by Ian Mann
May 01, 2019
Ian Mann enjoys a performance from this excellent quartet, with the repertoire equally divided between the music of Duke Ellington and trombonist Roberts' own compositions.
Gareth Roberts Quartet, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 28/04/2019.
Gareth Roberts – trombone, Tom Berge – keyboard, Erika Lyons – double bass, Mark O’Connor- drums.
Cardiff based trombonist and composer Gareth Roberts has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages for a number of years.
I first became aware of his playing in 2006 when I reviewed the quirkily titled “Attack Of The Killer Penguins”, the début album by Roberts’ quintet. Comprised entirely of original compositions plus a selection of imaginative arrangements of traditional Welsh folk tunes the album brought Roberts a degree of national attention, and rightly so, with festival appearances at Lichfield and Cheltenham following. The 2010 follow up “Go Stop Go” was nearly as fine, although in terms of the national jazz scene a little of the momentum generated by “Penguins” had dissipated by then. Both albums are highly recommended and both are reviewed elsewhere on this site.
Later he became a member of the Heavy Quartet, the long running band from Cardiff who only recently called time on a career that had seen them amass something of a cult following. Roberts became a significant instrumental and composing presence in the band’s ranks, contributing hugely to the success of albums like “Hardware” (2009) and the final offering “Prime” (2015). Reviews here;
The versatile Roberts is also one of the principal soloists in the Capital City Jazz Orchestra and has also played with the Latin-esque Buena Risca Social Club. He is an in demand sideman, and session musician and also somehow finds time to pursue a parallel career as a school teacher and musical educator.
He had previously visited BMJ in January 2018 playing trombone and euphonium as part of the one off Wall2Wall Festival Street Stompers quintet. Review here;
In July 2017 Roberts took a quartet to nearby Brecon Jazz Club. Having been asked to select a programme of his favourite jazz standards he found that he’d compiled an entire set of Duke Ellington tunes. Thus his “In a Mellow Tone, the music of Duke Ellington” project was born with several other similarly successful performances following.
Tonight’s event was billed as containing “music composed by and inspired by the great Duke Ellington”. I was expecting something similar to the Brecon show which consisted entirely of Ellington material. Tonight we were to hear a lot more of Roberts’ original writing with a roughly equal split between Roberts’ two favourite composers - “Duke Ellington and me!”.
I, for one, was delighted to hear so much of Roberts’ own material, the majority of it new. I’ve always rated Roberts as a composer and admired his quirky, irreverent and distinctly Welsh approach to his writing. Both of his quintet albums include some outstanding compositions and his contribution to the repertoire of the Heavy Quartet was also excellent.
The decision to include so much new material was a brave one as Roberts was appearing with what was essentially a ‘one off’ quartet. Roberts and O’ Connor go back a long way, the drummer having appeared on both of Roberts’ quintet albums. The trombonist had also worked with Lyons before but tonight was the first time he had actually met Berge. The pianist was depping for Roberts’ long time collaborator Dave Jones, himself something of a BMJ favourite. Roberts has guested on a number of Jones’ solo recordings but the pianist was away in Ireland, touring with drummer Kevin Lawlor’s group. Bath based Berge, who studied at Leeds College of Music, is establishing himself as a player of note on the jazz scene in Bristol and the South West and was recommended to Roberts as a ‘dep’. It has to be said that Berge rose to the challenge magnificently, if one hadn’t known one could have comfortably assumed that he and Roberts had been playing together for years.
The first set put the emphasis on the Ellington material, the familiarity of the tunes giving the new quartet time to ‘bed in’. An introductory fanfare ushered in “In A Mellow Tone”, the signature tune of Roberts’ Ellington project with excellent opening solos from the leader on trombone, Berge on piano and Lyons on double bass.
O’Connor’s drums introduced an innovative Roberts arrangement of one of Ellington’s most famous tunes, “It Don’t Mean A Thing”, with solos coming from Roberts and Berge prior to a series of sparky O’Connor drum breaks as he traded fours with Roberts and Berge. It was impressive that the quartet managed to find something new to say, keeping this old chestnut fresh and exciting.
The first Roberts original was the two part composition “My Personal Penguin”, a dedication by the recently married composer to his new wife. The first half was a ballad, featuring the sounds of gently rounded trombone, lyrical piano, languidly plucked bass and delicately brushed drums. It was all rather lovely, if rather predictable, but Roberts is noted for his quirky sense of humour and the second half was an up-tempo romp that poked fun at his wife’s stubbornness. This quality was hinted at by recurring repeated phrases, these punctuated by lively solos from the leader on trombone and Berge on the piano plus a further drum feature from O’Connor.
An engaging and entertaining first set was completed by the quartet’s interpretation of Ellington’s “Cottontail”. “It’s a rhythm changes tune” explained Roberts, “But although it was written before the bebop era it still sounds be-boppish to me”. The arrangement served to illustrate his point with the leader playing the tune’s melodic hook before handing over to Berge for the first solo, the pianist injecting a little humour of his own with a “Flintstones” theme quote. Further solos came from Roberts on trombone and Lyons on double bass plus a series of fiery drum breaks from O’Connor, his exchanges with Roberts exhibiting a terrific rapport and shared sense of fun. This was an energetic and enjoyable way to round off an excellent first half.
Set two commenced with the sound of the trio of Berge, Lyons and O’ Connor as they introduced Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” with Roberts eventually taking the first solo, his playing inflected with an agreeable bluesiness. Lyons delivered a typically articulate bass solo before handing over to Berge at the piano.
Roberts is the musical director of the Monmouth Big Band, an ensemble of amateur musicians based in that town. Besides leading the band in a series of jazz and big band standards he has also written original material for them to perform. In January 2018 Roberts’ “The Monmouthshire Suite” also known as “Tales From The Border” was premièred at Monmouth’s Savoy Theatre. It’s a source of some regret that I was invited to cover the event but was unable to do so due to a prior commitment.
Thus it was a source of joy tonight to discover that Roberts had arranged three of the movements for performance by a quartet, all of which were performed by tonight’s group.
Two of the pieces were of particular relevance to the Abergavenny audience, being named after mountains in the vicinity of the town. Roberts, a keen walker, had scaled both of the peaks in question, the first being “Skirrid Fawr” which he ascended on a misty day, the soft focus of the music with its rich textures reflecting this, with solos coming from Roberts and Berge.
“After The Battle” was based on a folk tune collected by Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover (1802-96) of the Llanover Estate a few miles south of Abergavenny. Lady Llanover was a great advocate for Welsh culture and was closely associated with folk music and the harp in particular. This was another atmospheric piece with Roberts’ softly muted trombone complemented by Berge’s answering melodic embellishments and O’ Connor’s softly brushed drums.
Named after another mountain just outside Abergavenny “Descending The Blorenge” was inspired by another of Roberts’ walking trips. This was a faster paced tune, the rhythms intended to simulate those experienced by walkers descending a steep slope. It was therefore appropriate that the piece was introduced by Lyons’ rapid bass walk, her groove establishing the pace of the tune and encouraging sparkling solos from Berge and Roberts before she enjoyed her own feature. Roberts made a point of praising the sight reading skills of his three colleagues who tackled these three unfamiliar pieces superbly, their only previous sighting of them having been at a brief ten minute rehearsal prior to the gig.
Roberts dipped deep into his back catalogue as the quartet played another original. It’s always a delight to hear the infectious “Mop Dancing”, a tune that originally appeared on the “Killer Penguins” album way back in 2006. The piece is dedicated to the long suffering souls who mop up spilt beer in jazz clubs, notably at the former Riverside venue in Cardiff. Here Berge adopted an electric piano sound on his Kawai keyboard for the only time as he shared the solos with Roberts and Lyons on this funky, bluesy romp of a tune.
The last number of the evening saw the quartet returning to the Ellington repertoire and “Caravan”, a most appropriate choice given that the tune was actually written by Ellington’s valve trombonist Juan Tizol. “Nobody else plays this quite like I do” promised Roberts, with his barnstorming introductory dialogue with O’Connor illustrating his point. Subsequent solos came from Roberts, Berge, Lyons and O’Connor as the evening ended on a fiercely energetic and good humoured note.
MC for the evening Debs Hancock had little difficulty in persuading the band to remain on stage for a well deserved encore, this being the Duke’s signature tune “Take The A Train” with solos coming from Roberts and Berge before the pair traded fours with the effervescent O’ Connor.
This was a highly enjoyable performance from this hastily assembled quartet. I’ve seen Roberts perform in numerous different contexts over the years and he never disappoints, always delivering the goods musically and doing so with a genuine sense of fun. He’s a highly skilled and fluent trombone soloist of whom I have previously observed;
“I’ll admit that I’ve never been a big fan of the trombone but I love Roberts’ playing. Nimble and inventive he seems to bring out the best in the instrument, from gutbucket slides and rasps on the up tempo material to a surprising tenderness on ballads.”
“Roberts is an inventive and agile trombonist who structures his solos well, deploying the full range of what is sometimes regarded as a lugubrious instrument with a fleet footed grace and acumen. I just love his playing”.
“Roberts’ writing is imaginative and intelligent but he never takes himself too seriously. As a result there is hardly a dull moment on the album and the band’s real sense of enjoyment communicates itself to the listener.”
All these qualities were in evidence tonight and he was well supported by an excellent quartet. I’m readily familiar with the playing of both Lyons and O’Connor and have seen each perform many times, although this was probably the first time that I’ve seen them together. Both are highly accomplished rhythm players and they combined quickly and effectively as a team. Roberts’ rapport with his long term associate O’ Connor was apparent throughout the set and contributed hugely to the success of the evening.
But for many observers it was Berge who was the real revelation. Roberts, Lyons and O’Connor have all visited BMJ many times in various musical guises but Berge seemed to be a new discovery for almost everybody in the audience. He proved to be a superb piano soloist and a skilled accompanist too, as befits a musician who has studied with the great Dave Newton. Berge won a lot of new friends this evening and it’s likely that he will return to BMJ at some point in the future. The young pianist looks set to become a rising star on the jazz scenes of South Wales, Bristol and the South West.
For myself I was pleased that tonight’s show wasn’t a carbon copy of Roberts’ Ellington themed show at Brecon Jazz Club. I’ve always admired his work as a composer and was delighted to hear the quartet play so much original material, and to do it justice. Having missed the Monmouth Big Band gig in January it represented a real bonus to hear some the material from the “Monmouthshire Suite” for the first time. Let’s hope Roberts gets the chance to document this music on disc sometime, preferably with a big band, but if that’s not economically feasible then with a smaller group.
In the meantime Roberts will be leading the Monmouth Big Band in a performance of the material at the South Wales Big Band Society gig on May 8th 2019. The event will take place at Rogerstone and Bassaleg Social Club near Newport.