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The Gaz Hughes Trio

Beboptical Illusion

by Ian Mann

March 07, 2023


A major step forward for Hughes as he features his own compositions for the first time and also introduces new musical flavours to his favoured bebop / hard bop mix.

The Gaz Hughes Trio

“Beboptical Illusion”

(Self Released GH003)

Gaz Hughes – drums, Andrzej Baranek – piano, Ed Harrison – double bass

Cheshire based drummer, composer and bandleader Gaz Hughes first made his name on the Manchester jazz scene playing in bands led by trumpeter Matthew Halsall and pianist Adam Fairhall.

I first heard his playing on Halsall’s albums “On The Go” (2011) and “Fletcher Moss Park” (2012), both of which are reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann. Hughes was also part of Halsall’s touring band.

With 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 names his main drumming influences as Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Jimmy Cobb and Alan Dawson, players he describes as being “drummers that are able to spell out form and melody when they improvise”.

In February 2020 Hughes released his first album as a leader, the sextet recording “Plays Art Blakey”, which does exactly what it says on the tin with a set of tunes originally recorded by various editions of Blakey’s famous Jazz Messengers outfit. The selection includes a number of modern jazz standards from composers of the calibre of Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller and Bobby Watson.

For the recording Hughes had assembled a stellar quartet featuring saxophonists Alan Barnes (alto, baritone) and Dean Masser (tenor) plus trumpeter Bruce Adams, pianist Andrzej Baranek and bassist Ed Harrison. The group also embarked on a massive UK tour in support of the album but this was inevitably curtailed due to the Covid situation. Nevertheless I was able to catch a hugely enjoyable performance by the sextet at the Market Theatre in Ledbury on March 6th 2020, one of the last gigs I saw prior to lockdown. My account of that performance, plus a look at the “Plays Art Blakey” album can be found here;

The ‘rhythm section’ of Hughes, Baranek and Harrison established a close rapport during the making of the Blakey album and on the live dates that they were able to perform. The three then came together as The Gaz Hughes Trio to record the digital only release “Beboperation”, which first became available in May 2022. The recording features Hughes’ arrangements of jazz and pop standards by composers such as Duke Ellington and introduces his ‘melodic drumming concept’.

Released in February 2023 and available both digitally and on CD “Beboptical Illusion” features the same personnel and another punning title. This time, however, the focus is on Hughes’ original writing with seven tunes by the drummer / composer and just one outside item, Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady”.

The album commences with Hughes’ jaunty bebop inspired title track with Baranek in full flight at the piano, propelled by Harrison’s forceful bass lines and the leader’s crisp, energetic drumming. In this democratic trio setting room is also found for a brief bass feature for Harrison and a series of energetic drum breaks from Hughes.  It’s interesting to hear a young British ‘piano trio’ unashamedly playing in a bebop inspired ‘American’ style rather than the ECM / E.S.T. style of much contemporary UK / European jazz.

Unaccompanied piano introduces “Concorde”, the title possibly a homage to the famous American record label. It’s a tune with a strong blues feel to it, with Baranek’s introductory solo passage followed by a more celebratory trio section, perhaps intended to give a New Orleans style ‘second line’ effect. Baranek’s percussive piano solo is underpinned by Hughes’ martial drum patterns and Harrison’s propulsive bass grooves. Hughes’ drums come to the fore in the latter part of the tune, the intensity of his playing evoking memories of Blakey.

Harrison’s bass introduces “Edith”, his melodic motif cum groove sometimes recalling John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Together with Hughes’ Latin tinged brushed drum grooves he continues to underpin Baranek’s piano explorations before emerging to deliver a melodic solo of his own. He then steps back once more as Baranek stretches out more expansively. Skilfully played in 6/8 this piece is less intense than much of the other material and despite being a little fast for a true ballad it represents one of the album’s stand-out tracks thanks to its combination of traditional and contemporary jazz virtues. “People don’t expect drummers to write tunes like that” Hughes has been heard to remark.

The Latin flavoured “Laurie” ups the energy levels once more and features some feverish, Tyner-esque soloing from the excellent Baranek, one of the most in demand pianists in the North West of England and beyond. I have previously enjoyed his playing in groups led by saxophonists Chris Gumbley and Casey Greene and with the Manchester based quintet The Magic Hat Ensemble, led by trumpeter Steve Chadwick. But Baranek isn’t the only musician to shine on this piece as Hughes and Harrison add busy but intelligent support before entering into their own intriguing dialogue as Harrison’s bass solo is followed by the pair jointly venturing into more freely structured territory, another interesting development. The piece then resolves itself as Baranek returns for a further series of variations around the main theme.

The trio’s nine minute exploration of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” is the lengthiest piece of the album. It’s introduced by an extensive passage of consistently inventive solo piano from Baranek that embodies all the sophistication inherent in the title. Hughes and Harrison then slide in almost imperceptibly to set up a gently swinging, but subtly propulsive, groove that provides the platform for further pianistic explorations, these followed by a dexterous double bass solo from Harrison.

“Sticks & Stones” is a contrafact based on the Charlie Parker composition “Confirmation”. Introduced by the leader at the drums it’s a piece bristling with energy and features a bravura piano solo from Baranek, with vigorous support coming from bass and drums. Harrison is also featured at the bass and the performance also includes a series of dynamic drum breaks from Hughes.

If “Sticks & Stones” reflects Hughes’ enduring love of bebop and its spin-offs then “To the Moon & Back” finds him exploring slightly more contemporary jazz territory, albeit in a manner that retains strong links to the music’s past. It’s another energetic performance with Baranek’s percussive pianism, including some tumultuous soloing, well supported by the leader’s crisp, highly propulsive drumming. Harrison delivers another virtuoso bass solo before the dynamic Hughes is featured towards the close.

The album concludes with “The Verdict”, which I assume to be a dedication to the Brighton jazz club of the same name. It’s a joyous, celebratory piece with Baranek’s lithe piano soloing underpinned by a brisk bass and drum groove. Once again there are features for bass and drums, with Hughes ably demonstrating his melodic approach to drum solos.

“Beboptical Illusion” represents a major step forward for Hughes as he features his own compositions for the first time and also introduces new musical flavours to his favoured bebop / hard bop mix.  Perhaps that album title represents more than just a pun. All three musicians perform with consummate skill and this, combined with the energy of their playing, helps to bring the music alive.

Hughes is a likeable and highly positive character and once again he has arranged a mammoth UK tour in support of the album, one that shouldn’t get interrupted this time round. The prospect of seeing this music performed live is an exciting one, particularly as the pieces get more and more ‘played in’ as the tour progresses. The full tour schedule, with dates running from March to July 2023, can be found at Hughes’ website

Finally; this is the third album in the ‘piano trio’ format that I’ve reviewed recently following releases by the Cardiff based pianist Eddie Gripper and the Danish collaborative trio Little North. Despite the similarity of the instrumentation they are all totally different in feel, approach and intention - their very variation providing proof that this much loved instrumental configuration still has so much to offer.

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