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Shirley Smart

Shirley Smart Trio, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 29/10/2023.

by Ian Mann

October 31, 2023


This was a brilliant show and a highly memorable event, with the trio getting one of the most rousing receptions that I’ve ever seen from a BMJ audience. Quite an evening.

Shirley Smart Trio, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 29/10/2023.

Shirley Smart – cello, John Crawford – piano, Demi Garcia Sabat – drum kit, cajon, percussion

Shirley Smart is one of the UK’s leading jazz cellists, a highly versatile musician and composer whose repertoire embraces jazz, classical and world music influences.

She has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages and I have reviewed a number of her recordings, among them her excellent 2019 album “Long Story Short”, from which much of tonight’s material was sourced. This was recorded with her regular working trio featuring pianist John Crawford and the Spanish born drummer / percussionist Demi Garcia Sabat, with guest contributions from Nicolas Meier on guitar, Orphy Robinson on vibraphone and Nikki Iles on accordion.
  Review here;

In 2022 Smart released “Zeitgeist²”, a duo recording made with pianist Robert Mitchell. The programme featured original compositions by both Mitchell and Smart in addition to pieces by Howard Skempton (born 1947) and CPE Bach (1714-88). Two of Mitchell’s pieces featured him reciting his own poetry, these having been debuted at a concert organised by vocalist Georgia Mancio at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, London in October 2019, Mitchell’s first ever narration in front of a live audience. Combining beautiful music with salient political commentary this is another hugely impressive recording and is reviewed here;

Smart has also led the appropriately named world jazz ensemble Melange and appeared on recordings by pianist/accordionist Maurizio Minardi (a Melange group member) and by violinist/vocalist Alice Zawadzki.  A review of the 2016 Melange album release “Via Maris”, the group’s second, appears elsewhere on the Jazzmann website and can be read here;

Smart and Zawadzki also work together in an all strings trio that also features bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado.

Others with whom Smart has worked include pianists Nikki Yeoh, Neil Cowley, Meg Morley, Steve Beresford and Elliot Galvin, saxophonists Binker Golding, Gilad Atzmon and Julian Siegel and guitarists Peter Michaels, Maciek Pysz, Vitor Pereira and Antonio Forcione.

Smart has also performed with fellow cellist (and vocalist) Kate Shortt as the duo Shortt and Smart.

Another duo project is her ongoing project with multi-reeds player James Arben, in which the focus is very much on free improvisation. In 2020 Smart and Arben released the album “Entanglement”, a series of nine freely improvised dialogues on the FMR record label.

April 2021 saw Smart and Sabat visiting the recording studio to record the double album “Stories”, another series of freely improvised performances. On some tracks the core duo were augmented by Arben on either flute or tenor saxophone. This recording is available via Smart’s Bandcamp page.

In 2018 Smart was part of the all female ten piece band Interchange that made its début at Cheltenham Jazz Festival under the leadership of baritone saxophonist and composer Issie Barratt. My review of that performance can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;

Other ongoing projects include the ten piece Sefiroth ensemble, led by guitarist Alex Roth, which explores the music of the Sephardic (Judeo Spanish) tradition whilst drawing on a range of other Middle Eastern and North African influences.

Meanwhile the smaller Balagan Café Band, a trio featuring guitarist Christian Miller and violinist Richard Jones, roams even further afield, taking in gypsy jazz, Argentinian tango, Balkan folk music and more. In 2018 the group released the album “The Balagan Cafe Band” on the F-ire Presents imprint and tonight’s set list included three pieces that feature on that recording.

Sawa, a trio with Iraqi born vocalist Alya Al-Sultani and pianist Clemens Poetsczh improvises around Iraqi and Arabic folk themes and released an eponymous EP in 2016.

Smart’s back story is a fascinating one. Classically trained at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama under Raphael Wallfisch and in Paris with Janos Starker she relocated to Jerusalem in 1989. Although initially intending to stay for a year Smart remained in the city for a full decade, fully immersing herself in the diverse range of musics to be heard in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.

A chance meeting in a Jerusalem restaurant led to Smart joining the Moroccan jazz fusion group Sound of the Ground and she subsequently became a part of several other musical projects and ensembles playing a variety of Middle Eastern and North African musics and touring extensively throughout those regions.  Among those with whom she worked are the well known Israeli musicians Avishai Cohen and Omer Avital (both bassists and composers) plus singer and songwriter Yasmin Levy.  She has also performed with the veteran Ethiopian vibraphonist, percussionist and bandleader Mulato Astatke, the father of Ethio-jazz. It was with Astatke’s band that she first worked with Arben, Astatke’s saxophonist and musical director.

Smart’s latest project is the quartet Bezique, inspired her love of swing and gypsy jazz. The group’s repertoire features music by Django Reinhardt, Richard Galliano, Bireli Lagrene and Richard Galliano in addition to original compositions by members of the band. The line up includes accordionist Miek Guy, guitarist Peter Michaels and bassist Marcus Penrose. The new quartet made its live debut at London’s Toulouse Lautrec venue on 27th October 2023, just two days before this Abergavenny gig.

An acclaimed educator Smart held teaching posts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah before eventually returning to London where she lead the London Cello Society’s “Beyond Cello” programme which incorporated workshops and performances examining the role of the cello in jazz, world music and more. She has recently taken up teaching positions as Professor of Musicianship and Improvisation at the Royal College of Music, and also a post at Trinity working on their new Popular Music Performance course.

On the morning after tonight’s gig in Abergavenny she had to catch the 7.00 am train back to London for a 10.00 am teaching engagement at the Royal College of Music. Such is the busy life of the freelance jazz musician.

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen Smart’s trio performing live on two previous occasions. In May 2022 Smart, Crawford and Sabat, augmented by guitarist Nicolas Meier, gave a brilliant performance at Clun Valley Jazz in Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire. I attended that particular event as a paying customer so there is no review, but take my word for it it was a terrific gig.

In May 2023 the core trio visited Brecon Jazz Club and gave another superb performance, one witnessed by Debs Hancock of Black Mountain Jazz, who was so impressed that she was determined to bring the group to Abergavenny. My review of the Brecon performance, from which much of the above biographical has been sourced can be found here;

Tonight’s performance included many of the pieces that had been played in Brecon, but in no way did this detract from my enjoyment of the evening. Meanwhile the many ‘first timers’ at a Shirley Smart gig were simply astounded by what they saw and heard – in a good way I should add. They were astonished and delighted both by the virtuosity of Smart’s playing and the sheer versatility of the cello as a musical instrument.

Smart’s experiences in the Middle East have had a profound effect on her music making and her playing this evening was infused with these influences. She is a phenomenal technician who moves seamlessly between arco and pizzicato techniques, as she demonstrated on the opening tune “Sawa”, the title derived from the Arabic word for “Good Morning”. Smart shared the solos with Crawford, who was playing the Melville’s upright acoustic piano. Crawford is also a versatile and highly accomplished musician with a thorough knowledge of international piano styles. He has a particular affinity for Cuban and other Latin American music but is equally at home as a member of this long running trio.
Recorded by Smart for the “Long Story Short” album “Halfouine” was written by the great oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem and named for his home town in Tunisia. Smart’s plucked cello sounded remarkably oud like and the performance also featured Crawford plucking and strumming the strings of the piano. Sabat’s percussive rustlings and cymbal scrapes were featured on the atmospheric intro before he later switched to cajon to provide an impressive rhythmic momentum as Smart soloed with the bow. The original version of this piece appears on Brahem’s celebrated ECM album “Astrakan Café” and it has also been recorded by the Melange group.

Also from the “Long Story Short” album Smart’s “Waltz for an Amethyst”  was inspired by the music of the great French jazz accordionist Richard Galliano. A genuine ¾ waltz, but played at a fast pace,  it saw the composer combining arco and pizzicato techniques, playing the melody with the bow but delivering a plucked solo. The impressive Crawford was also featured as a soloist.

“Möbius Blues” is a Smart composition that appears both on “Long Story Short” and on the Balagan Cafe Band album.  Propelled by Sabat’s vigorously brushed drum grooves it included a second plucked cello solo, but also saw Smart soloing with the bow. Crawford again impressed as a soloist and the piece concluded with a drum feature from the brilliant Sabat as he exchanged ideas with Smart and Crawford, a trading of fours that represented the most conventional ‘jazz’ moment thus far.

Also from the “Long Story Short” album “Opals” takes its title from an opal ring given to Smart by her late grandmother, the inspiration coming from the light reflections inside the gemstone. This was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano, subsequently augmented by Smart’s cello atmospherics and the shimmer of Sabat’s mallets on cymbals.  A gently keening cello melody then emerged, followed by a lyrical piano solo, while Sabat continued in his role of colourist.

Smart’s composition “Zrika”, the title the Hebrew word for “Sunrise” returned us to the Middle East and was a piece that had something of the feel of a traditional folk tune. This was a highly rhythmic piece, again introduced by Crawford at the piano and with Smart moving between pizzicato and arco techniques as the tune accelerated. Smart dedicated the tune to “Hope for Peace in the Middle East”, a sentiment heartily endorsed by the Abergavenny audience.

The first set concluded with  “Longa Kismet”, a tune written by Melange guitarist Peter Michaels that appears on both the “Via Maris” and “Long Story Short” albums. Inspired by  traditional Turkish and Arabic music from the early 20th century and written in the rondo form this piece had an authentically Middle Eastern feel and featured Sabat on cajon and other hand played percussion. Crawford took the first solo on piano before handing over to Smart, her vigorous cello solo incorporating both plucked and bowed sounds, these augmented by the sounds of Crawford and Sabat’s hand claps. Finally Sabat closed things out with a stunning hand drumming feature that delighted the Abergavenny audience and drew whoops of delight from the crowd. A brilliant way to round off an exciting, absorbing and brilliantly played first set.

Given the current situation in Israel and Gaza Smart chose not to announce the title of the opening tune of the second set. From the “Long Story Short” album “Crossfire” was  inspired by Smart’s sometimes frightening experiences in war torn Jerusalem. It was introduced here by a passage of unaccompanied cello, subsequently joined by Crawford’s second excursion into the interior of the piano.  The addition of Sabat’s drums saw the pace of the music accelerate,  with oud like plucked cello featuring amongst the complex Middle Eastern rhythms. Crawford’s piano solo was followed by a spirited dialogue between Smart’s cello, variously plucked and strummed, and Sabat on a mix of drum kit, cajon and percussion, this series of animated exchanges perhaps representing the “Crossfire” of the title.

From the same album “Sambuca”, simply named after Smart’s favourite drink (although she’s partial to red wine too), introduced something of a Latin flavour and again featured Sabat on cajon. The piece was most notable for the dialogue between cello and piano as Sabat temporarily sat out.

Hitherto the performance had followed exactly the same pattern as Brecon but a new tune was introduced with “Longing”, a Smart composition based around the slow Arabic rhythm known as Samai. The audience were even encouraged to clap along with it, not easy due to its unfamiliarity to Western European ears. It proved to be a hauntingly beautiful piece with Crawford taking the first solo on piano, followed by Smart whose cello feature included oud like plucking followed by deeply emotive bowing. The audience was transfixed.

Recorded on both the “Long Story Short” and “The Balagan Cafe Band” albums “Balkan Tune” is
 a folk tune that Smart learned from hearing it on Israeli radio. She never did get to learn its title but she believes it to be Macedonian in origin. It’s been a vital part of her live sets for a long time, and in the spirit of jazz every performance is different.  Tonight’s version was introduced by a cello / percussion dialogue with Crawford added as Smart eventually began to play the melody. Subsequent solos came from Crawford and Smart, the momentum of the music building with Sabat an increasingly animated presence behind them.

From the “Long Story Short” album the tune “Tetouan” was named for a town in northern Morocco where Smart used to perform with a ‘string trio’ that also featured the sounds of the oud and the buzuk. This was a lively piece that included solos from Crawford on piano and Smart on bowed cello. It was also something of a showcase for Sabat who rounded things off with a rousing drum feature.

The set concluded with the traditional Algerian tune “Ticaraca Tchoub”,  a piece recorded on “Long Story Short” and also “The Balagan Cafe Band”. A plucked cello introduction led to a lively, folk like melody that inspired exuberant solos from Crawford and Smart, plus a series of vivacious exchanges between the pair. This provoked a similarly spirited response from the irrepressible Sabat.

The brilliance of the trio’s performance elicited a rare standing ovation from the Abergavenny audience and the trio returned to play the only jazz standard of the night, a version of “All The Things You Are”. This was performed in the trio’s unique style and included solos from Crawford on piano and Smart on cello, first plucked, in an approximation of a jazz double bass solo, and then bowed. Sabat added a brushed drum feature.

After the show audience members were raving about this gig and CD sales were correspondingly brisk. A young cello player in the audience remarked that Smart’s extraordinary playing had totally changed the way he thought about his instrument. This truly was a life changing performance.

On occasions the group is extended to a sextet with the addition of trumpeter Tim Quicke, saxophonist James Arben and bassist Michele Montoli and it is intended for there to eventually be a recording made in this format.
Let’s hope that this comes to fruition and that there will also be some live shows featuring this expanded line up.

Meanwhile Crawford has been working on a new solo album, a follow up to 2016’s “Times and Tides” and 2013’s “Ulia River of Time”, two hugely enjoyable recordings that are both reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann. It is intended that the new album will be released in early 2024, which is something to look forward to.

My thanks to John and Shirley for speaking with me after the show and to Shirley for gifting me CD copies of the “Stories” and “Balagan Cafe Band” releases, which have been playing as I write. Both make absorbing and fascinating listening, with the Balagan Cafe Band the more immediately accessible. But there’s much to enjoy on “Stories” too, particularly for listeners more attuned to the free jazz / improv end of the jazz spectrum.

The trio had experienced horrific traffic problems on the M4 on the way to the gig, but I hope they thought it was all worth it. This was a brilliant show and a highly memorable event, with the trio getting one of the most ecstatic receptions that I’ve ever seen from a BMJ audience. Quite an evening.




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