by Ian Mann
March 29, 2023
The energy and positivity of the audience had clearly inspired the band, who raised their individual and collective games as a result, helping to turn the evening into a genuine EVENT.
Hot Club Gallois, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 26/03/2023.
Xenia Porteous – violin, Richard Jones – guitar, vocals, Luke Archard – guitar, Mike Morgan – double bass, electric bass, vocals
Hot Club Gallois is a popular gypsy jazz ensemble comprised of musicians based in South Wales. Tonight represented their first visit to BMJ since their appearance at the 2013 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, which had been held at the Club’s former home, the now closed Swan Hotel. The line up at that time featured current members Jones, Archard and Morgan plus violinist Heulwen Thomas. The last named has since been replaced by Xenia Porteous who was in the violin chair when the group performed at the 2018 Brecon Jazz Festival. The group also performed a set as part of the 2020 Virtual Brecon Jazz Festival, this filmed in person at Ratio Studios in Merthyr Tydfil. All of these performances are reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.
Hot Club Gallois evolved out of the Cardiff based quintet 5 Go Swing, who appeared for BMJ way back in 2009, when the Club was based at the Kings Arms. That line up included Archard and Thomas together with guitarist Mike Lowe, accordionist Julian Martin and bassist Gavin Johnson.
The current group deploy the classic ‘Hot Club’ line up two guitars, violin and double bass that was made famous by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Therefore it was extremely apposite that the quartet should perform in front of the “Europe” pop up poster from BMJ’s “Jazz Through The Ages” exhibition, this illustrated by a photograph of the great Django Reinhardt.
The Hot Club Gallois repertoire includes several Reinhardt compositions, including some lesser known ones, but they also feature original tunes in the gypsy jazz style from the pen of Richard Jones, plus one or two arrangements of pieces not usually associated with the genre, notably Chick Corea’s “Spain”. Jones and Morgan also sing capably, bringing an extra diversity to the quartet’s music. The group do not have a designated lead guitarist with Jones and Archard sharing soloing and rhythmic duties between them.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this evening’s concert was that it was officially sold out with every available seat in the Melville occupied. There have been near capacity audiences before but this was the first undisputed sell out. It says much for the popularity of Hot Club Gallois, who are something of a Welsh institution. I also suspect that Porteous’ excellent performance at the recent Women In Jazz In Wales event at the nearby Borough Theatre may have encouraged attendees at that event to come and see her again. My account of that event can be found here;
In addition to this audiences numbers at BMJ events have been increasing since Covid restrictions were lifted. There is clearly still a collective appetite for live music, something encouraged by the Club’s increasingly sophisticated online presence both during the pandemic and afterwards. Recent events have seen many new faces at the Club, and once bitten by the live jazz bug they tend to return for more. Even more pleasing is the fact that the audience demographic is, on average, getting younger. 2023 has got off to a great start at Black Mountain Jazz and the trend looks set to continue.
The presence of a full house clearly inspired the band with Richard Jones presenting the show with salty, but self deprecating Welsh wit, with the rest of the band chipping in with similarly amusing asides.
The first set kicked off with the sound of Archard’s unaccompanied guitar as the quartet tackled “Anniversary”, quickly adopting a classic ‘Hot Club’ sound as the other instrumentalists joined in with solos coming from Archard, Porteous and Jones.
“J’Attendrai” followed, with solos from the same three instrumentalists. Porteous, Jones and Archard are all supremely skilled musicians, with Porteous combining a classically honed technique with a profound love of gypsy jazz.
The sound of Jones’ unaccompanied guitar ushered in “Sephora”, his intro and opening solo followed by features for Porteous and Archard.
Morgan had hitherto been content to provide the necessary propulsion for the featured soloists, combining with the designated rhythm guitarist of the moment as necessary. “Lady Be Good” represented his first moment in the spotlight as he demonstrated his singing skills in tandem with his double bass playing. Morgan spent most of the evening on double bass, only switching to electric for one number in the second set, but more on that later.
The first original of the evening was Jones’ “Café 39”, dedicated to a Parisian coffee house of which he is particularly fond. “We don’t have anything like that in Pontypridd”, he observed ruefully. Musically the piece was an attractive tune written broadly in the Hot Club style with features for the composer, Porteous and Archard.
Jones’ guitar also introduced “Gitane”, which again featured himself, Porteous and Archard.
Encouraged by the positive audience response to the earlier “Café 39” Jones introduced another original, “Belle Vue Waltz”, this time named after a house that the composer once occupied in Treforest. This was another attractive tune, a genuine jazz waltz, that benefited from fluent solos from Archard, Porteous and Jones and which again prompted a warm reaction from the Abergavenny audience.
Despite suffering from the effects of a cold Jones sang convincingly on the quartet’s version of “After You’ve Gone”, with Morgan providing vocal harmonies. The instrumental highlights came from Jones, Porteous and Archard.
The first half concluded with a rendition of the little heard Reinhardt composition “Fleche d’Or”, named after a very fast train. I believe the title translates as ‘Golden Arrow’ and refers to the ‘boat train’ that ran between London and Paris, known in the UK as the Golden Arrow and in France as the “Fleche d’Or”. The quartet delivered it at a lightning pace with frantic, staccato rhythms supporting dazzling, technically challenging solos from Porteous, Archard and Jones, the latter crediting Archard with “smoking hot gypsy jazz guitar”, which summed it up pretty nicely. After this brisk steam through it was time for the band to take a well earned rest.
The beginning of the second set maintained the energy levels as the twin guitarists ushered in the Reinhardt composition “Django’s Tiger”, with solos from Archard and Porteous plus a series of fiery instrumental exchanges between these two and Jones.
“There Will Be Another You” featured another Morgan vocal plus instrumental solos from Jones and Porteous.
“Hungaria”, another lesser known Reinhardt tune, featured Archard, Porteous and Jones.
“We’re going to take things down a notch” explained Jones as he introduced Reinhardt’s “Minor Blues”. Archard’s guitar solo featured some appropriate blues inflections and included some prodigious string bending. He was followed by Porteous and Jones, who each introduced an element of musical humour, Porteous quoting from the “Pink Panther” theme tune and Jones from Grieg’s “Hall Of The Mountain King”. A sudden change of pace as the music accelerated then prompted further solos from Archard, Porteous and Jones.
Jones also performs solo gigs, often drawing on the acoustic blues repertoire. He’s a highly versatile musician who plays in a variety of musical styles. His second vocal feature was a version of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose”, which also saw him sharing the instrumental solos with Porteous and Archard.
Morgan moved to five string electric bass as the quartet tackled the complexities of the Chick Corea composition “Spain”, a great tune but not a composition normally associated with gypsy jazz outfits. “We’ve practised this a LOT”, explained Jones, “it’s hard!”. Despite the technical challenges the quartet gave a magnificent performance, ushering things in with a quote from Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez” before Porteous took flight with a soaring violin solo, this followed by similarly stunning solo excursions from both guitarists. Hot Club Gallois encourage dancing at their gigs and three young ladies were tempted to take to the floor, where they remained for pretty much the rest of the set.
The ballad “Nature Boy” has been a staple part of the Hot Club Gallois repertoire for many years and is a vocal feature for Morgan. Back on double bass he sang with warmth and conviction in an intimate group performance that also included poignant instrumental solos from Porteous and Archard.
It was back to the Reinhardt repertoire for “Djangology”, which increased the pace once more and included solos from both guitarists plus Porteous, with Archard squeezing a quote from the earlier “After You’ve Gone” into his solo.
Despite its title “Bossa Dorada” was treated as a tango, with Porteous, a keen tango dancer, temporarily putting down her violin to dance with a member of the audience. Eventually she returned to the stage to share the soloing with Archard.
This was scheduled to be the last piece, but a deserved encore was never in doubt and the band remained on stage to deliver a fiery version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”, with Porteous’ violin soaring over the furious rhythms generated by the two guitars and Morgan’s double bass. Archard and Jones also weighed in with dazzling solos of their own as a highly successful and hugely enjoyable evening came to a close.
The energy and positivity of the audience had clearly inspired the band, who raised their individual and collective games as a result, helping to turn the evening into a genuine EVENT. Musicians, promoters and fans all went home feeling very happy as BMJ continues to go from strength to strength.
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