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Sarah Ellen Hughes

Sarah Ellen Hughes Quartet at Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 30/10/2011.

by Ian Mann

November 01, 2011


Ian Mann enjoys a live performance by vocalist Sarah Ellen Hughes and her quartet and takes a look at her latest album "The Story So Far".

Sarah Ellen Hughes, Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 30/10/2011.

The former NYJO singer Sarah Ellen Hughes is currently in the midst of an exhaustive UK tour in support of her recent album “The Story So Far”, released on her own Sayso Records label in 2011. Now London based, Hughes was born in Llanelli and her Welsh roots brought her to Abergavenny in the company of her regular drummer Darren Altman, who appears on the album, plus Swansea based musicians Dave Cottle (keyboards) and Alun Vaughan (electric bass). Hughes normally uses this configuration for the numerous gigs she plays in her homeland and the size of the audience (the function room at the Kings was as full as I’ve seen it for some time) suggested that she retains a strong local following. BMJ promoter Mike Skilton announced himself delighted with the turnout which must have numbered between forty and fifty with no table left unoccupied. 

The bulk of the material played tonight was sourced from Hughes’ two albums “The Story So Far” and the earlier “Darning That Dream” (2010) and comprised of an entertaining mix of jazz standards, pop songs and creditable Hughes originals.

The quartet kicked off with their version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favourite Things” which appears on the latest album. Clearly influenced by John Coltrane’s famous modal version the piece offered an early demonstration of the soloing skills of Cottle on electric piano and Vaughan on his distinctive six string electric bass. Driven on by Altman’s crisp and energetic drumming Hughes demonstrated a real understanding of jazz phrasing and a clear willingness to interact with her colleagues. In other words she’s a proper jazz vocalist, you’d expect a former NYJO vocalist ( among her predecessors was the late Amy Winehouse) to be a class act.

The song “The Story So Far” is fine example of the singers’ art of vocalese. Hughes added her own lyrics to an existing tune written by the saxophonist Dave O’ Higgins. It’s a highly attractive piece and O’Higgins returns the compliment by guesting on the tune on the album. It’s a shame he couldn’t be part of tonight’s line up but Cottle and Vaughan stepped up to the plate to deliver excellent solos followed by a thrilling exchange of Hughes’ scatted vocal phrases and answering drum breaks from Altman.   

Three tunes from Hughes’ earlier album followed. “Darning That Dream” was another example of vocalese with Hughes re-harmonising a Dexter Gordon version of the standard “Darn That Dream” and adding her own lyrics, the words a moving reflection on the loss of her mother. The first ballad of the evening the piece featured a thoughtful piano solo from Cottle with Altman showing his sensitive side with some sympathetic brush work.

The Bob Dorough song “Devil My Care” appears on the album as a duet with the marvellous Ian Shaw (a review of Shaw’s solo performance at the 2011 Lichfield Real Ale Jazz and Blues festival can be found in our features section). In Hughes’ own words the song “contains a lot of notes” and the singer handled them with considerable aplomb sliding around the tongue twisting lyrics with a remarkable degree of flexibility.

Cole Porter’s salacious “Love For Sale” was famously banned in the 1920’s. Hughes’ version of the tune brought it right up to date with Altman adding an almost funk/hip hop groove and with Hughes audaciously shoehorning some additional lyrics, courtesy of Sting, into the song’s middle section.

Having performed “a twenties song in a seventies style” Hughes reversed the process with a slowed down jazz version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Close to You”, famously a huge 70’s hit for The Carpenters. The song appears on Hughes’ latest album and here featured Cottle’s wonderfully versatile Yamaha keyboard approximating an acoustic guitar sound at times.

Also from the new album a segue of A.C. Jobim tunes “Corcovado/If You Never Come To Me” featured some of the best playing of the set with an absorbing solo drum passage from Altman, much of it played with his bare hands. Then came a trilling electric piano solo that recalled Chick Corea’s work with the original version of Return To Forever (with Flora Purim etc.). Hughes handled the transition from Portugese to English lyrics easily in an impressive all round group performance.

The first set concluded with Hughes’ original tune “Working Hard”, an autobiographical and often humorous comment on the economic vicissitudes of living the jazz life in present day London. Hughes gave up a career as a primary school teacher to concentrate on jazz full time. Hopefully that decision is now beginning to reap its own rewards. 

The second set commenced with the quartet’s version of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” with plenty of solo space being given to the three instrumentalists. The Waller tune appears on Hughes’ latest album as does “Take Me Away”, a strong original song that bridges the gap between jazz and pop. The recorded version includes memorable contributions from O’ Higgins on saxophone and Chris Allard on guitar. Here pianist Dave Cottle took the instrumental honours.

Also from “The Story So Far” came another Hughes original, “Busy Bee”. Another autobiographical account of Hughes’ jazz life the recorded version seems a bit “throwaway” but the furrowed brows of Cottle and Vaughan suggested that it’s rather more difficult than it might first appear and is actually a bit of a devil to play. Here the quartet stretched out playfully on the tune with Hughes injecting an additional element of humour and a low key theatricality as she gave full rein to her considerable scatting skills with Cottle’s piano the perfect foil.

“Tell Me Where You’re Going”  was the title track of Norwegian singer Silje Neergard’s 1990 début album, a collaboration with the great guitarist and composer Pat Metheny. Co-written by Neergard and Metheny the song was an international hit and Neergard remains one of Hughes’ chief inspirations. Hughes’ version began in trio mode with the singer accompanied by just piano and bass. The introduction of Altman’s drums then dramatically launched the song into anthemic territory with Cottle taking flight at the piano.

Sarah’s version of George Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” began with her solo vocals, later combining with Vaughan’s springy bass grooves in an imaginative arrangement that saw Cottle shifting the controls of his keyboard to the organ setting for his solo.

Jobim’s “One Note Samba” featured the members of the quartet clapping in the intro with Hughes’ vivacious vocal performance eventually leading to an extended drum feature for Darren Altman. Rock rhythms were the order of the day for a take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” with Hughes’ voice soaring triumphantly. The recorded version on “The Story So Far” features the guitar of guest Chris Allard.

Hughes, like many jazz vocalists, seems to have a particular affinity for the music of the Gershwins.
The closing “Lady Be Good” allowed all the members of the quartet to demonstrate their abilities with Cottle’s quote filled piano solo and Vaughan’s guitar like chording on the bass followed by another remarkable voice and drum dialogue. This was heady stuff and it was inevitable that the quartet would be called back for an encore. This proved to be yet another Gershwin song, this time “But Not For Me” which included another musical conversation between Hughes and Altman, this time more muted with Altman deploying the brushes.

This had been a highly enjoyable show with good all round performances by both the singer and the instrumentalists in an accomplished Anglo-Welsh alliance. It was the best attended BMJ club night for some time generating a good atmosphere that ensured that everyone went home happy. After a lean few months for the club it was good to see things picking up so well. It was also good to meet Dave Cottle who runs another well known Welsh jazz club, Swansea Jazzland. Dave is currently “living the dream” with his beloved Swans in the Premier League!

Hughes’ album “The Story So far” is also well worth a listen containing much of the material heard tonight and featuring a core quartet of Hughes and Altman plus pianist Rick Simpson and Empirical bassist Tom Farmer. Dave O’Higgins and Chris Allard make welcome guest appearances as I’ve already mentioned.

Hughes is also a member of the jazz vocal group Sector 7 which features her alongside fellow singers Emma Smith, Kwabena Adjepong and Shakka Philip plus a classy rhythm section of George Moore (piano), Tim Thornton (bass) and Andy Chapman (drums). I’ll be taking a look at their recent début EP shortly.

Sarah is also an accomplished jazz journalist, regularly contributing articles to Sebastian Scotney’s London Jazz blog. In many of these she deploys her inside knowledge to review the work of other vocalists. I hope she doesn’t find too much wrong with what I’ve written here!

In the meantime details of the remaining tour dates plus details of Sarah ‘s album releases can be found at

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