by Ian Mann
January 16, 2024
The standard of the playing was exceptional throughout and the sound quality excellent. They just keep getting better and better.
Will Barnes Quartet, STOP Cafe, Shrewsbury, 12/01/2024.
Will Barnes – guitar, Jack Gonsalez – keyboard, Clovis Philips – double bass, James Batten – drums
This performance was part of a tour in support of the album “Source of the Severn”, the first full length release from this quartet led by the guitarist and composer Will Barnes.
Released in October 2023 in vinyl and digital formats the album features nine original compositions inspired by the landscape and places of the Welsh Marches, the beautiful area that all the members of the group call home.
The physical version of the recording is presented on two twelve inch, 33 rpm discs pressed on very thick vinyl. The album packaging 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. Hughes has accompanied the band on the current tour and the musical performances have been complemented by Hughes’ live visuals, but more on this later.
The “Source of the Severn” album is appraised here, with this review also providing the source of the following biographical details;
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, these eventually finding their way on to “Source of the Severn”. The performance even included Barnes’ scat vocalising, which was surprisingly effective.
A number of the jazz standards that feature in the quartet’s repertoire can be heard on the digital EP “Time Capsule Vol. 1”, which was released in October 2022 and is available via the quartet’s Bandcamp page.
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 can be found here;
As befits the theme of the new album most of the dates on the current tour have taken place in Wales and the Borders and I had originally intended to cover the quartet’s show in Presteigne on the following evening. However this clashed with Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s gig at The Hive featuring vibraphonist Jonny Mansfield and his quartet. I didn’t want to miss either gig so elected to make the drive up to Shrewsbury two nights on the bounce. I was just glad that the flooding caused by Storm Henk had subsided so quickly.
Tonight represented my first visit to the STOP Cafe, which is part of the Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery complex. It serves as the Museum cafe during the day but is available for private hire in the evenings and in this capacity it has hosted a number of other live music performances. It’s a small, intimate performance space and offers good quality coffee plus a licenced bar serving a good selection of locally brewed beers. The facilities are clean and modern and the atmosphere and décor pleasantly bohemian. I rather liked the place.
Right, that’s the end of the ‘Tripadvisor’ review as it’s high time I got on with writing about the music. The first set commenced with album opener “The Mad March Hare”, written by Barnes in 2020 during the first Covid lockdown. This was an appropriately lively and exuberant piece featuring Barnes’ mercurial bebop inspired melodies, these shadowed by Gonsalez’s darting piano lines. The latter was playing a Nord Grand electric keyboard on an acoustic piano setting throughout, so for the purpose of this review I’ll refer to the instrument as a ‘piano’. Indeed Gonsalez was to feature as a soloist, his joyous excursion followed by a sparky drum feature from Batten. Barnes then reassumed the lead on guitar for the spirited outro.
The second item saw the group giving the Stevie Wonder song “I Can’t Help it” the “Will Barnes Quartet treatment” in a jazzy, bebop inspired arrangement that incorporated solos from Gonsalez and Barnes. The guitarist names jazz guitar greats such as Wes Montgomery, Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel, Grant Green, Jim Hall and Pat Metheny as sources of inspiration. He also acknowledges pianist Oscar Peterson as a particularly significant influence.
The title of “Marchia Wallia” is a translation of the Latin for Welsh Marches. It was jointly written by the members of the quartet during rehearsal sessions in Oswestry and represents the band’s musings about the mixed identity that comes from living in a border region. This was introduced by the sounds of Barnes’ guitar and Phillips’ bowed bass, subsequently complemented by piano and percussion shadings. Batten subsequently established an implacable drum groove that provided the foundations for solos from Barnes and Phillips, the latter now having dispensed with the bow. The dialogue between these two was expanded upon by the entire band, the music subsequently developing into an all encompassing collective roar.
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 introduction of the full band saw Barnes take over as the featured soloist, but with his playing subject to interjections from Phillips. Gonsalez was next to feature at the piano, followed by Batten, who entered into a series of lively exchanges with Barnes and Gonsalez in an example of ‘trading fours’.
“An Echo of Spring” was written during the winter months and looked forward to the coming of spring. A true ballad, this saw the quartet cooling things down with Barnes’ gentle guitar melodies softly shadowed by piano and bass as Batten deployed a combination of mallets and brushes. Gonsalez’s lyrical piano solo was followed by an unaccompanied guitar coda that incorporated elements of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages”.
A swinging version of the jazz standard “Almost Like Being In Love” raised the energy levels once more and incorporated solos from Gonsalez, Phillips and Barnes.
A lengthy first set concluded with a return to the album repertoire and the tune “Lle Mae Trefaldwyn”, which translates as “Where’s Montgomery?”, a clever bilingual / musical pun. Naturally this was something of a feature for Barnes, who shared the solos with Gonsalez and Phillips. Barnes favours an orthodox jazz guitar sound and alternates between finger picking and use of the plectrum. Unusually for this day and age he eschews the use of effects pedals, hence his lines are pure, swinging and melodic.
Set two commenced with a spirited, swinging romp through the Clifford Brown tune “Joyspring”, a bebop classic that here included solos from Barnes, Gonsalez and Batten.
A second outside item followed, an arrangement of the enduringly popular Miles Davis tune “All Blues”, with Gonsalez, Barnes and Phillips featuring as soloists.
The first original of the second half was the ballad “Up On The Hill”, ushered in by a gentle series of blues inflected guitar and piano exchanges. With the addition of double bass and brushed drums the bluesy lyricism continued via the solos of Gonsalez, Barnes and Phillips, before Barnes’ James Bond theme quote represented the signal for the group members to pick up the pace, perhaps reflecting the mood changes invoked by being ‘up on the hill’.
The blues influence continued into “The Dragon’s Tail”, a livelier piece that saw Barnes squeezing yet more quotes into his solo. This was a piece that featured all the members of the band, with Gonsalez’s piano solo followed by features for both Phillips and Batten.
Also from the new album “Passing Time” represents Barnes’ tribute to his fellow guitarist, the late, great Joe Pass. This was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied guitar, later punctuated by Batten’s succinct drum commentary. As the pace increased the music became more boppish and saw Gonsalez sharing the solos with Barnes.
The second set concluded with the title track from “Source Of The Severn”, a more episodic composition that seemed to chart the course of the river and which exhibited something of a Pat Metheny influence. The arpeggiated rippling of Gonsalez’s piano certainly evoked the aquatic imagery as once again he shared soloing duties with the leader.
Barnes has a number of fast paced jazz and bebop classics set aside for encores. Tonight’s encore was richly deserved and proved to be a quick fire, high energy ‘freestyle’ romp through John Coltrane’s “Impressions”, with solos from Barnes, Gonsalez and Batten plus a thrilling series of guitar / piano exchanges towards the close. Terrific stuff.
During the course of the evening the band had played all nine tracks from the new album plus a fascinating series of arrangements of a variety of jazz and bebop classics. The standard of the playing was exceptional throughout and the sound quality excellent. As one regular observer of the band remarked the younger members of the group are now beginning to put their own stamp on the music and the performances were subtly different to those at both Brecon and Kidderminster. This was the third time that I’d seen the quartet live and I agree, they just keep getting better and better. These are four exceptional musicians and should they ever decide to leave the Marches and head down to London their talents would rapidly be in demand.
My thanks to all the band members for speaking with me after the show, to Zoe Barnes for organising my press tickets, and also to Erin Hughes who had provided the live visuals, responding to what the musicians were playing on stage. To be honest STOP wasn’t the best venue in which to her appreciate her work and I’m told that the visual aspect of this project has worked best at venues that are also equipped for film screenings and have the necessary cinematic technology. Having now seen some still photographs from the show at Presteigne Assembly Rooms, which does have the appropriate gear, I can now appreciate just what we should have been seeing.
I had expected Hughes’ album artworks to be projected behind the group as they played, but instead the visuals were far more interactive and abstract with Hughes using live liquid marbling techniques to create a light show that reminded me of the Hawkwind shows of the 1970s. I suspect that Hawkwind’s lighting engineer Jonathan Smeeton (aka Liquid Len) probably deployed similar techniques, as did the Grateful Dead’s lighting gurus. My thanks to Erin for explaining her techniques to me, something that I found very interesting. However I did feel very old when she told me that she had never heard of Hawkwind, notwithstanding the fact that the veteran space rockers are still churning it out more than fifty years later.
Although the visuals couldn’t be seen at their best this was still an excellent evening of sound and vision from five very talented people.
The final date of the “Source Of The Severn Tour” will take place on January 26th 2024 at the Elysium Gallery in Swansea where Hughes currently has an exhibition named “Where We Are”.
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