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Roger Beaujolais Quartet

Roger Beaujolais Quartet, A Tribute to Milt Jackson, Kidderminster Jazz Club, 07/10/2021

by Ian Mann

October 21, 2021


An evening of superb music from four exceptional musicians. Overall this was an admirable tribute to the genius of Milt Jackson

Roger Beaujolais Quartet, A Tribute to Milt Jackson, Kidderminster Jazz Club, Corn Exchange Room, Kidderminster Town Hall, Kidderminster, 07/10/2021.

Roger Beaujolais - vibraphone, Andy Nowak - piano, Paul Jefferies - double bass, Kevin O’Rourke - drums

Vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages over the years, both on record and in the live environment.

I have reviewed several Beaujolais albums, among them “Blue Reflections” (2007), “Mind The Gap” (2013), “Sunset” (2017) and “Barba Lunga” (2019), the last of these a trio outing featuring the Italian musicians Giacomo Dominici (acoustic and electric bass) and Alessandro Pivi (drums).

A late comer to both the vibraphone and the professional jazz ranks Beaujolais has more than made up for lost time. He took up the instrument at twenty four and turned professional at thirty working first with the Chevalier Brothers and Ray Gelato during the 1980’s before becoming part of the 1990’s Acid Jazz movement. Beaujolais’ albums for the Acid Jazz label with The Beaujolais Band and Vibraphonic brought him a degree of commercial success including a US hit with Vibraphonic’s “Can’t Get Enough”.

Beaujolais has also enjoyed a successful session career appearing on pop and rock albums by artists as diverse as Duffy, Rumer, Robert Plant, Roni Size, Guy Chambers, Omara Portuondo, Alexander O’Neal, Morrissey, Paul Weller, Alison Limerick, Kirsty MacColl, Graham Coxon, Tony Allen, Ed Motta, Neneh Cherry, Shola Ama, Colin Vearncombe and Fairground Attraction. It’s a wide ranging and very impressive list.

As a jazz sideman he has worked with pianist Tim Richards’ Great Spirit group, Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra, saxophonists Mark Lockheart and Tommaso Starace, bassist Davide Mantovani and pianist/vocalist Wendy Kirkland. Indeed I first became fully aware of his playing during his tenure with Richards’ Great Spirit nonet.

Since 1999 Beaujolais has placed a greater emphasis on straight ahead jazz in an acoustic setting, establishing his own Stay Tuned label to document his output.  He has since released a number of albums, usually in either a quartet or quintet format beginning with 1999’s “Old Times” and progressing through “I’ll See You Tonight” (2003) and “Sentimental” (2005) to the later albums reviewed elsewhere on this site.

He was also part of the trio Lush Life, which featured the unusual instrumental configuration of vibraphone, pedal steel guitar (the great BJ Cole) and double bass (Simon Thorpe). This line up released an eponymous album in 2009.

Tonight’s event marked Beaujolais’ second visit to Kidderminster Jazz Club. He had been part of the quintet that pianist/vocalist Wendy Kirkland brought to the Club on its hugely successful opening night back in October 2019. Club organiser Annette Gregory was so impressed by Beaujolais’ playing on that occasion that she was determined to invite him back as the leader of his own band.

That ambition was finally realised tonight, and it was obvious that others had also been impressed by Beaujolais’ contribution to the Kirkland show as KJC enjoyed its highest audience turnout post-pandemic. This was a tribute to Beaujolais, but was also perhaps a sign that audiences are now becoming more confident and more willing to come out and see live music.

After two recent events (Tina May, Alan Barnes) featuring guest soloists with the excellent KJC house band it was nevertheless a nice change to see the headliner bringing his own group with him. Bassist Paul Jefferies works regularly alongside Beaujolais as a member of Wendy Kirkland’s groups and also performed on that opening night in 2019. Tonight’s line up was completed by drummer Kevin O’Rourke and Bristol based pianist Andy Nowak, the latter a last minute replacement for the advertised Dave Newton. Nowak is a bandleader in his own right with two excellent trio releases to his name. He acquitted himself superbly as the second main soloist, alongside the ebullient Beaujolais.

This evening was a themed event with Beaujolais paying tribute to the late, great Milt Jackson (1923-99), who Beaujolais described as being “the second great vibraphone player in jazz”, following the pioneering Lionel Hampton.

Beaujolais has recorded a Jackson themed album but the release of the record has been delayed due to the pandemic. It is now hoped that the recording may eventually see the light of day some time during 2022.

Beaujolais has a relaxed and eloquent stage demeanour and is an excellent communicator. His presentation was both entertaining and informative and we heard something of the history of the vibraphone (“it’s not a sex aid” he joked), of how its early incarnations featured unsuitable, harsh sounding steel bars, these later replaced by the more familiar and warmer sounds of the aluminium bars we know today.

If Hampton was the first great vibes player of the swing era then Jackson was the bebop equivalent, most famous for his tenure with the Modern Jazz Quartet (or MJQ) alongside pianist/composer John Lewis, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay.

Although Lewis was the principal composer of the MJQ Jackson was also a writer, his compositions resolutely remaining rooted in the blues, regardless of the style they were written in. Perhaps his most famous composition is “Bag’s Groove”, a tune recorded by the MJQ and also by trumpeter Miles Davis. The title comes from Jackson’s nickname of ‘Bags’, for which Beaujolais offered two plausible explanations, “the bags under his eyes resulting from the jazz lifestyle and surviving on just a couple of hours sleep a night” or alternatively “the bags of weed that he always seemed to carry with him”.

The Beaujolais Quartet kicked off with this, Jackson’s signature tune, with Beaujolais delivering the first solo and demonstrating his virtuoso four mallet technique. He is a spectacular soloist and his flamboyant style has made him something of a favourite with audiences. Nowak responded with an impressive solo of his own, stepping into the highly regarded Newton’s shoes with confidence and aplomb. Jefferies combined solid time keeping with dexterous soloing, while at the close Beaujolais traded phrases with drummer O’Rourke. An excellent, swinging start.

Also from the pen of Jackson came the ballad “Heartstrings”, which saw O’Rourke switching to brushes, the swish of these complemented by the languid purr of Jefferies’ bass as the pair accompanied the lyrical solos of Nowak and Beaujolais.

Towards the close of the piece we enjoyed an exquisite solo vibraphone cadenza with Beaujolais’ tone achieving a bell like clarity.

Beaujolais revealed that his first exposure to jazz had come when he was working at the famous London record shop Honest Jon’s. Jon was a huge jazz fan, his business partner Dave was more into soul and together the pair had a huge influence on Beaujolais’ musical tastes, “I was like a sponge”, he revealed.

Among the albums to which he was introduced was a Jackson quartet recording featuring the pianist and composer Horace Silver. This featured an arrangement of the Artie Shaw tune “Moon Ray”, which was the next piece to be performed here. The propulsive grooves generated by Jefferies and O’Rourke fuelled the virtuoso soloing of Beaujolais, his four mallets verily dancing over the bars. Nowak was determined not to be outdone and delivered an expansive solo of his own. Jefferies’ bass solo combined melody with resonance and included a quote from “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise”. Finally both Beaujolais and Nowak traded fours with drummer O’Rourke.

Horace Silver himself was the composer of the final item of the first half, “Opus De Funk”, one of Silver’s best known pieces and a tune recorded by Jackson in both the 1950s and 1970s. Solos came from Beaujolais on vibes, Nowak on piano and Jefferies’ on bass, who delivered some remarkable electric bass like timbres on the acoustic instrument. Finally Beaujolais and Nowak entered into a final series of exchanges with O’Rourke.

The second set commenced with the first John Lewis composition of the evening as the quartet tackled the changes of pace of his tune “Django”, veering between gently floating ballad like episodes and more up tempo passages featuring the mercurial soloing of Beaujolais and Nowak.

From Jackson’s own pen came “Come To Me”, a bossa nova composed in the 1970s that Beaujolais still thought sounded like a blues. The combination of blues phrasing and bossa rhythms helped to inspire Nowak’s most impressive solo of the night as he shared the limelight with Beaujolais and Jefferies.

In the 1950s Jackson recorded an album called “Ballads and Blues” - “which pretty much sums up what he was all about” opined Beaujolais. From this album came a mid-tempo arrangement of “Mean To Me”, perhaps delivered a little too quickly for a true ballad, but nevertheless featuring O’Rourke’s brushed drums. Once again solos came from Beaujolais, Nowak and Jefferies.

This was followed by a “true ballad”, The Jackson composition “What’s New”, again featuring brushed drums and with Jefferies delivering an exquisitely melodic bass solo. Similarly lyrical contributions came from Beaujolais and Nowak, both achieving a remarkable degree of tenderness on their “fixed pitch instruments”.

The next item featured a return to the writing of John Lewis and his composition “Delaunay’s Dilemma”, written for the MJQ. The tune is titled for the French jazz critic Charles Delaunay (1911-88), a champion of swing era big band jazz who nevertheless found himself loving the music of the MJQ, despite his very public antipathy to ‘modern jazz’

The Beaujolais Quartet delivered a delightfully playful performance of this quirky composition, with its frequent allusions to Delaunay’s beloved swing. Solos here came from Beaujolais, Nowak and Jefferies, with O’Rourke also enjoying a more extensive drum feature.

The second set concluded with “Blues For Bags”, a Beaujolais original written specifically for this project. This was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied vibraphone from the leader, this followed by a trio episode reminiscent of Beaujolais’ most recent album as Nowak temporarily sat out. The subsequent solos from both Beaujolais and Nowak included quotes from a variety of jazz and bebop standards as the evening ended with the quartet enjoying some swinging, bluesy fun, celebrating the legacy of the great Milt Jackson.

Annette Gregory had little difficulty in persuading the quartet to return for a deserved encore, a version of Cole Porter’s “I Love You”, again introduced by a passage of solo vibraphone. This lightly swinging rendition included features for all four musicians with solos from Beaujolais, Nowak and Jefferies followed by a final series of drum breaks from O’Rourke.

The decision to invite Beaujolais back to Kidderminster proved to be an inspired one as the most substantial audience of the current series enjoyed an evening of superb music from four exceptional musicians. The standard of the playing was excellent throughout and the quality of the Individual soloing transcended the sometimes predictable nature of the head / solos / head format.

Beaujolais’ virtuosity is undoubted and his regular bass partner Jefferies also delivered some fine solos as well as forming an effective rhythmic partnership with O’Rourke. I was also hugely impressed with the playing of Andy Nowak who stepped into the shoes of the esteemed Dave Newton with great skill and confidence and contributed some excellent solos of his own, as well as slotting brilliantly into the ensemble as a whole. Overall this was an admirable tribute to the genius of Milt Jackson and the eventual album release will be keenly anticipated.

My thanks to Roger Beaujolais and Andy Nowak for talking with me at length. Andy’s next trio album, which will hopefully appear in 2022 will also be eagerly awaited.

Nowak must have enjoyed playing the Town Hall’s splendid grand piano and the instrument will be put to good use again on November 11th 2021 when vocalist/pianist/raconteur Ian Shaw visits Kidderminster for a solo performance.

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