by Ian Mann
June 02, 2023
A thoroughly enjoyable performance from this highly accomplished young quartet. The collective rapport was sharper than ever and the individual playing excellent all round.
Will Barnes Quartet, Kidderminster Jazz Club, 45 Live Venue, Kidderminster, Worcs. 01/06/2023.
Will Barnes – guitar, Jack Gonsalez – keyboard, Clovis Phillips – double bass, James Batten - drums
The Jazzmann has been aware of the playing of guitarist Will Barnes for a number of years and first saw him performing with the trio Inspector Gadjo, a group that played a mix of Django Reinhardt inspired gypsy jazz and American bebop inspired by the likes of Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery.
Inspector Gadjo worked regularly with saxophonist Casey Greene and in 2010 released the album “Samba 48”, which is reviewed here;
Based in Mid Wales Barnes has been a regular visitor to Brecon for both Club and Festival events, appearing alongside such musicians as violinist Sarah Barnwell (once of Inspector Gadjo) and fellow guitarists Deirdre Cartwright and Jean Guyomarc’h. He appears on Barnwell’s eponymous début album, which was released in 2017 and is reviewed here;
Other musicians with whom he has performed are saxophonist Alan Barnes (no relation, as far as I know), violinist Dan Cassidy and fellow guitarists Frank Vignola, Gary Potter and John Etheridge.
Barnes worked for a while with the highly successful gypsy jazz / crossover band Gypsy Fire, performed with function bands and even turned his hand to reggae and to heavy metal.
After a while off the scene concentrating on his ‘day job’ as an agronomist Barnes has returned to the jazz fold with an exciting new quartet featuring four talented twenty somethings based in his own Mid Wales neighbourhood. Pianist Jack Gonsalez and bassist Clovis Phillips are music graduates while self taught drummer James Batten, who also performs as a pianist and vocalist, has learnt his trade playing across a variety of musical genres.
In 2022 I saw this quartet play an excellent set as part of the “Family Jazz & Dance Day” at that year’s Brecon Jazz Festival. My review of this performance can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
The current quartet is clearly a labour of love for Barnes and the reputation of the band as an excellent live act is beginning to grow, The set list at Brecon had included a mix of jazz and bebop standards plus a sprinkling of original compositions written in the same general style. The performance even included Barnes’ scat vocalising, which was surprisingly effective.
Fast forward to 2023 and the quartet have been extremely busy in the interim between the Brecon and Kidderminster shows. Tonight’s performance placed a greater emphasis on original compositions and the band have now recorded their début album, which is due to be called “Source of the Severn”. The music itself has already been recorded and the album is due to be self released in the Autumn of 2023 once the mixing and artwork has been completed. It’s also possible that a label might become involved, which would widen distribution but would probably delay the album release until the spring of 2024. Nevertheless the release of an album by this excellent band is something to be looked forward to with relish, especially on the evidence of tonight’s excellent performance.
The music that has been documented on “Source of the Severn” is inspired by the landscape of the Welsh Marches, the borderlands where the group members live. Tonight’s show represented a rare English gig and Kidderminster was probably as far east as the quartet has ventured – so far.
Barnes loves the bebop inspired music of jazz guitar greats such as Wes Montgomery, Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel, Grant Green, Jim Hall, Pat Metheny and more. Barnes also acknowledges pianist Oscar Peterson as a significant influence.
The above inspirations certainly came into play on the opening “Stomping at the Trannon”, whose boppish theme included a prominent role for Phillips’ bass. Gonsalez took the first solo at his Nord Grand electric keyboard, adopting a broadly acoustic piano sound. Barnes’ opening solo immediately revealed him to be a highly accomplished guitarist with a frequently dazzling technique. Phillips followed on double bass and Batten weighed in with a series of crisply brushed drum breaks. At Brecon the band had opened with the jazz standard “Stompin’ at the Savoy”, a tune which appears on their digital EP “Time Capsule Vol. 1”. It’s tempting to think of “Stomping at the Trannon” as the quartet’s response to the much loved standard.
The title of “Lie Mae Trefaldwyn” translates as “Where’s Montgomery”, a clever reference to one of Barnes’ jazz heroes. Welsh audiences laugh at the joke immediately, we English have to have it explained to us – but it’s still funny. This piece had a more contemporary, episodic feel to it and made effective use of contrasting dynamics. Barnes was the first to solo, followed by Gonsalez and Phillips. The leader then returned for a second solo excursion, playing both with a plectrum and finger style, while his sophisticated chording offered further evidence of his masterful technique.
Also scheduled for the new album came “Marchia Wallia”, a title translating from the Latin as “Welsh Marches”. Written by the band in Oswestry the piece featured Batten’s slinkily seductive drum grooves, these forming the platform for Barnes’ typically nimble guitar soloing. Gonsalez’s keyboard solo mixed acoustic and electric piano sounds while Phillip’s bass solo combined a huge tone with a strong sense of melody.
As at Brecon the standard “On Green Dolphin Street” was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano from Gonsalez. The addition of bass, drums and guitar gave the leader a chance to demonstrate his bop chops with a fleet fingered solo.
It was back to the original material with the ballad “An Echo of Spring”, a tune written in the winter months and looking forward to the arrival of spring. This was introduced by the sounds of guitar and double bass, augmented by Batten’s cymbal shimmers. A passage of unaccompanied guitar followed, the rest of the quartet then subtly re-joining, with Batten wielding brushes. Gonsalez’s lyrical piano solo introduced a feeling of nostalgia, perhaps for the spring past rather than for the one yet to come. Phillips’ bass solo again demonstrated his gift for melody while Barnes’ solo eventually saw the other instrumentalists dropping out as the leader concluded the performance alone.
The first set concluded on an up tempo note with the bop flavoured “The Mad March Hare”, a suitably playful piece that was actually written by Barnes in 2020 during the first Covid lockdown. This featured the leader’s darting guitar melody lines, with Batten’s brisk, crisp drum grooves providing the necessary propulsion. Gonsalez was featured at the piano before Batten rounded things off with an appropriately exuberant drum feature.
Set two featured a similar mix of originals and standards and commenced with one of the latter, a version of the Charlie Parker tune “My Little Suede Shoes”. This saw the quartet hit the ground running with a lively arrangement that included solos from Gonsalez, Phillips and Barnes.
Barnes explained that Phillips’ bass had been made in the 1870s and had been passed down to Clovis by his grandmother. This was by way of introducing the tune “Katherine’s Bass”, which acted as something of a feature for Phillips who ushered in the piece unaccompanied. This passage really emphasised the beautiful but deeply resonant sound of this venerable instrument. The performance also included solos from Barnes and Gonsalez and included a further drum feature from Batten.
The ever adaptable Duke Ellington / Juan Tizol composition “Caravan” followed, with the band giving it an unusual rhythmic treatment and with Barnes and Gonsalez featuring as soloists. It’s an instantly memorable but infinitely versatile composition that can be treated in so many different ways. Barnes and the quartet definitely succeeded in saying something fresh about it.
Guitar and piano, subsequently joined by drums, ushered in “Up on the Hill”, this short introductory passage representing the most freely structured playing of the set. This was followed by a gentle passage of unaccompanied guitar as the piece appeared to metamorphose into a ballad with quietly melodic solos from Barnes and Gonsalez and with Batten deploying brushes. However Phillips’ bass solo led to a dramatic change of pace as Batten moved to sticks to lay down a solid back beat that represented the platform for a virtuoso bass solo stuffed with Stevie Wonder quotes.
Unaccompanied guitar introduced “Passing Time”, the title a tip of the hat in the direction of the great Joe Pass. The ballad like opening section then morphed into a more spirited, fast moving be-bop inspired passage led by Barnes’ guitar. Gonsalez then took over to solo at the keyboard, followed by Barnes, who answered Phillips with a few quotes of his own.
The title track of the “Source of the Severn” album closed the set, introduced by an extended passage of lyrical solo piano. This was an episodic piece, perhaps composed to mirror the journey of the river, with Barnes also acting as a soloist.
Although this wasn’t the biggest audience that KJC has hosted since its move to the 45 Live venue those that were there responded very positively to the band and called them back for a deserved encore. This proved to be a spirited romp through Ray Noble’s “Cherokee”, in Barnes’ words “a bit of fun”. Taken at a breakneck pace this featured truly virtuoso soloing from Barnes and Gonsalez and a high energy drum feature from Batten. This was great stuff and sent the crowd home very happy.
My thanks to Will and James for speaking with me at half time and after the gig and for again providing me with a set list – invaluable when it comes to those Welsh tune titles.
It’s been nearly ten months since I saw the band at Brecon. They were impressive then but have kicked on even further since with a bunch of new, high quality original tunes and a whole album in the bag ready and waiting for release. The collective rapport is sharper than ever and the individual playing excellent all round.
All in all this was a thoroughly enjoyable performance from this highly accomplished young quartet. I did however miss the sound of the grand piano that KJC used to have access to at their former home in Kidderminster Town Hall. Tonight’s show was good, but could have been even better if Gonsalez had been able to perform on a genuine acoustic piano. However, needs must, and presumably he gets to play one on the album.
The release of “Source of the Severn” will be very keenly anticipated, whenever it eventually appears.
In the meantime the digital release “”Time Capsule Vol. 1” can be obtained via Barnes’ Bandcamp page, which also offers access to additional video footage.
Stomping at the Savoy 05:55
My Little Suede Shoes 06:21
On Green Dolphin Street 05:33
Just the Two of Us 04:17
See also https://www.willbarnesmusic.co.uk/
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