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by Ian Mann

July 05, 2010


Ian Mann takes a look at the long awaited new album by the Gareth Roberts Quintet, plus the album launch gig in Cardiff.

Gareth Roberts Quintet

“Go Stop Go “

(Killer Penguin Jazz 002)

Welsh trombonist Gareth Roberts made a considerable impact with his 2006 début album “Attack Of The Killer Penguins”. His quintet’s blend of spirited improvising drew on the American hard bop tradition but spoke with a distinctly Welsh accent.  Roberts has always included jazz versions of traditional Welsh folk tunes in his repertoire and exhibits a strong sense of humour in his writing. This is a band that doesn’t take itself too seriously and knows how to have musical fun. Their joie de vivre is immediately apparent in their live shows but behind the humour there is some fine musicianship. The group’s recent album launch gig at Cardiff’s Café Jazz included some blistering solos, technically dazzling but delivered with a ready smile.

“Penguins” attracted national attention and the group found themselves touring the UK playing major festivals such as Lichfield (where I first saw them) and Cheltenham as part of the Jazz Services’ “Promoter’s Choice” series. “Go Stop Go” represents their long awaited follow up and many of the tunes appearing here have featured in the group’s live sets for some time. Not that Roberts has been idle, he’s a member of a dozen or so different bands including the always excellent Heavy Quartet and also works as a music educator.

“Go Stop Go” features the regular line-up of many years with Roberts on trombone, Gethin Liddington on trumpet, Paul Jones at the piano and the fraternal rhythm team of Chris O’Connor (bass) and brother Mark (drums). Liddington took over from saxophonist Marcin Wright who appears on the “Penguins” album. Wright, now resident in Italy remains a close friend of the band and recently helped Roberts redesign his website.

The new record is less consciously quirky and eclectic than it’s predecessor but there is still a strong sense of fun running through the six Roberts originals plus the obligatory arrangement of a Welsh folk tune. The opener, “Shaky Leg Syndrome” has been in the quintet’s set lists for some time and has a typically catchy Roberts hook that acts as the jumping off point for some fine solos from Roberts, Jones and Liddington.

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. Jones is an engaging, sometimes idiosyncratic presence at the piano and is capable of delivering dazzling solos as well as being a fine accompanist. He is also a fine player of electric keyboards although he doesn’t deploy them in the Roberts quintet. Jones work in this field is best heard in the Jones O’ Connor Group, a more fusion oriented band that he co leads with guitarist Richard Jones with the O’ Connor brothers forming there, as here, a flexible and intelligent rhythm section. Liddington meanwhile is one of the Welsh jazz scene’s most versatile trumpeters having worked in all fields of the music from trad to the avant garde ensembles of pianist Keith Tippett. In the Roberts band he mainly deploys a bright, brassy, open horn sound but he is also capable of considerable tenderness on ballads. He and Roberts make an excellent front line pairing, sometimes playing tight, synchronised lines, at others making thrilling and inventive use of counterpoint. Long term friends and colleagues they complement each other supremely well.

So much then, for the voices of the band. “Waiting” is a ballad that features the Harmon muted trumpet of Liddington at his most Milesian and the lyrical piano of Jones. Roberts’ own solo deploys an unusual “double mute” technique with a cup mute inserted into the bell of the horn with Roberts using a plunger mute to further soften the sound. It’s a beautiful demonstration of the more sensitive side of his playing.

Go Stop- Go- Man” also appears in a different version on the latest Heavy Quartet album “Hardware”. Roberts came up with the infectious hook when stuck in a traffic jam-in Lampeter of all places. It’s a playful item with Liddington hitting spectacular upper register notes underpinned by O’ Connor’s drum tattoos. Then it’s Roberts’ turn, contrastingly low down and dirty above the same groove. Great fun and a good reminder of the quintet’s often irreverent approach.

“Unlucky-Lee” is a nod in the direction of the late, great Lee Morgan and deploys the sort of punning title Morgan liked to give to his own tunes. Liddington plays the Morgan role with aplomb following powerful solos from Roberts and Jones. Although rooted in the Blue Note tradition there are also exaggerated passages of earlier swing stylings. Once again, great fun.

“Chwilio”(or “Searching” to us Saesnegs) is the record’s second ballad feature, another elegant slow tune with poignant solos from Roberts, Jones and Chris O’ Connor at the bass.

“Well I Think You Should” is Roberts’ reply to Thelonious Monk’s “Well you Needn’t”. It’s nutty, Monkish theme is the vehicle for fine solos from Liddington and Roberts, the latter using a plunger mute, plus Jones at his most Monkish. 

“Cwyn Mam -Yng-Nghyfraith” or “Mother-In-Law’s Complaint” is a traditional Welsh folk tune that has been turned into a lengthy blowing or jam tune for the band. Roberts and Liddington state the theme in unison but there’s a simmering feel to their tightly reined in ruminations and you just know that at any minute the lid is going to blow off. When it does it’s in spectacular fashion with Chris O’ Connor’s bass pulse and Jones’ interior piano scrapings the springboard for some exuberant blowing featuring all five members of the band, including Mark O’ Connor who enjoys a lengthy drum feature. Like it’s predecessor “Wrth Fynd Efo Deio I Dywyn” on the first album it’s a great live favourite, and not just in Wales.

The quintet’s album launch gig at Cardiff’s Jazz Café was an enjoyable affair spread over two sets. The group played all of the new album, though not in the order the tunes are represented here, plus a few tunes from “Penguins"including the rousing closer “Wrth Fynd Efo Deio I Dywyn” and the encore “Mop Dancing”.

A notable absentee was bassist Chris O’ Connor who has suffered a stroke following heart surgery at the tender age of thirty six and is currently far too ill to play. The Jazzmann wishes him well and at this difficult time we also send our sympathies to Mark who is just as close to his brother away from the bandstand.

Chris’ place was taken by Aidan Thorne, a student at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Thorne has worked with Mark O’Connor before and did a very good job of playing Roberts’ sometimes difficult tunes after only very limited rehearsals. It had been a while since I last saw the band and I’d almost forgotten just how much fun they are live.

Both live and on record the Gareth Roberts Quintet’s rousing, sometimes humorous and proudly Welsh take on the jazz tradition is highly recommended. “Go Stop Go” is a worthy addition to the Roberts canon. 

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