by Ian Mann
September 25, 2023
I was particularly pleased to see so many original pieces included in the programme and I was very impressed with the quality of Millar’s writing.
Ian Millar / Dominic Spencer Duo, Kilpeck Village Hall, Kilpeck, Herefordshire, 22/09/2023.
Ian Millar – tenor & soprano saxophones, Dominic Spencer – keyboard
At the recent Simon Spillett gig at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny I was introduced to James Rush, a jazz aficionado, and a particularly keen Spillett fan, who has recently moved from Kent to the Herefordshire village of Kilpeck.
Frustrated by the lack of jazz events in Herefordshire (tell me about it!) James has taken the brave decision to begin promoting jazz events in his new home village. Naturally The Jazzmann was keen to support this new venture and so I found myself at Kilpeck’s comfortable, welcoming and well appointed village hall for this inaugural event, a visit from the touring duo of saxophonist and composer Ian Millar and pianist Dominic Spencer.
Millar and Spencer are based in Edinburgh and for the past seventeen years have presented their “Jazz at Lunchtime” residency at the annual Edinburgh Fringe, with many fans returning to see them every year.
Occasionally they perform with bass and drums but more commonly, for economic reasons as much as anything else, they go out as a duo, touring extensively throughout the UK. Millar and Spencer specialise in rural touring, frequently playing in village halls and churches under the generic title “Jazz in the Village”. They have also toured for the Churches Preservation Trust.
The Kilpeck date was just one in a series of shows that has seen the duo exploring just about every corner of the UK and racking up an incredible number of road miles in the process. To keep costs down Millar and Spencer travel from gig to gig in their own ‘tour bus’, a converted Yorkshire ambulance, now re-classified as a ‘motor caravan’ that now includes;
A secure area for the duo’s musical equipment
2 full size single beds
a 2 burner stove
a sink with an electric tap
a detachable table
cupboards for food, plates & cups etc.
Millar and Spencer specialise in a melodic style of jazz, their sets typically comprising of a selection of well chosen jazz standards interspersed by a goodly number of Millar originals, many of these inspired by the places that the duo have seen on their travels.
Both musicians are inspired by a love of nature and Millar is also a keen runner, having completed a 10k run on all twenty five days of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so 250k in all. It’s even more impressive when you consider that he was also performing a gig every day as well. Sponsored by friends he raised £312.00 for the Samaritans charity, so very well done to him.
The duo like to split their labours equally, so while Millar looks after the composing duties Spencer handles the announcements at the duo’s shows. The latter’s tune announcements are highly informative and much of the above information was imparted during the course of the show, with additional material being sourced from the duo’s website http://www.millarandspencer.co.uk
And so to the music, which began with an arrangement of the jazz standard “Just Friends”, with Millar featuring on tenor sax and Spencer on his electric keyboard, a Technics P30 on an acoustic piano setting. The duo’s style of jazz is cool, elegant and melodic, ideal fare for listeners in rural communities whose previous exposure to jazz may have been rather limited. Millar and Spencer are also keen that children and young people should enjoy their music and tonight’s audience included a number of budding young musicians.
A typical performance would include two saxophone led sections, effectively solos, punctuated by a passage of unaccompanied piano from Spencer.
Millar moved to soprano sax for his original composition, the folk tinged “High Five”, named in honour of its time signature. This was the first of several excellent originals and saw Millar’s soprano dancing airily above Spencer’s complex keyboard rhythms.
The Charles Lloyd composition “Third Floor Richard” represented an unexpected choice but constituted something of a set highlight with Millar soloing authoritatively on tenor and clearly demonstrating a great affinity for Lloyd’s work. Spencer’s piano solo was then complemented by Millar’s saxophone counterpoint.
Millar moved back to soprano for his attractive original composition “Summer Song”, another tune inspired by the duo’s travels and love of nature.
The saxophonist continued to alternate between horns, playing classic tenor on the ballad “Lover Man” and switching back to soprano for “Fly Me To The Moon”, or “Fly Me to Dunoon” as it’s referred to Scotland.
Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” also featured Millar on soprano and the first set concluded with the Millar original “The Dunsapie Otters”, which saw its composer switching back to tenor. The story behind this composition was fascinating, as Spencer explained. Millar had written the piece during the first Covid lockdown, a time when otters returned to the artificial Dunsapie Loch near Arthur’s Seat. Millar’s delightful tune more than lived up to the story that inspired it and represented an excellent way to conclude what had been a very engaging first set.
Set two followed a similar pattern and commenced with Millar on tenor for the jazz standard “There Is No Greater Love”.
Perhaps the most distinctive of Millar’s originals was “Khamsin”, named for the dry, hot wind that affects Egypt and the Levant. This was introduced by Spencer at the piano, accompanied by Millar’s soprano sax drone, a sustained single note that represented a substantial feat of breath control. Millar’s subsequent solo exhibited a definite North African / Middle Eastern influence and, for me, this piece represented a real gig highlight. From the reaction of the rest of the audience I wasn’t alone, evidence that audiences don’t always want to hear the familiar or the tried and trusted. In the main jazz listeners are more adventurous than they’re sometimes given credit for.
Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” represented more familiar fare and saw Millar moving back to tenor.
The saxophonist returned to soprano for his own “Caithness Song”, another beautiful piece inspired by the duo’s travels, this time to the remote North East of Scotland. Introducing the composition Spencer sang the praises of the John O’Groats Book Festival, at which the duo had played, and the Lyth Arts Centre in Wick with its magnificent Steinway grand piano.
Also from the pen of Millar came “Morning Dew”, ushered in by a passage of unaccompanied piano by Spencer and featuring the lyrical, gently brooding tenor sax of the composer.
Millar then switched to soprano for a second Jerome Kern tune, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”.
Things were moving towards the close and the duo decided to round things off on an energetic note with their version of the Sonny Rollins tune “Salvador”, with Millar naturally enough on tenor.
A small but supportive audience, encouraged by James Rush, demanded ‘one more’, this being the jazz standard “Stella by Starlight”.
My thanks to Ian and Dom for speaking me with me afterwards, they are genuinely lovely people and I wish them well on the rest of their seemingly never ending tour. I was particularly pleased to see so many original pieces included in the programme and I was very impressed with the quality of Millar’s writing. They really should make a recording of his tunes to sell at gigs.
All in all this an enjoyable, if slightly low key, start to the jazz season at Kilpeck. Next month the Cotswolds based gypsy jazz quartet Swing From Paris, who have featured on the Jazzmann web pages on numerous occasions, will visit the Village Hall on October 13th 2023. For details please visit https://kilpeckvillagehall362768241.wordpress.com/ and www.swingfromparis.co.uk
I also intend to cover this event, so watch this space.
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