by Ian Mann
August 12, 2006
Bright, intelligent contemporary jazz that doesn't take itself too seriously.
Anyone who has visited Brecon Jazz Festival on a regular basis will know that there is a vibrant jazz scene in South Wales and that many fine musicians are based in the area. Among their number is trombonist Gareth Roberts who released this, his debut recording as a leader in 2006.
Roberts is a graduate of the jazz course at the Welsh College Of Music And Drama in Cardiff. This highly regarded course has produced many fine musicians under the tutelage of Paula Gardiner and the legendary Keith Tippett. Many have chosen to remain in the area including pianist Dave Stapleton who last year released the highly regarded quintet album “When Life Was In Black And White”
Roberts trained as an engineer and worked as a maths teacher before becoming a full time musician and perhaps it is these life experiences that lead him to approach his music with an element of humour. A sense of fun is apparent throughout this album not only in the jokey title and the brilliantly quirky and amusing artwork (by Rhys Bevan Jones) but also in the writing and playing of the music itself. Roberts and his band mates sound as if they’re having a ball.
Roberts is joined in the front line by the excellent young saxophonist and clarinettist Marcin Wright who also appeared on the Dave Stapleton album alluded to previously. Paul Jones is an inventive soloist and supportive accompanist at the piano and Chris O’Connor (bass) and Mark O’ Connor (drums) are an experienced and dependable rhythm team. No relation, apparently.
Jones and the O’Connors combined with guitarist Richard Jones and released the album “Alpha” in 2005 as The Jones O’Connor Group. Having seen this line up at Brecon I can confirm that this album is also well worth hearing.
Since “Penguins” was recorded Wright has departed to live in Italy and his place as a front line soloist in the Roberts quintet has been taken by the accomplished and versatile trumpeter Gethin Liddington.
I saw this line up play two enjoyable sets at the recent Lichfield Jazz, Blues and Real Ale Festival. The affable Roberts led the band through a mixture of standards and his own original compositions.
On the album however the accent is very much on original writing with the only outside material being Robert’s arrangement of the traditional Welsh folk tune “Wrth Fynd Efo Deio I Dywyn”. This kicks off the album and features Roberts’ rasping trombone and Wright’s dancing clarinet as Wales meets New Orleans with a hint of the Middle East thrown in for good measure. With swinging support from the rhythm section it makes for an invigorating and attention-grabbing opener.
“Neverending Journey” is more cinematic in scope, building from quiet beginnings. Roberts demonstrates both warmth and flexibility on trombone and there are also quality solos from Wright’s probing tenor and from Jones on piano.
Each title is accompanied on the cover by an illustration from Bevan Jones. “Going Nowhere Fast” features a cartoon dog chasing it’s tail. The music however is wholly engaging and features more inventive soloing from Jones, Roberts and Wright. As elsewhere the trombone also fills a rhythmic role with Roberts’ persistent vamping.
In Roberts’ own words the title track has “a B movie feel and is also extremely silly”.
It’s also great fun, and the big band version of the tune as played by the Welsh Jazz Composers Orchestra on their recent tour must have been quite something. This features some great horn lines from Roberts and Wright and pounding piano from Jones. There is yet another monster trombone solo from the leader and some belligerent blowing from Wright as the O’Connor boys drive them onward. Stirring stuff.
“A Tribute To An Axed Piano” represents something of a pause for breath with muted trombone and feathery soprano combining with Jones’ delicate piano. The rhythm section also exercises admirable restraint on this elegiac piece which is the nearest the album gets to a ballad.
“Mop Dancing” is dedicated to the long-suffering souls who mop up spilt beer at jazz clubs. It’s a high-spirited romp of a tune with chunky rhythms, rollicking piano, big toned tenor and rootsy, bluesy trombone. You really could dance to this and it must surely be something of a live favourite.
Finally there is “Dysgu Cyfri” (that’s Welsh for “Learning To Count” and an oblique reference to those maths teaching days). It keeps up the jaunty pace and is similar in feel to the album’s opener with Wright’s energetic clarinet playing once more to the fore. There’s more of the leader’s agile and spirited trombone and some snappy drum breaks from Mark O’Connor on this brisk breeze of a tune.
This is a very impressive debut recording from the quintet. 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. Even the cover makes you laugh.
I must admit that I’m not normally a big fan of the trombone but I found Roberts’ playing to be consistently engaging and enjoyable and the other members of the group are equally impressive. The interplay between the horns of Roberts and Wright is particularly worthy of mention.
Roberts is one busy guy. A visit to his excellent website http://www.garethtrombone.co.uk suggests that he is in even more bands than Seb Rochford.
At this years Brecon Jazz Festival he will appear on the Stroller programme not only with his quintet, but also with cult heroes and festival regulars The Heavy Quartet plus the marvellously named Welsh Latin combo Buena Risca Social Club. Gareth was impressed that I, a mere Englishman actually got the joke.
A full list of gigs, biographical and band details plus a discography are all on the highly informative site.