by Ian Mann
August 03, 2021
"The duo’s shared joy in their music making was obvious throughout". Ian Mann enjoys this first event in the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival's "Jazz In the Barn" live gig programme.
Ella Hohnen-Ford / Joe Webb Trio, “The Great American Songbook”
The Barn, White House Farm, Llanvetherine, Abergavenny, 02/08/2021
Part of Wall2Wall Jazz Festival 2021
Ella Hohnen-Ford – vocals, Joe Webb - keyboard
Since 2006 Black Mountain Jazz, headed by Mike Skilton, has been presenting regular jazz events in Abergavenny, utilising a variety of different venues over the years.
In 2013 the monthly club programme was supplemented for the first time by the weekend long Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. Usually taking place in early September Wall2Wall has since become an established annual event with a growing national reputation.
2020 was, of course, very different. BMJ presented its last regular club event in February with a brilliant, sold out show by the Fergus McCreadie Trio, a performance subsequently immortalised on the ‘official bootleg’ CD “Live at Black Mountain”, released during lockdown by the ever enterprising Fergus.
During the early stages of the pandemic it quickly became obvious that Wall2Wall in its traditional format was never going to be a viable option for 2020. Instead Mike and his fellow BMJ organisers opted for a ‘virtual’ festival, establishing a partnership with Mark Viveash of the locally based 47 Studios and Productions.
Artists who had been scheduled to appear at the 2020 Festival, or who had had club engagements cancelled, were filmed to the highest audio and visual standards in Covid safe conditions during the summer of 2020 by Viveash and his crew and the performances were subsequently transmitted during the autumn to a global, ticketed audience. The artists were paid the same fee as for a live gig and the performances were augmented by informative interview footage.
The Jazzmann provided fully comprehensive coverage of the 2020 Virtual Wall2Wall and detailed accounts of all the performances can be found in both our reviews and features sections. Meanwhile coverage of live club events and Festivals dating back to 2008 also remains available to access.
The gradual easing of restrictions has ensured that Wall2Wall 2021 will take on a different ‘hybrid’ form. The success of the 2020 ‘Virtual’ format has ensured that musicians will once again be filmed and recorded by 47 Studios at BMJ’s regular venue The Melville Centre with the performances again being transmitted online during the Autumn.
However the improving Covid situation has also facilitated the possibility of real live performances. The ventilation at the Melville remains a concern so Mike Skilton has come to an arrangement with Julian and Clarissa, the owners of White House Farm in the village of Llanvetherine near Abergavenny to use their airy and well appointed barn for a number of small scale live events. The barn has previously been used for family events such as birthdays and weddings, but I think I’m right in believing that this is the first time it has been opened to the public.
During this first week of filming at the Melville the musicians have been persuaded to also play a live gig in the evening, a chance that they have jumped at. After over a year without live music most musicians are just thrilled at the prospect of playing live to real people again, as opposed to an online audience.
The first act to appear during a busy week at the Melville Centre and White House Farm was the young London based duo of vocalist Ella Hohnen-Ford and pianist Joe Webb.
Both have appeared on the Jazzmann web pages before. Hohnen-Ford, also a talented flautist, is a member of drummer/vibraphonist/composer Jonny Mansfield’s eleven piece band Elftet and appears on that ensemble’s eponymous début for Edition Records, released in 2019 and reviewed here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/jonny-mansfield-elftet
At the 2018 EFG London Festival I enjoyed a live show by Elftet, featuring Hohnen-Ford, at the 606 Jazz Club in Chelsea. My account of that performance can be found as part of my Festival coverage.
Meanwhile guest contributor Trevor Bannister was also bowled over by the band when they played a hugely successful show at the Progress Theatre in Reading earlier in 2018. His review of that performance can be read here;
Hohnen-Ford is a graduate of the Jazz Course at the Royal Academy of Music, a frequent award winner and is a rising star of the London jazz scene. She has toured with the bands TreeClimbers, Elftet, London Vocal Project and Threebop and has featured as a guest vocalist with Kansas Smitty’s.
Other musicians with whom she has worked include pianists Deschanel Gordon, Matt Robinson and Noah Stoneman, trumpeter Alex Ridout, bassist Will Sach and guitarist Miles Mindlin.
As a composer she has collaborated with the all female Echea String Quartet and with the vocal ensemble Corvus Consort.
Throughout lockdown Hohnen-Ford has hosted regular Sunday night livestream shows on her Reddit and Youtube channels, attracting a global following in the process.
For Joe Webb tonight’s gig represented something of a homecoming. The talented Webb is Welsh born but has been based in London since 2013. He is a highly versatile musician who is equally in demand on piano and Hammond organ and who has worked with Kansas Smitty’s House Band, Fraser & The Alibis, Old Hat Jazz Band, guitarist Rob Luft and clarinettist Adrian Cox. He has also released two EPs with his piano trio featuring Empirical members Tom Farmer (bass) and Shane Forbes (drums).
My live sightings of Webb include a brilliant performance by the Rob Luft Band at The Hive in Shrewsbury in June 2019. Review here;
Webb also appears on both of Luft’s acclaimed albums for Edition Records, “Riser” (2017) and “Life is the Dancer” (2020), both of which are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.
The ongoing duo project between Hohnen-Ford and Webb seeks to “re-imagine lost songs and show tunes from the twentieth century”. Given the duo’s involvement with more contemporary strands of jazz I hadn’t expected them to have such an obvious love and such a deep knowledge of the ‘Great American Songbook’, Webb’s involvement with trad revivalists Kansas Smitty’s and the Old Hat Jazz Band notwithstanding.
This evening’s gig came at the end of a busy day for the young duo, who had earlier been filmed performing their “Tribute to the Great American Songbook” show at The Melville. That show, featuring Webb performing on the venue’s upright acoustic piano, will be streamed later in the year.
“We’ve got a few more songs up our sleeves” announced Hohnen-Ford as she introduced tonight’s live performance at The Barn, suggesting that tonight’s live show and the subsequent stream will be significantly different. For such young performers the duo’s extensive knowledge of the ‘Songbook’ repertoire is truly impressive. “He’s like a book, he knows it all”, commented Hohnen-Ford of Webb, but the singer’s own command of the idiom was also admirably deep and wide.
The repertoire for this live performance avoided the over-familiar, and although I’d heard most of tonight’s songs at some point in the past none of them could be considered ‘staples’, which helped to maintain the element of surprise and keep things nice and fresh.
A single ninety minute set commenced with the wry wit of “Can’t We Be Friends” with Hohnen-Ford’s sassy, well enunciated vocals complemented by Webb’s playing of an electric keyboard on an acoustic piano setting. Most pieces featured extended passages of solo piano in which Webb demonstrated his mastery of a variety of jazz piano styles. His playing even evoked audience comparisons with such greats as Art Tatum.
A selection of BMJ’s “Jazz Through The Ages” pop up posters were in evidence around the barn and the presence by the door of the one featuring an image of Duke Ellington had clearly inspired the duo. Duke’s “All Too Soon” followed, with Hohnen-Ford dedicating their performance to “our doorman”.
Things really took off with a terrific version of “Undecided” with Hohnen-Ford skilfully navigating a tongue twister of a lyric before handing over to Webb for a dazzling display of virtuoso pianistics, combining rhythmic sophistication and complexity with a dazzling variety of piano styles. Hohnen-Ford had first heard the song performed by Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Orchestra. Webb’s initiation came closer to home with the Morriston Big Band from Swansea. Cheekily dedicated to Boris Johnson this high energy performance certainly got the audience going.
Billie Holiday is another touchstone for Hohnen-Ford, as evidenced by a beautiful performance of “I’ll Get By”, introduced by a more reflective passage of solo piano from Webb.
The duo are currently in the course of making their first album, which will be recorded direct to tape and is due to include both “Undecided” and “I’ll Get By”. It should be well worth hearing when it is eventually released.
Still drawing inspiration from the figure at the door Hohnen-Ford gave one of her most emotive performances on the Ellington / Strayhorn ballad “Solitude” before returning to the Billie Holiday repertoire for the rueful humour of “You Turned The Tables On Me”.
The duo picked up the pace again with a lively version of Cole Porter’s “Just One Of Those Things”, which encapsulated their remarkable musical chemistry and incorporated a rollicking piano solo from the impressive Webb, now clearly really hitting his stride.
The concert took place in a truly rural setting, with stunning scenery all around, horses and donkeys in the paddocks and a family of swallows nesting in the barn.
The latter could sometimes be heard above the music, “our choir of backing vocalists”, remarked Hohnen-Ford. The presence of the swallows, with the parent birds constantly entering and exiting through the open windows, clearly inspired the choice of “Bye Bye Blackbird”, with Hohnen-Ford inserting the phrase “Hello Swallows” into the lyrics. But it was the horses that inspired Webb’s use of syncopated rhythms, variously trotting, cantering and galloping alongside one of several scat vocal episodes from Hohnen-Ford.
A combination of the location and his own Welsh heritage inspired Webb’s beautiful solo piano performance of the Welsh hymn tune “Ar Hyd Y Nos” (“All Through The Night”), his flowing jazz extemporisations expanding upon the original melody.
Hohnen-Ford returned to sing the ballad “Don’t Ever Leave Me”, a song from the Peggy Lee repertoire, which she devoted to BMJ stalwart, fellow vocalist and Peggy Lee fan, Debs Hancock.
The duo concluded their set with a sprightly rendition of “Gone With The Wind”, inspired by the Ella Fitzgerald recording.
Following a terrific reception from a BMJ crowd long starved of live music the duo were tempted back to the stage by Mike Skilton for a brief encore, the musical equivalent of a “swift half”. This proved to be the old Louis Armstrong song “My Monday Date”, purposefully selected with the day of the week in mind. As so often happens it turned into a full pint as Webb cut loose with a barnstorming piano solo as the duo signed off in energetic fashion.
This event represented an excellent start to Wall2Wall’s live programme. Hohnen-Ford proved to be an excellent interpreter of standards with a relaxed and humorous stage presence and her rapport with Webb was obvious throughout.
Meanwhile the pianist’s contribution was a revelation. As his colleague observed his knowledge of the ‘Songbook’ was truly encyclopaedic, and his solos were consistently imaginative, inventive technically dazzling, and above all fun. The duo’s shared joy in their music making was obvious throughout, tackling the ‘Songbook’ with a combination of respect and daring. Playing to a live audience again they were having a great time.
It will be interesting to see how much their streamed performance from the Melville differs from this live show – and I’m sure that everybody who was here tonight will want to tune in to find out.
This first BMJ live event for some seventeen months represented an excellent return with the new location of The Barn at White House Farm in its stunning rural location working very well on this summer evening. Thanks to Julian and Clarissa for making it available to the Festival.
My thanks also to Ella and Joe for speaking with me and congratulations to Mike, Debs and the team for putting this live programme together.
However the Barn can only represent a temporary solution, it wouldn’t be suitable for year round performances and it is to be hoped that BMJ can eventually return to its home in the Melville on a permanent basis, provided the Covid situation continues to improve.
Other events at The Barn during this Wall2Wall 2021 live series are;
Tuesday 3rd August: 8pm
The Journey of Trad
Wednesday 4th August: 8pm
Dom Pipkin Trio
New Orleans Comes to Wall2Wall
Thursday 5th August: 8pm
Wendy Kirkland Trio
Celebrating the Divas
and at The Melville Centre;
Tuesday 10th August: 5pm and 8pm
The Shez Raja Sextet with Guest Tony Kofi
Tales From the Punjab
Full details from the Black Mountain Jazz website
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