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Sarah Barnwell

Sarah Barnwell


by Ian Mann

March 28, 2017


More varied than the most 'gypsy jazz' releases it explores a pleasingly wide variety of musical styles and includes some high quality original material alongside the familiar jazz classics.

Sarah Barnwell

“Sarah Barnwell”

(Self released)

Violinist Sarah Barnwell describes herself as playing swing, gypsy jazz, folk and blues and there are elements of all of these on this self released album recorded during 2016.

Originally from Shrewsbury but now resident in Mid Wales Barnwell first played fiddle in her mother’s touring country/rock band before moving on to study classical violin as well as collaborating with folk and bluegrass musicians. Ironically it was her classical violin teacher who helped to turn her on to jazz, suggesting that the sixteen year old Sarah attend a Stephane Grappelli concert in Wolverhampton. It was this performance, featuring a then very young Martin Taylor on guitar, that ignited Barnwell’s passion for gypsy jazz and this style of music has now become her main focus. In the intervening years she has become a very popular performer on the music scene in Wales and the Marches, initially under her former name Sarah Smith, and has worked with many of the region’s leading jazz musicians, among them rising star guitarist Remi Harris.

I first discovered Barnwell’s playing in June 2016 when she performed a hugely enjoyable trio set at Brecon Jazz Club in the company of guitarist Will Barnes and double bassist Erika Lyons, two more highly accomplished and popular musicians resident in the Welsh Borders. At the time this was essentially a new trio (although Barnes and Barnwell had worked together before in an early edition of the guitarist’s Inspector Gadjo band) and the large, attentive and appreciative audience enjoyed two sets of sparkling performances of tunes associated with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.

At the time of the Brecon performance Barnwell was also engaged in the process of the making of this album – her second following an earlier release under the name of the Sarah Smith Trio.

“Sarah Barnwell” the album finds the violinist working with a core ‘Hot Club’ style quartet featuring Barnes and Andy MacKenzie on guitars and Ken Marley on double bass. The new record also includes a guest appearance by the great Huw Warren, here playing accordion. The album also includes live recordings of Barnwell playing with the popular American guitar duo of Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo, highly talented musicians who are frequent and much loved visitors to the UK.

Recently I saw Barnwell and Barnes give an excellent duo performance at one of the popular free “Saturday Café” lunchtime sessions at The Courtyard Arts Centre in Hereford. Although still focussed on gypsy jazz the set was more representative of the material on this album and included several pieces from the new record. Speaking to Sarah after the show she was kind enough to provide me with a review copy, so many thanks to her for that.

The album commences in classic ‘Hot Club’ style with “There Will Never Be Another You”, the piece that also opened the show in Hereford. Following a gently lyrical intro the twin guitarists quickly accelerate the pace and there’s a nimble solo from one of them – information on the album packaging is scant and doesn’t differentiate between lead and rhythm duties. Barnes, also a member of the well established quartet Gypsy Fire, is certainly an accomplished guitar soloist but I suspect that in this quartet the two guitarists have interchangeable roles. More easy to identify is Barnwell herself who demonstrates her abilities as a skilled and fluent jazz improviser with a solo of her own.

The attractive tune “Feather” was written by John Jorgensen and demonstrates a different side to the quartet with brisk folk style guitar chording and propulsive double bass helping to fuel Barnwell’s Celtic style folk fiddling.

The celebrated jazz ballad “Body and Soul”, a tune more commonly associated with saxophonists, works well in this context with Barnwell’s emotive bowing sensitively supported by the guitarists. Marley also features with a melodic pizzicato bass solo.

“Limehouse Blues”, a tune that was played at both Brecon and Hereford, features the quartet in vintage ‘Hot Club’ mode with rollicking rhythms fuelling Barnwell’s fast and furious fiddling. One of the guitarists also weighs in with a dazzling display of fretboard pyrotechnics. I remember Barnwell informing the Brecon audience that this was the piece that once helped her to win a “Gypsy Idol” competition!

The easily swinging “Blues For Daxer” is more overtly ‘bluesy’ and features solos for violin and electric guitar – the latter played by Barnes I suspect, his Inspector Gadjo group liked to mix gypsy and bebop elements and often featured the guitarist playing in the style of Kenny Burrell.

The album sleeve doesn’t give compositional credits but I do know from live performances that the beautiful folk tune “Claira’s Time” is definitely Barnwell’s own. Performed in the style of an Irish air with the composer’s haunting violin sensitively supported by delicately picked guitars it’s unashamedly sentimental and lovely and is a much appreciated live performance highlight, even among hard core jazz audiences.

Barnwell describes herself as a composer so I suspect that a number of other pieces, apart from the obvious standards, may be hers. Among these is the “The Dragonfly”, a charming blend of gypsy jazz and musette that teams the leader’s violin with guest Huw Warren’s accordion in a series of vivacious, virtuosic exchanges.

“Lament” begins with a passage of emotive solo violin, later doubled by means of overdubbing, before Barnwell is later joined by the haunting twang of electric guitars - part Twin Peaks, part Bill Frisell. 

The final two pieces are live recordings made in the company of Vignola and Raniolo. “After You’ve Gone” begins in relaxed fashion with the two guitarists working in tandem, the melody line being played in a gentle, subtly blues tinged manner. When Barnwell joins the group the pace suddenly accelerates and we’re swiftly propelled once more into classic Hot Club territory with breakneck rhythms fuelling high octane guitar and violin solos as the musicians demonstrate their virtuoso improvising skills.

Finally “My Funny Valentine” demonstrates the more reflective side of the Barnwell / Vignola / Raniolo trio with a sensitive performance of the much loved ballad popularised by Chet Baker. 

This album represents an impressive artistic statement from Sarah Barnwell. More varied than the most ‘gypsy jazz’ releases it explores a pleasingly wide variety of musical styles and includes some high quality original material alongside the established and familiar jazz classics. Everybody plays well, particularly Barnwell herself, who also does a good job as co-producer alongside engineer Chris Brown.

As an album “Sarah Barnwell” is a good souvenir of the violinist’s engaging live shows but also represents a rewarding listen in the home environment. The album can be purchased at live gigs or direct from Barnwell’s website   



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