by Ian Mann
January 29, 2018
A one off band playing a very adventurous set of improbable material and having great fun in the process. An unexpected treat and an excellent start to the year for BMJ.
Wall2Wall Festival Street Stompers, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 28/01/2018.
During the summer of 2017 five locally based musicians took to the streets of Abergavenny to publicise the forthcoming Wall2Wall Jazz Festival which takes place annually on the first weekend of September - 2017 being the fifth.
The aim was to bring the Festival to the attention of the townspeople and the roving band paraded around the town playing music while also performing in some twenty different retail outlets, mostly small independent traders. They also visited and played in Abergavenny’s famed Market Hall, the venue for the free Jazz Alley event on the Sunday of the Festival.
The strolling players were filmed during their perambulations and their performances appeared in four short videos which were posted on the Black Mountain Jazz Facebook page and Youtube channel and attracted over 10,000 ‘hits’ worldwide as BMJ went both global and viral. The publicity campaign certainly worked with the Festival enjoying good attendance figures - and with the Festival performances also being live-streamed the BMJ message continued to be preached worldwide.
For BMJ’s first event of 2018 it was decided to invite these club stalwarts back to play a slightly more formal concert at BMJ’s HQ, the Melville Centre. Promoter Mike Skilton was awarded with an excellent audience head count as a near full house turned out to see these local heroes and heroines perform.
The newly christened Wall2Wall Festival Street Stompers were led by Steve Tarner, a respected double bassist on the South Wales jazz scene, but here playing banjo, as he had done on those original ‘street stomping sessions’. He was joined by Martha Skilton on tenor saxophone, Francis Gryspeerdt on clarinet and Debs Hancock on vocals, the latter responsible for naming the ensemble. Cardiff based percussionist Kenneth Russell Everitt had played washboard at the original peripatetic sessions. Tonight he had arrived by train bringing with him a minimal drum kit featuring one snare drum, one tambourine and a selection of sticks and brushes. For tonight’s concert the Street Stompers were expanded to a sextet with the addition of popular Cardiff based trombonist Gareth Roberts, who also doubled up on euphonium.
Now, I’ll be quite honest, trad jazz isn’t really my favourite variety of the music and I approached this show with a degree of trepidation, despite being a fan of many of the performers involved. I needn’t have worried as this proved to be a good natured and highly enjoyable evening of music making that included plenty of surprises. Despite the line up this was far from being predictable New Orleans fare.
That said things began in relatively conventional fashion with Hancock’s playful delivery of “Exactly Like You”, the arrangement paced by Tarner’s banjo and Everitt’s brushed snare. Meanwhile the three horns dovetailed appealingly in a N’awlins kind of way with individual solos following from Gryspeerdt on clarinet, Skilton on tenor and Roberts on trombone.
Next came the first real surprise of the evening, a New Orleans style arrangement of the Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” featuring an incisive tenor solo from Skilton. Meanwhile Roberts fulfilled some of the bass functions on euphonium, an instrument I’d not seen him perform on in public before. The Aberystwyth born musician actually started out on euphonium before making the switch to trombone, having played in brass bands during his youth.
Hancock promised that the line up would deliver a set of “likely and not so likely” songs and the next piece offered an even bigger surprise as Roberts stuck with the euphonium for a cheeky, spirited, but totally unexpected take on Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” with Skilton again the featured instrumental soloist.
“Blue Skies”, with Roberts back on trombone represented more conventional jazz fare and included solos from Gryspeerdt on clarinet and Skilton on tenor.
But we were soon back in “unlikely” territory once more with the sextet’s take on “Mad World”, written by Roland Orzabal for his band Tears For Fears and later covered by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews. Introduced by Tarner on banjo and propelled by the sound of Everitt’s sticks on rims the piece included solos from Gryspeerdt on clarinet and Skilton on fine, bluesy tenor.
The saxophonist also featured on a breezy “Fly Me To The Moon” which signalled a brief return to more orthodox jazz material.
An extended instrumental intro to “Almost Like Being Love” featured some excellent interplay between the three horns prior to Hancock’s delivery of the lyric. Roberts’ then earned some of the most enthusiastic applause for the night for a rousing trombone solo.
The first set then concluded with a final visit to the world of pop with an arrangement of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper”. Given the inclusion of a saxophone solo in the recorded version it was inevitable that Skilton would feature as she shared the solos with Gryspeerdt on clarinet as Roberts played a more supportive role on euphonium.
The general consensus at half time was just how much fun the evening had been thus far. Tarner’s New Orleans style arrangements of pop and rock tunes had come as a delightful surprise and despite the lack of any real rehearsal time the band tackled them with considerable aplomb. Hancock was an engaging singer and spokesperson who conducted the evening with an easy charm while the abilities of Skilton and Roberts as fluent and accomplished jazz soloists was already well known to me. I knew rather of less of Gryspeerdt but he also impressed with his clarinet playing, he also doubles on saxophone in other contexts. But ultimately it was Tarner calling the shots, choosing the running order and setting the tempo for each song via the banjo. His colleagues responded with wit, warmth and skill and any occasional rough edges were quickly forgiven by a supportive audience. After all this was a one off band playing a very adventurous set of improbable material and having great fun in the process.
The second set featured more of the same with Tarner’s banjo introducing “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You”, one of the songs that was videoed at the original street sessions. A vivacious Hancock vocal was supported by solos from Gryspeerdt on clarinet, Skilton on tenor and Roberts on plunger muted trombone.
Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Mr To The End Love” had previously been featured at BMJ as part of a Cohen themed performance by vocalist Christine Tobin but this version, featuring Roberts on euphonium and incorporating a powerful, probing tenor solo from Skilton was very different.
A version of Blondie’s “Call Me” featuring a passage of scat vocalising from Hancock and another impressive sax solo from Skilton kept the music firmly in the realms of the unexpected. Skilton’s involvement with a couple of popular soul bands in the South Wales area may have meant that she was more familiar with the non jazz material than some of her colleagues.
A combination of clarinet, tenor sax and euphonium introduced the Stompers’ version of Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” with Hancock’s theatrical vocals capturing something of the composer’s caustic wit.
“Georgia” called Tarner. “The sweet one or the one on my mind?” shot back Roberts. It turned out to be the latter with Hoagy Carmichael’s tune performed as an instrumental with solos from Gryspeerdt on clarinet, Skilton on big toned tenor and Roberts on trombone.
“Percolatin’ Blues”, another song filmed during the summer, kept the music firmly in New Orleans territory and included some excellent instrumental interplay between Gryspeerdt and Skilton and later between the clarinettist and Roberts on euphonium. Elsewhere we enjoyed a playful Hancock vocal and a final tenor solo from Skilton.
The evening concluded with the music relocating to South Carolina for a spirited romp through “The Charleston”, another song to have appeared on video. Skilton led the solos off on tenor followed by Roberts on trombone, who then switched to euphonium to accompany Gryspeerdt’s clarinet solo. Hancocks’ improvised lyrics detailing the previous “Street Stompin’ Experience” were the cherry on the cake. A great, fun way to end a very enjoyable evening.
I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this evening of trad jazz with a twist. Tarner’s arrangements were clever and witty and allowed plenty of room for Hancock and the three horn soloists to express themselves. There many fine individual moments but plenty of impressive ensemble playing too with the three horns combining well. Tarner and Everitt provided the necessary rhythmic impetus and kept things chugging along nicely. The audience actually appreciated the spontaneity of it all and entered into the spirit of fun generated by this affable, but very capable bunch of musicians.
An unexpected treat and an excellent start to the year for BMJ. Next month sees club favourite Gilad Atzmon visiting for a lunchtime performance on February 25th with the quartet Talinka, led by his wife the vocalist and songwriter Tali Atzmon. It will be very different to this evening but I suspect that another bumper crowd will be in attendance. Full details are available at http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk
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