by Ian Mann
April 29, 2021
An intriguing and enjoyable performance that explored an eclectic mix of material, drawing on a variety of musical genres.
Matt MacKellar Band, Livestream from The Jazz Café, The Black Swan, Newcastle Arts Centre, Newcastle Upon Tyne, 27/04/2021.
Matt MacKellar – drums, Ben Lawrence- keyboards, Andy Champion – electric bass
with guest Evie Hill - vocals
The second event in the Jazz Café livestream series broadcast from the Black Swan venue at Newcastle Arts Centre featured a trio led by the young drummer Matt MacKellar.
Something of a rising star on the North East jazz scene MacKellar was born into a music loving family and began playing the drums at the age of six, learning from a variety of local tutors. He also plays guitar and credits the learning of a harmonic instrument with helping his understanding of jazz, allowing him to adopt a more musical approach to the drums and encouraging him to take a more melodic approach towards composition and improvisation.
Initially influenced by Art Blakey he was still at school when he began to establish himself on the local jazz scene at workshops and jams at venues such as the Chillingham Arms and the old Jazz Café. Encouraged by more experienced musicians such as pianist Paul Edis he learned quickly, eventually becoming part of the house rhythm section at the Jazz Café.
MacKellar studied for three years at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston but was forced to return to the UK due to the pandemic. Although he has continued to receive tuition on line he still hopes to return to the US to complete his final year in a more authentic educational environment.
For tonight’s virtual gig he was joined by his contemporary Ben Lawrence on keyboards and by the more experienced Andy Champion on electric bass, or bass guitar, if you will.
Although the playing of both MacKellar and Lawrence was new to me Champion has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages thanks to his work with his wife, vocalist, lyricist and songwriter Zoe Gilby, and his own prog-jazz quintet ACV. Equally adept on the acoustic upright bass his other credits include work with pianist Paul Edis, saxophonist Graeme Wilson and guitarist Chris Sharkey.
Although he has become well versed in the jazz and bop ‘real book’ it is only fitting that a young musician such as MacKellar should also be open to other musical influences, notably soul and hip hop.
For this evening’s livestream MacKellar had selected an interesting cross section of material drawing on a variety of genres. Two of the ten items featured the singing of guest vocalist Evie Hill.
The publicity for this event promised “a night of neo-soul and modern jazz classics”, a prophecy that wasn’t too wide of the mark. MacKellar cited influences ranging from Robert Glasper to Erykah Badu to the late jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller and has previously expressed an admiration for the work of both Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan.
Tonight’s performance commenced with an arrangement of the Jaco Pastorius tune “Continuum”, introduced by Lawrence at his Nord Piano 2 keyboard on an electric piano or ‘Rhodes’ setting. Subsequently joined by bass and drums Lawrence then embarked on a more conventional solo, his explorations propelled by Champion’s strong but supple bass grooves and MacKellar’s crisp and precise drumming. Appropriately for a Jaco tune there was also an extended feature for Champion featuring the liquidly lyrical sounds of his virtuoso electric bass playing.
The late trumpeter Roy Hargrove seems to have become something of a favourite composer among North East jazz musicians. In the first Jazz Café livestream from The Black Swan saxophonist / flautist Sue Ferris and her quartet played Hargrove’s “Soppin’ The Biscuit”. Tonight MacKellar and his bandmates tackled “Roy Allan”, Hargrove’s dedication to his own father, in an arrangement inspired by a version by Hargrove’s fellow trumpeter Theo Croker. This featured the fluent soloing of the impressive Lawrence on electric piano, underpinned by Champion’s buoyant bass grooves and MacKellar’s sharply detailed drumming.
MacKellar’s choice of repertoire included a number of pieces written by his tutors at Berklee. First we heard the song “Disenchantment; The Weight”, a song by the American drummer and composer Nate Smith. This included a guest vocal by Evie Hill, singer with the Durham University Big Band. Hill acquitted herself well in this more intimate small group setting as she tackled a challenging and complex original piece that featured both lyrics and wordless vocalising. Lawrence had moved to a Roland keyboard on an acoustic piano setting and was the featured instrumental soloist.
MacKellar’s musical tastes were strongly influenced by those of his late father, George, who passed away only recently. One of the pieces of music played at the funeral was the Donny Hathaway / Edward Howard song “Someday We’ll All Be Free”, performed here in an instrumental arrangement by the trio, with Lawrence now adopting an electric piano sound on the Roland. Soulful and gospel tinged the music also possessed a suitably elegiac quality with Lawrence soloing sensitively on electric piano, before combining with Champion to provide the funkier groove that underscored MacKellar’s drum feature.
Another of MacKellar’s tutors at Berklee was Shaun Martin, the flamboyant keyboard player and vocalist with the hugely popular Snarky Puppy. His piece “The Yellow Jacket” paid tribute to the Yellowjackets, themselves an influence on Snarky Puppy. Sourced from Martin’s 2015 solo album “7 Summers” the tune was a big favourite in the MacKellar household and represented another tribute to George. Highly melodic but also subtly funky and groovy the performance featured the clatter of MacKellar’s sticks on rims, an ‘acoustic piano’ solo from Lawrence on the Roland and a virtuoso, high register electric bass solo from Champion.
The only original piece of the set was Lawrence’s “Lost Painting”, an impressively mature piece centred around his expansive ‘acoustic’ piano soloing and featuring MacKellar’s exquisite cymbal work. As alluded to when previously discussing the influence of the guitar on MacKellar’s drumming this was a particularly ‘musical’ performance from the leader. Indeed the drumming throughout was precise, finely detailed and innately musical, with MacKellar already forging a distinctive personal style.
Lawrence’s ‘acoustic piano’ playing also featured prominently on “Interlude”, a series of melodic variations around the song “Be On My Way (Interlude)”, sourced from the 2018 EP “I Used To Know Her; The Prelude” by the contemporary American R & B singer and songwriter H.E.R (Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson), a new name to me, but not to up to date young guys like MacKellar!
Evie Hill returned to sing arguably the best known song of the set, “Sweet Love”, a 1986 hit for the American soul / R & B vocalist Anita Baker. Hill’s vocals were complemented by a hip hop style bass and drum groove and an electric piano solo on the Nord from Lawrence, who was also responsible for the arrangement.
The band remained in R & B / hip hop territory for “Dillalude”, MacKellar’s tribute to the late American hip hop artist and producer J Dilla (1974 – 2006). “We’ve messed about with his beats and instrumental stuff before” explained MacKellar, “let’s see what we can do with it acoustically”.
I’m no expert on rap or hip hop but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this piece with Lawrence doubling on the Roland and the Nord to produce a mix of acoustic and electric keyboard sounds and with Champion and MacKellar laying down the kind of hip hop inspired grooves that in this ‘piano trio’ format reminded me of GoGo Penguin and the Swiss trio Plaistow.
The stream concluded with the trio giving “a spin on a Stevie Wonder track”, the tune in question being “Overjoyed”, thus representing a suitably joyous way to round off the evening. Lawrence’s extensive ‘acoustic’ piano solo saw the trio delivering some of their most orthodox jazz playing of the set and the performance also included a feature for the consistently impressive Champion on electric bass.
Overall this was an intriguing and enjoyable performance that explored an eclectic mix of material. It was very different to the standards based set played by the Sue Ferris Quartet at the previous Jazz Café livestream and amply illustrated the organisation’s commitment to musical diversity underneath an overall ‘jazz umbrella’.
“Normally I’d say give it up for Andy Champion and Ben Lawrence – but there’s nobody here” lamented MacKellar, and indeed the lack of atmosphere remains a necessary drawback to even the most accomplished of livestreams.
It’s also arguable that MacKellar should brush up his between songs patter, which was a bit hesitant, before genuine live music returns - although he won’t be the only musician to have become unaccustomed to appearing before a real audience.
Musically I was impressed by both MacKellar and Lawrence, two young talents with hopefully big futures ahead of them. Both benefited from the presence of hugely accomplished Champion on bass and the trio as a whole represented an excellent balance of youth and experience. Guest Evie Hill tackled two tricky pieces with aplomb but was slightly peripheral to the overall event.
Finally thanks are due to Tyne Audio for the high quality of the sound and visuals.
Please visit https://www.newcastle-arts-centre.co.uk/ for details of future events.
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