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Webb City

Webb City, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Theatre, Abergavenny, 20/04/2022.

Photography: Photograph by Pam Mann

by Ian Mann

April 22, 2022


A stunning level of instrumental virtuosity and an equally astonishing knowledge of this now vintage repertoire. These were young men performing the music of the 20s, 30s & 40s with casual brilliance.

Webb City, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Theatre, Abergavenny, 20/04/2022.

Joe Webb – piano, Dave Archer – guitar, Will Sach – double bass

Tonight’s performance represented BMJ’s first regular club night since the brilliant performance by the Fergus McCreadie Trio on 23rd February 2020, for me the best performance I’ve ever witnessed at the Club. Review here;

It was therefore fitting that the first club night for over two years should feature another prodigiously talented young pianist, Swansea born Joe Webb, who was leading his Webb City trio featuring guitarist Dave Archer and bassist Will Sach.

Webb was making a welcome return to BMJ after appearing at the Club’s annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in the summer of 2021. The Festival was a ‘hybrid’ affair that featured live performances to a limited capacity audience in the semi open air setting of the Barn at White House Farm in the village of Llanvetherine near Abergavenny. The acts involved were also filmed and recorded at The Melville Centre by Mark Viveash of 47 Studios & Productions. The footage of these performances was subsequently edited and the finished videos were streamed during the winter, running for November 2021 to February 2022.

Webb appeared as part of a duo with vocalist Ella Hohnen-Ford and the pair got the Festival’s programme off to a great start as they explored some of the lesser known corners of ‘The Great American Songbook’. My review of the duo’s live performance can be found here;

The streamed performance featured a substantially different song selection and is reviewed here;

The shows with Hohnen-Ford demonstrated Webb’s remarkable knowledge of the established jazz repertoire.  “He’s like a book, he knows it all”, commented Hohnen-Ford of Webb, while drummer Alex Goodyear more recently observed “he’s got a brain the size of a planet”.

Webb  has been based in London since 2013. He is a highly versatile musician who is equally in demand on piano and Hammond organ and who has worked with Kansas Smitty’s House Band, Fraser & The Alibis, Old Hat Jazz Band, guitarist Rob Luft and clarinettist Adrian Cox.  He has also released two EPs with his piano trio featuring Empirical members Tom Farmer (bass) and Shane Forbes (drums).

It’s perhaps because of his work with ‘revivalists’ such as Kansas Smitty’s and the Old Hat Jazz Band that his knowledge of the repertoire has become so encyclopedic but his work with the brilliant Luft features his playing in a far more contemporary context. Webb appears on both of Luft’s acclaimed albums for Edition Records, “Riser” (2017) and “Life is the Dancer” (2020), both of which are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann, as is a superb live performance by the Rob Luft Band at The Hive in Shrewsbury in June 2019.

Webb appears on the latest Kansas Smitty’s release “Things Happened Here” and it is his involvement that organisation that led to the Webb City project. The brainchild of of the Italian/American saxophonist and clarinettist Giacomo Smith Kansas Smitty’s is both a band and a bar and music venue in Broadway Market, Hackney, East London. The venue has played a key role in the current jazz revival that, in London at least, has seen a younger audience being attracted to the music. During the 2020/21 Covid lockdowns Kansas Smitty’s continued to stream performances on a regular basis.

The band was first formed in 2013 as Smith gathered around him a group of young musicians with an interest in a broad range of vintage jazz styles, among them Joe Webb, newly arrived in London. The venue itself opened a couple of years later and has since played host to many of the rising stars of the UK jazz scene. The Kansas Smitty’s House Band, which now works under the truncated name Kansas Smitty’s, has released a number of albums, including the excellent “Things Happened Here”, a more contemporary offering from the ensemble. Review here;

At Smith’s suggestion Kansas Smitty’s regulars Webb and Archer got together with Sach to create a trio based on American pianist Art Tatum’s trio from the 1940s, a drummerless combo featuring bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist Tiny Grimes. The project toured under the name “The Art of Tatum” (also the title of a Tatum album) before mutating into Webb City as the trio added the work of other pianist /composers to their repertoire, notably Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington. The Webb City band name is an obvious reference to the trio’s pianist, but also pays homage to a composition of the same name by pianist Bud Powell.

Much of the above information was imparted to us by Webb himself during the course of a show compromising of two sets of music plus an interval interview with Webb, Archer and Sach conducted by BMJ’s Debs Hancock. The interview and the second set were also livestreamed, courtesy of Viveash and 47 Studios, to an online audience, one of the few benefits to emerge in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

Webb was playing the venue’s upright acoustic piano and it was fascinating to watch both his brilliant playing and the mechanics of the instrument itself. The trio kicked off with a lively rendition of “I Would Do Anything For You”,  which introduced the individual voices of the band, Webb on piano, Archer on a classic solid bodied ‘archtop’ jazz guitar and Sach on a double bass that looked even older than the group’s chosen material, two sets of tunes largely ranging from the 1920s to the 1950s. All three were to feature as soloists on this opening number, with Sach exchanging phrases with Archer.

In a rare coincidence this was the second drummerless trio I’d seen in a week following the excellent performance by Transatlantic Hot Club (Ben Creighton-Griffiths, -harp, Adrien Chevalier – violin, vocals, Ashley John Long – double bass)  at Brecon Jazz Club on Easter Sunday. The instrumentation may have been different but both trios were exploring a similar period of jazz history, albeit in different jazz styles and different perspectives – European and American respectively. What united both groups was a stunning level of instrumental virtuosity and an equally astonishing knowledge of this now vintage repertoire. These were young men performing the music of the 20s, 30s and 40s with an almost casual brilliance.

Inspired by the Billie Holiday recording the trio’s version of “I Cover The Waterfront” boasted a lazy, bluesy sense of swing and featured Sach’s melodic double bass soloing alongside the solos of Archer and Webb.

“Hamp’s Blues”, a composition by guitarist Wes Montgomery and a piece selected by Archer was as up to date as the trio got. This was ushered in with a dialogue between guitar and piano before Sach’s propulsive bass lines helped to fuel a particularly lithe and agile solo from Archer. His sophisticated bebop inspired chording was a notable feature of his playing. Webb’s own solo featured a rollicking take on Wes’s tune that was rapturously received by the BMJ audience.

Another Billie Holiday inspired tune, “How Am I To Know?” represented the first true ballad of the evening. The song had been introduced to Webb by Sach and the bassist’s own melodic playing was a particular feature of the performance as he shared the solos with Webb and Archer.

From Tatum’s “1944” trio album came Tatum’s arrangement of fellow pianist Fats Waller’s song “Honeysuckle Rose”. On the original album it represented a feature for guitarist Tiny Grimes. Tonight it was Archer who stepped into the spotlight, his performance notable both for the quality of his soloing and his melodic interplay with pianist Webb.

The first set concluded with a “Medley”, a segue of the slow blues “Lonesome Road” with Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”.  Part one featured Archer’s blues tinged guitar and Sach’s melodic bass before the pace accelerated with “Anything Goes”. Here Webb and Archer exchanged solos before coming together to deliver a dazzling series of shorter exchanges, underpinned by Sach’s anchoring bass.

During the interval as audience members recharged their glasses at the bar the crew dragged a couple of sofas into the theatre to allow for Hancock’s interview with the band. The audience were also welcome to witness this and were commendably attentive as Webb talked about his childhood in Swansea, specifically Morriston, and of how he was introduced to jazz by his grandfather. Webb’s passion for music eventually superseded his love of football and he talked of his old piano teachers in Swansea and Neath. He named Oscar Peterson as his primary influence and also talked about the Webb City project, much of this particular content having been utilised by myself earlier in the article. It is intended that Webb City will recorded their début album later in the year. Sach and Archer had less to say but did talk a little about Kansas Smitty’s and the wider jazz scene as a whole. I’m now looking forward to seeing the full Kansas Smitty’s line up at the forthcoming Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

After the sofas had been manoeuvred out again the shorter second set began with Peterson’s “Noreen’s Nocturne,” which saw the trio negotiating some complex unison melody lines on the lively bebop inspired intro. The virtuosity continued into the solos of both Archer and Webb, both of whom demonstrated some remarkably agile finger work. Towards the close they both traded ideas with bassist Webb as the second half got off to an invigorating start.

Things calmed down with the first Ellington composition of the evening, the ballad “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing”, which demonstrated a more lyrical side of the trio’s playing. This piece was a feature for Archer, who names Django Reinhardt as his main influence. Appropriately there was a photograph of Reinhardt right behind the guitarist, pictured on the “Europe” panel from BMJ’s “Jazz Through The Ages” exhibition. Behind Webb’s piano was the panel titled “Swing”, which was highly appropriate, although this trio didn’t really need a reminder!

A second Ellington tune immediately followed. “Pitter Patter Panther” was written as a feature for Duke’s bassist Jimmy Blanton, arguably the first real double bass soloist. Sach revelled in the Blanton role in a virtuoso dialogue with Webb as Archer sat out. This scintillating duo performance was extremely well received by the Abergavenny audience.

The “Swing” panel featured a picture of Benny Goodman and it was his composition “Flyin’ Home”, in an arrangement by Tatum that closed the set. The tune later became the signature tune of the Goodman band’s drummer / pianist / vibraphonist Lionel Hampton when the latter went solo as the leader of his own bands. Best known as a big band piece the tune worked just as well in this pared down format with the trio delivering some dazzling unison passages and some equally dizzying examples of instrumental interplay, in pretty much equal measure.

The deserved encore featured Webb solo, playing the Welsh hymn tune “Ar Hyd Y Nos” (“All Through The Night”), a piece that he had also performed at The Barn in Llanvetherine. Once again his flowing jazz extemporisations expanded upon the original melody, but without sacrificing anything of its essential beauty.  At The Barn Webb and Hohnen-Ford had performed alongside the sound of a family of swallows nesting in the eaves - “our little choir of backing vocalists” as Hohnen-Ford remarked at the time. The Barn concert and the contribution made by the swallows had been recalled by Webb during the half time interview.

BMJ’s return to regular club events was a great success. Webb, Archer and Sach all performed superbly and it was also a joy for audience members to catch up with old friends again after an eight month hiatus.

The music was terrific and I shall look forward to hearing the Webb City album when it appears. My thanks to Joe, Will and Dave for speaking with me afterwards and congratulations to Mike Skilton, Debs Hancock and the rest of the BMJ team for getting things up and running again.

My only reservation regarded the half time interview, which took a while to set up and possibly curtailed the second set. That said the interview itself was totally engrossing and it would be good to retain it as part of the gig going experience. A little fine tuning may be required, but overall I’d like to see it continue.

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