by Ian Mann
December 11, 2008
Unpretentious, good quality jazz in a relaxed "jazz club" atmosphere featuring the "seriously impressive" Martha Skilton
This was another evening of quality music from Black Mountain Jazz at their new home at the Kings Arms. If it couldn’t quite match the fireworks of the recent Dan Stern/Andy Sheppard gig (reviewed elsewhere on this site) it was still a very pleasant and worthwhile evening in a relaxed “jazz club” atmosphere. Between 40-50 fans were present, enough for the club to break even according to organiser Mike Skilton, and I think it’s fair to say that everyone enjoyed their evening’s entertainment and went home happy.
Dominic Norcross is a versatile tenor saxophonist who is capable of operating in both the jazz and blues fields. He has worked with blues legends Peter Green (ex Fleetwood Mac), Mick Taylor, ( ex Rolling Stones) and Snowy White (ex Pink Floyd and Thin Lizzy). An impressive CV I think you’ll agree. Norcross has also worked with Bristol based blues guitarist/harpist/vocalist Eddie Martin, a musician whose work I rate very highly.
Norcross is an impressive jazz player too as evidenced not only by tonight’s show but by work with Don Weller and Digby Fairweather.. He obviously has an affinity for playing with guitarists and his quartet includes the Grant Green inspired John Davies alongside the experienced Wayne Warlow (double bass) and ex Georgie Fame drummer Nigel Williams. The quartet are based in Narbeth, Pembrokeshire and have recorded a full length album of largely original material which should be officially released in 2009 on Fflach Records.
Tonight the quartet concentrated for the most part on jazz standards, largely delivering these in the conventional head/solos/head format. I have seen jazz performances when this has become boring in the extreme but the quality of the material chosen and the freshness and inventiveness of the soloing ensured that the listener’s interest was maintained here, especially when the quartet were joined by an additional voice in the form of Martha Skilton, also (mainly) on tenor.
Martha is the daughter of BMJ mainstay Mike Skilton. I first saw her play as a sixteen year old at the 2003 Jazz In The Park event in Pontypool where it was immediately obvious that she was a young musician with great potential. Now aged 21 she is studying for a degree on the prestigious jazz course at the Royal Welsh College Of Music And Drama in Cardiff under the expert tutelage of Paula Gardiner and Keith Tippett. She has developed a distinctive voice on the tenor and is a highly accomplished soloist, going toe to toe with the more experienced Norcross and more than holding her own. She leads her own quartet and also works with dynamic young trumpeter Jonny Bruce’s sextet. There seems little doubt that in time she will become a major figure on the Welsh jazz scene and has the potential to spread her wings further afield if she wishes.
The Norcross quartet kicked off with the standard “Beautiful Love” which introduced the voices of the band. Norcross has been compared to Zoot Sims but there was also a bluesy element to his playing, inevitable given his work in the genre. He soloed first followed by the nimble Davies who delivered the first of several excellent solos over the course of the evening. There was a pronounced blues element about some of his playing too, something I understand he’s trying to get away from.
Bassist Wayne Warlow is a band leader in his own right and possesses a full, meaty tone which offers sturdy support to the front line players. However he is also a fluent and dexterous soloist employing the resonance of his sound to good effect. Nigel Williams is an economical drummer, always tasteful but nevertheless capable of providing just the right amount of swing and propulsion. Wisely he kept his soloing to a premium and didn’t really feature in this context until well into the second set.
The quartet tackled Joe Henderson’s “Recorder Me” introduced by Warlow’s bass before Norcross stated the theme and traded solos with Davies and Warlow. This was an interesting and enjoyable vehicle for the quartet to play on.
The introduction of Skilton for “Alone Together” pushed the music up another notch. The two tenor players unison horn lines sounded great and they both pushed each other to new heights in their solos. Ever the gentleman Norcross would invariably let Skilton state the theme or take the first solo.
A joyous “Fly Me To The Moon” was probably the best number yet and saw Norcross and Skilton trading licks and phrases and clearly loving every minute of it.
Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” occupied a territory somewhere between a ballad and a slow blues and was followed by “Autumn Leaves” delivered at an unusually fast tempo. Both numbers contained more quality soloing from Norcross and Skilton plus another trade off of licks on “Autumn Leaves”. Davies and Warlow were also featured to good effect.
Skilton left the stage for the quartet to close the first half with a ballad reading of “The Meaning Of The Blues” inspired by the late, great Michael Brecker’s version of the tune. This was naturally a feature for Norcross who produced some of his best playing of the evening with strong support from Davies on guitar.
After the break the quartet took to the stage again to play a couple of Norcross’ original compositions. The Latin flavoured “Whisper, Never Shout” was another feature for Norcross and had a touch of Stan Getz about it.
This was followed by a piece simply titled “6/8 Ballad” which showed the gentler side of both Norcross and Davies.
Skilton returned to the fray for a romp through “On Green Dolphin Street” with solos from Skilton, Norcross, Davies, Warlow and Williams. Good fun.
Skilton stated the theme for “Lover Man” and followed Norcross to deliver a memorable solo. Davies also featured on guitar.
A splendidly swinging “Bye Bye Blackbird” was bookended by solos from Norcross with Davies, Skilton and Warlow also featured.
Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” was a rare outing for Skilton on soprano. She acquitted herself well both as a soloist and in unison passages with Norcross’ tenor. Davies’ guitar also featured strongly.
The next item was unannounced, undoubtedly a standard, but it’s identity now escapes my memory. In any event it was another twin tenor work out with both saxophonists soloing in turn followed by Warlow and Williams.
The evening concluded with an enjoyable rendition of “Milestones” which featured all members of the quintet. Norcross name checked the band for the last time making reference to “the seriously impressive Martha Skilton”, a statement with which the audience readily concurred.
It was an impressive performance from all concerned, nothing radical but good quality jazz played with honesty and a good level of technical expertise. This kind of session is still the backbone of the UK jazz scene and the whole event was thoroughly enjoyable.
I have heard an acetate of Norcross’ album and it makes for worthwhile listening with some strong original material performed in the style of tonight’s performance. I hope to review it more formally when it is officially released. Look out for him with his blues hat on ,too.
As for Skilton, keep an eye or her, she is a musician we should be hearing a lot more of. Her post graduate career will be worth following especially if she starts writing her own material.
Both Norcross and Skilton play Mauriat tenor saxophones (as does Andy Sheppard) and thanks is due to Pete Scaddan of the Abergavenny based Studio Saxophones who operate a Mauriat dealership for supporting tonight’s gig.
Black Mountain Jazz has two events scheduled in early 2009. On Sunday February 15th they welcome The Bannau Trio featuring vocalist Nia Lynn, pianist Ross Stanley and tenor saxophonist Sam Crockatt.
On Sunday March 1st they present another big name. Alto saxophonist Martin Speake visits with his Generations band featuring Barry Green, piano the redoubtable Dave Green, bass and ex pat U.S. drummer Jeff Williams. This is a “seriously impressive” line up and this gig is a “must see”.
Full details are available at http://www.black-mountain-jazz.org.uk