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Martha Skilton Quintet

Martha Skilton Quintet, Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 25/07/2010

Photography: Tim Woodier

by Ian Mann

July 26, 2010


A hugely enjoyable evening with some fine and sometimes fiery playing from these talented local musicians.

Martha Skilton Quintet

Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 25/07/2010

BMJ’s latest event saw promoter Mike Skilton hiring his saxophone playing daughter Martha and some of her musical friends. Martha is a talented musician who has often “sat in” at other BMJ events. Besides leading her own quartet she also plays in a number of other bands including trumpeter Jonny Bruce’s Sextet and the pop/folk/jazz hybrid Be-Bop-Da-Jig.

Tonight Martha definitely had her jazz hat on as her regular quartet, augmented on some numbers by guest trumpeter Bruce, breezed their way through two sets of modern “real book” classics in good natured fashion. Joining Martha on tenor and soprano were Swansea based musicians Jason Ball (guitar) and Alun Vaughan (six string electric bass) plus the marvellously named Phil Redfox O’Sullivan on drums.

Martha is a graduate of the jazz course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, as indeed is Jonny Bruce. The band had certainly persuaded a goodly number of their friends to come to the gig and the result was one of the best BMJ attendances I’ve seen for some time. Most of the audience were young, many of them music students I suspect, and they responded enthusiastically to the band giving them a great reception.

When I spoke to Martha at a Be-Bop-Da-Jig pub gig in Ledbury a month or so ago she’d told me that the band would be tackling the music of Joshua Redman.  As it was only one Redman tune, “Jazz Crimes”,  found it’s way into the set list, probably due to a lack of rehearsal time. As a result most of the material was pretty familiar but the inclusion of a couple of Freddie Hubbard tunes plus a version of Partisans’ “Max” came as a very welcome surprise.

The addition of guest trumpeter Bruce to the roster represented a considerable bonus. Bruce is a player who has accrued a national reputation thanks to his barnstorming work with the Dave Stapleton Quintet. He switched between trumpet and flugel on the opening tune, a version of Wayne Shorter’s classic “Footprints”. Bruce took the first solo on flugel, his rounded tones contrasting well with the bite of Martha’s soprano. Both horn players deployed a kind of “fluttering” technique and Martha weighed in with some slap tongue effects. In this “jam band” setting virtually all the tunes included features for guitar and bass and rightly so because both Ball and Vaughan are highly accomplished players. Ball is a versatile guitarist capable of playing in a variety of jazz and rock styles and the second set in particular saw him unleashing a range of effects. His solo here consisted of a sequence of choppy chords before he handed over to Vaughan. On six string bass Vaughan deployed a singing, guitar like tone that owed an obvious debt to Steve Swallow-maybe he’d been in the audience when Swallow had played Swansea a couple of nights before. But Vaughan is an excellent player in his own right, a consistently fluent soloist and a propulsive time keeper. O’Sullivan is a crisp, intelligent drummer who was to get his chance later on.

Still in quintet mode the band then tackled the first of two back to back Freddie Hubbard compositions. Introduced by Vaughan at the bass “Bolivia” featured Martha soloing powerfully on tenor, sometimes adding an r’n'b inflection to her playing. Ball’s surging guitar introduced a pronounced rock influence and Bruce’s bright, bravura trumpet solo was one of his best of the night. Drummer O’Sullivan also featured prominently, his sticks chattering around the rims as Vaughan laid down an accompanying bass pulse.

The other Hubbard tune “Little Sunflower” is perhaps better known-certainly by me-and represents one of Freddie’s most gorgeous melodies. Martha soloed first on tenor before handing over to Ball who demonstrated his ability to play single note lines in a more orthodox jazz fashion. However this man is nothing if not versatile and his eerie e-bow guitar sustain provided the backwash for Vaughan’s electric bass feature as the group added a funk element to Hubbard’s tune with a sequence of slapped bass effects courtesy of Vaughan’s thumb. It was left to the warm tones of Bruce’s flugel to restore equilibrium, soloing tastefully before he and Skilton restated the head.

Bruce left the stage as the quartet tackled the tricky contours of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo A La Turk” with Martha’s soprano and Ball’s guitar locked together on the intricate staccato phrases.
Both also featured as soloists alongside Vaughan on electric bass.

Still in quartet mode the group closed the first half with Michael Brecker’s “Timeline” with Ball taking the first solo and then shadowing Martha’s tenor. After Vaughan’s bass feature Martha’s climactic second tenor solo ended the first set with a bang. The audience clearly loved it and tucked into their interval drinks and tapas in good heart.

The second set opened with the band still in quartet mode for a funky, bluesy version of Horace Silver’s classic “Senor Blues”. Introduced by Vaughan’s bass the piece included features for Martha on soprano, Vaughan on bass and Ball on heavily bluesy guitar.

Joshua Redman’s “Jazz Crimes” continued the funk theme with Martha back on tenor and with
Ball ‘s effects pedals giving an almost Hammond like timbre to his chording on his guitar solo. Vaughan’s “mutant thumb” came back into play again on a funky extended bass feature.

The inclusion of the Partisans’ tune “Max” was a very welcome bonus. Dedicated to the great Max Roach the tune, written by saxophonist Julian Siegel, is the title track of the group’s third album. I love the Partisans as regular visitors to this site may well know so it was great to hear this one. The Skilton band made it their own by tweaking the arrangement with solos coming from Martha on soprano and Ball on FX drenched guitar. O’Sullivan isn’t Gene Calderazzo but he made a brave attempt at matching something of the great man’s energy on his drum feature.

Bruce returned to the stage for another Wayne Shorter tune adding his pure toned trumpet sound to “Oriental Folk Song”. Elsewhere there were features for tenor, guitar and bass.

A joyous romp through Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” brought the set to a close with Martha full blooded on tenor and Bruce fiery on trumpet, sometimes using his hand as a mute. There were the obligatory features for Vaughan and Ball with the latter adding a touch of humour by simultaneously playing a kazoo during his guitar solo.

With all this going on it wasn’t surprising that the tune proved to be something of a show stopper. An ecstatic audience hollered for more and the quintet returned for an equally playful take on Sonny Rollins’ classic “St. Thomas” with features for all five members of the group. Martha shone on soprano and Bruce threw a quote from “Tiger Rag” into his trumpet solo. Great stuff.

It had been a hugely enjoyable evening with some fine and sometimes fiery playing from these talented local musicians. Maybe there wasn’t anything particularly original here but the group played with such enthusiasm that this didn’t really matter- and let’s face it some of this stuff was pretty challenging anyway. I was particularly impressed with the versatility of Ball, a player I’d not seen before but certainly wouldn’t mind seeing again, something that could be said about all five members of the quintet.

Any quibbles were pretty minor. It took a couple of numbers to sort the sound balance out, the horns were definitely too loud early on and Martha left the announcements to Ball. As the nominated leader it would have been nice to see her projecting herself a little more.
All in all though this was a great EVENT and dad Mike must have been absolutely delighted both with the attendance and with the reception his daughter received. Apparently last month’s band, the better known Dave Stapleton Quintet only drew an audience of twenty or so. I was covering the Jazz Festival in Lichfield but goodness knows where everyone else was. Despite the venue being in Wales I suspect that the fact that England’s excuse for a football team were in action that day (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) may have had something to do with it.   


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