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The Cliveden Set

Kings Arms, Abergavenny 18/01/2009


by Ian Mann

January 20, 2009


Unpretentious, entertaining, swinging jazz

This was the second of two concerts forming part of a “January Mini Jazz Festival” organised jointly by Pontypool Jazz and Black Mountain Jazz.

I had been due to attend and to cover the Pontypool leg of the festival, a performance by leading saxophonist Derek Nash’s noted jazz funk outfit Protect The Beat at the Comrades Club. However with an accident blocking the road from Hereford to Abergavenny and with the wind and rain strengthening by the minute on an already filthy night I decided discretion was the better part of valour and headed for home. The number of flood warning signs still standing by the roadside the following night suggested that I had made the right decision- and I did enjoy a few pints in my local so not all was lost.

Apologies to promoter Gary Stone and Pontypool Jazz for missing your gig. Fans I spoke to in Abergavenny that had attended both events told me that around 150 turned up and that Nash and his colleagues played two lengthy and enjoyable sets. I was sorry to have missed what was obviously a great night.

Black Mountain Jazz hosted Monmouth based band The Cliveden Set. BMJ aim to cover a broad area of the jazz spectrum, from trad to modern, and are keen to support local musicians as well as playing host to nationally known figures such as Andy Sheppard and Martin Speake.

The Cliveden Set are a seven piece band who combine the music of Django Reinhardt with swing era classics of the 30’s and 40’s by the likes of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. They are fronted by the ” original Monmouth lounge lizard” vocalist Bleddyn Richards, an entertaining presence and a very capable singer. He is joined by the delightfully named Caractacus Downes on soprano saxophone and clarinet, John Smith on alto sax and Ray Martinez on guitar with rhythm duties shared between Pete Smith on bass guitar, Dan James on mandocello (essentially rhythm guitar) and (as Richards introduced him) Roger the drummer. 

Downes is an interesting character. The son of titled parents he is a recording engineer for the locally based Nimbus classical music label as well as being a highly talented jazz musician. When Ricahards introduced him as the Rt. Hon. Caractacus Downes (Crac to his friends) it would seem that he wasn’t joking.

A love of the music of Django Reinhardt lies at the heart of the band. Richards is obviously the focal point of the band’s vocal repertoire but this is a democratic band and he regularly steps aside for the instrumentalists to tackle the several Reinhardt tunes that pepper the set. 

For these Downes switched from soprano to clarinet and it would be fair to say that the Cliveden Set   combine the approaches of two Reinhardt inspired bands recently reviewed on this site i.e. Evan Christopher’s Django A La Creole and the George Washingmachine Quartet. The Reinhardt tunes punctuating the first set included the opening “Minor Swing”, “Nuages” and “Belleville”.

“Swing 42” opened the second set, which also featured “Douce Ambience” and the gentle closer “Dinette”. All these tunes featured solos by Downes, arguably the evenings leading instrumentalist,  John Smith on alto and Martinez on Django-esque guitar. The rhythm section never stepped into the limelight at all being content to provide a swinging pulse for the front line instrumentalists and the singer. Drummer Roger generated the necessary propulsion from the use of brushes alone.

The Cliveden Set are all about entertainment and their swinging brand of jazz was well received by a sizeable crowd. Singer Richards left plenty of room on the vocal items too, and virtually every number included pithy solos from Downes on Bechet style soprano, Smith on blues tinged alto and the excellent Martinez who also proved to be an important rhythmic component when he wasn’t soloing.

In the first set the band cantered through “It Don’t Mean A Thing”, “Ain’t Misbehavin”, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” “Sweet Sue”, “All Of Me”, “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter”, pretty much every one a jazz classic. The Waller tunes exhibited precisely the kind of dry humour mentioned in the band’s press release.

The first set concluded with an instrumental in the form of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. This was a n exhilarating tour de force from the two saxophonists as they locked horns, both sounding distinctly middle eastern, as the piece accelerated to a climax. 

After the break we heard “I Got Rhythm”, “Lady Be Good”, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, “Cheek To Cheek” “Manhattan” “Dinah”, “I Won’t Dance” and “Blue Skies” punctuated by the Reinhardt instrumentals. Richards camped up the vocals more and more as the second set wore on and in the latter stages I was starting to find him a tad irritating for the first time that evening.

However a storming “Sheik Of Araby” which featured extended solos from the instrumentalists and particularly the outstanding Downes on soprano quickly won me back over. 

Regular readers will know that I usually like my jazz a lot more modern and that I’m not overly keen on singers. Nevertheless I enjoyed the unpretentious, entertaining, swinging jazz of The Cliveden Set. They clearly love playing and generate a good deal of energy for a virtually all seated band-only Richards and Downes were standing. Some of the soloing was first rate and I enjoyed Richards’ contribution most of the time and coming from me that’s a considerable compliment. A few audience members got up to dance but there was plenty for the listeners to enjoy too.

An enjoyable start to the Jazz new year and a good antidote to the January blues in these troubled times. In view of both the economic climate and the appalling meteorological conditions maybe they should have played “Stormy Weather”.

See for information on forthcoming gigs.

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