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Will Butterworth Trio

Live: ?Jazz Sing Out? The Assembly Rooms, Presteigne 07/11/2008


by Ian Mann

November 10, 2008


Another memorable music night in Presteigne. Well done to all concerned

This was the third of the “Sing Out” series of events promoted by Tony Walton of Tigerfish Productions and the first to have jazz as it’s theme. Family connections had made it possible for Walton to bring Butterworth, a highly talented young London based pianist to the Welsh Border town of Presteigne.

In an unusual instrumental line up Butterworth was joined by two big jazz names in the form of drummer Dylan Howe and saxophonist Jake McMurchie. Howe is a band leader in his own right with his own fiery, hard bop inspired quintet and he has also occupied the drum chair with the Blockheads. Bristol based McMurchie is part of the award winning group (Get) The Blessing. Their album “All Is Yes” won the prize for best album at the 2008 BBC Jazz Awards and is reviewed elsewhere on this site. Support came from local pianist, singer and radio personality Nonny James accompanied by saxophonist Stuart Spiers.

I have written before of the poor attendances at gigs in urban centres such as Birmingham and Cardiff. However I have been heartened recently by the sell out crowds in small towns such as Abergavenny (for Dan Stern and Andy Sheppard) and Much Wenlock (Bobo Stenson Trio). These have been listening audiences, knowledgeable and appreciative and I am pleased to say that all these things applied at Presteigne, where a large crowd gave the musicians a great reception.

It is difficult to assess just what the audience is going to be at a jazz gig. If this event had been put on in the larger town of Leominster just ten miles down the road I suspect that barely a dozen people would have turned up. Attendances in nearby Ludlow have sometimes been poor too.

But Presteigne is a hot bed of live music thanks in no small part to the tireless Pete Mustill who regularly promotes quality gigs and festivals in the town (mainly world/roots music) in addition to running “Broad Sheep” the indispensable local listings magazine. Mustill is a musician himself, a guitarist and occasional vocalist with popular local outfits such as The Tango Band and the Rumbajax plus their various offshoots. His industry contacts enable him to bring quality musicians to Presteigne and audiences have learnt to trust his judgement and be willing to take a chance with something they perhaps haven’t heard before. With acclaimed folk/rock musicians John Jones (Oysterband) and Benji Kirkpatrick (Bellowhead) living locally there is definitely a “Presteigne Scene”, something the enterprising Tony Walton was able to tap into when promoting this evening of excellent music. The efforts of the Mid Border Arts Association should be acknowledged too for their role in promoting the cultural life of the town.

The Assembly rooms is an intimate venue with good acoustics and a rather splendid Steinway grand piano. With a large crowd seated in part cabaret style the scene was set for a memorable evening of music.

Proceedings commenced with a lengthy set from Nonny James. Accompanying herself on a Technics P50 keyboard she opened with a setting of “In Flanders Fields”, highly topical with Remembrance Day approaching.

Next came another anti war song “Nathan, Garrett and Cody”, concerning itself with more recent events in Iraq. This poignant piece was written by Les Barker, better known for his work with folk/comedy outfit the Mrs Ackroyd Band. This revealed his credentials as a serious songwriter.

Following her own “Happy Builders” James introduced saxophonist Stuart Spiers to the stage. A stalwart of the Shropshire jazz scene Spiers joined James for a series of covers of better known material drawing mainly on jazz standards but also featuring soul, blues and folk.

James is a versatile singer capable of moving between genres. Her voice was powerful and soulful and she put her own stamp on standards such as “Summertime” and “God Bless The Child”.

She tackled soul with Carole King’s “Natural Woman” (made famous by the “queen of soul” Aretha Franklin) in gospel style, even eliciting an audience singalong.

Blues came in the form of T Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” with Spiers contributing one of a series of pithy tenor sax solos. He also doubled on flute on James’ version of “My Funny Valentine” which she dedicated to promoter Tony Walton. Spiers also appeared on flute on Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” this one dedicated to all the ageing hippies in the room.

Other jazz standards included “They Can’t That Away From Me” and “As Time Goes By” both with enjoyable contributions from Spiers on tenor.

James’ set was well received and the duo returned for an encore of “Wonderful World”. It had been an enjoyable and good humoured set with an interesting mix of familiar and less well known material. However I couldn’t help but feel that it might have sounded better if James had utilised the grand piano rather than the electric keyboard. I found the tone of the electric instrument somewhat irritating and felt that it detracted from her voice. All in all though a pretty decent start.

Introducing the Butterworth trio Walton promised that they would take us to the “cutting edge”. This they duly did with two lengthy segues of high quality music which saw them improvising at length on a selection of interesting and varied material.

Butterworth is unusual among the younger generation of jazz musicians in being largely self taught. He studied genetics at university rather than going down the familiar music college route. Born in Edinburgh he is now based in London and these days is a full time professional musician.

Butterworth cites Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau among his primary influences together with Thelonious Monk from an earlier generation. The Jarrett influence was immediately obvious in Butterworth’s playing, a blend of classical and gospel influences, the left hand as important as the right. His absorption in his playing and his body language at the instrument were also reminiscent of Jarrett as were his vocalised yelps of approval.

Butterworth commenced in solo mode with his own composition “Sunday”.In due course Howe joined him, initially utilising brushes before taking up the sticks. McMurchie then too joined the fray as the trio segued into a rendition of the standard “Autumn Leaves” with the saxophonist soloing on tenor. A dialogue between drums and piano was followed by an impressive solo feature for Howe before the trio moved into Ornette Coleman’s “When Will The Blues Leave” with McMurchie again soloing powerfully on tenor. Fimally came the distinctive sound of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing”.

Amazingly this was only the second time the trio had played together, although Butterworth and Howe have worked together before. Already a high degree of interaction was apparent, particularly between pianist and drummer.

McMurchie took up soprano for the next segue, his unaccompanied playing issuing in the ballad “I Fall In Love Too Easily”. His solo was followed by Butterworth on piano and by Howe at the drums exhibiting an exquisite cymbal touch. McMurchie switched to tenor for his own arrangement of “How Long Has This Been Going On”, a piece which included more brilliant playing from Butterworth, his two handed approach producing prodigious left hand rhythms in a stunning display of virtuosity.

These lengthy free-wheeling excursions had produced some scintillating playing and were enthusiastically greeted by the Presteigne audience. It’s not often that the town has seen such a dazzling display of largely improvised music.

The trio closed with a more concise version of Thelonious Monk’s “Nutty” with it’s jagged rhythms. McMurchie remained on tenor and there was another major solo for dynamic drummer Howe.

The audience weren’t going to let them go that easily and the trio were called back for an encore. This was a graceful mutation of the standard “Body And Soul” with McMurchie’s tenor in smoky ballad mode. Butterworth also soloed gracefully.

This had been hugely impressive stuff with a great audience reaction to some complex but accessible music. It had been interesting to see Howe in a different context rather than driving his own quintet, powering the Blockheads or collaborating in his dad’s (ex Yes guitarist Steve Howe) new jazz trio. Much the same applied to McMurchie whose playing here was much more straight ahead than his electrified staccato blasting with (Get) The Blessing (now the official name, he tells me).

As for Butterworth he is an exciting new discovery who quickly stamped his own personality on the proceedings despite the Jarrett comparisons. He has worked in a duo with that doyen of British drummers Bill Bruford (another former Yes man) and led a more conventional piano trio with bass and drums. On the evidence of tonight’s show this line up with Howe and McMurchie has great potential too.

Sadly Butterworth is poorly represented on record. His eponymous album is a recording of solo piano pieces including original compositions, free improvisations and jazz standards (including “Bemsha Swing”). I’ve not heard this and would like to do so but it would be good for him to get the opportunity to record in some form of trio format also. The album “Will Butterworth” appears on the Music Chamber label catalogue no. MC 0003.

Another memorable music night in Presteigne. Well done to all concerned. For details of other “Sing Out” events contact Tony Walton on 01568 770177.

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