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The BMJ Collective with Alex Clarke and Dan Newberry

The BMJ Collective with Alex Clarke and Dan Newberry, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 25/01/2023

by Ian Mann

January 30, 2023


A terrific performance from this young quintet, who fed off the energy of the crowd to deliver some exceptional jazz. Everyone was a winner this evening, musicians, promoters and audience.

The BMJ Collective with Alex Clarke & Dan Newberry, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 25/01/2023

Alex Goodyear – drums, Clem Saynor – double bass, Eddie Gripper -piano with;
Alex Clarke – tenor & alto saxophones
Dan Newberry – tenor & alto saxophones

BMJ’s first Club event of 2023 drew a near capacity crowd to the Melville Centre for this exciting performance featuring the Club’s ‘house band’,  the BMJ Collective led by drummer Alex Goodyear, together with two rising star saxophonists, Alex Clarke and Dan Newberry.

BMJ normally host events on Sunday evenings but this midweek show formed part of a ‘mini tour’ by this newly formed quintet that has also featured dates in Swindon and Bristol.

Cardiff based Goodyear, a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, has become a great friend of BMJ and the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival over the years. In 2020 he led the ‘house band’ at the ‘Virtual Festival’ and co-ordinated the Tomorrow’s Leaders and Remembering Charlie Parker and Remembering Peggy Lee events. In more normal times led his own Bop Septet at the 2019 Festival. He has also appeared at BMJ / Wall2Wall events with pianist Guy Shotton, vocalists Becki Biggins and Sarah Meek and with bassist Nick Kacal’s Guerillasound group. Currently he is a member of the Bristol based trio Yetii, led by pianist and composer Alex Veitch and also featuring virtuoso bassist Ashley John Long. Yetii’s début recording, the recently released “Live at The Greenbank” is reviewed here;

2021 saw him form the first edition of the BMJ Collective to present the event “The Journey of Trad” for that year’s ‘hybrid’ Festival. The following year the current line up of Goodyear, pianist Eddie Gripper and bassist Clem Saynor accompanied vocalist Marvin Muoneke in an excellent  performance at the 2022 Wall2Wall Festival as things finally started to get back to normal.

It had long been Goodyear’s intention to bring the young saxophonists Alex Clarke and Dan Newberry together.  Locally born Newberry is also a graduate of the RWCMD and has been a regular visitor to BMJ / Wall2Wall. He was part of Goodyear’s Bop Septet, was a member of the Tomorrow’s Leaders quintet at the 2020 Virtual Festival and in 2018, when still a student, led his own quartet at that year’s Wall2Wall. Other musicians with whom he has worked include guitarist Gerard Cousins, pianists Dave Jones, Andy Nowak and Huw Warren, bassist Matheus Prado and trumpeter Gethin Liddington.

I first saw Newberry play in 2017 when he was part of an ensemble led by guitarist Gerard Cousins at that year’s Brecon Jazz Festival. Having seen him several times since it’s been fascinating to chart his development and to witness his growth as a musician as he has matured into a fluent and authoritative tenor sax soloist. I was hugely impressed when he stepped into pianist Dave Jones’ quartet at short notice for a show at Kidderminster Jazz Club in July 2021. The programme consisted entirely of Jones’ originals and Newberry rose to the challenge brilliantly, even doubling on flute for one number, an unfamiliar experience for him.

That was a performance that demonstrated real maturity and which emphasised the progress that he has made, progress that continued into tonight’s similarly assured performance. He’s now a musician with real confidence in his own abilities, a quality that readily transmits itself to audiences. It’s quality that Alex Clarke shares too.

Midlands based saxophonist Alex Clarke came to national attention when she was a finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year Competition in 2020, the award eventually going to pianist Deschanel Gordon.

However the exposure provided by the Competition, including the opportunity to perform her music live on BBC 4, did Clarke’s profile no harm at all and helped to establish her reputation as a ‘rising star’ on the UK jazz circuit. She has also featured at the British Jazz Awards and the Parliamentary Jazz Awards.

Equally adept on alto and tenor saxophones, an unusual ‘doubling’ combination, Clarke is also an accomplished clarinettist and flautist. Her versatility and her willingness to work across a variety of musical genres ensures that she is a musician who is constantly in demand. As a saxophonist she names her main influences as being Scott Hamilton and Lester Young on tenor and Phil Woods and Cannonball Adderley on alto.

As well as leading her own groups, notably her quartet and the New Orleans inspired Alex Clarke Hot Five, Clarke works regularly with the jazz/blues/country pianist /vocalist TJ Johnson. She is also a regular member of the Jake Leg Jug Band, an outfit that specialises in Prohibition Era jazz and blues and which also features harmonica and jug player Liam Ward. She is also a member of the Birmingham based Ska 45s and of Detroit Magic, a six piece soul band band.

An alumnus of the National Youth Jazz Collective Clarke has also worked with large ensembles such as Swingtime and the Paul Barry Big Band. As an accomplished sight reader she is also in demand as a member of the pit band for musical theatre productions.

Clarke is an important member of the band led by trumpeter Chris Hodgkins that recently released the album “A Salute To Humphrey Lyttelton”. She appears on tenor sax and clarinet and is also featured as an arranger. A review of this recording can be found as part of a Jazzmann feature about Hodgkins here;

I recently saw Clarke perform at the 2022 Brecon Jazz Festival when she appeared as a guest soloist with two different acts, the Jane Williams Band and The Numbers Racket. She is also an acclaimed educator and prior to these two live performances had presented a workshop for young jazz musicians elsewhere in the town.  She also holds teaching posts at Warwick School and on the National Youth Jazz Collective’s Summer School Short Course.

My account of Clarke’s two Brecon appearances can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;

I was able to speak with Clarke at Brecon and she was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of “Only A Year”, her second album as a leader and one recorded with a stellar line up of David Newton on piano, Dave Green on double bass and Clark Tracey at the drums, a veritable ‘who’s who’ of British jazz.

Released in July 2022 it represented the follow up to her 2018 début “Mirage”, which featured pianist Tom Kincaid, bassist Ed Harrison and drummer Eryl Roberts.  In 2019 she also appeared on the album “Songs from the Jazz Country” by the TJ Johnson Band.

“Mirage” featured Clarke’s arrangements of jazz standards plus lesser known tunes by Tubby Hayes, Harold Arlen and others. “Only A Year” followed a similar pattern but also found room for a couple of Clarke originals, among them the title track. My review of “Only A Year”, from which most of these these biographical details have been sourced, can be found here;

The first musician to take to the stage at the Melville Theatre was Alex Goodyear, who promised us a programme based around a hard bop template and featuring material from Tubby Hayes and Phil Woods, amongst others. He then called upon the other musicians to join him, introducing each one individually.

The quintet kicked off proceedings with the standard “Pennies From Heaven”, with Newberry stating the theme on tenor sax, his opening statement mirrored by Clarke, also on tenor. Clarke took the first solo, confirming her poise and fluency as a tenor sax soloist, and she was followed by Newberry, who exhibited a similar fluency, but with a harder edged tone. Gripper, who impressed at the Muoneke performance, followed on piano before handing over to Saynor at the bass. Finally Goodyear enjoyed a series of colourful drum breaks as he traded fours with the two saxophonists. All in all this was an excellent introduction to the individual musical voices of the band.

Newberry’s growing maturity as a player has been matched by his development as a writer. His original tune “Darling, So Do I” had also been played at the Tomorrow’s Leaders livestream event, with the saxophonist explaining that in the writing of the piece he had been attempting to combine the ‘old school’ harmony of a jazz standard with a more modern compositional framework. With its combination of quirky syncopations and blues inflections tonight’s performance suggested that he had succeeded with the composer taking the first solo on tenor, followed by Clarke, also on tenor, and finally Gripper at the piano. For such a young musician Newberry has an impressive knowledge of the history and traditions of jazz, a subject he has studied in considerable depth.

Newberry sat out the next piece, a quartet reading of the Irving Berlin song “How Deep Is The Ocean?” that proved to be a showcase for Clarke on alto saxophone, an instrument she plays with an equal fluency. The performance was ushered in by Saynor’s bass and Goodyear’s brushed drums and much of Clarke’s solo was conducted in the saxophone trio format. Gripper’s piano solo began with bass accompanist only and the impressive Saynor, like Newberry a musician who gets better every time I see him, soloed on bass, combining a huge tone with an admirable dexterity. Finally Goodyear was featured at the drums in a series of absorbing exchanges with Gripper and Clarke.

Newberry returned for the final number of the first set, a Phil Woods arrangement of the Cole Porter song “Night and Day”. Goodyear, who acted as MC throughout the evening, promised us a “brooding intro”, this commencing with the sound of unaccompanied piano, subsequently joined by the sounds of Clarke (alto) and Newberry (tenor) doubling up in atmospheric fashion, the whole underpinned by the rumble of Goodyear’s mallets. An abrupt change of pace then saw a switch to a Latin flavoured groove with Newberry stating the main theme on tenor before eventually launching into the first solo. Goodyear was featured at the drums before handing over to Clarke on alto and then Saynor on double bass. The two saxes then intertwined in scintillating fashion on the outro. This was a virtuoso performance that represented a great end to an excellent first half.

The promised Tubby Hayes came at the start of the second set with a rousing version of his composition “After Tea”, transcribed by Alex Clarke. Tubbs’ tunes have an accessibility and vibrancy that makes them great blowing vehicles and the members of the quintet launched into the piece with relish, with the twin tenors of Clarke and Newberry duelling around the theme in a manner that evoked memories of Hayes and Ronnie Scott in The Jazz Couriers. Clarke’s tenor solo also sounded suitably ‘Hayes-ish’ as she sparked off the inventive interjections of pianist Gripper. Newberry followed on second tenor before the impressive Gripper was finally given his head. The final section again recalled the Couriers as Clarke and Scott went head to head in a series of ebullient sax changes as the rest of the band swung ferociously behind them.

There was something of a pause for breath with Newberry’s ballad “Calisto”, introduced by the leader’s tenor in conjunction with the trio,  with Goodyear deploying brushes. Clarke entered the proceedings to deliver the first solo on tenor, followed by Newberry himself. Saynor’s bass had provided an attractive melodic counterpoint for the two sax soloists and he was now rewarded with a solo of his own. Subsequently the tune gradually gathered momentum, attaining something of an anthemic quality as the two horns doubled up on the melody in the closing stages.

Newberry’s solo feature was his own arrangement of the Charlie Parker tune “My Little Suede Shoes”. Introducing the piece Goodyear described it as “cheeky”, which was an excellent summation of a wonderfully quirky arrangement that mixed musical humour with brilliant playing and which concluded with the quartet teasing the audience with a playful and audacious series of false endings. Along the way we enjoyed a squalling near free jazz interlude and more conventional solos from Gripper on piano and Newberry on tenor, plus a colourful drum feature from Goodyear. This was a piece that really allowed Newberry the opportunity to demonstrate his ‘chops’ and was a technical tour de force from the young saxophonist – and a highly entertaining one too.

A shorter second set concluded with a rousing version of the Kenny Garrett tune “Happy People”, the title track of the alto saxophonist’s album from 2001. This featured Newberry playing his newly purchased alto sax, an instrument I’ve never seen him play before. His acquisition of the alto has sparked an interest in all things Garrett, hence the selection of one of Kenny’s most accessible tunes. Saynor and Goodyear established a vibrant and buoyant bass and drum groove with a strong funk element that formed the basis for blistering solos from Clarke on tenor and Newberry on alto, with room also found for features for both Saynor and Goodyear. The audience absolutely loved this piece and at the end many of them rose to their feet to give this young quintet a standing ovation.

The quality of the performance of this Garrett piece might well benefit Newberry’s temporary boss Dave Jones who is due to bring his quartet to BMJ on Sunday 26th February 2023 to present a programme of Kenny Garrett material. Who wouldn’t want to come back for that? In the meantime I’ve been inspired to dig out my copy of Garrett’s classic 1997 album “Songbook”, which is playing as I write.

In the meantime what a terrific performance from this young quintet, who fed off the energy of the crowd to deliver some exceptional jazz. The musicians all impressed individually and collectively and as the facilitator of the project it was clear that Goodyear had put a lot of work into it, work that was rewarded with an excellent response from his talented colleagues. There already appeared to be a very genuine chemistry between Clarke and Newberry and there were suggestions that this might not be just a one off group after all. Further gigs and even the possibility of a recording have been mentioned.

In the meantime everybody who was here tonight appeared to be delighted by what they had seen and heard. The only valid criticism could be that most of the pieces were in the overly familiar head/solos/head format but such was the quality of the playing that nobody could really mind too much. It was also extremely gratifying to see a full house on a cold January night when everybody is supposedly feeling the economic pinch. Brecon Jazz Club had also had a terrific crowd for the visit of saxophonist Dick Hamer and his quartet just a few days earlier. It’s really good to see live jazz being so well supported in South Wales.

The versatile Clarke is a very busy musician, much in demand for jazz club performances all over the UK, but the future also looks bright for Newberry and the rest of the South Wales based contingent. The talents of the indefatigable Goodyear have brought him to wider attention and he is currently a member of a quartet led by the nationally acclaimed pianist and composer John Law. I’ve also been hugely impressed by both Saynor and Gripper on both of their recent visits to BMJ, like Newberry these are rapidly maturing musicians who also get better and better every time I see them. Everyone was a winner this evening, musicians, promoters and audience.




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