by Ian Mann
March 14, 2023
An exceptional performance from three highly talented musicians. The level of rapport established by a ‘one off’ trio was little short of remarkable.
Rachel Starritt Trio, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 10/03/2023.
Rachel Starritt – piano, Ashley John Long – double bass, Liz Exell – drums
Unsighted since her birth in 1994 Rachel Starritt is a young pianist from Bridgend who has studied both jazz and classical music at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff. She has also studied at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester and at the Conservatori Liciu in Barcelona. Her jazz tutors have included such jazz piano greats as Nikki Iles and Huw Warren.
Starritt pursues parallel careers in the classical and jazz worlds and is a member of the British Paraorchestra. As a classical musician she has performed internationally but her love of improvisation has drawn her increasingly towards jazz.
She has worked with a jazz trio featuring fellow RWCMD alumni Clem Saynor (double bass) and Alex Goodyear (drums) and this group performed a set for the 2020 ‘Virtual’ Brecon Jazz Festival, recorded remotely at the homes of the three participants. A review of this performance can be found as part of my 2020 Festival coverage here;
In 2021 the same line up convened at an empty Muse to record an in person live set that was livestreamed as part of that year’s ‘hybrid’ Brecon Jazz Festival. My review of that performance, from which much of the above biographical detail has been sourced, can be found here;
On 8th August 2021 as part of the same Festival Starritt performed a short in person solo piano interlude between two lengthier sets from the trio of trumpeter Gethin Liddington, tenor saxophonist Dan Newberry and her former piano tutor Huw Warren. Full coverage of this day’s events can be found here;
Since 2020 Starritt has become a great friend of Brecon Jazz Club. In addition to her musical capabilities she is also an accomplished linguist who is fluent in several languages, among them Welsh, Spanish, French and Italian. At the 2021 Festival she also made frequent appearances as an announcer, introducing acts in both Welsh and English, sharing these duties with violinist Heulwen Thomas.
2021 was a busy year for Starritt and she also appeared at an event called “The Vibration Continues”, held in the South Transept of Hereford Cathedral. This was a piano duo performance featuring Starritt and Cara Tivey, the latter a composer and session musician who worked with Blur around the time of the celebrated “Parklife” album.
Taking its title from a Rahsaan Roland Kirk album “The Vibration Continues” featured Starritt on the Cathedral’s magnificent Bluthner grand piano with Tivey on a Nord electric keyboard. It was a combination that worked surprisingly well as the duo performed a series of compositions and improvisations inspired by the spaces and artefacts within Hereford Cathedral. Starritt has attended the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford and thus has an affinity for the city and the Cathedral. Following the concert a retiring collection was held in aid of the RNCB.
The performance consisted of eleven separate pieces, or movements if you will, that straddled the boundaries between jazz and classical music and between composition and improvisation. The programme included an arrangement of the Kirk song “Volunteered Slavery” but the audience treated this as a classical performance, remaining silent between ‘movements’ and only applauding at the end of the ‘suite’.
The music was perfectly suited to the space which had inspired it and I was particularly impressed with Starritt’s mastery of the acoustic possibilities of the grand piano, her approach being almost orchestral in conception. I attended as a ‘punter’ but this was a performance that exceeded my expectations and I would love to hear her playing grand piano again, whether in a jazz or classical context.
There wasn’t a grand piano available to Starritt this evening but she did have access to a Zender upright acoustic, an instrument with a very clear sound that represented an excellent substitute. In the very capable hands of Starritt and with skilful miking from the sound engineers the piano sounded wonderful, but this was just one part of a stellar trio line up that also featured the talents of bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Liz Exell, two more South Wales based musicians who have become great friends of Brecon Jazz Club.
Tonight’s line up was one of those one off alliances that Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon of Brecon Jazz Club specialise in. As event organisers they have a special talent for sensing what combination of musicians will work and this trio ‘made in heaven’ (or ‘Made in Brecon’) was no exception. Long and Exell have occasionally worked together as a rhythm section before, but, rather surprisingly given their geographical proximity, this was the first time that either of them had met Starritt.
The pianist’s two Festival livestream performances had focussed on her arrangements of a broad range of jazz standards. Tonight’s event saw this new trio exploring broadly similar territory, although there were no repeats from Starritt’s previous Brecon appearances. She clearly has a very thorough knowledge of the standards repertoire and her approach to her chosen material is unfailingly audacious and inventive, very much in the spirit of Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau on the occasions that these great American pianists play standards. Like them Starritt takes these wonderful tunes by the scruff of the neck and her highly imaginative arrangements take them to places where nobody expects them to go. In Long and Starritt, two highly receptive and adventurous musicians, she had the perfect partners for such a musical quest and the results were often magical.
The trio kicked things off in energetic fashion with the Dexter Gordon tune “Cheese Cake” from the saxophonist’s classic 1962 Blue Note album “Go!”. A swinging, bebop inspired arrangement saw Starritt soloing inventively above Long’s rapid bass walk and Exell’s crisp cymbal work. Long took over the melody for a while during his own solo and Exell enjoyed a series of inventive drum breaks. Starritt is a knowledgeable and informative authority on the jazz tradition and she told us that she selected this tune to celebrate the centenary of Gordon’s birth. He later re-recorded “Cheese Cake” in 1964 with a different line up for an album on the Steeplechase label and died in 1989.
Another classic from the bebop / hard bop era followed with Starritt’s arrangement of the Dizzy Gillespie tune “A Night In Tunisia”. This was subject to a particularly inventive interpretation from the trio that included several variations in tempo and which incorporated an unaccompanied piano passage from the leader that emphasised her classically honed technique and which exhibited an exceptionally strong right hand / left hand balance.
Solo piano also introduced the trio’s version of Brooks Bowman’s “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)”, which was delivered as a “medium swinger” with the addition of double bass and brushed drums. Long picked up the bow for a brilliant solo, his playing combining superb technique with an almost casual insouciance.
One of the most familiar of jazz standards, Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight” was subject to another stunning make over by the trio in an arrangement that incorporated another solo piano intro and further use of the bow from Long.
The bassist made use of both arco and pizzicato techniques on a piece that embraced a series of dynamic, stylistic and emotional changes with an accelerated passage featuring a bravura piano solo from Starritt and a lively series of exchanges between the leader and Exell. Long then picked up the bow again to generate a cello like melancholy on a coda that also incorporated the shimmer of Exell’s mallets on cymbals. This represented a stunning end to a relatively brief short set, the audience responding with appropriate enthusiasm.
With two female musicians in the band tonight’s event was intended as BJC’s celebration of International Women’s Day, an occasion that will be celebrated again on March 19th when cellist Shirley Smart brings her trio featuring pianist John Crawford and percussionist Demi Garcia Sabat to the same venue.
Tonight also included a presentation by Deborah Checkland and Margot Morgan of Jazz Heritage Wales, the organisation formally known as the Women’s Jazz Archive. Founded in 1986 by the pianist and jazz historian Jen Wilson JHW is now based at Dylan Thomas Centre at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Swansea.
Tonight’s presentation also included audio and visuals with brief insights into the work of such pioneering figures as Ivy Benson and Beryl Bryden, with ex Benson band member and BBC Radio presenter Sheila Tracey also featuring.
Checkland and Morgan also told us something about the organisation’s work, which includes curating the various collections charting the history of jazz in Wales, touring exhibitions and contributions to TV and radio programmes.
JHW were involved in the recent Women In Jazz In Wales concert in Abergavenny. As friends of Brecon Jazz Club and Festival they have also exhibited at the Festival, most notably in 2016 when the visual displays were augmented by live music featuring female musicians, among them Jen Wilson (piano), Margot Morgan (vocals) and Deborah Glenister (saxophone).
The Starritt trio then returned for a more substantial second set that began with the Jerome Kern tune “Yesterdays”, introduced by Starritt at the piano, accompanied by Exell’s deft cymbal work. Long then played the melody with the bow, duetting with Starritt as Exell temporarily sat out. The pianist then counted the band back in as the music suddenly changed pace, the atmospheric opening passage followed by a faster paced section featuring Starritt soloing above vigorously plucked bass and a brisk drum groove. Long was also featured as a soloist, playing pizzicato this time but, picking up the bow again at the close.
Saxophonist Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” was another piece chosen to celebrate the work of one of the old jazz masters, but this time one that is still alive. Golson, born in 1929, is still going strong at the age of ninety four. Starritt introduced the piece solo, later joined by Exell’s exquisite brush work and Long’s melodic double bass, the latter also featuring alongside Starritt as a soloist.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the ballad “Body and Soul” performed. Made famous as a jazz standard by saxophonist Coleman Hawkins I’d always assumed that its composer, Johnny Green, was American. However Starritt informed us that Green was actually English, from Manchester to be precise. At a Rachel Starritt gig every day is a school day. A typically imaginative arrangement included a solo piano introduction, Long’s playing of the melody with the bow, Starritt’s lyrical piano soloing, including another unaccompanied passage, more bowing, Exell’s deft brush work and finally a solo piano coda. A stunning interpretation of a particularly well known piece that mixed beauty with brilliance and a real sense of adventure.
Starritt’s arrangement of the Irving Berlin song “How Deep Is The Ocean?” increased the energy levels once more and introduced something of a Latin tinge to the music.
The performance included Long utilising the body of his bass as a form of auxiliary percussion, but this was also a thoughtful rendition that included solos from both Starritt and Long, plus an extended musical dialogue between the pair.
Starritt played tribute to Doris Day with an arrangement of “Secret Love”, a song from the movie “Calamity Jane”. This was an up-tempo item with Starritt soloing above Long’s rapid bass walk and Exell’s crisp brush work. Long, that most inventive of bass soloists was also featured prominently.
Finally we heard an innovative adaptation of Miles Davis’ “Solar” that incorporated a series of engaging exchanges between Starritt’s piano and Exell’s brushed drums, plus a brilliant solo from the pianist that made effective use of space before astutely building the tension to reach a dramatic conclusion. Most radical of all was a ‘free jazz’ coda that saw Long and Exell making use of extended techniques.
A tumultuous audience response prompted an encore of “You’re Driving Me Crazy”, a song from the 1920s given a contemporary makeover via a Starritt arrangement that sought to bring out the anger inherent in the lyrics. It’s a piece that is sometimes heard as part of the gypsy jazz repertoire but Starritt’s radical re-working was a million miles away from this and again included a free jazz episode that included Long’s savage bowing and Exell’s abrasive skin scrapes. Starritt’s increasing absorption of the jazz tradition seems to be leading her inexorably towards the avant garde, territory that has already become increasingly familiar for Long, who has made regular forays into this area. That said he’s a supremely adaptable player who can play in any jazz style, in addition to being an accomplished classical bassist.
This was an exceptional performance from three highly talented musicians. The level of rapport established by a ‘one off’ trio was little short of remarkable and the balance between the players and the level of interaction superb. Starritt and Long both displayed astonishing levels of virtuosity on their respective instruments but some observers also commented on the importance of Exell’s contribution. Her sensitivity as a drummer had already been noted at the recent Women In Jazz In Wales gig in Abergavenny and this was much in evidence again here in a skilled but unobtrusive performance that often saw her deploying brushes in preference to sticks.
Some onlookers expressed the opinion that this was the best gig they had ever seen at Brecon Jazz Club and it was certainly an exceptional performance. As Long observed after the show these one off collaborations can sometimes deliver something magical, and that absolutely the case here. He also praised the quality and inventiveness of Starritt’s arrangements and commented that she’d really challenged him by giving his arco playing a good work out. I love his playing with the bow, and of course he responded magnificently.
On this evidence Rachel Starritt’s status as a jazz performer can only continue to grow, and one also suspects that this might not be the last that we hear from these musicians as a collective unit. Congratulations are due to Brecon Jazz Club for such a successful event and for bringing these three exceptional talents together.
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