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Swing Style Quartet

Swing Style Quartet, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 11/12/2018.


by Ian Mann

December 19, 2018


A good natured performance from four excellent local musicians who delivered their chosen material with skill, wit and charm, all impressing with the quality of their soloing.


The final Brecon Jazz Club event of 2018 took place in a very festive looking Muse and featured a quartet of well known and popular musicians from the South Wales jazz scene.

Dubbing themselves the Swing Style Quartet this was a one off aggregation featuring musicians who had all worked with one another before, but never in this particular configuration.

The quartet was fronted by violinist Heulwen Thomas who, at the suggestion of Brecon Jazz Club’s Lynne Gornall, recruited guitarist Mike Frost, pianist Gareth Hall and bassist Donnie Joe Sweeney to form something of a regional ‘supergroup’.

A great friend of Brecon Jazz Festival Thomas has previously fronted the ensembles Five Go Swing and Hot Club Gallois and is currently a member of Sweeney’s American Swing group, which features the US born Sweeney on guitar and vocals.

Hall also plays in the American Swing band and is a prolific sideman on the South Wales jazz scene who has played with vocalist Debs Hancock, trumpeter Ben Thomas and saxophonists Martha Skilton, Tamasin Reardon and Andrew Fawcett among many others.

Besides leading his American Swing group Sweeney is also an in demand double bass player who has worked with trumpeter Gethin Liddington, trombonist Gareth Roberts and saxophonists Tamasin Reardon and Glen Manby, again among many others.

I had seen Thomas, Hall and Sweeney perform individually and collectively on several previous occasions. Frost was less familiar to me, a Cardiff based guitarist who has collaborated with Thomas and Brecon Jazz’s Lynne Gornall in the staging of the regular Hot Club Swing nights at Cardiff’s Café Jazz. Thomas and Frost play regularly at these events which feature guest performers and which take place on Sunday evenings between 6.30 pm and 9.00 pm.

Tonight’s programme was standards based with Hot Club style items from the gypsy jazz repertoire interspersed with jazz and swing standards plus the occasional dash of samba and Latin. With Thomas and Sweeney contributing the occasional vocal number it was lively, swinging and very varied, not overly demanding on the listener but nevertheless a real tonic, and just the right sort of relaxed, light hearted gig for the run up to Christmas.

The quartet commenced in Hot Club style with “I’ve Found A New Baby” with solos coming from Thomas, Frost, and the supremely versatile pianist Hall who was playing an electric piano.

“Nature Boy” was given an innovative Latin twist with Hall stating the opening theme and taking the first solo. He was followed by Thomas, Frost and Sweeney.

“Minor Swing” represented a return to the Hot Club style with Frost and Hall featuring strongly. The piano is an instrument rarely heard in gypsy jazz due to its lack of portability but Hall found a way of integrating it successfully into the numerous Django Reinhardt compositions that we heard this evening.

The performance was introduced by Thomas with a vivacious and very Welsh sense of humour. She described the quartet’s forays away from the Reinhardt repertoire as “global journeys”. The first of these was announced only as “Brazil” and brought a little South American exoticism to the proceedings with Frost, Thomas and Hall featuring as soloists.

A fast paced “Swing 48” marked a return to the Reinhardt repertoire with Frost impressing with his rapidly picked solo on acoustic guitar as he shared the limelight with Hall. Frost is primarily a bebop inspired jazz guitarist who plays gypsy jazz only occasionally. Nevertheless he rose admirably to the challenge and names British guitarists Remi Harris and Nigel Price, both regular and popular visitors to Brecon Jazz, as contemporary musical inspirations.

“Exactly Like You” featured Thomas’ vocals, which were perfectly serviceable and brought a welcome element of variation to the quartet sound. She also featured as an instrumental soloist, her Grappelli inspired violin playing featuring alongside features for Frost on guitar and Hall on piano.

A lively “Lime House Blues” raised the energy levels once more, played at break neck pace in the classic Django Reinhardt style. Thomas stated the theme on violin and also featured as a soloist, together with Frost and Hall.

Also composed by Reinhardt a lovely version of “Nuages” illustrated a more sensitive side of his writing. Frost’s beautiful unaccompanied guitar introduction set the scene while the solos of Thomas and Hall found both musicians at their most lyrical.

A jaunty “Honeysuckle Rose” featured Frost and Hall and a lengthy first set concluded with Sweeney singing Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” with instrumental solos coming from Frost, Thomas and Hall.

Further memories of Donnie Joe’s American Swing band were evoked when Sweeney kicked off the second half alone, deploying the body of his bass as percussion and singing the masterful lyric of Cole Porter’s “Night And Day”. Subsequent instrumental solos came from Thomas, Frost and Hall, plus Sweeney himself on double bass.

“Coquette” steered the music back into Hot Club territory with the focus returning to Thomas and Frost, while a second South American excursion was undertaken with an arrangement of Jobim’s “One Note Samba” with solos from Thomas, Frost and Hall.

Frost’s unaccompanied guitar introduced “Django’ Tiger” which subsequently gathered pace and bite with further solos from Thomas, Hal and, Sweeney, plus Frost once more.

“Caravan”, written by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol was delivered in an arrangement that helped to give the music a dark, exotic edge. Frost’s guitar solo took on an oud like quality as he shared the spotlight with Thomas and Hall.

Thomas shone on “Shine”, opening and closing the piece either side of solos from Hall and Frost.

“Bossa Dorado”, another Hot Club favourite, featured solos from Frost, Thomas and Hall and the shorter second set concluded with another gypsy jazz staple, “Putting On The Ritz” with Thomas stating the theme and sharing the solos with Frost and Hall, with the latter’s pianistic syncopations a particularly striking feature of the performance.

This had been a good natured performance from four excellent local musicians who delivered their chosen material with skill, wit and charm, all impressing with the quality of their soloing. The performance was made more impressive by the fact that the absence of a drum kit was never noticed, and certainly not mentioned, as Frost, Hall and Sweeney divided up the rhythmic functions superbly.

There may not have been anything particularly profound here but it was still an evening of hugely enjoyable, swinging jazz that covered a surprising variety of musical bases. The audience loved it and the event represented the conclusion of a very successful 2018 for Brecon Jazz which has seen a series of well attended club events at The Muse throughout the year plus the highly successful Brecon Jazz Festival which took place at several venues around the town in August. Performers have included local heroes, London based touring bands and even a number of international musicians. Here’s to a similarly successful 2019.

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