by Ian Mann
March 27, 2017
A hugely enjoyable evening of music making with all four of the performers on the night acquitting themselves superbly.
Sarah Meek / Guy Shotton Trio, Black Mountain Jazz, The Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 26/03/2017.
Since settling in Cardiff pianist Guy Shotton has been busy establishing an increasingly impressive reputation on the South Wales jazz scene.
In 2016 Shotton played a short interval set as part a duo with vocalist Debs Hancock in the bar area at the Melville Centre as part of BMJ’s annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. It was a performance that elicited my comment;
“with Shotton having made many new friends tonight it’s possible that he’ll soon be making a return visit to Abergavenny as part of the BMJ club programme”.
Tonight that prediction came true as Shotton returned to play a hugely enjoyable set with a new trio featuring two more of South Wales’ finest, bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Bob Richards. Prior to this he also accompanied the young Cardiff based singer Sarah Meek as the duo played a a similarly pleasurable half hour standards set.
It represented a busy night’s work for Shotton, but a highly successful one, at one of best attended club nights for some time. There was excellent support for these local heroes (and heroine) with BMJ organiser Mike Skilton declaring himself delighted with the audience turn out. The supportive, listening crowd helped to ensure that the performers gave of their best and, for me, this was an event that pleasingly exceeded my initial expectations.
SARAH MEEK / GUY SHOTTON DUO
Cheshire born vocalist Sarah Meek gained a Masters Degree in Jazz Performance from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and decided that she liked the Welsh capital so much that she wanted to keep living and working in the city. Meek is a versatile vocalist who ‘earns a crust’ singing with pop, soul, blues, folk and function bands but her first love is jazz and that was very much in evidence throughout the course of this short, but enjoyable standards based set.
Meek is also an accomplished pianist who accompanies herself at the keyboard for solo shows but tonight she chose to utilise the services of Shotton, allowing her to concentrate on the tasks of singing and providing a centre stage presence. Neither musician used sheet music or lyrical cues, an impressive feat that revealed their shared knowledge and deep love of this music.
The bluesy opener “Black Coffee” featured a compelling vocal performance as Meek invested the lyrics with a convincing degree of emotion. Meanwhile Shotton deployed a classic electric piano sound on his Nord keyboard and provided the first of many excellent instrumental solos.
The mood lightened with a breezy rendition of Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone” which featured Meek’s scatting abilities in a series of voice and piano exchanges.
Introduced by a passage of solo piano from Shotton the duo’s moving version of the classic ballad “Body and Soul” offered further insight into Meek’s real talent for jazz vocal phrasing.
Similar qualities were also apparent in the vocalese version of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” which also gave Meek another opportunity to demonstrate her scatting abilities. I later asked Meek, about the provenance of the lyrics; they weren’t hers and she wasn’t sure who had written them but she liked the contrast between the sadness of the lovelorn words and the innate exuberance of Parker’s tune. As far as I can ascertain this set of lyrics was written by one Eddie Jefferson and the song was subsequently recorded by Carmen McRae, it may well have been her version that inspired Meek to add it to her own repertoire. An alternative set of words, by Anthony Proveaux, eulogises Parker himself.
The set closed with a slow, bluesy version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia”, introduced by a passage of solo piano from Shotton and featuring Meek’s deep, soulful vocals.
Regular readers of the Jazzmann will know that as a general rule I prefer instrumental jazz to the vocal variety but I have to say that I rather enjoyed this and was very impressed by Sarah Meek’s performance which combined expressiveness with an impressive technical ability. Shotton also impressed at the piano, his instrumental solos promising much for the trio session to come.
GUY SHOTTON TRIO
Like his vocal partner Shotton is also an alumnus of the RWCMD having graduated in 2013. Shotton has performed extensively in the UK and abroad and is also known as a music educator offering private piano tuition and also serving as Assistant Musical Director to the Bristol Hippodrome Choir. He and Richards also run a regular jam session in nearby Usk.
Shotton’s trio teamed him with bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Bob Richards, two leading figures on the South Wales jazz scene. The pianist had worked with both musicians before but never together, and although Long and Richards already knew each other it was still the first time that this trio had actually performed together.
With this in mind it perhaps came as no surprise to find that the trio concentrated entirely on music drawn from the standards repertoire. However a series of imaginative Shotton arrangements allied to high standard of musicianship ensured that the trio very much put their own stamp on the selected material, breathing new life into, and finding something fresh and inventive to say, about even the most familiar of pieces.
Take for instance the opening “Autumn Leaves”, one of the most played tunes in the jazz canon, but one that still managed to sound fresh and imaginative thanks to the combination of swing and funk grooves combined with some inspired soloing with Shotton going first, followed by Long and finally Richards with a series of brushed drum breaks.
One of the lesser known pieces was “Why Try To Change Me Now?” written by Cy Coleman, best known as the composer of “Witchcraft”. Introduced by Shotton at the piano the solo order remained the same with Richards again deploying brushes and with Shotton and Long also enjoying a series of spirited piano and bass exchanges. From the outset it was clear that the trio were having great fun as they explored this shared musical language. A sense of fun and adventure imbued the entire performance, something encouraged by the reaction of an appreciative and attentive audience.
John Coltrane’s dedication to bassist Paul Chambers, “Mr P.C.” saw Richards switching to sticks as the trio adopted a more robust approach. Interestingly this was the second time that I’d seen Long perform this tune in a week, he’d played at the Queens Head in Monmouth the previous Wednesday as part of the Coltrane Dedication band co-led by saxophonists Lyndon Owen and Caractacus Downes. And of course the hugely in demand bassist had been at BMJ the previous month as part of pianist Dave Jones’ quartet.
Coltrane also inspired the next selection, an arrangement of the tune “Nancy With The Laughing Face” based on Coltrane’s recording of the ballad. Here Richards moved back to brushes and Shotton chose a more obviously ‘acoustic’ piano sound as he soloed in expansive but lyrical fashion. Long’s melodic bass solo was also a thing of beauty. Also a highly accomplished classical bassist specialising in the music of the baroque Long is one of the finest bass soloists around, combining a phenomenal technique with a real sense of form and structure. Long is also active in the world of free jazz but an Ashley John long bass solo is never boring or an exercise in technique for its own sake - when he’s on a gig you actually look forward to the bass solos.
This was proved by the solo bass introduction to that most familiar of standards, “All The Things You Are”. Long’s stunning intro incorporated dramatic flamenco style strumming and utilised the full range of his instrument - even the sound of police sirens outside the venue seemed to become a part of it. He played the main melody on the four strings before laying down a groove that encouraged Shotton to take over the melodic responsibilities. Shotton’s own solo culminated in a series of thrillingly humorous exchanges with Richards. Set up to face each other the pianist and drummer sparked off each other all night and clearly relished the opportunity of playing together.
For the remainder of the set the trio concentrated on tunes associated with Duke Ellington. What Shotton described as “a quirky arrangement” of “Take The A-Train” combined the familiar melody with a contemporary, hip hop influenced drum groove which mutated into a more conventional swing feel during Shotton’s solo. Richards and Long also enjoyed solo features before another set of exchanges between Shotton and Richards that saw them delighting the crowd once more with their shared musical humour.
The Ellington ballad “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” featured a solo piano introduction that saw Shotton audaciously balancing the lyricism with some harsh, electronic textures. Long, a master of arco bass, began his solo with rich, dark, sonorous bowing and later entered into a dialogue with Shotton that saw the bassist deploying both pizzicato and arco techniques.
Finally came Shotton’s arrangement of “Caravan” powered by Long’s insistent bass motif and featuring Shotton deploying an electric piano sound reminiscent of Ray Manzarek on the Doors’ “Riders On The Storm”. Suitably flamboyant solos from Long and Richards brought the set to a close but the audience reaction, plus the coaxing of Debs Hancock, who had MCd the evening,
soon brought them back.
The encore was a romp through “C Jam Blues” incorporating more virtuoso bass soloing from Long and a further series of fun exchanges between Shotton and Richards that brought grins to the faces of musicians and audience members alike.
“I promise you this won’t be the last time this trio plays together” declared Hancock, and I think she may well be right. The three musicians seemed to strike up an immediate chemistry and that easy rapport seemed to transmit itself to the audience. Shotton is also a writer and when I spoke to him after the show he expressed an interest in performing some of his own compositions with this trio, let’s hope he’s able to make that happen.
In the meantime this was a hugely enjoyable evening of music making with all four of the performers on the night acquitting themselves superbly. The material may have been familiar but the way in which it was approached ensured that the evening was both interesting and entertaining – always the best combination. With the help of the crowd this was a highly successful EVENT, one that turned out to be far better than initially anticipated.
Once again I suspect that this won’t be the last time Guy Shotton visits Black Mountain Jazz.