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Ross Hicks

Three Elms

by Ian Mann

April 02, 2024


Hicks’ writing exhibits an impressive ambition and maturity and he also impresses as a fluent and imaginative piano soloist. It all makes for a very classy package.

Ross Hicks

“Three Elms”

(Self Released)

Ross Hicks – piano, Nick Kacal – double bass, Alex Goodyear – drums

“Three Elms” represents the leadership debut from the young pianist and composer Ross Hicks.

Welsh born Hicks is a recent graduate from the Jazz Course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff and he remains based in the Welsh capital. He is an adaptable and versatile musician capable of playing across a variety of jazz and other musical genres and he is beginning to establish a name for himself on the jazz scenes in both South Wales and the South West of England.

I know Hicks’ playing best from his numerous visits to Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny, where he has demonstrated his versatility by appearing in a broad range of musical contexts. He has doubled up on piano and electric keyboards with the young Cardiff based jazz / funk /soul octet Freshly Cut Grass, led by guitarist / vocalist /composer Owain Hughes and with the similarly inclined South Walian jazz-funk sextet Bunker, led by saxophonist Joe Northwood.

As an acoustic pianist Hicks has proved himself to be an excellent and in demand accompanist for jazz vocalists such as Debs Hancock, Emma Davidson and Kai Hoffman.

In August 2023 Hicks gave a brilliant account of himself as a member of the South Wales based ‘house trio’ that supported the Tubby Hayes inspired saxophonist Simon Spillett at Black Mountain Jazz. Spillett was fulsome in his encouragement and praise of an exceptional trio that also included bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Alex Goodyear. My review of this remarkable quartet performance can be found here;

The Hicks / Kacal / Goodyear trio has also accompanied Spillett’s fellow saxophonist Alan Barnes.

Hicks’ latest visit to BMJ in 2024 saw him venturing outside his ‘comfort zone’ as part of a jazz trio that also featured trumpeter Ben Thomas and drummer Ian Williams as they provided improvised musical responses to the words of poets Ric Hool, Lyndon Davies and Graham Hartill as part of a “Poetry & Jazz Improvisation” event. My  account of this unusual but thought provoking performance can be found here;

Perhaps the most relevant live performance in relationship to this album release was Hicks’ appearance at BMJ in July 2023 when he was the initial guest in the popular ‘BMJ Collective with’  concert series, which sees BMJ’s ‘house trio’ the BMJ Collective (saxophonist / vocalist Jack McDougal, bassist Nick Kacal and drummer Ryan Thrupp) inviting a different guest to perform with them each month. These early evening sessions follow an afternoon youth jazz workshop (BMJazz Katz) conducted by McDougal, Kacal and Thrupp, with ticket sales helping to finance the workshop programme. Typically these sessions include a mix of jazz standards, original compositions from the guest musicians and sometimes jazz arrangements of well known pop and rock songs. It was at this event that audiences first became aware of Hicks’ talents as a composer and arranger as he also announced his plans to release this five track EP / mini-album. The live performance included three of the tunes,  “Short & Sombre”, “Cuarentena” and “Three Elms” that appear on the finished recording. My review of the BMJ Collective with Ross Hicks performance can be read here;

Released in March 2024 the “Three Elms” recording more than matches up to the promise displayed at that show. The album personnel includes BMJ Collective member Nick Kacal at the bass, plus Alex Goodyear, the Collective’s founder and original drummer at the kit. The music was recorded to the highest professional standards at Crescent Studios by the engineering team of Damon Sawyer and Elizabeth Norris.

Although there are only five tracks Hicks and his colleagues stretch out at length as they improvise around the pianist’s themes. The total running time is around thirty eight minutes, much the same as many classic Blue Note recordings, so that’s good enough to qualify it as an album (as opposed to an EP) in my book.

Things get off to a lively start with “Trek”, introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano from the leader, his arpeggiated syncopations eventually leading to a catchy hook as Goodyear and Kacal eventually enter the proceedings. It quickly becomes apparent that Hicks is a multi-faceted writer and this opening composition embraces plenty of twists and turns. The sound is very contemporary and incorporates vigorous group interaction,  Latin-esque flourishes and E.S.T. inspired grooves. In addition to the leader’s expansive piano soloing there’s a lively and colourful drum feature from the agile Goodyear, a musician with a rapidly growing national reputation thanks to his work with pianist John Law.

“Short & Sombre” was one of the pieces to have been featured at that Abergavenny show, although in a quartet live performance it sometimes extended well beyond those identifiers. This trio version is not short, but in general it is more lyrical and reflective, again beginning with an extended passage of unaccompanied piano from Hicks. His gently mellifluous musings are eventually complemented by double bass and brushed drums, with Kacal delivering a delightfully melodic double bass solo. Hicks subsequently solos with greater vigour, but overall the mood is gentle and restrained, akin to that of a jazz ballad, but presented in a more contemporary style.

The title track was inspired by memories of childhood family holidays at a caravan park in Porthcawl. Readers in Hereford will be relieved to learn that “Three Elms” doesn’t refer to the industrial estate, the pub, or indeed the road, of the same name, but I digress. Ironically it’s the shortest piece on the album but the music has a   a suitably wistful and nostalgic feel about it, commencing with a passage of unaccompanied piano that combines a memorable melodic theme with the effective use of space. The addition of bass and drums imbues the music with more of an anthemic quality and Kacal is again featured with another melodic bass solo. I’m sometimes reminded of Keith Jarrett’s ‘country blues’ compositions, while the sheer spaciousness of the music recalls Pat Metheny’s melodic gift.

The more upbeat, Latin flavoured “Cuarentena” takes its name from the Portuguese word for “quarantine”. Chick Corea is perhaps the most obvious reference point here, for this is a joyous piece that recalls his compositions “Spain” and La Fiesta”. The trio’s performance is lively and vivacious and emphasises the close bonds between the three musicians, and particularly between Hicks and Goodyear. These two bounce ideas off each other throughout, culminating in the dynamic passage that emerges out of Goodyear’s colourful drum feature. The energy of the performance is encapsulated by the ecstatic shout of “whoo!” that greets the conclusion of the piece. Well done to the engineers for keeping that in there.

The album concludes with “My First Time”, the lengthiest and most ambitious track on the recording. It begins quietly with the sounds of Hicks’ glacial piano and Goodyear’s drum commentary, this embracing the sounds of cymbal scrapes and the rustle of brushes. Gradually a melodic theme emerges, which the members of the trio explore at leisure, the overall mood remaining gentle and lyrical, with Goodyear continuing to deploy brushes. However momentum gradually begins to build, culminating in a sudden shift into a more hard driving section featuring percussive piano and Goodyear’s move to sticks. Then it’s back to something gentler and more melodic as Hicks continues to vary the dynamics. Momentum then begins to build again during an expansive piano solo that leads to a reprise of that hard driving, riff based section. A more loosely structured ‘free jazz’ style snippet leads to an unaccompanied double bass episode from Kacal, followed by a further ‘free jazz’ passage that also features piano and the shimmer of cymbals. The music then takes on an anthemic quality with the introduction of another melodic theme as this ambitious, multi-part composition draws to a close.

In 2023 another Cardiff based pianist and composer with a strong BMJ connection,  Eddie Gripper, attracted mass critical acclaim for his debut recording “Home”, another album released in the piano trio format. That album is favourably reviewed elsewhere on these pages, as are numerous live appearances by the Gripper trio, which currently features bassist Ursula Harrison and drummer Patrick Barrett-Donlon. The success of “Home” has led to the Gripper trio touring extensively throughout the UK and Ireland and picking up many new fans along the way.

Admittedly Gripper had the relative might of the Ubuntu record label behind him but I’d like to think that something similar could happen for Hicks. “Three Elms” exhibits many of the same virtues as “Home”. Hicks’ writing exhibits an impressive ambition and maturity and he also impresses as a fluent and imaginative piano soloist. He is well served by the rhythm team of Kacal and Goodyear, both of whom play immaculately throughout. Engineers Sawyer and Norris deliver a pinpoint sound mix that ensures that everybody sounds good. It all makes for a very classy package and “Three Elms” represents an excellent debut from the talented Ross Hicks.  I hope it attracts the attention that it undoubtedly deserves.

“Three Elms” is available from Ross Hicks’ Bandcamp page here;


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