by Ian Mann
February 20, 2013
An enjoyable evening of modern big band jazz delivered by an excellent young ensemble.
Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Jazz Ensemble, Black Mountain Jazz, Swan Hotel, Abergavenny, 19/02/2013.
In 2012 the RWCMD Jazz Ensemble visited Black Mountain Jazz at the club’s former base at the Kings Arms in Abergavenny. Augmented by guest soloist Gethin Liddington on trumpet the young band delivered an impressive performance that was warmly appreciated by the BMJ audience. It was suggested at that time that the Ensemble should continue to visit the club on an annual basis and so it was that a year to the date, in a glorious touch of serendipity, the RWCMD came calling again at the club’s new HQ the Swan Hotel.
Instrumentally this year’s line up offered a similar configuration of five reeds, four trombones, four trumpets/flugels, piano, guitar, electric bass and drums - that’s seventeen members for anyone who’s counting. Fortunately the musicians didn’t quite outnumber the audience, I reckon there were about thirty of us in the jazz club like atmosphere of the Swan’s upstairs function room. BMJ promoter Mike Skilton told me that at one point over 90 were crammed in for the performance by Gilad Atzmon a couple of weeks ago yet the place still didn’t feel empty tonight.
Several members of last years group have graduated and moved on but there were still a number of familiar faces. The ensemble is still co-ordinated by trumpeter Robert “Teddy” Smith who must now be in his third year. Joe Atkin Reeves was the most frequently deployed soloist doubling on tenor sax and clarinet, Daniel Smith had switched from baritone to lead alto and Tony Lovell continued to lead a trombone section that also featured Peter Komor, a musician normally better known as a bass player. Drummer Rod Oughton, who also leads his own groups on the Cardiff jazz scene remains a pivotal figure in the band and although barely visible to the audience his presence was very much heard throughout (in a good way).
Collectively the Ensemble made an impressive big band sound on a set of arrangements that were both interesting and accessible for the listener but nevertheless probably something of a challenge to play. Arrangements by Bob Florence and Tom Kubis were prominent in a first set that included Charlie Parker’s “Moose The Mooche”, Florence’s arrangement of “Chicago” and Kubis’ “On Purple Porpoise Parkway”, the tongue twisting title acknowledging the fact that the piece is based on the chords of “On Green Dolphin Street”. The Kubis piece featured Atkin Reeves exchanging phrases with fellow tenorist Bryn Davies, a young man whom I’d previously seen leading his own quartet at the 2011 Torfaen Jazz Society mini festival. Earlier in the set both Oughton and Daniel Smith had impressed, the latter’s alto feature was arguably the best solo of the first half. The Ensemble went into the break with a rousing rendition of “Sing Sing Sing”, a tune forever associated with the great drummer Gene Krupa. Tonight’s version was driven from the back by the consistently excellent Oughton with Atkin Reeves switching to clarinet to deliver an appropriately effusive solo.
The second set began with an excerpt from trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler’s “Sweet Time Suite”, a typical Wheeler title featuring some typically rich and sumptuous Wheeler horn voicings with the sax section only featuring on the intro. More conventional solos came from Atkin Reeves on tenor, Lovell on suitably plangent trombone and Rob Smith taking the Wheeler role on flugelhorn. This extract was one of the undoubted highlights of the night.
Kubis’ arrangement of “When You’re Smiling” lightened the mood and included a feature for young Bryn Davies on tenor.
Last year’s concert included a number of vocal numbers from singer Jonas Seetoh. Among these was a version of George Gershwin’s ” A Foggy Day In London Town” which was included tonight as an instrumental with solos coming from Atkin Reeves on tenor and Lovell on trombone.
Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” was notable for another excellent solo from Daniel Smith on alto and Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball” took things storming out with features from Atkin reeves on clarinet and Davies on tenor. This rousing finale was much enjoyed by the BMJ crowd who urged the Ensemble to give them an encore which turned out to be an alternative take on “Sing Sing Sing” with Oughton and Atkin Reeve again prominent.
This had been an enjoyable evening of modern big band jazz delivered by an excellent young ensemble. Overall however I didn’t feel that it quite reached the heights of the 2012 concert. The absence of the vastly experienced Liddington was obviously a factor, his masterful solos were consistent highlights of last year’s show. I also recall last year’s performance being more slickly presented, many of the tunes in tonight’s first set went unannounced and the names of some of the soloists, notably the pianist (thanks to Ali Oughton for subsequently advising me that this was James Clark who had impressed at Hay Festival in 2012, though to be fair he was also virtually hidden here) and two of Rob Smith’s colleagues in the trumpet section went unacknowledged (or else unheard by me) which was a shame as all made telling individual and collective contributions. If anybody can supply me with the missing names I’d be grateful and can amend this review accordingly.
Also no set list was prepared before the gig and hence there were a number of awkward pauses and frequent shuffling of sheet music. Last year some of the course tutors, notably Paul jones, were in attendance but in this instance one rather got the impression that the students had been left to fend for themselves. All part of the learning process I guess, especially for those members of the Ensemble who aspire to go on to become fully professional jazz musicians, as many surely will. These caveats aside I had no quibbles with the playing and would recommend all jazz and big band fans to check out the RWCMD Jazz Ensemble. They just need to sharpen up their presentation a little more, although not necessarily in an overtly “showbiz” way, to maximise their appeal to audiences.