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Sarah Ellen Hughes

Sarah Ellen Hughes Quartet, Black Mountain Jazz, Swan Hotel, Abergavenny, 26/05/2013.

by Ian Mann

May 31, 2013


One of Britain's best jazz vocalists, an adventurous singer who delivers in any company and brings the best out of her fellow musicians.

Sarah Ellen Hughes Quartet, Black Mountain Jazz, Swan Hotel, Abergavenny, 26/05/2013.

I first discovered the singing of Sarah Ellen Hughes in October 2011 when she performed at BMJ’s previous venue the Kings Arms in Abergavenny. Reviewing the show I remarked that Hughes was a “proper jazz vocalist” - and so she is with a remarkable talent for jazz phrasing and a willingness to improvise, take risks and interact with her fellow musicians. Her bright and imaginative arrangements of standard material, plus the occasional original song, bubble with wit and invention. In other words she’s a class act and I consider her to be one of Britain’s best jazz vocalists, an adventurous singer who delivers in any company and brings the best out of her fellow musicians.

Born in Llanelli but now based in London the former NYJO vocalist has been a professional singer for twelve years. She has always retained strong links with the land of her birth and the Kings Arms performance teamed her with her regular London based drummer Darren Altman together with Swansea based musicians Dave Cottle (keyboard) and Alun Vaughan (electric bass). This particular quartet put on an excellent show playing to a pleasingly sizeable audience.

In 2012 I attended a second Hughes performance at Much Dewchurch Village Hall in rural Herefordshire. Local resident Bob Chance had seen Hughes perform in both Abergavenny and Monmouth and was determined to bring her to his home village. The evening was a resounding success with Hughes bringing her London quartet to the country to play to a packed house. Altman, pianist Rick Simpson and double bassist Tom Farmer joined the singer in charming the locals with a superb group performance. This is the line up that appears on Hughes’ most recent album “The Story So Far”, a highly accomplished recording that also features guest appearances from saxophonist Dave O’ Higgins and guitarist Chris Allard.

Today’s performance saw Hughes fronting yet another line up as she linked up with three highly experienced Bristol based musicians in the shape of Dale Hambridge (keyboard), Greg Cordez (double bass) and Andy Tween (drums). Incredibly it was the first time that Hughes had performed with these three musicians- and they’re not even a regular trio- but thanks to the shared language of jazz the ad hoc quartet still produced a thoroughly convincing performance with some marvellous singing and playing. This was an afternoon gig with an appreciative audience of around 30 - 40 enjoying Sunday lunch prior to the performance.

Much of the material was drawn from “The Story So Far” with Hughes frequently distributing sheet music to her colleagues, experienced sight readers all. Overall it was a similar set to the one performed with Cottle and Morgan a couple of years ago as the quartet opened with Hughes’ arrangement of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favourite Things”. The modal treatment was clearly inspired by the classic John Coltrane version with Hughes taking liberties with the lyrics and demonstrating a real talent for jazz phrasing. Thankfully it was all a long way from Julie Andrews.

It’s to the credit of both Hughes and the trio that she felt able to include an original tune so early in the set. “The Story So Far” features music by Dave O’ Higgins plus lyrics by Hughes added at a later date. This impressive example of the art of vocalese featured excellent dialogue between Hughes and Hambridge, a sparkling solo from the latter plus absorbing features for bass and drums.

Cole Porter’s “Get Out Of Town” demonstrated not only Hughes’ ability as an interpreter of a lyric but also her prowess for scatting, she’s a gifted improviser whose wordless vocal lines mimic the flexibility of a horn. Her dazzling scat solo sparked similarly imaginative features for piano, bass and drums. Leading figures on the burgeoning Bristol and South West jazz scene the three instrumentalists impressed throughout this afternoon’s performance. 

Hughes is also accomplished at singing in other languages. Her version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Girl From Ipanema” featured the original Portugese lyrics and sounded all the better for it with Hambridge and Cordez taking the instrumental honours.

Hughes explained that “Afro Blue”, another song associated with John Coltrane, actually originated in Brazil but had English language lyrics added later. The quartet delivered an enjoyable version of the piece with Hughes singing in English as Hambridge and Cordez stretched out.

The singer named Harold Arlen’s “A Sleeping Bee” to be her favourite jazz standard. Introduced by Cordez at the bass the early stages of the tune also featured an impressive Hambridge at the piano and a whistling Hughes.I seem to recall a rather wonderful instrumental version of this song by flugel horn specialist Art Farmer.

Jobim’s “One Note Samba” concluded an enjoyable first set with Hughes again electing to sing in Portugese in addition to providing some bravura scatting.

The second set began with the newly formed Dale Hambridge Trio performing an instrumental version of the standard “What Is This Thing Called Love?” with the pianist soloing expansively and impressively.

Hughes revealed that she and the trio had only had time for the briefest of rehearsals yet they seemed to have established an almost instant rapport as a playful version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Honeysuckle Rose” proved. Introduced by Cordez at the bass the song went on to feature Hughes’ scat vocals, the singer exchanging phrases with drummer Tween in a series of entertaining scat/drum breaks. I was familiar with Tween’s playing from a rather different context. He used to work with folk/rock star Seth Lakeman but had to quit the Lakeman band after hammering away at a cajon every night on a tour caused a hand injury which still causes him difficulties. These days he deploys his versatile skills in a variety of musical contexts on an orthodox drum kit.

Hughes’ own “Take Me Away” was a second excursion into the realm of original song with the singer particularly well supported by the receptive Hambridge.

Hughes has a particular fondness for the music of George Gershwin and “Fascinating Rhythm” began with a stunning solo vocal intro with Hambridge later following on piano.

The multi-lingual vocalist then impressed by singing in French on Charles Trenet’s “I Wish You Love”. As Hughes pointed out English translations of foreign language songs are often misguided at best or clumsy at worst and in the main she prefers to deliver a song in its native tongue. The instrumentalists also excelled here as Hambridge duetted with Hughes before delivering his own lyrical solo. Cordez’s contribution embodied similar qualities, sometimes carrying the melody on the bass.

Cordez and Tween then sat out “I’ll Be Seeing You”, the duo of Hughes and Hambridge achieving an admirable intimacy after a nervous false start.

The quartet rounded the afternoon off by revisiting the Gershwin song book for a rousing version of “But Not For Me” introduced by a lively voice and drum exchange and with subsequent features for all the members of the band.

This was a highly enjoyable afternoon of music but ultimately the audience were left with a bitter sweet taste with the knowledge that this may have been one of Hughes’ last gigs as a professional jazz performer. From September she will be a full time primary school teacher in London, going back to the job she held before becoming a professional singer for twelve years. She cites the current lack of funding for jazz as one of the reasons behind her decision, allied to the less than glamorous task of administering a musical career, the performing is fun, the paperwork and hustling for gigs less so. She’ll be teaching some music but basically will be covering all the subjects in the national curriculum. Hughes’ relaxed and often amusing presentation style at gigs suggests that she’ll be a very good teacher and the education system’s gain is very much the jazz community’s loss. It will be a shame to see a singer of Hughes’ quality and calibre quit the scene. However I suspect that we haven’t quite seen the last of her. Today’s performance revealed that she still loves singing and performing, she was obviously having great musical fun with her hastily assembled Bristolian quartet. I suspect that once she’s settled into her new role there will be quite a few guest appearances on the London circuit, particularly during the school holidays! 

Good luck in your new job Sarah. The British jazz scene is going to miss you. 

Readers who want to catch Sarah before she changes careers may be interested in the performances listed below;

Tue Jun 04
6:30 pm
LONDON: Archduke
The Archduke, Southbank, London SE1 8XU

Wed Jun 05
9:00 pm
LONDON: Boisdale
Boisdale Cigar and supper club, Belgravia, London SW1W 9LX

Sun Jun 09
4:00 pm
BACKSTEP: Kings Place, London
Kings Place, London N1 9AG

Mon Jun 10
8:00 pm
LONDON: Grape and Grain
The Grape and Grain, Crystal Palace SE19 2AA

Tue Jun 11
6:30 pm
LONDON: Archduke
The Archduke, Southbank SE1 8XU

Wed Jun 12
8:30 pm
LONDON: Twickenham
On a River Boat!

Thu Jun 13
8:00 pm
LONDON: The Aleksander
The Aleksander, Twickenham, TW1 2NP

Tue Jun 18
6:30 pm
LONDON: Archduke
The Archduke, Southbank SE1 8XU

Tue Jun 25
8:00 pm
LONDON: Hope and Anchor
Hope and Anchor, Islington, London N1 1RL

Wed Jun 26
8:00 pm
Spice of Life, London

Thu Jun 27
7:00 pm
CAMBRIDGE Modern Jazz Club
Hidden Rooms, Cambridge CB5 8BA

Fri Jun 28
8:00 pm
LONDON: Blackheath Conservatoire
Blackheath Conservatoire, London SE3 9RQ

Sun Jun 30
1:00 pm
LONDON: Searcy’s
Searcy’s, London, NW1 2QP

Mon Jul 01
8:00 pm
LONDON: Ronnie Scott’s Bar
Ronnie Scott’s, London W1D 4HT

Wed Jul 03
7:30 pm
606 Club, London

Sarah would like to draw particular attention to the two “farewell” gigs with her regular London quartet at The Spice of Life on June 26th and with the vocal group Sector 7 (four singers, three instrumentalists ) at the 606 Club on July 3rd.

More information at

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