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Monmouth Big Band

Monmouth Big Band “Blows The Blues”, Savoy Theatre, Monmouth, 09/02/2024.

by Ian Mann

February 13, 2024


A highly successful performance from the Monmouth Big Band and one that was clearly very much enjoyed by the Savoy Theatre audience.

Monmouth Big Band “Blows The Blues”, Savoy Theatre, Monmouth, 09/02/2024.

Mike Prestage – Musical Director, trumpet, flugelhorn

Terry Claxton, Joe Bentley, John Lindsey, Ken McDonald - trumpets

Peter Lloyd, Colin Roberts, David Bourner, Martin Leighton - trombones

Tom Henesey, Jenny Cook – tenor saxes

James Graham – alto sax

Adam Huxtec – alto sax, clarinet

Rod Cunningham, Richard Cryer – baritone saxes

Karen Millar – keyboard

Ian Graham – guitar

James Leney – double bass

Louis Barfe – drums

Iain MacIntyre, Jen Millar – guest vocalists

The long running Monmouth Big Band is one of the best jazz big bands in South Wales. Although its membership is entirely amateur it has always performed to a very high standard, thanks in part to the musical skills of its personnel, but also due to the influence of its Musical Director, trombonist Gareth Roberts, a professional musician and music educator.

In 2022 / 23 I was fortunate enough to witness three live performances by the MBB under Roberts’ leadership at Brecon Jazz Festival and at the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny.

The first Brecon performance included original compositions by Roberts from his “Monmouthshire Suite”, inspired by the local landscape and specifically written for the Band. The show also saw the MBB augmented by guest instrumental soloists Tamasin Reardon (alto sax) and Dominic Norcross (tenor sax). My review of this performance can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;

The Abergavenny show also included items from “The Monmouthshire Suite” but also featured a substantial contribution from guest vocalist Debs Hancock, who was singing in front of a big band for the very first time. Another highly enjoyable performance is reviewed as part of my Festival coverage here;

In 2023 the MBB accompanied the American vocalist LaVon Hardison at the 2023 Brecon Jazz Festival, with the focus this time around being firmly on the standards repertoire. Hardison is a powerful singer and a huge personality, and once again this was a very enjoyable show, one that is reviewed as part of my Festival coverage here;

The Abergavenny event had included a number of impressive trumpet solos from the Hereford based musician Mike Prestage, who I don’t recall being in the line up for either of the Brecon shows. Following Gareth Roberts’ decision to step down from his post as the Musical Director of the MBB to concentrate on his young family Prestage has stepped up to take over the role. Tonight’s performance was only his second public outing as the Musical Director of the Band.

Like his predecessor Prestage functions as both the conductor of the Band as as one of its principal soloists. He is also a musical educator, but I’m not sure if he also functions as a composer.

Tonight Prestage also handled the audience announcements for a show subtitled “Blows The Blues”, the idea being that this February show heralded the coming of spring and the “blowing away” of the “winter blues”. A varied programme did include some genuine blues numbers, while the Band’s enduring collective love of the music of Duke Ellington, something that was very much encouraged by Roberts, was also greatly in evidence.

A classic big band line up featuring six reeds, four trombones, four trumpets (plus Prestage) and a four piece rhythm section was also joined on occasion by guest vocalists Iain MacIntyre and Jen Millar.

The MBB appear to have acquired a considerable following in their home town and their annual concert at the town’s elegant art deco Savoy Theatre, the oldest working theatre in Wales, has become something of a civic event. Tonight my wife and I found ourselves seated next to the Mayor of Monmouth, who was wearing his Chains of Office.

Prestage and the Band introduced themselves to their audience with a rousing, and highly appropriate rendition of George Gershwin’s “Strike Up The Band”, ushered in by Karen Millar at her Roland RD-700 keyboard, which was deployed for the majority of the evening on an acoustic piano setting. Essentially this was an ensemble piece, with no designated soloing, although drummer Louis Barfe, very much the driving force of the band, showed up strongly throughout.

Pianist Millar was the featured soloist on “Blues In The Night”, the first piece to genuinely reflect the theme of the evening. This was a performance that also saw another authoritative performance from the impressive Barfe.

The first Ellington number of the night was “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”, actually composed by Duke’s son Mercer Ellington and a song dating back to the 1940s. Guitarist Ian Graham’s solo tapped into the blues and also exhibited something of the characteristic twang of early rock’n’roll. Rod Cunningham, one of two baritone saxes in an unusually configured woodwind section, impressed with the fluency of his solo. Bassist James Leney and drummer Barfe were also featured on a piece that was very well received by the Savoy audience.

Prestage explained that he and the Band also love the West Coast jazz of the 1950s. This was by way of introducing the Bill Holman composition “Flirt”, described by Prestage as a “swinging ballad”.  The MD was featured as an instrumentalist for the first time, as he picked up his flugel for a series of melodic exchanges with Tom Henesey’s tenor sax. Both men then delivered more expansive individual solos, followed by Millar at the piano.

There was a return to the Ellington repertoire with a Latin-esque arrangement of the ever adaptable “Caravan”, originally written by Juan Tizol. This was the second number in succession to feature the fluent tenor sax soloing of Tom Henesey.

Iain McIntyre was the first guest vocalist to join the band, sticking around for three numbers. “Mr. Bojangles”, which also demonstrated McIntyre’s capabilities as a whistler, was largely performed with just the rhythm section, the horns only joining in towards the close.

The Charles Trenet song “La Mer” formed the basis for the later Bobby Darin hit “Beyond The Sea”. McIntyre sang the Darin version accompanied by the whole band, with an extended collective instrumental section following McIntyre’s rendition of the verses.

McIntyre’s final song was “That’s Life”, famously a hit for Frank Sinatra and delivered in the same bombastic style, with Millar adopting a Hammond organ sound at the keyboard.

McIntyre’s contribution was well received by the Monmouth audience, but I have something of a personal antipathy towards these ‘Rat Pack’ style songs and to be honest it didn’t really do much for me and I was glad to get back to the instrumentals.

The next of these was an arrangement of yet another Ellington piece, the enduringly popular “Take The A Train”, with Prestage taking the role of the former Ellington trumpeter Ray Nance as he delivered a fluent, blues tinged trumpet solo.

Next up was another popular jazz composition and one steeped in the blues, Nat Adderley’s “Work Song”. A complex arrangement included deep trombone and baritone sax sonorities plus a choral from the trombone section as the other horns dropped out. Individual solos came from Millar at the piano and the impressive James Graham (brother of guitarist Ian) with an incisive alto sax solo that sometimes recalled Jackie McLean.

The first set concluded with the fast, swinging blues of Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump”, a barnstorming collective performance with individual solos coming from Millar on piano, Prestage on trumpet, Henesey on tenor sax and the dynamic Barfe at the drums. Great stuff.

The interval saw members of the band mingling with the audience before the musicians returned to the stage to kick off the second half with yet more Ellington. “In A Mellow Tone” featured some notably sharp ensemble playing and included an impressive individual solo from Prestage on flugel.

The evening’s second guest vocalist Jen Millar joined the Band to deliver her three numbers, beginning with an unusually up-tempo arrangement of Cole Porter’s ‘murder ballad’ “Miss Otis Regrets”. The performance also included an instrumental solo from Adam Huxtec, playing clarinet.

Millar then delivered a more subtle vocal performance on a delightful arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s ballad “Skylark”.

But Jen Millar is a vocalist with a big voice and a huge personality, the kind of singer who can deliver a version of “Big Spender”, a song indelibly associated with Shirley Bassey, convincingly. I rather enjoyed Millar’s contribution, her performance combining considerable vocal ability with sheer chutzpah and an amiable bonhomie. She would be back.

It was back to the instrumentals with a second Basie tune, “Shiny Stockings”, written by Frank Foster. This featured the trumpet section as a whole and Prestage in particular. Karen Millar was also featured at the piano.

Composed by Phil Wilson the authentic twelve bar blues “Basically Blues” has been in the MBB repertoire since Gareth Roberts’ tenure with the Band. Tonight Colin Roberts emerged as the featured trombone soloist, sharing the spotlight with Henesey on tenor and Karen Millar on piano.

The title of “Blue”, written by the trumpeter Bobby Shew, was kind of appropriate for the evening. The tune itself is a ballad, written as a tribute to Shew’s fellow trumpeter and composer, the late Blue Mitchell. This featured a lush arrangement featuring the sounds of muted trumpets and the velvet toned flugelhorn of Prestage, the principal soloist. As the MD played Karen Millar briefly conducted the band from the piano stool.

Prestage invited the two singers back to the stage for the vocal duet “The Lady Is A Tramp”, with McIntyre and Millar exchanging lines and Prestage featuring as a trumpet soloist.

The vocalists also teamed up on the Ellington classic “It Don’t Mean A Thing”, with the impressive young trumpeter Joe Bentley, a ‘dep’ with the MBB this evening, the featured instrumental soloist.

My favourite number of the evening was a storming version of the Charles Mingus classic “Better Git It In Your Soul”, a blues and gospel flavoured composition introduced by Leney at the bass and featuring solos from Prestage on trumpet, the impressive Cunningham on baritone sax and the inventive but underused James Graham on alto, I’d have liked to have heard a bit more from him. The always excellent Barfe rounded things off at the drums. Terrific stuff.

The evening concluded with a loud, brash, swinging of “In The Mood”, delivered at a much faster tempo than the more familiar Glenn Miller version. This featured a series of fiery sax exchanges between Henesey on tenor and James Graham on alto, plus a final trumpet solo from Prestage.

All in all this was a highly successful performance from the Monmouth Big Band and one that was clearly very much enjoyed by the Savoy audience. A slightly nervous Prestage delivered the announcements with a breathless enthusiasm and impressed as a trumpet and flugel soloist. Other individuals, notably Henesey, Barfe, James Graham and Karen Millar also stood out as instrumentalists and the overall standard of the playing was commendably high, although perhaps not quite as sharply focussed as it used to be under Roberts. It’s still early days for Prestage and he will no doubt begin to introduce his own style and ideas to the Band as his tenure progresses. I did miss the presence of any original material at all, although I suspect I may be in the minority with regard to that particular issue.

I might also be in the minority with regard to the guest vocalists. I’m aware that singers represent an important part of big band history and I’m sure that the contributions of McIntyre and Jen Millar were enjoyed by many, with some no doubt citing the vocal performances as set highlights. It wasn’t really for me, although Jen Millar was undeniably entertaining and impressive.

As Nigel Jarrett observed in his review of this event for the ArtScene in Wales website it would have been nice if the arrangers of the tunes had been credited. I seem to recall that Roberts actually used to do this in his tune announcements and it would be good if this could be re-introduced. Nigel’s review can be found here;

Minor quibbles aside it’s just good to know that the Monmouth Big Band will be continuing. Gareth Roberts is a tough act to follow, but I have every confidence that the very capable Mike Prestage will continue to rise to the challenge.



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