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Starlings, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 12/03/2023.

by Ian Mann

March 15, 2024


Starlings’ good natured, high energy performance had clearly delighted the audience. The band’s selection of covers was unusual & often inspired and I was also highly impressed by their originals.

Starlings, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 12/03/2023

Emma Holbrook – drums, Sophie Stockham – tenor saxophone, Ruth Hammond – keyboard, Lisa Cherian – congas, percussion

Brecon Jazz Club’s March event featured the Bristol based quartet Starlings, a co-operative ensemble notionally led by drummer Emma Holbrook, who handled all the on stage announcements and who acted as the contact point for BJC promoters Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon.

Tonight’s performance represented a return to Brecon for both Ruth Hammond and Lisa Cherian, who had previously performed at different editions of Brecon Jazz Festival with the bands Jingu Bang (2021) and  K’Chevere (2022) respectively. Both of these performances are reviewed as part of my Festival coverage elsewhere on this site.

Saxophonist Sophie Stockham has featured on the Jazzmann web pages as a member of the bands Dakhla Brass and Sefrial and also a solo artist with the release of her debut album “Ria” in 2022.
Review here;

It’s slightly ironic that Holbrook should be the only musician whose playing I wasn’t already familiar with. Originally from Taunton Holbrook is a highly versatile musician and plays with a wide variety of artists across a similarly broad variety of musical genres. This is a characteristic shred by all four members of Starlings, all of whom are phenomenally busy musicians, performing right across the musical spectrum.

The Starlings quartet was formed in 2018 with the band playing a variety of jazz, funk and Latin covers. In recent years they have begun writing their own material with both Stockham and Hammond bringing in tunes that are subsequently developed by the whole group. A number of these have been recorded and released on Spotify. Tonight’s show included a couple of these, plus some more recent compositions that were receiving their world premieres.

Holbrook kickstarted the evening at the drum kit, joined first by Cherian’s congas and then by the clarion call of Stockham’s tenor sax and finally by Hammond’s Nord Stage keyboard on an electric piano setting. This first tune proved to be a Latin-ised arrangement of the Bud Powell composition “Buster Rides Again”. Hammond took the first solo on electric piano, followed by Stockham on earthy, r & b style tenor sax. On my previous sighting of Stockham she has been specialising on alto sax, but she is equally accomplished on the larger tenor. Holbrook rounded things off with a powerful drum feature. An excellent start.

The first original of the evening was Stockham’s “Searching for Grey”, introduced by a passage of unaccompanied tenor sax that saw Stockham sketching a folkish melody, this subsequently augmented by a relaxed groove as Stockham expounded airily on the theme. Hammond’s electric piano solo was followed by a passage with the group in trio mode – sax, drums and percussion. Apparently the recorded version of the piece features a string arrangement, the use of strings having also been a key characteristic of Stockham’s “Ria” album.

A particularly popular item was the quartet’s cover of the song “Funky Duck” by the American funk band Vulfpeck. This was distinguished by Hammond’s deployment of a funky, clavinet sound and Cherian’s use of a variety of small percussive devices. Stockham’s tenor solo was punchy and hard hitting and the performance concluded with an exuberant drum and percussion workout featuring Holbrook and Cherian. The audience loved it.

Another cover followed in the form of “Professor Knowhow” by Medeski, Martin & Wood. This saw Hammond changing to an acoustic piano setting for an unaccompanied keyboard introduction, subsequently augmented by Holbrook’s cymbal shimmers and the rustle of Cherian’s percussion. The music then began to gather momentum, adopting more a blues / funk feel with Stockham’s tenor sax solo followed by Hammond, still on ‘acoustic’ piano. Hammond’s solo was enhanced by Cherian’s percussive commentary, the latter adding an array of quirky sounds from a veritable battery of small percussion instruments, these including the distinctive noise of the flexitone. Cherian plays percussion with a number of Latin bands based in the South West of England, among them K’Chevere, Dockside Latin Orchestra and Brass Junkies, the last named of these also featuring Hammond.

The first set concluded with two original compositions, both named for specific locations. “Arnos” takes its title from the Arnos Vale area of Bristol and featured a slinky, seductive groove generated by the combination of Cherian’s congas and Holbrook’s brushed drums, with a series of sax and keyboard exchanges further enhanced by Cherian’s deployment of an array of small percussion.

“Amsterdam” may have been named for a city in the Netherlands but in spirit it was closer to Havana with Hammond’s Afro-Cuban style ‘acoustic’ piano at the heart of the arrangement. Stockham’s tenor sax solo was followed by Hammond at the piano, who then underpinned the drum and percussion workout that ensured that the first set concluded on an energetic note.

The second half saw Starlings upping the energy levels even further during the course of what they described as their “dance set”. Indeed live footage of the band on the group’s Facebook page offers evidence that audience members do indeed get up and dance at gigs at numerous Bristol venues, where audiences tend to be a little younger than the usual Brecon Jazz Club crowd. That’s not to say that the Brecon audience, who did remain seated, were in any way unappreciative of Starlings’ excellent efforts.

Once again things commenced with the sounds of drums and congas as the band launched into a lively take on Louis Jordan’s “Run Joe” with Stockham and Hammond entering into a series of vivacious sax and organ exchanges before embarking on their individual solos. A joyous opener concluded with the sights and sounds of another drums / percussion workout.

The original “Ray” (as in ‘of light’) is featured on the band’s Spotify EP. This featured the tight, unison riffing of all the band members before Stockham’s tenor solo was underpinned by Hammond’s organ bass lines. Stockham’s sax vamp then underpinned a drum and percussion feature that saw the band temporarily pared down to a trio and Cherian making effective use of variously pitched cow bells. Hammond then returned to deliver an organ solo that managed to squeeze in a quote from Gershwin’s “Summertime”, to general amusement all round. And of course Holbrook couldn’t resist the obvious “Ruth Hammond on Hammond” joke!

A contender for the “most unusual cover of the evening award” was the St. Vincent song “Marrow”. Starlings got to play the Bandstand at Glastonbury Festival in 2022 and one of the acts that they subsequently got to see on the main stage was St. Vincent, an experience that clearly inspired them. This was a tune with plenty of twists and turns, taking in an arpeggiated sax and keyboard intro, a harder hitting central section and plenty of variety in terms of pace and dynamics. The performance incorporated a tenor solo from Stockham and a drum and percussion episode.

Next up was the first public performance of “Klaum”, a group original that was recorded with the band also deploying a range of electronica. Tonight we were treated to the ‘acoustic’ version, albeit one that still incorporated the chunky riffing of electric piano allied to an almost ‘free jazz’ collective episode. This was followed by a hard grooving passage featuring drums, percussion and a combination of electric piano and organ sounds, above which Stockham’s soaring tenor sax took flight.

Next up was what the band described as a “jazzy, funky” arrangement of the Louis Cole song “Weird Part of the Night”, introduced by a combination of drums, sax and keyboard, with Cherian’s congas subsequently added to the equation. Stockham’s sax melodies were followed by a drum and percussion feature and then by a searing synth solo from Hammond.

The performance concluded with another unusual cover courtesy of an arrangement of the Harry Belafonte song “Jump In The Line”, which has come to recent prominence due to its inclusion in the film Beetlejuice. The calypso rhythms transported the audience to the Caribbean, no mean feat on a drizzly Tuesday night in March in Brecon. Hammond’s ‘acoustic’ piano solo was followed by a final series of effervescent drum and percussion exchanges that left the audience baying for more.

The deserved encore was a cover of the Lee Dorsey song “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky”, introduced by an extended solo drum introduction from the impressive Holbrook. This was a performance that reflected the tune title with Hammond adopting a soulful, gospel influenced organ sound as she shared the solos with Stockham’s powerful, hard hitting tenor. It was then left to the percussive axis of Holbrook and Cherian to bring an exciting and entertaining evening to a close.

Starlings’  good natured, high energy performance had clearly charmed and delighted the Brecon audience. Holbrook had proved to be a witty and entertaining interlocutor between tunes while the standard of the playing had been excellent throughout. The band’s selection of covers was unusual and often inspired and I was also highly impressed by the standard of the original writing, which must surely represent the way forward for Starlings.

My thanks to all the band members for speaking with me afterwards. A highly entertaining evening all round and it will be interesting to see what Starlings do in the future.

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