by Ian Mann
February 17, 2023
It’s the mix of humour and pathos and of seriousness and whimsicality that is central to the Freight Train sound and which makes their music communicate itself so well to audiences.
Paul Clarvis, Liam Noble, Cathy Jordan – Freight Train, Corn Exchange Jazz Club, The Corn Exchange, Kings Head Hotel, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, 15/02/2023.
Paul Clarvis – drums, spoons, Liam Noble – piano & keyboard, Cathy Jordan – vocals, bones
I recently reviewed the album “Freight Train”, the début recording from a new trio featuring the jazz musicians Paul Clarvis (drums) and Liam Noble (piano) together with the Irish folk singer Cathy Jordan.
Inevitably the album title has become a band name and the trio are currently touring the UK in support of the recording. I was delighted to see that one of the dates was fairly local to me, at the recently established Corn Exchange Jazz Club in the Herefordshire town of Ross-on-Wye.
The “Freight Train” project came about as the result of an online video commission for Clarvis from the Jazz West Midlands promoters’ network in 2020, slap bang in the middle of the Covid lockdown period. Supported by Arts Council England and credited to the Paul Clarvis Trio the online concert was recorded remotely in July 2020 and the performance forms the basis for the finished album. Introduced by Phil Rose of Birmingham Jazz the online concert was first transmitted on 15th August 2020 and is still available to view via this link;
In January 2022, as things began to return to normal, the members of Freight Train met up in person for the first time in the studio and the album features a mix of material lifted directly from the concert livestream and songs recorded at the later studio session. Some of the songs featured in the online performance didn’t make it on to the album but remain part of the trio’s repertoire, and some of those were to resurface tonight.
The “Freight Train” album features a fascinating selection of material sourced from the worlds of jazz, folk, country, Americana, blues, rock and cinema. Many of the songs are very familiar, but the trio’s distinctive versions of them ensure that Freight Train make them very much their own. My review of the “Freight Train” recording can be found here and forms the basis for the following biographical details;
Jordan, born in County Roscommon, but now resident in Sligo, a hotbed of Irish jazz, has fronted the Irish traditional band Dervish since 1991, appearing on a total of nine albums. In 2019 the band was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the BBC as “icons of Irish Music”. Jordan has also been a member of the band The Unwanted and she has also pursued a solo career as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist releasing her début solo recording “All The Way Home” in 2012.
Jordan may be an unfamiliar name to jazz listeners, but pianist Liam Noble and drummer / percussionist Paul Clarvis are anything but. Both have appeared on The Jazzmann web pages on multiple occasions. They first worked together in the 1990s as part of an ensemble led by the American composer Moondog (1916-99).
Noble also leads his own groups, among them a recently formed trio with bassist Tom Herbert and drummer Seb Rochford. He also fronted a trio featuring bassist Dave Whitford and the late drummer Dave Wickins, this line up sometimes supplemented by trumpeter Chris Batchelor and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings to form the quintet Brother Face.
Others with whom Noble has worked include saxophonists Julian Siegel, Mark Lockheart, Tim Whitehead, Harrison Smith, Alex Garnett, Zhenya Strigalev, Rachel Musson, Evan Parker, Chris Biscoe and the late Bobby Wellins, guitarist Phil Robson, vocalist Christine Tobin, bassists Arnie Somogyi, Jasper Hoiby and Trevor Lines and jazz French horn player Jim Rattigan.
A player with a truly international reputation Noble has also worked with many leading New York based musicians, among them saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, trumpeter Peter Evans, guitarists Mary Halvorson and Marc Ducret, violinist Mat Manieri, cellist Okkyung Lee, bassists Drew Gress and Larry Grenadier, and drummers Tom Rainey and Eric Harland.
Clarvis is a trained classical percussionist who has worked with composers such as Leonard Bernstein, John Adams and Sir Harrison Birtwhistle. He has also been a prolific session drummer / percussionist and has appeared with Nina Simone, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Bryan Ferry and many others. He has also contributed to dozens of film soundtracks and to the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony.
His jazz credits include work with saxophonists Josephine Davies, Sir John Dankworth, Andy Sheppard, Tim Garland, Alan Barnes, Jon Lloyd and Stan Sulzmann, pianists John Taylor and Gordon Beck, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, bassist Mark Lewandowski and vocalist Norma Winstone,
Another musician with an international reputation his American collaborations have included work with Herbie Hancock, pianist / vocalist Mose Allison, bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Sam Rivers.
Clarvis has been a regular member of the bands Orquestra Mahatma, Blink (with saxophonist Robin Fincker and pianist Alcyona Mick), Still Waters, led by trumpeter Henry Lowther and Pigfoot, led by trumpeter Chris Batchelor, this last named outfit also including Liam Noble. Clarvis is also a member of Batchelor’s new Zoetic quintet and of Babelfish, the quartet co-led by vocalist / lyricist Brigitte Beraha and pianist / composer Barry Green.
Both Noble and Clarvis are Professors of their respective instruments at London’s Royal Academy of Music.
Collectively the members of Freight Train are all leading musicians in their respective fields and I was particularly pleased to be able to attend a performance by such luminaries at a venue in my own county. My thanks to publicist Lee Paterson, still working from Australia, and Paul Clarvis for putting my wife and I on the guest list.
The Corn Exchange is a new venue in what looks to be an old industrial unit to the rear of The King’s Head Hotel. It houses the Corn Ales micro-brewery and also functions as an entertainment venue featuring music of various genres – jazz, blues, folk and rock, plus comedy. It also screens major sporting events such as the Six Nations Rugby. Although it has its own identity it is managed by the same team as the hotel.
The brewery is certainly a welcome addition to the local real ale scene and I enjoyed sampling its products, particularly the strong bitter Wye’s Up and the stout Smoke On The Wye.
The jazz strand at the Corn Exchange is managed by Dave Logan, formerly of Kenilworth Jazz Club, who has recently moved to the Ross area. Dave’s contacts in the jazz community has ensured that he is able to attract major artists to Ross with saxophonist Xhosa Cole due to visit in March 2023.
Freight Train was the second jazz event to be hosted at the venue following a successful inaugural event featuring the Cotswold based gypsy jazz quartet Swing From Paris. I was delighted to see such a healthy turn out for Freight Train with an audience in excess of eighty giving the trio an excellent reception. Let’s hope the venue can continue to maintain those sort of numbers. Admission prices are very reasonable at £9.99 for the music or £14.00 for the music plus a food offering, tonight two types of chilli. It’s great to see a new jazz venue opening locally and I wish the venture every success.
Turning now to the performance, which was introduced by Phil Rose and commenced with the Sherman Brothers song “Chim Chim Cheree”, from the film “Mary Poppins”. This was a good humoured way to open the proceedings with Jordan’s playful vocals augmented by the sounds of Noble at an upright acoustic piano and an electric keyboard plus Clarvis at a minimal drum kit, one small bass drum, one snare, one tom, one hi-hat, one cymbal. He played with brushes more than sticks and in his capable hands this economical set up provided all the sounds that the music needed. However this was “Chim Chim Cheree” as you’ve never heard it before with Noble’s brilliant acoustic piano solo channelling Disney via Thelonious Monk.
Unaccompanied piano, then joined by softly brushed drums, introduced the hymn / folk song “The Old Churchyard”, with Clarvis dropping out again as Jordan delivered a poignant and emotive reading of the lyrics, accompanied only by Noble’s sparse and spacious piano chording. It’s a song whose recurring themes of life and death give it a timeless quality and coming straight after the Disney piece demonstrated that in Freight Train’s world humour and pathos exist side by side.
Next up was the trio’s signature song, Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”. Jordan informed us that Cotten had worked as a house keeper for Pete Seeger’s family and it was the Seegers who encouraged her to publish her songs and make a career as a former. Cotten, born in 1893 was a beneficiary of the 1960s folk revival and the much covered “Freight Train” remains her most famous and popular song. The Freight Train trio place their own stamp on it, with Clarvis’ brushes approximating the rhythms of the train wheels and Noble filtering barrel house piano through a Monk-ish prism. Although regarded as a ‘folk singer’ Jordan can also handle jazz and blues with ease and all these elements came together here.
The “Freight Train” recording includes no fewer than four songs from Clarvis’ old boss Mose Allison and three of these were segued together as the album tracks “Don’t Worry About A Thing”, “If You’re Going To The City” and “Was” were conjoined, with Clarvis variously wielding sticks and brushes and Noble moving between acoustic and electric piano. Jordan delivered a powerful and authentically bluesy vocal and it was obvious that the trio were enjoying performing a selection of material that the singer had earlier described as “eclectic”. Clarvis, in particular, played the show with a huge grin on his face throughout.
The album opens with country/Americana singer songwriter Gillian Welch’s “My Dear Someone”. Here Jordan’s wistful vocals were accompanied by the sounds of Noble doubling on acoustic and electric keyboards and the martial rhythms of Clarvis’ drums.
Jordan handled the announcements with typical Irish charm and referenced the subject of New Year’s resolutions when announcing a gutsy, rollicking version of the jazz standard “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”, a song that also featured her playing the bones and entering into an entertaining percussive dialogue with Clarvis’ drums, this punctuated by Noble at the piano.
The first set concluded with a segue of two Tom Waits songs, the wistful “Innocent When You Dream” from Waits’ “Frank’s Wild Years” album and the raucous “Come On Up To The House” from the album “Mule Variations”. The first saw Clarvis deploying brushes, the second sticks as Noble doubled on keys, the mix of acoustic piano and some dirty synth sounds on “Come On Up To The House” being particularly effective. The versatile Jordan’s vocals ranged from the yearning to the strident as she urged the audience to clap along during the second half of the segue.
With the effusive Jordan still chatting to fans at the bar Clarvis and Noble elected to start the second set with an instrumental, a typically quirky arrangement of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” that saw Clarvis playing both drum kit and spoons and Noble adding a dash of wilful, Monk-ish piano dissonance. Musical humour has always been a constant in the playing of both musicians and there was plenty of that here.
That previously alluded to juxtaposition of humour and pathos was in evidence again as Jordan returned to the stage to sing Dick Farrelly’s “Isle Of Innisfree”, a yearning song of the Irish diaspora set in new York and inspired by the poetry of William Butler Yeats.
A second Sherman Brothers song, “Truly Scrumptious” from the film “Chitty Bang Bang”, mixed Jordan’s playful, girlish vocals with Noble’s dissonant piano and atonal synth in a playful and daring mixing of opposites.
Clarvis and Jordan first met in a pub at Sligo Jazz Festival and Jordan’s Irishness is clearly something that is very important to her. Next we heard “The Mountains of Mourne”, another song of Irish emigration and homesickness, this time set in London.
Even better was Jordan’s original song “The Curragh Wren”, written about the Curragh Wrens, a 19th century community of outcast women living in poverty in The Curragh of County Kildare in the years after the Famine. The song was introduced by Noble’s eerie synths, looped to simulate the sounds of bird song, this forming a remarkably effective backdrop to Jordan’s emotive vocals, her lyrics describing an almost unimaginable poverty, but with her protagonist, the Curragh Wren still proud and defiant. It’s a simple but stunning song, lyrically eloquent and powerful, but is yet to find its way onto disc. Jordan has performed it before with Irish folk musicians, among them flautist Robert Harvey, and it’s a song that deserves to be heard, whoever Jordan decides to play it with. It certainly resonated with the Ross public and after the gig several audience members approached Jordan to talk about the song and its meaning.
A return to the jazz / blues repertoire followed with Jordan channelling her inner Bessie Smith on a gleefully lurching version of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”.
This was followed by a homage to Moondog, former employer of Clarvis and Noble, who both retain fond memories of their former boss and of his musical eclecticism. Moondog’s song “Paris” featured Jordan singing in both English and French” and was the song scheduled to close the set.
A terrific reception from the Ross audience saw the trio remain on stage to encore with a stunning version of Nick Lowe’s “The Beast Within”, a song that also features on the “Freight Train” album. Brushed drums combined with acoustic and electric keyboard sounds and Jordan’s haunted vocals.
They then rounded off the evening with a rumbustious reading of “Top Forty”, Mose Allison’s pointed satire on the music business.
All in all this was an excellent evening of music making and the crowd went home very happy, although sadly the warmth of the audience reaction didn’t translate into actual CD sales. Having seen Clarvis and Noble before in a variety of different bands I knew that I would enjoy their contributions but I was also hugely impressed by Jordan’s singing, which effortlessly embraced a range of musical styles, moods and emotions and which mixed tenderness with toughness.
For me the best performances of the evening were the trio’s interpretation of “The Beast In Me” and Jordan’s own “The Curragh Wren”, two of the more ‘serious’ offerings, but ones that will stick in the mind for a long time. But it’s the mix of humour and pathos and of seriousness and whimsicality that is central to the Freight Train sound and which makes their music communicate itself so well to audiences.
Not everything that was played tonight features on the album or in the livestream that preceded it and in true jazz tradition the trio have already developed a raft of new material which they are keen to present to audiences. The success of the inaugural Freight Train recording and tour suggests that there will be a second instalment at some point.
After the show my wife and I talked at length, and not just about music, with Clarvis, Noble and Jordan, all of them lovely people as so many in the jazz community are. My thanks to them for that.
It’s good to have a new jazz venue practically on the doorstep and I intend to return to The Corn Exchange on Thursday March 16th 2023 for the visit of Xhosa Cole and his quartet. More information at http://www.rosscornexchange.co.uk
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