Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Shirley Smart

Shirley Smart Trio, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 19/03/2023.

Photography: Photograph sourced from [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

March 22, 2023


The exotic, richly varied & largely original music of the Shirley Smart Trio delighted the crowd & represented a triumphant conclusion to Brecon Jazz Club’s celebrations for International Women's Day.

Shirley Smart Trio, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 19/03/2023.

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

Tonight’s performance was the second gig featuring a female bandleader to be held by Brecon Jazz Club during March 2023, with both events representing a celebration of International Women’s Day.

On March 10th pianist Rachel Starritt delivered an excellent performance in the company of her trio, featuring bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Liz Exell. My review of that hugely successful and very well attended event can be found here;

There was also a pleasingly large audience for tonight’s performance, an event kindly supported by the Arts Council Wales’ Noson Allan (or Night Out) scheme. Shirley Smart is one of the UK’s leading jazz cellists and was accompanied tonight by her regular trio of pianist John Crawford and Spanish born, London based drummer / percussionist Demi Garcia Sabat.

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.

In May 2022 I was lucky enough to witness a brilliant performance by this trio, on that occasion augmented by guitarist Nicolas Meier, 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.

With fond memories of that in mind I was very much looking forward to tonight’s performance and to seeing how different it would be with just the core trio. I’ll admit that I did miss Meier’s presence but the trio of Smart, Crawford and Sabat didn’t disappoint and again delivered a terrific performance that was rewarded by a highly enthusiastic reception from the Brecon audience.

Smart 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 by the core trio of Smart, Crawford and Sabat but also included welcome guest contributions from Meier on guitar plus 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 she 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.

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.

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.

An acclaimed educator Smart held teaching posts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah before eventually returning to London where she is currently leading the London Cello Society’s “Beyond Cello” programme which incorporates workshops and performances examining the role of the cello in jazz, world music and more.

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”. Crawford and Sabat provided empathic support. Crawford is a highly versatile pianist with a thorough knowledge of various global jazz styles from African to Latin and more, while Sabat offers similar qualities behind the drums. His set up tonight included a conventional drum kit, plus cajon and various items of percussion, notably bells and strings of dried olives and dried chestnuts, all of which were deployed to produce exotic, shimmering, atmospheric sounds, adding extra colour and texture to the already rich musical mix.

Smart’s love of all kinds of Middle Eastern and North African music was demonstrated with a performance of “Halfaouine”, a tune by the Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem. The leader’s plucked cello sounded suitably oud like and the performance also featured Crawford plucking and strumming the strings of the venue’s upright acoustic piano. Sabat was featured playing the drum kit with his bare hands and making effective use of his unusual percussion. Smart then took up the bow to deliver the melody, doubling up with Crawford at the piano. Some of the leader’s bowing was startlingly aggressive with forceful striking of the strings. The original version of the piece appears on Brahem’s celebrated ECM album “Astrakan Café”, while Smart’s arrangement appears on her own “Long Story Short”. It has also been recorded by the Melange group.

Smart’s own “Waltz for an Amethyst”,  also from the “Long Story Short” album, was inspired by the music of the great French jazz accordionist Richard Galliano. A genuine ¾ waltz 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.

From the same recording Smart’s “Möbius Blues” was a cello led piece written in the blues form and was initially written during teaching ‘down time’ when a student failed to turn up for a lesson. Following Smart’s bowed theme statement Crawford delivered an authentically bluesy sounding piano solo and with Smart playing plucked cello bass and Sabat wielding brushes the group momentarily sounded almost like an orthodox jazz piano trio. This was re-enforced by Smart’s plucked cello feature, the equivalent of a bass solo, and Sabat’s series of brushed drum breaks, the equivalent of ‘trading fours’.

A visibly emotional Smart dedicated her composition “Opals” to the memory of her late grandmother on Mother’s Day.  A ballad from the “Long Story Short” album this featured the kind of melancholic, deeply resonant timbres that are often associated with the cello, with Smart’s delicate bowing augmented by Crawford’s spacious piano chording and the shimmer of Sabat’s mallets on cymbals. Crawford’s lyrical piano solo was accompanied by plucked cello and the patter of hands on drum skins.

Composed by Melange guitarist Peter Michaels and featuring on the “Via Maris” album the final tune of the first set was “Longa Kismet”, a piece based on traditional Turkish and Arabic music from the early 20th century. The Longa is a type of dance and the music was suitably vigorous with Sabat augmenting the sound of the drum kit with that of the cajon as Crawford soloed in lively fashion. Smart’s earthy but virtuosic cello solo was accompanied by the complex rhythms of Sabat’s percussion and Crawford’s hand-claps, before Sabat steered things home with a rousing drum and percussion feature. An excellent end to an exceptional first half.

Set two got off to a similarly energetic start with “Crossfire”, a piece inspired by Smart’s sometimes frightening experiences in war torn Jerusalem. This was introduced by an unaccompanied passage of bowed cello and also included a tambura like drone, possibly generated by Crawford behind the piano as I couldn’t see any live looping pedals. Sabat’s stick driven drum grooves almost introduced a hip hop element and following Crawford’s piano solo we enjoyed a lively series of exchanges between Smart’s plucked cello and Sabat’s percussive arsenal. “Crossfire” indeed.

The mood lightened with the Latin-esque “Sambuca”, another tune from the “Long Story Short” album and an uplifting piece that included a playful piano / pizzicato cello dialogue.

The musical world tour continued with “Hegel’s Muse”, actually a tango and performed here with the kind of melancholic intensity associated with the style. It’s a genre of music at which Crawford is particularly adept and he was featured here with an expansive solo before the music mutated into a more turbulent, dissonant ‘free jazz’ passage. Smart is a multi-faceted composer whose pieces embrace many unexpected twists and turns.

The Middle Eastern influence returned on a folk tune that Smart learned from hearing it on Israeli radio. Strangely nobody has been able to tell her the title of it and she now refers to it simply as “Balkan Tune”. Smart’s arrangement of the piece began with a freely structured episode featuring Smart’s percussive bowing and Crawford’s interior piano scraping before the melody kicked in with Smart picking up the bow to state the theme before soloing more expansively, her playing underscored by Crawford’s piano and the clatter of Sabat’s sticks on rims.

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 served as something of a feature for the excellent Sabat, and which also included an impressive solo from pianist Crawford.

The set concluded with the traditional Algerian tune “Ticaraca Tchoub”,  introduced by solo pizzicato cello. This was a lively piece with a catchy folk melody that prompted exuberant solos from Crawford and Smart, plus a series of vivacious exchanges between the pair. All this prompted a similarly spirited response from the irrepressible Sabat.

A rousing reception from the Brecon audience led to an encore of “Orinoco Lane”, also from the “Long Story Short” album.  A breezy, whimsical piece with bebop leanings this was introduced by a piano and drum dialogue, with Crawford and Sabat joined by plucked then bowed cello. The tune ended with a brushed drum feature from Sabat.

The exotic, richly varied and largely original music of the Shirley Smart Trio delighted an appreciative Brecon audience and represented a triumphant conclusion to Brecon Jazz Club’s celebrations for International Women’s Day. The performances by Rachel Starritt and Shirley Smart were equally brilliant in their very different ways with both women at the helm of some exceptional music making.

The success of the evening was reflected in healthy CD sales, particularly for “Long Story Short”. I treated myself to a copy of the rather more challenging “Entanglement”, an album that might not be for everybody’s ears but which makes for enjoyable and immersive listening for fans of free improvisation.

My thanks to Shirley, John and Demi for speaking with me afterwards. Crawford is currently 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 albums that are both reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann. The new album is a release that will be very keenly anticipated.

Another female artist will perform Brecon Jazz Club on April 11th 2023 when vocalist Zoe Gilby visits The Muse in the company of the Jim Barber Trio.




blog comments powered by Disqus