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Rachel Head Trio / Michael Blanchfield Trio

Rachel Head Trio/Michael Blanchfield Trio, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 11/06/19.


by Ian Mann

June 13, 2019


Ian Mann enjoys the music of two young trios featuring musicians from the Jazz Course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.

Rachel Head Trio / Michael Blanchfield Trio, ‘New Generation Jazz’
Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 11/06/2019.

Brecon Jazz Club and the associated Brecon Jazz Festival have always maintained close links with the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff, with many students and graduates of the College gracing stages in Brecon at either regular Club nights or Festival events over the years.

In July 2018 Brecon Jazz Club presented New Generation Jazz - ‘Showcase Wales’, an event that featured music from three bands made up of students from the RWCMD, namely Josh Heaton’s Mouth of Words, Skeleton Leaf and the Norman Willmore Quintet.

This was a hugely successful event that put the focus on the original music of the three bands involved and my account of that evening’s proceedings can be read here;

This year’s ‘New Generations Jazz’ event welcomed back some of the musicians who had played last year, this time within the ranks of two trios, one led by alto saxophonist Rachel Head and the other by pianist Michael Blanchfield.

Head had been part of tenor saxophonist Josh Heaton’s jazz and poetry quintet Mouth of Words quintet, but this time round was leading her own trio featuring Aeddan Williams on double bass and Jon Reynolds at the drums.

Tonight’s other trio was led by pianist, and sometime organist Michael Blanchfield and featured Ben Manning on double bass and Eddie Jones-West at the drums. Jones-West had led the quartet Skeleton Leaf at the previous year’s event, a group that also included Manning. The bassist had also been part of alto saxophonist Norman Willmore’s quintet.


The first group to take to the stage at The Muse was the trio led by alto saxophonist Rachel Head. Now an RWCMD graduate Head is starting to make her way as a professional musician, still basing herself in Cardiff but currently contemplating a move to London with a view to undertaking post graduate studies.

An accomplished composer she also leads a sextet which places the focus on her original material and which includes Williams on bass and Blanchfield on organ plus Tom Newitt on tenor sax, Jon Close on guitar and Zach Breskal at the drums, all RWCMD alumni. The sextet is due to release its début album shortly, which promises to be a recording well worth hearing.

In this pared down setting Head chose to concentrate on standard material and the audience enjoyed an intriguing set of familiar, and not so familiar tunes. “We don’t get to play standards very often” explained the leader, “but these are some of our favourite ones to play”.

First up was “Everything I Love”, which had been suggested by drummer Jon Reynolds. Here the trio established their signature sound with Head’s pure toned alto contrasting neatly with Williams’s muscular but melodic double bass while Reynolds provided a flexible and fluid rhythmic flow from the drums, his playing full of colourful and characterful details. Typically Head would state the theme on alto before stretching out further with the first real solo, this followed by Williams at the bass and with Reynolds enjoying a series of drum breaks. Here his lively series of exchanges with Head in the tune’s latter stages was particularly engaging.

“Lennie Bird”, written by pianist and composer Lennie Tristano, was less well known but no less satisfying as Head sketched the airy melody as Reynolds switched to brushes. This time the first solo went to Williams at the bass and it was interesting to see him performing on the upright acoustic version of the instrument after recently witnessing him playing electric bass with harpist Ben Creighton Griffith’s fusion-esque Chube trio at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny. Williams was followed by the leader on alto and Reynolds with a neatly constructed solo drum feature.

Another less than obvious selection was the song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” which was sourced from the Disney film “Cinderella”. This was introduced by a double bass and saxophone duet, which served to highlight the softness and purity of Head’s tone, here almost classical in feel. Williams’ solo was another example of his robust but highly tuneful approach to the bass as Reynolds gravitated between brushes and sticks, sometimes deploying one of each.

Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” represented more familiar material for most listeners, with the trio delivering it in an innovative, highly spacious ballad arrangement with Head expanding upon the theme as she shared the solos with bassist Williams.

Another well known jazz standard, Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”, was treated to an agreeably quirky arrangement that saw Head giving the melody some complex twists before Williams and Reynolds established a swinging groove that prompted solos from Head and Williams before Reynolds enjoyed a further series of lively drum breaks.

The trio rounded off a hugely enjoyable and absorbing set with their take on “If I Were A Bell” with Head expounding upon the melody to the accompaniment of rapidly brushed drum grooves and underpinning bass. The saxophonist stretched out at length, often deploying the upper registers of her instrument prior to features for both bass and drums, with Reynolds again enjoying a series of vigorous breaks.

Encouraged by the favourable audience response and cajoled by Brecon Jazz Club’s Lynne Gornall the trio played a deserved but unplanned encore of “In Walked Bud”, written by Thelonious Monk. This included final features for both Head and Williams and brought a highly accomplished set to a close.


Tonight was my second sighting of pianist Michael Blanchfield. Still a student at RWCMD Blanchfield had performed at the Jazz Café in Cardiff as part of a quintet led by drummer and composer Max Wright. The Wright quintet impressed as they supported London based pianist Tom Millar and his quartet. Review here;

Blanchfield’s other musical activities include membership of the electro-jazz trio Arkocean in which he plays electric keyboards. That group also includes guitarist Alex Lockheart plus tonight’s drummer Eddie Jones-West. The Arkocean trio recently appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now programme.

Blanchfield is also the compère of RWCMD’s regular early evening Friday ‘commuter jazz’ performances in the College’s foyer and restaurant space.

Like the Head trio Blanchfield’s group also decided to concentrate on the standards repertoire and began their set with a brief but spirited run through of the Oscar Peterson classic “Honey Dripper”, with the leader’s soloing propelled by Manning’s rapid bass walk and Jones-West’s briskly brushed drum grooves. The feeling of the piece was decidedly ‘retro’ but the Brecon audience loved it.

The trio then adopted a more contemporary approach for their performance of the beautiful composition “Ambleside”, written by the late, great pianist, composer and educator John Taylor. Here Blanchfield revealed a more lyrical side to his playing as he soloed above the polyrhythmic flow of Jones-West’s drums. Further solos came from Manning at the bass and Jones-West with a series of drum breaks.

I’m assuming Blanchfield is still a student as he mentioned playing the ballad “Autumn in New York” as part of his mid year recital. His arrangement of the tune was inspired by the Ella Fitzgerald version but his spacious treatment of the music helped to give it a very contemporary twist. Tonight’s beautiful rendition wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an ECM record, with a brush wielding Jones-West providing suitably subtle and delicate colour and punctuation.
A passage of unaccompanied double bass from Manning then acted as a bridge as the trio segued into a more vigorous arrangement of Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia” with Manning’s propulsive bass grooves leading the way. Jones-West picked up the sticks to give the music a Latin inflection as Blanchfield soloed more expansively. The performance was capped off by a dynamic solo drum feature from Jones-West.

Blanchfield’s love of songs and singers was again expressed via his arrangement of “I’ve Got The World On A String”, as inspired by the version by Frank Sinatra. Here the leader unexpectedly switched to an electric piano or ‘Rhodes’ sound on his Korg keyboard as he shared the solos with Manning at the bass.

The trio’s take on John Coltrane’s “Moments Notice” was also distinguished by the Rhodes sound as Manning and Jones-West laid down a swinging and propulsive groove that formed the bedrock for solos from Blanchfield and Jones-West.

The leader reverted to an acoustic piano setting for a “darker version” of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere”. I had expected this to have been inspired by Tom Waits’ memorable rendition of the song on his “Blue Valentines” album, but instead Blanchfield had been inspired by an arrangement by the Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer.  The trio’s performance included plenty of the rhythmic and harmonic complexity one associates with Iyer, tricky stuff and presumably both a challenge and a pleasure to play.

Similar qualities probably also applied to the trio’s take on Ornette Coleman’s which included a fascinating series of knotty but vigorous exchanges between Blanchfield and Jones-West, their increasingly fiery dialogue underpinned by the sound of Manning at the bass, until the latter was finally let off the leash for a solo of his own.

Like Head before him Blanchfield had delivered a series of standards that mixed the familiar with the more unexpected in a series of sometimes challenging arrangements. He, too was rewarded with an excellent audience reaction and remained on stage to deliver a deserved encore in the form of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee”. This featured another spirited exchange of ideas between piano and drums as the trio fairly romped through the tune.

This concluded a hugely enjoyable evening of music making from two excellent trios featuring six very talented young musicians. Personally I would have liked to have heard more original material, as we did at the corresponding event last year, but I suspect that I may have been in the minority. The decision to concentrate on standard material certainly went down well with the Brecon audience and both trios were very well received with the audience listening attentively throughout. The size of the turnout was also pleasing, particularly on a day when the weather nationally had been so appalling.

Tonight’s performance was a tribute to the quality of the Jazz Course at the RWCMD, which is led by bassist, composer and educator Paula Gardiner. The standard of the musicians produced by the RWCMD is uniformly high and any event featuring students or graduates of the College is pretty much guaranteed to be an interesting and entertaining experience, with tonight being no exception. Well done to the musicians involved.

It will be interesting to see how the careers of tonight’s young musicians will progress, with Rachel Head’s début sextet album being particularly keenly anticipated.

Musicians associated with the RWCMD will be playing key roles at the forthcoming Brecon Jazz Festival and no doubt 2020 will feature another RWCMD showcase event as part of the regular Brecon Jazz Club programme.

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