by Ian Mann
March 08, 2020
Two superb sets from six of the UK’s finest jazz musicians.
The Gaz Hughes Sextet plays Art Blakey, The Market Theatre, Ledbury, Herefordshire, 07/03/2020
Gaz Hughes – drums, Alan Barnes – alto & baritone saxophones, Dean Masser – tenor saxophone
Bruce Adams – trumpet, Andrzej Baranek – piano, Ed Harrison – double bass
I first heard the playing of Manchester based drummer and bandleader Gareth ‘Gaz’ Hughes on recordings by his fellow Mancunians Matthew Halsall and Adam Fairhall.
Hughes appeared on trumpeter Halsall’s albums “On The Go” (2011) and “Fletcher Moss Park” (2012) and was also part of Halsall’s touring band. With pianist Fairhall he was a member of the ensemble that recorded the innovative “The Imaginary Delta” (2012) and was also part of Fairhall’s regular working trio.
As a sideman Hughes has performed with a veritable ‘who’s who’ of British and American jazz musicians, among them pianists Tom Kinkaid and Brian Dee, saxophonists Greg Abate, John Hallam and Nat Birchall and guitarist Remi Harris, these representing just a few names on a long and illustrious list. He has also worked as a session musician in the fields of pop and television. As an educator Hughes holds teaching posts at Salford University and Manchester Metropolitan University.
Hughes’ recording début as a leader features him leading the highly experienced sextet detailed above on a programme of tunes associated with one of the leader’s all time drum heroes, the late great Art Blakey (1919-90). Blakey led the famous Jazz Messengers band for more then forty years, its various line ups at one time or another featuring some of the most famous names in jazz, among them trumpeters Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis, saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Hank Mobley and Benny Golson and pianists Horace Silver and Cedar Walton. The Messengers became known as “the best finishing school in jazz” as Blakey took great pride in nurturing the talents of the gifted young musicians that passed through its ranks on their way to successful solo careers, encouraging them both as instrumental soloists and as composers, with much of the Messengers material being written by the group’s members.
The first jazz record that Hughes ever bought was a Jazz Messengers live recording and the Matthew Halsall band sometimes included tunes associated with Blakey in its repertoire. For Hughes it therefore seemed logical that his first outing as a bandleader should feature material associated with Blakey, although not always the most obvious tunes. The album “The Gaz Hughes Sextet plays Art Blakey” was recorded over the course of a day and a half in July 2018 at the old Granada recording studios in Manchester and was one of the last albums to be recorded there.
The album itself was self released in 2019 but a number of set backs, including a broken shoulder, “never a good thing for a drummer” joked Hughes, have prevented him really promoting the album until now.
It could fairly be stated that Hughes is now more than making up for lost time. Tonight’s date was part of a mammoth tour that will take the sextet to all parts of England, including locations that rarely get the chance to experience live jazz. A case in point was tonight’s venue, the comfortable, friendly and well appointed Market Theatre in the Herefordshire town of Ledbury. The gig wasn’t a sell out, but around fifty supportive, appreciative and knowledgeable jazz fans ensured that there was an excellent atmosphere and the performance could very much be considered a success. For me it was great to be able to review a jazz gig that was practically on my doorstep, a modest half hour or so’s drive from home.
The line up was as detailed above, the very same one that appears on the recording, and from the outset it was apparent that this was a well drilled unit with the group members all having great confidence in each others’ abilities. The show was presented by Hughes in a relaxed and often humorous manner, no doubt inspired by the presence in the band’s ranks of arch joker Barnes, himself a highly witty presenter and the compère of Scarborough Jazz Festival.
Over the course of two excellent sets the sextet presented much of the material from the album, together with other tunes performed by and associated with Blakey. They kicked off with the album opener “A Bitter Dose”, written by alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, a member of one of the later (1980s) Messenger line ups and a prolific composer who subsequently went on to enjoy a successful career as a leader. With its driving rhythms and unison horn theme this was a blistering slice of latter day hard bop that acted as the vehicle for fluent and powerful opening solos from Barnes on alto, Adams on trumpet, demonstrating his trademark high register playing, and Masser on tenor. The horns were spurred on by Hughes’ crisp drumming and Harrison’s propulsive bass lines. Baranek was featured on electric keyboard on an acoustic piano setting and acquitted himself well, but nevertheless it was a shame that a grand piano wasn’t available as it had been the night before when the sextet had played at the Verdict Jazz Club in Brighton. I appreciate that economics dictate that a ‘proper’ piano isn’t always available, but it does give the music such a lift when one is. Harrison rounded off the soloing at the bass prior to a reprise of the ‘head’ by the horns. This high energy opening salvo was well received by the Ledbury audience and helped to establish a highly positive vibe for the rest of the evening.
With exception of minimal amplification for electric piano and double bass the performance was essentially acoustic with the horn players performing without ‘mics’. Even so the six musicians produced an impressive and authentically big sound that was well served by the Market Theatre’s excellent acoustics.
Next up was actually the closing piece of the album, “Arabia”, written by one time Messengers trombonist Curtis Fuller. The Middle Eastern nuances in Fuller’s writing found full expression in Adams’ bravura trumpet soloing, with Masser following on tenor. In another high energy performance Hughes himself featured at the drums prior to a final solo from Barnes on baritone, displaying a remarkable fluency and agility on the larger horn and adding an element of humour via his use of slap tongue techniques.
The saxophonists vacated the stage for a ballad feature for Adams on trumpet. Hughes switched from brushes to sticks, demonstrating a gentler side to his own playing as Adams soloed with great eloquence and emotion, sometimes reaching for the higher registers and generally delivering an impression of carefully controlled power. Baranek’s piano solo conjured as much lyricism as the electric keyboard could provide, with Harrison’s languid bass in support. Finally Adams, a bandleader in his own right, provided a stunning solo trumpet cadenza.
Barnes and Masser returned for “The Soulful Mr. Timmons”, written by late 70s Messenger James Williams for the late Bobby Timmons, one of his predecessors in the Messengers piano chair and the composer of the band’s best known number “Moanin’”, of which more later.
Appropriately the piece was introduced by Baranek solo at the keyboard, with the three horns later delivering Williams’ complex theme. Subsequent solos came from Barnes on alto, Adams on trumpet and Masser on tenor, plus Baranek at the keyboard, with the pianist supported by Harrison’s counter melodies at the bass. Finally the band toyed with the audience with a series of false endings. Great stuff.
The first set concluded with an intriguing arrangement of “Caravan”, written by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol but famously recorded by Blakey in 1962. Tonight’s performance began with Hughes at the drums and the arrangement was very much centred around his own playing. Woozy sounding horns then stated the familiar theme, accelerating and decelerating by turns before shading off into solos from Barnes on alto, Adams on trumpet and Masser on tenor. Baranek followed on piano followed by Hughes once more at the drums. Hughes has expressed his admiration for ‘melodic’ drummers, citing Blakey, Max Roach, Alan Dawson and Jeff Hamilton as examples. Here his own sketching of the “Caravan” melody on the toms during a well constructed and carefully crafted drum feature was genuinely impressive, the melodic content underpinned by a metronomic rhythm on the hi-hat. The leader’s efforts drew a highly enthusiastic reception from the audience as the horns returned to round off a well received first set with a final theme statement.
Set two commenced with “Duck Soup”, a tune that featured in Blakey’s last ever live performance and was written in 1981 by saxophonist Donald Harrison. Hughes took over where he left off by staring the piece off at the drums prior to solos by Barnes on alto, Adams on trumpet Masser on tenor and Baranek on piano. Hughes then enjoyed a series of brisk drum breaks, but despite the predominance of the ‘head-solos-head’ format throughout the course of the evening the concept of ‘trading fours’ with the drummer was only sparsely used.
Barnes moved to baritone for “One By One”, a piece by saxophonist Wayne Shorter, arguably the Messengers’ most distinguished and successful composer. The tune features on the album and commenced here in piano trio mode before opening up to feature a declamatory Masser tenor solo, with the saxophonist’s fiery playing driven by the leader’s powerful Blakey-esque drumming. Hughes’ time keeping was immaculate throughout and he brought much of himself to the performance, seldom copying Blakey outright, but there was definitely something of Buhaina’s spirit here. Hughes and the excellent Harrison continued to stoke the fires as first Adams on trumpet and then Barnes on baritone took up the mantle of soloists. Baranek’s piano solo injected a dash of humour before Harrison rounded things off at the bass.
It was Adams’ turn to “fetch the beers” as he left the stage to allow the saxophonists to feature in a “Medley of Ballads”. Barnes was to feature first on alto on the standard “Together Again” soloing with great fluency as Hughes again moved to brushes. Masser then took over on tenor, his tone warm but still robust on delightful interpretation of “Lover Man”.
Hughes had performed the Bobby Watson composition “A Wheel Within A Wheel” with the Matthew Halsall group and decided to bring it to his own band. Propelled by a kind of loping swing the piece appears on the album and here featured solos from Barnes on alto, Masser on tenor, again alluding to “Lover Man”, and Adams on trumpet. The horns were followed by Baranek on piano and finally by Hughes with another neatly constructed drum feature. I was also impressed by the interplay between the horns on the closing theme statement.
An Art Blakey tribute wouldn’t be complete without a performance of the most famous Messengers tune of them all, the aforementioned “Moanin’”, the piece that guaranteed the sadly short lived Bobby Timmons (1935-74) his slice of jazz immortality. Appropriately the performance here began with Baranek at the piano and the familiar theme subsequently acted as the springboard for fluent and vivacious solos from Adams on trumpet, Barnes on alto and Masser on tenor as Hughes and Harrison began to ramp up the energy levels. Baranek was to feature again at the piano before the famous ‘head’ brought an excellent evening of music making to a close. There weren’t quite enough of us to guarantee an encore and the house lights eventually came up. Nevertheless we could hardly complain that we were short changed after enjoying two superb sets from six of the UK’s finest jazz musicians.
The “Plays Art Blakey” album represents an excellent souvenir of the tour and boasts an exceptional recorded sound with producer Hughes and engineer Brendan Williams achieving a pin point mix that allows all the musicians to be heard at their best.
The album running order is;
1. A Bitter Dose (Bobby Watson)
2. Ping Pong (Wayne Shorter)
3. Ballad Medley;
Together Again (C.T. Fischer) / Lover Man (J.Davis) / Easy Living (R.Rainger)
4. Crisis (Freddie Hubbard)
5. A Wheel Within A Wheel (Bobby Watson)
6. One By One (Wayne Shorter)
7. Arabia (Curtis Fuller)
My thanks are due to Gaz Hughes for arranging press tickets for my wife and myself and for speaking with me at the interval and at full time. Also for the gift of the “Plays Art Blakey” CD, which has proved invaluable to the writing of this review. Cheers, Gaz, Top Man!
Also thanks to the friendly staff at the Market Theatre, who couldn’t have been more welcoming.
Gaz tells me that he hopes to eventually record two more albums of Blakey related material. As tonight’s performance demonstrated there’s still plenty more in the vaults.
In the meantime the current tour continues with dates stretching ahead for several months to come. Please visit http://www.gazhughesmusic.com for the full schedule.
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