by Ian Mann
February 01, 2017
Ian Mann enjoys this unique double bill featuring local multi-instrumental duo Eira/Snow and the young Birmingham based organ trio Ferris, Lee, Weir.
Eira/Snow and Ferris, Lee, Weir, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 29/01/2017.
BMJ’s first event of 2017 adhered to the popular ‘double bill’ format established by the club in the second half of 2016. Tonight’s gig featured the intriguing pairing of the Monmouth based multi-instrumental duo Eira/Snow and the young Birmingham based organ trio Ferris, Lee, Weir. As ever there was additional entertainment at half time with Martha Skilton playing a selection of jazz standards on the piano in the Melville Centre’s bar area.
Eira/Snow features the Monmouth based based musicians Lyndon Owen and Caractacus Downes. Both are accomplished saxophonists and in these roles front the free-wheeling Coltrane Dedication quintet, a fluid unit featuring the co-leaders stretching out even further on Coltrane tunes than JC himself did in the company of a pool of leading guest musicians drawn from the South Wales jazz scene and beyond. Owen has also performed with that great American musical maverick, the guitarist, banjo player, vocalist and songwriter Eugene Chadbourne.
Owen also programmes the regular jazz events held at the Queens Head in Monmouth which has hosted a phenomenal array of jazz talent over the years including Andy Sheppard, Partisans, Asaf Sirkis and many more. All the gigs are nominally free of charge although donations are invited with a pint pot being passed around. The ‘Queens’ is well established on the UK jazz touring circuit and Owen’s love of free jazz has also seen him inviting leading practitioners of that particular art to the ‘Queens’. These have included top quality improvisers who are rarely seen outside London such as Tony Bevan, Alan Wilkinson, Paul Dunmall and Trevor Watts plus international musicians Joe Morris and Necks drummer Tony Buck. Indeed Owen fulfils such a vital role in the musical life of South Wales and the Borders that it’s sometimes easy to overlook his own abilities as a musician.
The duo Eira/Snow was initially inspired by the music of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, particularly those classic ECM recordings on which Garbarek fused jazz with various folk and world music elements. Owen and Downes took their band name from the Welsh word for snow, thereby acknowledging both their own roots and that original Scandinavian inspiration. The band has been in existence for a number of years now and has extended its sphere of influence to encompass the music of Wales, the Mediterranean and the Middle East with Owen playing a variety of reed instruments while Downes lays down the groove on double bass.
I’ve been attending gigs at the Queens Head for a number of years and have come to regard Lyndon and Crac as friends. I’ve seen them perform with both Eira/Snow and Coltrane Dedication on many occasions but have never actually written about them before. I’ve witnessed Eira/Snow perform at a variety of locations, if there’s a gap in the programme at the Queens Owen will sometimes put his own band on, but the duo have also established a reputation for their appearances in sacred buildings and have appeared in many churches, often in remote locations, throughout the Welsh Marches. Eira/Snow’s music is particularly suited to church acoustics and the fact that some of these performances have been held by candlelight has also added to the atmosphere.
The intimate, small theatre setting of the Melville Centre also served the duo well. Previous performances that I’ve seen have been over two sets but tonight’s shorter slot saw Eira/Snow going back to basics with Downes sticking to double bass throughout and Owen limiting himself to tenor, alto and soprano saxophones. Ordinarily he brings along more exotic instruments as well, such as the Hungarian taragato and the Armenian duduk while Downes will also pick up his baritone to end the concert with a double sax barrage. Instead tonight served as a tasty appetiser for the return of the duo in early September as part of BMJ’s annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, when hopefully they’ll bring along their full coterie of exotic instruments.
Tonight’s set captured something of the essence of Eira/Snow and featured seven of their most accessible and popular compositions. Electronics also play a part in the duo’s sound and the first piece featured an electronically generated tanpura like drone as Owen and Downes blended Celtic and Indian influences on the Welsh folk tune “Brodyr pob cerddorion” a title translating as “All Musicians Are Brothers”. The drone provided an effective backdrop for Owen’s tenor sax melodies and Downes’ deep, propulsive bass grooves.
Introducing the duo BMJ’s Debs Hancock referred to Eira/Snow’s music as a “fusion of international interest” and I’ve previously made reference to their “global sounds”. Indeed there’s a sense of being taken on a musical ‘world tour’ at every Eira/Snow gig and our next port of call was to be the Caspian Sea for the supremely catchy “Astrakhan Café” with Owen now on soprano saxophone.
Downes’ deep bass resonances introduced “Mutiny In Elsinore” and he kept the groove faithfully throughout as Owen probed deeply on tenor sax, adding the kind of avant garde flourishes one might expect from a man who numbers the German free jazz giant, saxophonist Peter Brotzmann among his musical heroes. But for all this Eira/Snow’s pieces are primarily folk tunes with infectious melodies and strong grooves and an essential simplicity that ensures that they remain accessible no matter how far the band may push them.
The brief but beguiling “Thalij” featured Owen on alto sax as Downes utilised the body of his bass as percussion, simulating the sound of handclaps.
“Manteca Araba” originated in Spain but exhibited a strong Moorish influence with Owen’s swirling soprano sax solo full of North African inflections allied to further flirtations with the avant garde as Downes augmented his powerful bass grooves with answering melodic flourishes.
The Welsh folk tune “Pontypridd” has also been tackled by the sextet Burum, sometime visitors to the Queens Head. Eira/Snow’s version was substantially to Burum’s modal jazz style interpretation and featured Owen on echoing, electronically enhanced tenor sax.
Finally we heard the piece that inspired the Eira/Snow project in the first place as Owen and Downes performed a convincing version of Jan Garbarek’s enduringly popular “In Praise Of Dreams”, introduced by Downes at the bass and with Owen on tenor.
Although I’ve seen Eira/Snow perform this music on a number of occasions I don’t find myself tiring of their distinctive blend of world jazz and audiences are always appreciative of their music. Although some of tonight’s pieces can be heard on the duo’s website http://www.eirasnow.co.uk they’ve been around as a band for a long time and it really is time that they committed their music to disc. I’d certainly appreciate having a permanent record of this music and I’m sure that any CD release would sell well at gigs.
In the meantime this was an excellent start to the evening and the BMJ audience will no doubt welcome the duo back later in the year.
FERRIS, LEE, WEIR
Organist David Ferris, guitarist Ben Lee and drummer Billy Weir are recent graduates of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire. Still resident in the city these three young musicians are steadily making names for themselves on the national jazz scene.
Prior to this evening’s performance Ferris and Lee were the two names I was already familiar with.
Also an accomplished pianist Ferris has played at the annual Trondheim Jazz Exchange event at Cheltenham Jazz Festival featuring students from the Birmingham and Trondheim Conservatoires. As a member of the Jazzlines Trio he has supported American saxophonist Kenny Garrett at Birmingham Town Hall. He has also played piano in the quintet co-led by saxophonists Amy Roberts and Richard Exall.
More recently Ferris has been concentrating on the organ and recently played this instrument on Lee’s excellent début album “In The Tree”, released on 2016 on the Birmingham based Stoney Lane record label. Ferris and Lee also play together in Three Step Manoeuvre, a different kind of organ trio featuring drummer Oscar Reynolds, whose début album “Three Step Strut” features guest vocalists and horn players, among the latter flautist Gareth Lockrane. I’ve also seen the pair as part of Zwolfton, a far more challenging aggregation led by saxophonist Claude Pietersen who perform arrangements of pieces by Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, the group of composers collectively known as “The Second Viennese School”. In Pietersen’s words Zwolfton is “pretty out there” but it does demonstrate just how versatile Ferris and Lee are as musicians.
The same could be said of drummer Billy Weir who has performed with pianists Elliot Sansom, John Law, Jacob Collier and Reuben James and with saxophonists Simon Spillett, Jean Toussaint and the late, great Bobby Wellins. Also an accomplished composer and songwriter he led the folk/jazz crossover ensemble Fired Oak who released their début album in 2015.
Whereas as Three Step Manoeuvre draw their inspiration from the worlds of soul jazz, funk and contemporary club culture Ferris, Lee, Weir is more rooted in traditional jazz virtues. However they put a wholly contemporary slant on the music of the organ trio and name the triumvirate of organist Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Bill Stewart as the key role model for this band. Goldings seems to inspire awe in his fellow organists, even Ross Staney looks up to him, and in jazz musicians in general. A recent UK visit by the Goldings trio that saw gigs in London and Dorking saw hordes of British jazz musicians in the audience. Ferris and Lee travelled from Birmingham to the Dorking show, an indication as to the regard in which Goldings is held. I’ve never seen him play live, which is obviously something I shall have to remedy some day.
In the meantime there was tonight’s performance to enjoy. The regular BMJ crowd was augmented by the Ferris, Lee Weir ‘fan club’, mostly friends and family, but it did swell the numbers and make for an exciting atmosphere on what turned out to be an excellent gig for the band and a great start to 2017 for BMJ.
The young trio kicked off with a standard, “Puttin’ On The Ritz”, a tune I’m more used to being played by guitar led gypsy jazz style groups. Ferris, Lee, Weir put a new, contemporary spin on it with Ferris taking the first solo on his two manual Crumar Mojo organ complete with pedal board. Currently the next best thing to an old fashioned valve driven Hammond the instrument sounded great and Ferris proved to be highly adept master of it, a consistently fluent and creative soloist. I’ve praised Lee before both for his solo album and for his work with Zwolfton and he also impressed here, playing so hard and fast on his solo that he lost a plectrum! Weir, who also handled the announcements, proved to be an assured and confident performer whose drumming was a good mix of power and sensitivity. Always on the money he too impressed with a closing drum feature.
The choice of the John Scofield blues “Put The Cat Out” was another good illustration of where the trio were coming from with Lee taking the first solo this time round followed by Ferris. The young organist had slipped his shoes off before the show, doubtless to improve his touch on those all important pedals.
Lee’s “Kickin’ The Chicken”, a tune from his “In The Tree” album was the first of the originals. Mixing African (Malawian) and calypso influences this was a joyous piece that differed substantially from the album version which features alto saxophonist Chris Young. Here the tune was introduced and ended by Weir at the drums with Ferris and Lee soloing in between.
Duke Ellington’s “Star Crossed Lovers”, a ballad from his suite “Such Sweet Thunder”, introduced a gentler side to the band with Weir deploying brushes for the first time alongside subtly gospel inflected organ and liquid, blues tinged guitar.
Weir’s brushed drums also introduced “PB&J”, the title standing for Peter Bernstein and Jazz and representing the trio’s tribute to their favourite guitarist. Here Lee adopted a more conventional jazz guitar sound as he shared the solos with Ferris.
Ferris’ “Billy’s Blue Magic Woman” - “Don’t ask!”, said Weir announcing the piece – combined old fashioned swing with more contemporary influences and included a hard grooving solo from the composer, incisive guitar from Lee and a closing drum feature from Weir that saw him trading fours with the other two in keeping with the jazz tradition.
The trio paid tribute to Larry Goldings with the organist’s “The Grinning Song”, a suitably good natured piece that featured a blazing solo from Ferris that channelled the spirit of his hero and an appropriately quirky guitar solo from Lee. Meanwhile Weir really was grinning throughout as he reacted to the contributions of his colleagues.
This was to have been the last number but the positive reaction of a highly appreciative audience saw the trio return to perform the B movie inspired “The Swamp Thing” as an upbeat encore with features for all three musicians as the evening ended on a high note.
I was very impressed with Ferris, Lee, Weir whose youthful vitality and excellent musicianship breathed new life into the well established format of the organ trio. Hopefully they will get the opportunity to document the music of this band on disc sometime in the future. In the meantime I predict that the stock of these three talented young musicians will continue to rise, both individually and collectively. They may have brought along their fan club, but tonight they made a lot of new friends too.
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