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Dick Hamer Quartet

Dick Hamer Quartet, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 20/01/2023.

by Ian Mann

January 23, 2023


Aside from the quality of the playing and the interesting selection of material the other most satisfying thing about this gig was the size & enthusiasm of the audience on a freezing January night.

Dick Hamer Quartet, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 20/01/2023.

Dick Hamer – tenor & alto saxophones, flute, Rod Paton – keyboard, vocals, Paula Gardiner – double bass, Liz Exell – drums

Brecon Jazz Club’s 2023 programme got off to an excellent start with this well attended performance from a one off quartet led by the Swansea based saxophonist and flautist Dick Hamer.

Brecon Jazz Club organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon like to bring together musicians who have never worked with one another before. The experienced Hamer is a much loved figure on the Welsh music scene and has played at Brecon Jazz Festival on numerous occasions over the years with a variety of different line ups. These have included a quartet he co-led with tonight’s bassist Paula Gardiner that was active sometime back in the 1980s and 90s. 

Hamer graduated from Leeds College of Music in 1981 and has performed across a range of musical genres including jazz, pop and cabaret and has played extensively for theatre productions. He has also worked as a music educator, teaching music for a number of local authorities as well as for the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff (RWCMD).

Since 2006 he has worked as a musical instrument repairer specialising in woodwind instruments. His repair business, South Wales Woodwind is now his main focus, but he still performs regularly as the leader of his own jazz quartet and Latin octet and as a member of the Cardiff based Capital City Jazz Orchestra. He is also a recording artist, but more on this aspect of his career later.

Like Hamer Paula Gardiner has also been a mainstay of the South Wales jazz scene for many years. She has released a number of albums as a leader and was once an important part of pianist Dave Stapleton’s quintet (DSQ). Although she has continued to perform on a regular basis in a variety of jazz contexts her primary focus has been on her work as an acclaimed musical educator, particularly in her role as Head of Jazz at the RWCMD.

Hamer may have worked with Gardiner before but Paton and Exell were new to him. Now based in Brecon Paton is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and educator who is probably best known in jazz circles as that rarest of beasts, a jazz French horn player. But he is also a highly accomplished pianist and has also recorded on that instrument.

Surrey born Liz Exell first came to my attention as a member of the all female group Nerija, featuring Nubya Garcia, Sheila Maurice-Grey, Cassie Kinoshi et al, but is now based in South Wales, where she has been a very welcome addition to the local jazz scene. Brecon Jazz have already made excellent use of her skills behind the kit, deploying her talents at Festival performances from groups led by Paula Gardiner and trumpeter Bryan Corbett. Exell has also been the leader of the London based Old Hat Jazz Band, a collection of young musicians breathing fresh life into the trad jazz format. My review of the OHJB’s 2016 album release “The Sparrow” can be read here;

Hamer is also a composer and his recordings feature a number of his own pieces, but it was inevitable that tonight’s performance would be primarily standards based. The quartet commenced with Tadd Dameron’s “Ladybird”, which quickly established Hamer as a wonderfully fluent tenor sax soloist with a big, round, warm tone on the instrument. He names his three main tenor sax influences as Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane and Joe Henderson, and there’s something of all of these in his playing. Further solos came from Paton, favouring an electric piano sound at his Yamaha keyboard, and from Gardiner on double bass. Exell offered sensitive support throughout, mainly deploying brushes.

“Have You Met Miss Jones” was ushered in solo by Paton, playing keyboard and singing the opening verse. When the rest of the band kicked in Hamer soloed expansively on tenor, followed by Paton at the keyboard. Exell’s stick to skin skills were then demonstrated in a lively series of exchanges with the leader, before Paton returned to sing once more. This was a performance that could perhaps be best described as ‘ragged but good natured’ and to be honest Paton’s vocals added little, but in the relaxed confines of this one off ensemble he seemed to be enjoying himself.

It was back to the all instrumental format for a Bob Mintzer arrangement of the Richard Rodgers tune “My Romance”. This was a more lyrical offering that featured the sounds of lush, fluent tenor saxophone, melodic double bass, with Gardiner again a featured soloist, and brushed drums. Meanwhile Paton switched to an acoustic piano sound for this performance, which was much more suited to the chosen material.

Hamer moved to flute for an arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave”, also performing with an admirable fluency on this instrument. Exell, in tandem with Gardiner, exhibited a deft command of Brazilian rhythms, while Paton returned to the electric piano sound, which sounded more appropriate here. Hamer was self critical of his flute playing, but it still sounded pretty impressive to me.

The first set ended with a request, received from drummer and promoter Martin Fisher, who was seated in the audience. Fisher challenged the quartet to tackle a notoriously complex Cedar Walton composition “Firm Roots”, which the pianist had written for saxophonist Clifford Jordan. Hamer and the rest of the quartet rose brilliantly to this technical challenge and for many listeners, myself included,  this was the highlight of the first half with impressive solos from Hamer on tenor, Paton on electric piano and Exell at the kit, the drum feature being particularly well received. Although difficult to play Walton’s piece was also readily accessible to the casual listener and the fact that it made the quartet raise their game made it the perfect request, well done Martin.

The start of the second set saw Paton enjoying a second vocal outing, this time a somewhat flippant run through the song “I Remember You”, written by Victor Schertzinger and Johnny Mercer and famously a hit for Frank Ifield. Once Paton had sung the verse, ultimately unable to resist the temptation to yodel, Gardiner struck up a bass groove that formed the jumping off point for solos from Hamer, featured here on alto sax, Paton on electric piano and Gardiner at the bass. The song has regularly been adapted as a vehicle for jazz improvisation, but usually in an all instrumental format.

To be honest I was glad that this set’s vocal number had been despatched early on, allowing the band to really hit their stride instrumentally in the second half. Another set highlight was a version of the Frank Loesser tune “Inchworm”, which saw Hamer channelling his inner John Coltrane in a powerful tenor solo underpinned by the roll and rumble of Exell’s fluid drum rhythms and Gardiner’s grounding bass. Paton’s electric piano sound was perfectly suited to this arrangement of a piece that had famously been played by Coltrane himself.

Equally impressive was an arrangement of the tune “Ricardo Bossa Nova”, which saw another impressive rhythmic performance from Exell and Gardiner, who again tackled the Brazilian rhythms with aplomb. Hamer delivered another powerful and lucid tenor sax solo, that Martin Fisher late told me included “Oliver Nelson progressions”, which went over my head a bit, but which I gathered represented some pretty complex, challenging, and ultimately impressive stuff. Paton and Gardiner also delivered solos before the leader rounded things off with a spectacular unaccompanied tenor sax cadenza.

The title of Paton’s original composition “Post Brexit Blues” represented a lament for our troubled times but was actually a fairly upbeat tune written in the blues form. Following a collective theme statement it proved to be an excellent vehicle for the soloists to improvise around, Hamer going first on tenor, followed by Paton on electric piano. Initially Paton was accompanied by Gardiner’s bass only, until the addition of Exell’s brushed drums. As keyboards and drums dropped out Hamer then entered into an engaging sax / bass dialogue with his long time collaborator Gardiner.

Finally we heard an excellent version of the Toots Thielemans tune “Musette”, introduced by a dialogue between Hamer on tenor and Paton on electric piano. With the addition of bass and drums we enjoyed more conventional jazz soloing from Hamer on tenor and Paton at the keyboard. This was followed by an absorbing bass and drum dialogue featuring the all female rhythm section, with Exell wielding brushes and Gardiner adding some flamenco style bass flourishes.

The deserved encore was “Voyage”, a composition by the great American pianist, and sometime Brecon Jazz Festival visitor, Kenny Barron. This saw Paton favouring an acoustic piano sound as he shared the solos with Hamer’s tenor, the evening finishing with a series of colourful drum breaks as Exell traded fours with the other instrumentalists.

An excellent evening of jazz then with Hamer confirming his status as one of Wales’ leading tenor sax soloists and also displaying an impressive facility on alto sax and flute. His playing was very much within the tradition but was consistently fluent and inventive. He was well supported by the always reliable Gardiner and the impressive Exell, who combined well as a rhythm section and also impressed with their individual features. As the other main soloist Paton’s contribution was also highly enjoyable, but I have to admit that I did have some reservations. I wasn’t at all convinced by the vocals and would have preferred to have heard an ‘acoustic’ piano sound on some of the selections. That said the electric piano was particularly well suited to some of the more ‘contemporary’ pieces such as Cedar Walton’s “Firm Roots”, the Coltrane-esque “Inchworm” and Jobim’s “Wave”.

Aside from the quality of the playing and the interesting selection of material the other most satisfying thing about this gig was the size of the audience on a freezing January night. The Muse was jam packed with a highly supportive audience and the warmth of the room and of the welcome transmitted itself to the players. In a one off quartet there was much on stage discussion and the occasional musical breakdown, but such was the good humoured nature of the event that this was quickly forgiven. In this ‘Post Brexit Blues’ era both the band and the audience were truly “all in this together”, such was the sense of shared musical camaraderie.

My thanks to Dick, Liz, Paula and Martin Fisher for speaking with me and to Dick for the gift of his two of his recordings. As these we were released in 2013 and 2017 I don’t intend to undertake full reviews but I can confirm that Dick’s playing sounds just as good on disc as it does in the live environment.

The first of these is “Inner Door”, a quintet recording that features Hamer specialising on tenor saxophone alongside four more of South Wales’ finest, all of them regular presences on the Jazzmann web pages. We have Gethin Liddington on trumpet, Jim Barber on piano, Aidan Thorne on double bass and Greg Evans at the drums.

The programme puts the focus on Hamer as a composer and features five of his original compositions, among them the title track, alongside the standard “Alone Together” (Arthur Schwartz) and the ballad “Everything Happens To Me” (Matt Dennis).

Hamer’s own tunes are written in the jazz tradition and owe something to the classic bebop and hard bop recordings of the past. They make excellent vehicles for the quality playing and soloing of all the members of this all star quintet, and in a neat link to tonight’s gig Hamer’s excellent original composition “Cedar Would” must surely represent his homage to Cedar Walton.

2017’s “Mysterious Ways” is another quintet recording, one that teams Hamer’s tenor in a twin sax front line with the great American alto saxophonist Greg Abate. Abate was touring the UK at the time and agreed to go into a Carmarthenshire studio and record an album with Hamer and the Swansea Jazzland rhythm section of Dave Cottle (piano), Alun Vaughan (electric bass) and Paul Smith (drums).

Hamer contributes three tunes to the session, again providing the title track, and Abate one, alongside four standards plus “Greg’s Groove”, a piece composed for Abate by the American multi-instrumentalist Randy Villars.

Again it’s very much in the jazz tradition and with most of the pieces being first or second takes there’s an agreeable vibrancy and spontaneity about the playing. The two horns joust playfully while the highly competent rhythm team, who have played together on countless occasions, add excellent support. Cottle and Vaughan also impress as soloists, as does Smith during his drum features.

There’s plenty of variation and subtlety within the programme, which includes ballads, bossas and Latin tunes and which also incorporates individual quartet features for each of the saxophonists.

Both releases make for highly enjoyable listening and represent excellent souvenirs of Hamer’s live performances. Let’s hope he also sold plenty of copies of each this evening. Both albums are highly recommended to discerning jazz listeners, especially fans of straightahead, swinging jazz.

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