usk performance and large, if possibly not always attentive, audiences should also be the order of the day at Cheltenham and Hereford.

Other dates on Debs Hancock’s ‘Ella at 100’ tour are;

25/04/2017 – The Court House, Usk

27/04/2017 – The Cricketers, Cathedral Road, Cardiff

28/04/2017 (lunchtime) - Cheltenham Jazz Festival Freestage, Montpelier Gardens, Cheltenham

29/04/2017 12.00 pm to 2.00 pm - The Saturday Café, Courtyard Arts Centre, Hereford


North Wales born vocalist and violinist Azhaar Saffar studied classical violin at the Royal Northern College of Music before a series of pub and restaurant gigs saw her abandoning the classical tradition and embracing a jazz and world music career.

Saffar has travelled widely, visiting and performing in the Middle East, West Africa, South America and Central America, absorbing the music of these regions and incorporating them in her own sound. She has a particular affinity for the music of Brazil and Latin America and for many years fronted the ‘Brazilian fusion’ band Sirius B which released a total of six albums and was a popular live attraction, notably on the Stroller programme at the old Brecon Jazz Festival.

In 2008 Saffar released “Out There”, a slightly more conventional jazz album, on the 33Jazz record label, the line up including former Sirius B collaborator Joe Cavanagh plus big name guests Iain Ballamy (saxophones) and Jason Rebello (piano).

Fast forward to 2017 and Saffar has a new project, the aptly named Global Wave, an international quintet of musicians based in the West Country (Saffar is now resident in Bath) and featuring Jim Blomfield (keyboards) Guillaume Ottaviani (electric bass) , Ivan Moreno (congas, percussion) and John Clarke (kit drums), the latter playing his first gig with the band – Paolo Adamo has also fulfilled the drummer’s role.

Global Wave places a greater emphasis on Latin American sounds than Sirius B but the music is still a melting pot of influences. It was good to see original material being presented in this style with Saffar’s autobiographical lyrics adding a welcome personal touch to the songs.

Although initially a violinist Saffar is also an accomplished vocalist and a confident and charismatic performer with an obvious love of the music. The aptly named opener “Gaia” was a good introduction to the Global Wave sound with its mix of Brazilian and Latin American elements plus a dash of gypsy jazz courtesy of Saffar’s violin. The original lyrics identified Saffar as a free spirit and her assured singing was complemented by her violin as she shared the instrumental solos with Blomfield’s keyboards, the latter adopting a classical electric piano sound.

“Too Much”, another original song but with a cha cha cha feel saw Blomfield adopting an organ sound on his Nord keyboard. Saffar’s lyrics warned of the perils of “too much stuff “ with the singer alternating between English and Spanish (or maybe it was Portuguese). Blomfield led off the instrumental features with a hard grooving Hammond style solo at the keyboard followed by Saffar on violin and the Spanish born Moreno on congas.

“Papoyo” celebrated a bay of the same name in Costa Rica where Saffar developed a love of surfing. Her Central American travels also included visits to Mexico and Nicaragua. A deceptively gentle duo introduction for violin and piano with subtle drum and percussion shadings soon led to something much more lively with Saffar again singing in Spanish and with her violin sharing the instrumental honours with Blomfield’s keyboards.

The semi-autobiographical “Gypsy” celebrated Saffar’s globe-trotting lifestyle and it’s perhaps appropriate that Global Wave’s soon to be recorded album is putatively titled “Nomada”. Combining Brazilian rhythms with conventional jazz swing the piece again featured Blomfield and Saffar as the principal soloists. Bristol based Blomfield is an inspired and original keyboard soloist who has featured on the Jazzmann web pages on numerous occasions whether leading his own trio or acting as in demand sideman with other leading West Country jazz artists such as saxophonists Kevin Figes and Pete Canter, trumpeter Andy Hague, bassist Greg Cordez, and vocalists Cathy Jones and Victoria Klewin. Whatever context the versatile Blomfield finds himself in he always comes up with something exciting, inventive and imaginative.

The Rio de Janeiro inspired “Arpoador” was a suitably sunny bossa with Saffar delivering the uplifting lyrics in both English and Potuguese as Blomfield took the instrumental honours once more, sharing the solo space with percussionist Moreno.

The funky “Original Love” has been the subject of a re-mix by DJ/percussionist Snowboy and here featured the French born Ottaviani as a melodic electric bass soloist as he shared the spotlight with Blomfield’s keyboards.

“Down To Earth” marked a return to bossa stylings which included a drums and percussion feature from Clarke and Moreno as they shared the solo space with Blomfield on piano and Saffar on violin. Young drummer Clarke impressed on his first gig with the band, keeping things tight and funky and linking up well with Moreno and Ottaviani. One would never have guessed that he was making his Global Wave début.

An imaginative arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” acted as a kind of encore and was the only standard of the set. Clarke and Moreno introduced the piece and were to feature again later on following solos from Saffar and Blomfield. 6/8 rhythms, pizzicato violin and Blomfield’s self described “weird drone sound” helped to give the music an authentically exotic atmosphere.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Global Wave’s performance. Before hearing them I was worried that their set might have turned out to be tepid Brazilian pop comprised of over familiar bossa standards. Instead the music was far more exciting and wide ranging with the sounds of Latin America highly prominent in the mix. Saffar impressed as both a vocalist and instrumentalist and her original songs were also convincing. Everybody played well and the presence of Blomfield in the band’s ranks proved to be a huge bonus, he made a perfect foil for the multi-talented Saffar. On this evidence the début album from Global Wave should be well worth looking out for.

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