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Glasshouse, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 05/03/2022.

Photography: Photograph of John Franks sourced from the Glasshouse Facebook page [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

March 08, 2022


Blurring the lines between composition and improvisation this was ‘free jazz’ as you’ve never heard it before, with grooves you could tap your feet to and melodies you could whistle.

Glasshouse, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 05/03/2022

John Franks – drums, percussion, Lee Relfe – alto & soprano saxophones, James Hancock Evans – keyboard

Tonight was my first visit to a musical event in Brecon since the summer of 2021 and my three visits to the month long hybrid Brecon Jazz Festival.

Following the Festival BJC organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon decided to take a well earned sabbatical and this, combined with Wales’ stricter Covid regulations, resulted in an absence of jazz in Brecon for some six months.

Brecon Jazz Club returned in February 2022 with a jam session headed by jazz french horn player Rod Paton but I missed this as I was covering a performance by saxophonist Mark Lockheart’s new Dreamers quartet in Shrewsbury on the same night.

Tonight it was great to be back at The Muse after such a long absence. Unfortunately Lynne and Roger weren’t there as they were holidaying in Spain, and no doubt checking out some Spanish jazz musicians. This latest club night was therefore hosted by Ruth from The Muse who had invited the Carmarthen based trio Glasshouse to play their first ever public gig.

The idea for Glasshouse was first formulated in 2017 by drummer John Franks and saxophonist Lee Relfe. These two have been playing music together for more than twenty years and were once part of the 1990s group Satori, who played what Franks describes as an amalgam of “pop, rock and jazz”. Franks also depped briefly with the Americana / folk rock band The Monte Dons.

Contemporary jazz fans will be aware that Satori is also the name of saxophonist Josephine Davies’ current trio with bassist Dave Whitford and drummer James Maddren. This brilliant band played in St. Mary’s Church at the 2018 Brecon Jazz Festival.

The first edition of Glasshouse featured Franks and Relfe plus Gary Whitely and Paul Uden. This group rehearsed on a regular basis but never made it to public performance. A combination of a hand injury to Franks followed by the pandemic then led to a long hiatus and the Glasshouse project was eventually reactivated in 2021 as a trio with the recruitment of the young pianist James Hancock Evans.

Hancock Evans is a classically trained musician who also plays in trad jazz bands. His wide range of keyboard skills made him an ideal choice for Glasshouse and another series of rehearsals convinced Franks and Relfe that this line up was the one that they had been looking for.

I assume that Glasshouse took their name from the structure of the same name at the National Botanic Garden of Wales near Carmarthen. But nomenclature aside Glasshouse are a very interesting band, one that plays freely improvised music but without ever sounding like a regular ‘free jazz’ or ‘improv’ group.

The ensemble’s early publicity material described them as “the band you’ll never be able to put in a box”. More recently they have used the strap-line “spontaneous melodic jazz improvisations”, which represents a neat summary of their approach.

As the trio took to the stage at The Muse in front of a pleasingly large audience for a band playing its first gig, and an improvising band at that, Franks brandished a blank piece of paper at the crowd declaring “this is the set list, nothing is planned in advance”.

According to Franks Glasshouse’s aim is to produce music that is freely improvised but which sounds as if it has been composed. This proved to be a trick that they pulled off with remarkable consistency over the course of two entertaining sets that produced some excellent music. The audience response to this first ever gig from Glasshouse was overwhelmingly positive and one feels that this is a group that is capable of building a considerable following – providing that they are given sufficient exposure.

Early Glasshouse rehearsals found them exploring “arbitrary rules like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to provoke fresh thinking and approaches”. An element of this found it’s way into tonight’s performance. Each table at The Muse contained a printed list of words, mainly adjectives, designed as cues for the band to play in a particular style, with audience members invited to choose a word from the list.

For the record the list of words as printed was;

Flowing Impatient

Fire Building

Swaying Splash

Aurora Forest

Darkness Ethereal

Reflecting Industrial

Traffic Meditation

Snowscape Laugh

Clockwork Riot

Delightful Ominous

Night Tropical

Glasshouse introduced themselves with a dramatic passage of solo drumming from Franks which made particularly effective use of cymbal chimes and crashes. Seated behind a huge kit Franks then appeared to sketch a melody on the drums, his ideas picked up on by piano and alto sax with Relfe subsequently taking over the melodic role and soloing incisively. If Jan Garbarek had played alto saxophone he might have sounded something like this.

Typically pieces would be ushered in by a solo passage from Franks at the drums or Hancock Evans at the piano. The second piece was introduced by unaccompanied piano, later expanding to embrace drums and alto sax. This was another powerful offering, fuelled by Franks’ dynamic drumming. The size of his kit plus the rhythms that he chose to deploy suggested a strong rock influence as he avoided the stock jazz rhythms.

At this juncture Franks invited the audience to choose a word off the list and the first selection was “Fire”. Ushered in by drums, small percussion and low end piano rumblings this was a slow burner of a piece that saw ominously smouldering alto sax melodies underscored by mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. The piece gradually grew in intensity with Franks’ dramatic drum tattoos eventually triggering a final burst of flame.

Franks introduced the next piece by deploying woodblocks to create a combined rhythmic / melodic motif for his colleagues to improvise around, with Relfe adding another incisive, hard hitting alto solo. The piece eventually resolved itself as it had begun with the sound of Franks on the woodblocks.

The next ‘request’ piece saw Aaron from The Muse getting ‘two for the price of one’ with “Dark Ethereal”, which saw Relfe moving to soprano sax. Franks’ appropriately ethereal cymbal shimmers and Hancock Evans’ brooding minor piano chords led into Relfe’s soprano sax ruminations, his oboe like tone sometimes reminiscent of Paul McCandless.  Having made the Oregon analogy I now turned my attention to the polyrhythmic flow of Franks’ drumming and was now reminded of the complexity of the late, great Collin Walcott’s tabla rhythms.

The next item combined Franks’  shuffling drum grooves with Hancock Evans’  dramatic piano chording and Relfe’s blistering soprano sax attack. Terrific stuff.

A change of pace with the next piece, which had something of the feel of a jazz ballad about it as Hancock Evans ushered things in with a passage of unaccompanied piano. Relfe’s melodic alto sax soloing was then underpinned by Hancock Evans’ piano chording and Franks’ understated drum accompaniment.

The final item of the first set was ushered in by Franks, who sketched melodic motifs on the toms, these playfully answered by Hancock Evans at the piano. As the piece progressed, with Relfe soloing powerfully and fluently on alto above interlocking piano and drum grooves I was sometimes reminded of the trio Mammal Hands, who deploy the same bassless piano/sax/drums line up.

Set two commenced with Franks inviting a shout from the floor. “Tropical” steadfastly avoided the reggae clichés that had probably been hoped for and instead focussed on an exotic groove and the bite of Relfe’s Sanborn-esque alto.

Next Franks came to the front of the stage and seated himself to play a lengthy solo passage on the djembe drum with Relfe eventually joining him on soprano sax as the pair generated an authentic North African / Middle Eastern sound. Franks eventually returned to the drum kit as Relfe continued to probe on what was to prove the lengthiest piece of the evening.

Hancock Evans introduced the next piece at the piano, his initially simple chording eventually becoming more complex as he was joined by alto sax and drums on a piece whose interlocking rhythms owed something to the Minimalist composers, and which again reminded me of Mammal Hands.

Next it was Franks’ turn to usher things in, his drum intro resulting in a series of playful exchanges with Relfe’s alto.

“Meditation” was the next request from the floor and this proved to be a set highlight, with Relfe, on alto, introducing a piece for the first time, his gentle sax melodies joined by minor piano chords and the beautiful, other-worldly sounds of Franks’ bell tree and cymbal chimes. Relfe’s subsequent alto solo had a spiritual, Coltrane-esque quality about it.

Hancock Evans introduced the next piece at the piano, the combination of his flowing melodies and Relfe’s sax improvising and Franks’ supportive drumming imparting the piece with an anthemic, song like quality that helped to close the second set on a high note.

The deserved encore was a high energy number featuring Franks on both maracas and kit drums as Hancock Evans slammed out propulsive Motown style piano chords and Relfe cut loose with an incisive soprano sax solo.

The audience reaction to this first ever show from this new trio was overwhelmingly positive, with The Muse’s Aaron thanking the band on behalf of the audience and being particularly effusive in his praise, and rightly so.

This was ‘free jazz’ as you’ve never heard it before with grooves you could tap your feet to and melodies you could whistle. Much of it sounded as if it could have been written and this blurring of the lines between composition and improvisation is exactly what Glasshouse have been aiming for. Franks likes to use the analogy of improvisation being fast or instant composition, and composition being a process of slow improvisation.

The long-standing rapport between Franks and Relfe was apparent throughout but one got the impression that Hancock Evans was still integrating himself into the band. He rarely soloed but is nevertheless an essential part of the trio, his intelligent chording often functioning as the harmonic glue that held the ensemble together. This was an excellent first public appearance but the potential is there for Glasshouse to become even better.

In avoiding the usual free jazz and improv clichés and the confrontational approach typical of the genre, no extended techniques for instance, Glasshouse have come up with a fresh approach to free improvisation, much as Fourth Page have done, but in a totally different way. The triumph of Glasshouse is to present improvisation in a form that is readily accessible to a general jazz audience. It’s an approach that earned them a lot of new friends tonight, and which should gain them a whole lot more in the future. Let’s hope that in time they will also get the opportunity to document their music making on disc.

For more information on Glasshouse please visit






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