by Ian Mann
October 01, 2013
A hugely entertaining afternoon of music with some great singing and playing from the members of the trio in a diverse, well programmed performance that encompassed many different musical styles.
Tony O’Malley Trio, Black Mountain Jazz, The Swan Hotel, Abergavenny, 29/09/2013.
I’ll readily admit that when the name of a male vocalist/pianist first appeared on the BMJ schedule I was less than enthusiastic and expected either a crooner or a “Rat Pack” type singer, basically the mainstream type of entertainment that passes for jazz that I really can’t be doing with.
However further research revealed that Tony O’Malley is a former member of the fondly recalled 70’s white soul band Kokomo and that his approach is rooted in soul, funk, gospel, r’n'b, boogie woogie, jazz and blues, in fact virtually every kind of 20th century Afro American music. With a soulful rasp of a voice and a superb piano technique O’Malley revealed himself to be an excellent entertainer who has maintained enough rough edges to counteract any allegations of blandness. His two sets with an excellent trio featuring Jennifer Maidman on electric bass and backing vocals and Andy Treacey at the drums were very well received by a small but enthusiastic lunchtime crowd who willingly sang and clapped along with the music.
O’Malley’s choice of songs straddled various stages of his career and embraced all the styles mentioned above. The result was a well balanced programme that explored a variety of emotions and musical styles with plenty of room for the instrumentalists to stretch out on what was nominally a jazz gig. The opening song “Learning Curve” was given an approximate jazz treatment with O’Malley’s soulful vocals augmented by piano and bass solos plus a series of closing brushed drum breaks. The song was written by O’Malley and his long term musical associate Frank Collins with whom O’Malley worked in the late 60’s pop group Arrival prior to both of them moving on to Kokomo.
O’Malley was using a Korg keyboard capable of generating a variety of sounds such as the string synth deployed on the distinctive, slowed down version of Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t It A Lovely Day”, O’Malley’s tribute to the glorious late summer weather in this corner of South East Wales. His rough edged vocal phrasing recalled Tom Waits and Rod Stewart but I was also reminded of New York troubadour Kenny White, another fine vocalist/pianist who also first made his name as an instrumentalist.
O’Malley had a stint as a member of 10cc in the latter days of that group but it’s probably his time with Kokomo that is most fondly remembered. Their expansive line up included vocalists Frank Collins, Paddy McHugh and Dyan Birch and instrumentalists of the calibre of Mel Collins (reeds, ex King Crimson) plus guitarist Neil Hubbard and bassist Alan Spenner from the Grease Band. The celebrated jazz guitarist Jim Mullen also passed briefly through their ranks. Kokomo were seen as friends and rivals of the similarly inclined Average White Band but despite widespread critical acclaim they never quite snared the same type of UK success as AWB who scored with the massive single “Pick Up The Pieces”. For all that O’Malley still performs items from the Kokomo repertoire including “I Can Understand” which featured Maidman’s effective harmony vocals as Treacey switched to sticks and adopted a more hard driving drumming style. O’Malley encouraged the audience to clap along with Maidman’s funky slapped bass solo as band and audience loosened up.
Hoagy Carmichael’s song “Rockin’ Chair” was recorded by Paul Robeson in 1928 and was later covered by Georgie Fame. In O’Malley’s hands it still sounded thoroughly contemporary, the blues and gospel leanings topped off by a heartfelt vocal delivered in a Waitsian growl.
Maidman’s strutting funk bass line set up “Mr Operator”, a gritty tale of telecommunications and love gone wrong with excellent instrumental solos from all three protagonists. Maidman and Treacey are experienced session musicians who have played with a lot of big names across a variety of popular music genres. Maidman’s CV is particularly impressive, a veritable who’s who of popular music and Treacey was once the regular drummer with Faithless.
The string synth sound returned on the soul ballad “If I Could”, a song written by O’Malley and his former Kokomo colleague Frank Collins and sourced from the 1999 O’ Malley album “Freedom Road”. This was a recording that featured several former members of Kokomo plus guitarist Hamish Stuart from the Average White Band.
The first half ended with the trio’s arrangement of Bill Withers’ classic “Lovely Day”, O’Malley opening the song solo before the buoyant rhythms of Maidman and Treacey kicked in to propel his soulful voice to new heights including some astonishing sustained notes. O’Malley encouraged the audience to sing along above Maidman’s highly melodic bass solo, a great way to end a highly enjoyable first set.
The trio maintained the energy levels in the second set, the first number a tune that O’Malley didn’t announce but which boasted powerful vocals and driving rhythms with O’Malley adopting a Rhodes type electric piano sound for his solo.
O’Malley spent some time living in Tbilisi (he also had two spells in Belgium) which added an extra layer of meaning to an emotive rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s enduring classic “Georgia On My Mind”.
“Naked Flame”, co-written by O’Malley and Keith Trussell aka Keef Trouble, incorporated funk and gospel elements with O’Malley injecting a hint of playful dissonance into his extended piano solo. Maidman’s bass solo incorporated full chording in the style of Back Door’s Colin Hodgkinson as a fast moving second section offered the opportunity for all three musicians to demonstrate their instrumental chops. This is a tune that was the title track of O’Malley’s first solo album, a 1995 live recording made at Ronnie Scott’s, and it has also found its way into the set list for Kokomo’s occasional reunions.
Both “Naked Flame” and the following ballad “I’m In The Mood For Love” featured semi spoken vocals as O’Malley revealed something of a hipster persona.
The celebratory, gospel flavoured “For The Children” was driven by Maidman’s propulsive bass line as she also added effective harmony vocals. Following O’Malley’s piano solo and Treacey’s excellent drum feature it was time for more audience participation as O’Malley conducted a call and response section for hand-claps and voices, shades here of recent visitors the 606 Club Gospel Singers who played at BMJ’s wall2wall festival at the end of August. Interestingly O’Malley is also a regular performer at that well established London venue.
In O’Malley’s hands a blue eyed soul take on Kermit the Frog’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green” became moving and effective, the song written by the Muppet Show’s musical director Joe Raposo.
From the O’Malley solo album “The Road Will Rise” a rather plodding “Fall In Love” was enlivened by topical references to celebrities such as Johnny Dep.
At this point O’Malley name checked audience member Paul Hornsby, director of the Greater Gwent Youth Band who had recently performed a gig with one time Kokomo guitarist Jim Mullen. Cue a joke about the Glaswegian Mullen getting drunk on Welsh Scotch at Hornby’s house after the show.
The afternoon was drawing to a close and O’Malley decided to finish with a funk version of “Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner” written in 1947 by songwriter and broadcaster Hubert Gregg and originally recorded by Bud Flanagan. O’Malley was on a roll by now and regaled us with a delightful anecdote of how the famously posh Gregg, having heard and enjoyed O’Malley’s arrangement of his most famous song, phoned O’Malley up to congratulate him and at the same time enquire as to what “funky” actually meant!
O’Malley had been torn between playing “Maybe…” and “Deep, Deep Trouble” and decided to play the latter as well, a blistering piece of blues boogie that also turned into an audience participation number. This went down a storm with the small but hyper-appreciative crowd and BMJ organiser Mike Skilton had no trouble coaxing the trio back for an encore of “You’re Looking Good”, another tune to feature Maidman’s effective harmony vocals.
This was a hugely entertaining afternoon of music with some great singing and playing from the members of the trio. It was all a little bit outside my current musical area but I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this diverse, well programmed performance that encompassed so many different musical styles.
A word too for the BMJ audience who sang and clapped with genuine enthusiasm and who sounded pretty damn good. There were only around thirty of us but everybody got involved and helped to make this afternoon an “event”. Well done everybody, I think we deserve a collective pat on the back.
Thanks to Tony and Andy for chatting with me during the interval and after the show and to Andy’s girlfriend Louise who shared our table and proved to be a most charming companion. All in all an unexpectedly excellent afternoon out.
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