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Jack Mac Trio with Michael Blanchfield

Jack Mac Trio with Michael Blanchfield, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 11/06/2024.

Photography: Photograph by Pam Mann

by Ian Mann

June 12, 2024


Every time I see this trio they find something fresh to say, even about the most familiar of material and they always manage to bring out the best in their guests. A very enjoyable & successful event

Jack Mac Trio with Michael Blanchfield, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 11/06/2024

Jack Mac (Jack McDougal) – tenor & soprano saxophones, Nick Kacal – double bass, Ryan Thrupp – drums, percussion, Michael Blanchfield – keyboard

Brecon Jazz Club’s event for June 2024 featured the trio of saxophonist Jack McDougal (better known as Jack Mac), bassist Nick Kacal and drummer Ryan Thrupp.

This ‘trio for hire’ is perhaps best known as the BMJ Collective, the name under which they perform at the nearby Black Mountain Jazz Club in Abergavenny. Mac, Kacal and Thrupp are the tutors of BMJC’s youth ensemble the BMJazz Katz and host regular workshop sessions with the youngsters. They have also guided their young charges through three highly successful public appearances.

It has become customary for the Sunday afternoon sessions to sometimes be followed by a public performance by the BMJ Collective in the early evening.  The idea of the tutors n performing for the public is not only for ticket sales to contribute towards the teaching costs but also for the students to see their teachers performing at their best and embodying the JazzKatz motto of “work, play, inspire”.

The ‘BMJ Collective With’ series has been a great success with core trio of Mac, Kacal and Thrupp joined by a number of invited guests. These have included pianists Ross Hicks and Michael Blanchfield, vocalist Sarah Meek, guitarist Chris Cobbson and drummer Alex Goodyear, the last named an original member of the BMJ Collective.

All of these shows have been favourably reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann. Each performance has included an interesting selection of material sourced from the jazz canon and beyond, the majority of it chosen by the guest performer. All the gigs have exceeded my expectations, representing far more than the usual obligatory or perfunctory ‘house trio with guest soloist’ session.   As I have previously observed,  “this is a series of events that continues to punch well above its weight”.

The Mac / Kacal / Thrupp edition of the BMJ Collective has developed into a highly cohesive unit.  All are highly capable musicians who have established an impressive collective rapport that enables them to bring the very best out of their guests. They are also available as a ‘trio for hire’, either as a jazz combo or even as a function band.

The Cardiff based pianist and keyboard player Michael Blanchfield guested with the BMJ Collective at the Melville Centre, Abergavenny in January 2024. This was a highly successful show that was attended by Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon of Brecon Jazz Club, who were so impressed that they were determined to bring the same four musicians to perform in Brecon later in the year.

Tonight’s performance was variously billed as the ‘Jack Mac Quartet’ or as ‘Jack Mac Trio with Michael Blanchfield’. I’ve gone with the latter as it was Mac who fronted the band and handled all the announcing duties, but as at Abergavenny the tune selections and many of the arrangements were courtesy of Blanchfield. And of course one shouldn’t underappreciate the superb musical contributions of Kacal and Thrupp, two more exceptional musicians who we are lucky to see on such a regular basis in this part of the world.

A former member of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) Blanchfield is a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff. Following the completion of his studies he has remained in the Welsh capital, working as a professional musician. He performs regularly on the still vibrant South Wales jazz scene in addition to playing rock and pop sessions and teaching piano at schools and colleges. It’s a scenario that will be familiar to most British jazz musicians.

Blanchfield has strong links to Brecon Jazz Club and during his student days I recall seeing him leading his trio featuring bassist Ben Manning and drummer Eddie Jones-West at an RWCMD showcase at Brecon Jazz Club in June 2019. This was a double bill with saxophonist Rachel Head’s trio and is reviewed elsewhere on this site. Blanchfield has also been a member of Head’s sextet, in which he played organ.

Following graduation the trio of Blanchfield, Manning and Jones-West continues to perform together under Blanchfield’s leadership.

Blanchfield and Jones-West, together with guitarist Alex Lockheart, comprise Arkocean, an electro-jazz trio that combines improvisation with elements of hip-hop, metal, house, drum and bass. Similarly configured British trios such as Strobes and Three Trapped Tigers have been cited as inspirations for this project.

The pianist has also led Michael Blanchfield’s Big Day Out!, a nine piece ensemble featuring tenor, alto and baritone saxes, trumpet, guitar, electric bass and drums.

As a sideman Blanchfield has worked with guitarist / vocalist Tom Croysdill,  violinist / vocalist Angharad Jenkins, bassist Matheus Prado, balafon player / vocalist N’Famady Kouyate and the four piece band Part Time Signals led by guitarist / vocalist Jake Church. He has also worked with the bands Cardinal Black and Velvet Soul.

In 2017 Blanchfield was part of a quintet led by drummer and composer Max Wright that supported London based pianist Tom Millar’s quartet at an enjoyable event at now defunct Cafe Jazz in Cardiff, yet another performance that is reviewed elsewhere on this site.

Despite the relatively close proximity of Brecon and Abergavenny there isn’t that much of a crossover between audiences, although there are a small number of people who attend both clubs. Nevertheless tonight’s set, which included many of the same numbers that Blanchfield had chosen in Abergavenny, would have represented fresh listening to the majority of this evening’s audience. And for those of us that had actually seen the Abergavenny show from this quartet the music was just as good, but often excitingly different, second time around.

At the Abergavenny show Mac had specialised exclusively on tenor saxophone, so we were immediately heading for new territory when he picked up his soprano sax for tonight’s opening number, a Latin style arrangement of the Charlie Parker tune “My Little Suede Shoes”. This piece had also opened the show at Abergavenny but it sounded very different tonight as the quartet treated it to a change of style and a change of instrumentation. Thrupp’s colourful drumming augmented the fluent soloing of Mac on soprano and Blanchfield at an electric keyboard on an acoustic piano setting (hereafter ‘piano’). Blanchfield’s solo was expansive, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging and this was followed by a solo from Kacal on double bass and a playful drum feature from Thrupp that elicited a similar response from Blanchfield at the piano.

Mac moved to tenor for an arrangement of the Vince Guaraldi tune “Oh Good Grief”, with Kacal’s walking bass and Thrupp’s shuffling brushed drum groove underpinning Mac’s theme statement and solo and Blanchfield’s subsequent piano solo. Kacal was again featured on double bass, with Thrupp rounding things off with a series of crisply brushed drum breaks. Again this was subtly different to its Abergavenny equivalent, a tribute to the creativity of these musicians and to the mutability of jazz itself.

The George Gershwin composed standard “Our Love Is Here To Stay” featured a quirky, blues inflected arrangement that embraced a series of dynamic shifts in addition to incorporating expansive solos from Blanchfield at the piano and Mac on tenor.

There was a change to the Abergavenny running order with the introduction of the ballad “My Foolish Heart”. This was introduced by an extended passage of unaccompanied piano from Blanchfield that sounded beautiful even on the electric keyboard. Mac’s breathy tenor solo demonstrated his considerable abilities as a ballad player while Blanchfield’s subsequent piano solo provided further lyricism, with Kacal briefly flourishing the bow at the close.

The first set concluded with Coisa Feita”, a song by the Brazilian guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Joao Bosco.  Ushered in by a dialogue between piano and drums this lively Latin flavoured piece saw Mac stretching out on tenor followed by Blanchfield at the piano. The dialogue between Thrupp and Blanchfield continued throughout the piece, with the drummer offering his responses to the pianist’s solo. At the close a stunning drum feature from Thrupp that saw him deploying both sticks and bare hands elicited a suitable response from Blanchfield at the keyboard.

The second set began with Mac donning his shades to introduce “Aphelion”, a tune chosen by Blanchfield and written by the New York based bassist, composer and educator Janek Gwizdala. This was a funk / fusion flavoured piece that saw Blanchfield adjusting his keyboard settings and adopting an electric piano sound as Mac delivered a rousing, Brecker-esque tenor sax solo. Meanwhile Thrupp’s dynamic drum / percussion feature saw him making effective use of shakers and cowbell.

The little known jazz standard “It’s You Or No-one” saw the quartet returning to a more orthodox jazz style with Thrupp’s drums prominent in an arrangement that saw Blanchfield returning to an acoustic piano sound as he shared the solos with Mac’s tenor. Thrupp was further featured with a series of lively drum breaks.

Mac returned to soprano sax for an intriguing arrangement of “All The Things You Are”. This might be one of the most familiar of all jazz standards but the quartet still managed to find something fresh to say about it. An imaginative treatment of the song saw Mac and Blanchfield sharing the solos with the consistently excellent Kacal.

Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” is another tune that allows for a myriad of approaches and tonight saw Thrupp sitting out entirely for a tender ballad rendition that was introduced by an extended passage of unaccompanied piano. Blanchfield and Mac, now back on tenor, then duetted at length, with Kacal’s bass providing added depth during the latter stages of the piece.

The set concluded with the Pat Metheny / Lyle Mays composition “James”, another Blanchfield selection. The piece first appeared on the 1982 album “Offramp” (ECM Records), credited to the Pat Metheny Group. As a long-time Metheny fan I was delighted to hear this piece, albeit in a very different version to the original. I was also reminded of the time when Metheny himself appeared at the Market Hall as part of the 1992 Brecon Jazz Festival, leading a trio featuring bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes. A great memory.
Tonight’s performance saw Mac returning to soprano for a dynamic rendition of this modern day jazz standard, sharing the solos with Blanchfield at the piano and Kacal on bass.

This was a pleasingly well attended event and the Brecon audience gave the quartet a great reception, with many audience members getting to their feet to express their approval. Lynne and Roger’s decision to bring this particular quartet to Brecon was spectacularly vindicated and the band members themselves appeared to be delighted by how the evening had gone.

An encore was never in doubt and after some deliberation the quartet decided to send us home with “Beauty and The Beast”, one of saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s funkier pre-Weather Report compositions.  This saw Mac putting on the shades again,  “they’re just for the funk numbers” and continuing on soprano to solo above a powerful piano, bass, drum groove. Blanchfield followed at the piano and Kacal on the bass, before a final Thrupp drum feature that began quietly but ended explosively. Mac then delivered a stunning sax cadenza, incorporating an astonishing sustained note that even left the audience feeling breathless.

Given the number of times I’ve seen the Mac / Kacal / Thrupp trio over the course of the last year or so I should be getting tired of them, right? But not a bit of it, every time I see them they find something fresh to say, even about the most familiar of material and they always manage to bring out the best in their guests. I’m already looking forward to their next show at Abergavenny, whoever their guest might be, and I wouldn’t rule out a return visit to Brecon too.

Blanchfield impressed as a technically accomplished pianist, an inventive jazz soloist and an imaginative arranger and selector of tunes, It is to be hoped that we will be hearing more from him too.

As one audience member observed “if these guys lived and worked in London they’d be much better known”.

Well done to everybody concerned for a very enjoyable and successful evening.


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