by Ian Mann
May 23, 2018
"An excellent evening of adventurous music making that exceeded expectations". Ian Mann on the music of Sheek Quartet, an exciting new group co-led by vocalist Sarah Meek and pianist Guy Shotton.
Sheek Quartet, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 20/05/2018.
Cardiff based pianist Guy Shotton has become a popular visitor to Black Mountain Jazz following several successful performances at the venue. In 2016 he performed a duo set in the bar area of the Melville Centre with vocalist Debs Hancock as part of that year’s Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. This relaxed and good natured standards based performance was very well received by the Festival audience and led to Shotton being invited back in March 2017 to lead his own project at one of BMJ’s regular club nights.
This proved to be a busy but very successful event for Shotton who performed another standards based set in the first half with vocalist Sarah Meek. This was followed by an adventurous exploration of a further set of jazz and bebop staples by a trio featuring Shotton, double bass virtuoso Ashley John Long and drummer Bob Richards. This was a well attended event that elicited a very positive response from the audience and my account of that evening can be read here;
After this triumph it seemed inevitable that Shotton would be back at BMJ again and indeed he returned the following month, renewing his partnership with Hancocks in a set that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald. That duo set opened a show that also included a performance from violinist/vocalist Azhaar Saffar and her band and my review of both performances can be read here;
Shotton subsequently toured with Hancock’s “Ella at 100” show as part of an expanded line up, the Jazz Dragons, featuring bassist Erica Lyons.
In September 2017 the pianist reprised his duo with Meek as the pair performed another standards based duo set in the bar as part of the Wall2Wall Festival, one which again was very well received.
The obvious rapport between the pianist and vocalist has encouraged them to explore more deeply, tackling challenging and lesser known material and expanding to their group to a quartet. With a band name formed from an amalgam of those of the co-leaders the recently assembled Sheek Quartet features two other South Wales based musicians, double bassist Nick Kacal and drummer Alex Goodyear, the latter still a student at Cardiff’s Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD).
Shotton himself is an alumnus of the RWCMD, having graduated from the College in 2013. He has remained in the city and quickly established himself as a busy, versatile and very welcome presence on the South Wales jazz scene. He 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 drummer Bob Richards also run a regular jazz jam session in nearby Usk.
Cheshire born vocalist Meek gained a Masters Degree in Jazz Performance from the RWCMD 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 in tonight’s performance.
The experienced Kacal made his name on the London jazz scene before moving to the Valleys town of Mountain Ash. He has collaborated with saxophonist Greg Heath, vocalist Gabrielle Ducomble, guitarist John Etheridge and pianist Alex Hutton among others. Also an accomplished recording engineer he represents a significant and very welcome addition to the jazz scene in South Wales.
Tonight was only the second outing for the newly convened Sheek Quartet following an earlier appearance in Cardiff. They began slightly tentatively, and understandably so, but any early nervousness was quickly forgotten as the band immersed themselves ever more deeply in the highly adventurous music that they had chosen. We had been promised a diverse programme but what we heard, particularly during a daring first set, was far wider ranging than I had imagined.
Kacal and Shotton introduced the first number, a setting of Claude Debussy’s “Reverie” with an arrangement and lyrics by Larry Clinton. The melodic interplay between Shotton and Kacal was an early highlight with the bassist producing the first of many outstanding solos. Meek deployed wordless vocals as well as singing Clinton’s lyrics on this audacious and unexpected opener. The choice was perhaps apposite, referencing Shotton’s classical background in addition to honouring Debussy in the centenary year of the composer’s death.
Another, but very different, example of ‘vocalese’ followed with an arrangement of the late, great Kenny Kirkland’s “Dienda” with its evocative, New York located lyrics, the words written by Sting, in whose band pianist Kirkland once played. Tonight’s performance was introduced by Meek and Shotton with a timely reminder of the effectiveness of their original duo. Again the singer moved between narrative and wordless vocalising while Kacal added another marvellously melodic bass solo. His fluency, dexterity and sheer tunefulness as a bass soloist was a highlight of the evening and rivalled Ashley John Long at his best. Sporting a cool and distinctive Panama hat he looked the part too.
The little known Lerner & Loewe song “Another Autumn” represented the first dip into the ‘Great American Songbook’ repertoire, although better known ‘standards’ were to surface in the second set. This was delivered in more conventional fashion as an orthodox jazz ballad with Meek singing the verses before handing over to Shotton at the keyboard for the first solo. Shotton deployed a convincing acoustic piano sound all evening and was aided by Goodyear, here deploying a combination of sticks and brushes, in something of a colourist’s role.
With words and music by Meek “Waves” was a convincing foray into the realm of original writing. Ushered in by Kacal’s bass this was a wide ranging piece that embraced a variety of musical and vocal characteristics ranging from the sunny Brazilian stylings of Meek’s singing and Shotton’s solo to the deep sea sonics of the atmospheric concluding dialogue between double bass and drums, with the neat and tidy Goodyear again excelling as both commentator and colourist.
An arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” took the music back into orthodox jazz territory via Meek’s quick fire vocalising, and the subsequent vivacious scat and piano exchanges above the shifting rhythmic patterns generated by Kacal and Goodyear.
A vocal setting of Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” closed the first set. Tonight’s version was introduced by a brilliant solo drum passage from Goodyear, a flamboyant display featuring hand-claps, bass drum and hi-hat only, with Shotton and Kacal joining the fray before the drummer eventually picked up his sticks. As the piece developed something of a Latin feel Meek delivered Silver’s lyrics, dedicated to the “Jazz Baroness”, Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the aristocratic patron of Silver, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and many other bebop musicians. Shotton soloed here at the piano and this was followed by a further series of scintillating scat exchanges between Meek and Shotton with Kacal and Goodyear providing appropriate support. An excellent way to conclude a consistently intriguing and entertaining first half.
The second set was less adventurous in terms of the material selected than the first had been but there was no let up in the quality of the performances with the quartet continuing to stretch the fabric of even the most familiar pieces. Kacal and Goodyear set the scene for “The Lamp Is Low” and closed it with an engaging bass and brushed drums dialogue. In between we heard Meek’s compelling interpretation of the lyrics plus a typically absorbing piano solo from Shotton.
Meek dedicated an emotive reading of “I fall In Love To Easily” to the jazz divas who had inspired her with Kacal’s melodic bass solo and Shotton’s jazz lyricism at the piano providing the instrumental highlights.
“Light” was Shotton’s setting of Maurice Ravel’s “Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn” with lyrics written by Peter Burrows, a friend of Meek’s. Introduced by a passage of unaccompanied double bass this was a beautifully lyrical and melodic piece with Meek delivering an effective reading of the lyrics with mellifluous instrumental solos coming from Kacal and Shotton. I suspect that this piece may also have been performed at the duo’s most recent visit to Abergavenny in September 2017.
Bass and drums introduced a brooding version of “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” with Meek’s emotive vocal bringing out the full darkness of the lyrics. As the piece progressed the mood became more relaxed and swinging before concluding with a further dialogue between double bass and brushed drums with Goodyear again impressing with his colourist skills and exquisite cymbal work.
For many present this evening the performance reached a pinnacle with a splendid rendition of “Moonlight In Vermont” which saw every member of the quartet at the peak of their game. Introduced by a dialogue between piano and drums the piece included an effective interpretation of the evocative lyrics, rich in the imagery of nature, from Meek. This was followed by swinging but melodic solos from Kacal and Shotton plus some scintillating interplay between all three instrumentalists. Terrific stuff.
Almost as fine was a breezy romp through Chick Corea’s “High Wire”, the song a kind of musical cousin to the earlier and better known “500 Miles High”. “High Wire” was written for Chaka Khan but Meek sounded more like Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim who sang on “500 Miles”. Meanwhile Shotton and Kacal provided the instrumental highlights.
The evening concluded with that most familiar of songs, “Georgia On My Mind” with the duo of Meek and Shotton offering a reminder of the quartet’s origins with an extended duo introduction before Kacal and Goodyear gradually eased their way into the proceedings.
Despite an overwhelmingly favourable audience reaction there was to be no encore, despite the promptings of MC Debs Hancock. At this early stage of the quartet’s career I suspect that they may have exhausted their current supply of material but nobody could really complain after two lengthy, value for money sets crammed with good, and consistently interesting music.
I was impressed by the individual contributions of each member of Sheek Quartet, but even more importantly I was impressed by the way they came together as a BAND. Even this early stage of its existence this was a highly interactive configuration that was far more than ‘singer plus backing trio’. There was a real sense of a group of musicians willing to dive deep into some adventurous and unusual material and really push themselves.
After the show Shotton explained that most of tonight’s arrangements had been worked out by the group in jams and rehearsals and even on the stand, true collaborative efforts rather then just something the pianist or singer had brought in. I sensed that this was a unit with genuine potential and with a greater emphasis on original material and an eventual recording date the next natural steps for Sheek Quartet.
Black Mountain Jazz has acquired a reputation for presenting adventurous vocal jazz with previous visitors for either Club or Festival dates including Emily Saunders and Sarah Ellen Hughes, two singers similar in style to Meek. Add the names of Sarah Gillespie, Zoe Gilby, Zoe Schwarz and Emily Wright of Moonlight Saving Time to that list and you have a pretty impressive and varied line up.
Once again I predict return visits to BMJ from all of tonight’s musicians, whether with Sheek Quartet or with other projects. This was an excellent evening of music making that exceeded expectations.
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