by Ian Mann
October 23, 2023
Barnes’ writing is evocative, intelligent & varied, rooted in the bebop tradition but still sounding very contemporary and possessed of a real sense of place. The standard of the playing is excellent
Will Barnes Quartet
“Source of the Severn”
(Self Released – available via Bandcamp)
Will Barnes – guitar, Jack Gonsalez – piano, Clovis Philips – bass, James Batten – drums
“Source Of The Severn” is the debut full length album release from this quartet led by guitarist and composer Will Barnes.
Barnes is a musician who has featured on the Jazzmann web pages on numerous previous occasions. I first saw him perform 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 elsewhere 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 band has begun to acquire a reputation as an excellent live act. 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.
By the time that I caught up with the quartet again at Kidderminster Jazz Club in June 2023 there was a greater focus on original material, with most of the tracks from the “Source of the Severn” album appearing alongside a clutch of standards. My review of this performance, from which much of the above biographical detail has been sourced, can be found here;
Recorded in January 2023 “Source of the Severn” appears in vinyl and digital formats and features nine original compositions, eight from the pen of Barnes and one a collaborative effort from the whole group.
The vinyl version of the album is sumptuously packaged and features the artwork of Erin Hughes who created nine original illustrations in response to the music. These are featured in the handsome album booklet and there is clearly a great deal of mutual respect between the artist and the musicians, making this a very successful collaboration. The band are currently touring the album and the musical performances will be augmented by a live visual show featuring Hughes’ distinctive artwork.
Barnes describes the music on the album as being influenced by the classic bebop era and has cited Wes Montgomery, Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel, Grant Green, Jim Hall and Pat Metheny as his favourite guitarists. He has also acknowledged the inspiration of pianists Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. In addition to the musical influences Barnes also cites the inspiration of “the exquisite landscape of Mid-Wales and the Marches”.
The music is presented on two twelve inch, 45 rpm discs pressed on very thick vinyl. Side A commences with the lively, boppish “Mad March Hare”, a piece written by Barnes in 2020 during the first Covid lockdown. Suitably sprightly and playful the piece features Barnes’ darting guitar melody lines and lithe Wes Montgomery inspired soloing. Gonsalez impresses with an exuberant piano solo, as does Batten with a crisp drum feature. An exhilarating start.
The title of “Lie Mae Trefaldwyn” translates as “Where’s Montgomery”, a clever reference to one of Barnes’ jazz heroes, as well as to the composer’s geographical location. Welsh audiences laugh at the joke immediately, the English have to have it explained to them – but it’s still funny.
Introduced by Batten’s drums the piece has more a contemporary, episodic feel with the Wes Montgomery influence now filtered by way of Pat Metheny. Gonsalez takes the first solo at the piano, another sparkling contribution from him. Phillips follows on double bass, resonant and melodic. Gonsalez enjoys a further excursion at the piano, followed by a Barnes solo that also exhibits something of a flamenco influence.
“The Dragon’s Tail”, which concludes the first side, is one of the few pieces on the record that I haven’t seen played live. It’s a surprisingly playful ‘old school’ piece that swings impressively, with Phillips’ bass playing a prominent part in the arrangement. Barnes’ agile bebop inspired soloing is followed by features for Gonsalez, Phillips and Batten. I’m sure this item must have been added to the set lists for the current tour, it’s surely destined to become a favourite with audiences.
Side B gets under way with “Up On The Hill”, which begins as an airy ballad featuring Barnes’ cleanly picked guitar and the melodic soloing of Gonsalez and Phillips. Batten offers sympathetic support, deploying brushes at first before graduating to sticks as the music changes in terms of mood and momentum, eventually adopting a more playful, upbeat approach.
“Machia Wallia” is the collectively written piece, the title translating from the Latin as “Welsh Marches”. An evocative and highly melodic piece with a seductive drum groove it features lucid solos from Barnes, Gonsalez and Phillips. In addition to his impressive abilities as a guitar soloist Barnes is also a skilled and supportive accompanist, as his comping here demonstrates.
Phillips’ double bass was made in the 1870s and was been passed down to Clovis by his grandmother, hence the title of the tune “Katharine’s Bass”. Naturally the piece is something of a feature for Phillips, whose bass playing is featured in a series of agile exchanges with Barnes and also imparts a swinging momentum throughout. Barnes then solos more expansively, followed by Gonsalez. Batten is also featured in a series of lively trades with the other musicians.
Side C commences with “An Echo of Spring”, a tune written during the winter months and looking forward to the arrival of spring. One of Barnes’ gentlest and most melodic compositions it features the lyrical soloing of Barnes and Gonsalez, with Phillips and Batten providing suitably sensitive support, the latter deploying brushes throughout.
The energy levels increase with “Passing Time”, Barnes’ tribute to Barnes’ fellow guitarist, the great Joe Pass. A fast moving, bebop inspired piece it includes lively solos from both Gonsalez and Barnes and features a ‘clap along’ passage that will doubtless get audiences doing exactly that at the quartet’s live shows.
“Source of the Severn” itself is one of Barnes’ more episodic compositions, perhaps intended to mirror the journey of the river itself as it flows through the Welsh landscape. It incorporates fluent, melodic solos from Barnes and Gonsalez, with Phillips and Batten again providing sympathetic, well judged rhythmic support.
Side D is an alternate version of “Source of the Severn”, described as a “45 RPM Audiophile Cut”. There is a discernible difference in the audio quality, making this the definitive version of the title track.
“Source of the Severn” represents a major statement from Barnes and the quartet, and from Erin Hughes too. Barnes’ writing is evocative, intelligent and varied, rooted in the bebop tradition but still sounding very contemporary and possessed of a real sense of place. The standard of the playing is excellent throughout, the young band members impressing with their skill and their maturity.
As previously alluded to the whole album package is very impressive, but at £35.00 the vinyl does represent a substantial investment. I’ve been fortunate enough to have received a review copy and the album booklet also contains a ‘thank you’ for my previous support of the band. Cheers for that lads.
Nevertheless the price of the vinyl might deter some potential listeners and it’s a shame that there isn’t a CD run as I’m sure these would sell well at the band’s gigs. Jazz audiences still like to have physical copies but the cost of the vinyl might deter the waverers or the not fully committed. A CD would be a good halfway house between the vinyl and the digital. I do appreciate the fact that to get the most out of the artwork one would really need to buy the vinyl, but it should be possible to scale the booklet down to the CD format. Just a thought.
I’m looking forward to hearing the music and seeing the visuals on the current tour. The remaining dates are listed below;
03/11/2023 – SpArc Theatre, Bishops Castle
04/11/2023 – Hermon Arts, Oswestry
18/11/2023 – Clarence Hall, Crickhowell
24/11/2023 – Aberystwyth Arts Centre
25/11/2023 – Hanging Gardens, Llanidloes
12/01/2024 – Stop Café, Shrewsbury
13/01/2024 – Mid Border Arts, Presteigne
26/01/2024 – Elysium, Swansea
More details at http://www.willbarnesmusic.co.uk
“Source of the Severn” and the earlier digital release “”Time Capsule Vol. 1” can be obtained via Barnes’ Bandcamp page.
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