Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Women in Jazz in Wales

Women In Jazz in Wales, Borough Theatre, Abergavenny, 09/02/2023.

by Ian Mann

February 14, 2023


A unique multi-media performance featuring seven female jazz musicians currently based in Wales and playing together for the first time as a group. All in all the evening was a terrific success.

Women in Jazz in Wales, Borough Theatre, Abergavenny, 09/02/2023.

Deborah Glenister – tenor sax, clarinet, flute, piano, Siobhan Ellen Waters – vocals, piano, Jane Williams – vocals, ukulele, piano, Maria Lamburn – viola, bass clarinet, Xenia Porteous – violin, Paula Gardiner – double bass, acoustic guitar, Liz Exell – drums

Tonight’s event was a unique performance featuring seven female jazz musicians currently based in Wales and playing together for the first time as a group.

It was a joint promotion organised by Abergavenny jazz promoters Black Mountain Jazz, the Borough Theatre, Abergavenny and Archwilwyr Jazz Explorers, a project supported by the Arts Council of Wales.

Archwilwyr Jazz Explorers is a year long project that began in July 2022 with the aim of developing links, partnerships and work opportunities for Wales based musicians, with a focus on community, education and diversity.

It began by organising a fringe jazz programme to complement the primarily classical Aberystwyth Music Festival. It later collaborated with the Music Service Galeri in Caernarfon in an educational project that saw students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) exploring concepts of jazz improvisation and performance.

AJE’s final element is the Women In Jazz in Wales project, which has brought together seven female musicians from all over Wales, all of them instrumentalists, although some of them also sing. The programme that they presented placed a strong focus on their original compositions, although a number of jazz standards were also performed.

Tonight’s event was very much a multi-media production. The foyer of the newly refurbished Borough Theatre housed a pop up exhibition highlighting the role of female jazz musicians in Wales from the 19th century to the present day. This archive material was sourced from Jazz Heritage Wales and can usually be found as part of a larger exhibition housed at the University of Wales in Swansea. Among the musicians featured were the Ivy Benson All Girls Orchestra, drummer Chrissy Lee and tonight’s bassist Paula Gardiner. I wasn’t able to get to the venue early enough to explore the exhibition fully, which is a source of personal regret.

In addition each of the seven musicians had been filmed by Mark Viveash of 47 Studios & Productions, telling their musical stories to camera and these short ‘video profiles’ were screened between the musical performances.

A free printed programme had also been produced that included an essay from journalist Nigel Jarrett concerning the role of women in jazz, and in Welsh jazz in particular. There was also some background information on Archwilwyr Jazz Explorers and the Women in Jazz in Wales project, plus details of the featured set list – most invaluable for a reviewer.

The whole package was witnessed by around 150 people at a near capacity Borough Theatre with audience members seated cabaret style downstairs and with the circle practically full. It was good to so many at a jazz event, especially after such a great turnout at the recent Black Mountain Jazz club night at the Melville Centre for the BMJ Collective with guest saxophonists Alex Clarke and Dan Newberry.

Brecon Jazz Club had also enjoyed a healthy attendance for their first club night of 2022 when saxophonist Dick Hamer visited The Muse with his quartet, featuring the rhythm section of Gardiner and Exell. BJC had also got behind the Women In Jazz event and the audience was boosted by the presence of mini-bus load from Brecon, around twenty people in all.

The seven musicians filed on stage to a great reception and the evening commenced with an arrangement of the spiritual “Roll On Jordan”, a piece selected to honour the 1874 visit to Wales of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Nashville who had performed at the City Music Hall in Swansea, an event that was arguably the first ever jazz related performance in the country. With Waters at the piano Porteous’ violin and Glenister’s tenor sax took the instrumental lead as Waters and Williams shared the vocals.

Gardiner then announced the first film of the evening with multi-instrumentalist Deborah Glenister the first to feature. Each film was underscored either by a composition from the featured musician or by a collective improvisation. As the band softly played Glenister’s “Dusk and Daybreak” the composer told us something of her musical story, growing up in Llanelli, where her ‘pianist’s fingers’ were first spotted by the midwife that delivered her. She began learning the piano at a young age, before also taking up the clarinet and eventually the tenor saxophone. Glenister subsequently studied jazz at Leeds College of Music before moving back to her native South Wales where she has become a busy and popular presence on the local jazz scene as both a saxophonist and pianist. The 2022 Brecon Jazz Festival saw her guesting on saxophone with guitarist James Chadwick’s trio as well as leading her own trio from the piano.

Glenister’s film was then followed by a performance of her composition “The Honeybee” which saw the composer featured on clarinet, with violist Lamburn now on bass clarinet. Much of Glenister’s writing is inspired by the beauty of nature, and that of South Wales in particular. This was an attractive piece that began slowly and lyrically before upping the tempo to include a more animated ‘Hot Club’ style section that featured the sounds of Porteous’ violin and Glenister’s clarinet, buzzing around each other like bees in flight.

The second film featured Maria Lamburn, another multi-instrumentalist, who is based in Llanbaglan in North Wales. The film was underscored by Lamburn’s composition “Taith Amser”, the arrangement featuring the voice of Waters, but too often her singing drowned out Lamburn’s speech, so I picked up less information from this film. Although born in England Lamburn has Welsh roots and is a Welsh speaker. She has also developed an interest in Swedish folk music and her own writing is informed by stories from the land and by the cycles of nature. As a composer she has collaborated with dramatists and film makers and has also released a number of jazz related recordings, working with such respected musicians as pianist Huw Warren, saxophonist Mark Lockheart and drummer Martin France.

Following the film the ensemble performed Lamburn’s song “We Are The Water” with its whispered vocal refrain featuring the voices of Waters, Williams and the rest of the band. This was an evocative piece that drew inspiration both from nature and from Lamburn’s activism – political, environmental and feminist. The instrumentation featured clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, double bass and drums.

Next to feature was Cardigan born singer, instrumentalist and actor Jane Williams, whose film was underscored by an instrumental version of her composition “Lylabai” (“Lullaby”). This time the musical accompaniment was less invasive and we learned that Williams grew up in Brecon, a town with which she still has close ties. She is currently based in Cardiff and runs a regular open mic night at The Heath pub in Cathays. She began learning piano at the age of seven and later took singing lessons, inspired by musical films such as “My Fair Lady”. Williams subsequently joined the National Youth Theatre and also worked as a session vocalist. Her love of jazz started at eighteen when she began singing standards with a band at a local pub. She later busked around Australia and New Zealand before returning to Cardiff. Williams works regularly with guitarist Pete Mathison and the pair were part of the six piece band that Williams led at the 2022 Brecon Jazz Festival, a line up that also included guest saxophonist Alex Clarke. Williams has performed on S4C and worked with such big names as Van Morrison and Wild Willy Barrett, with the film including coverage of Barrett’s recent gig at The Muse in Brecon. In addition to her work as a live performer Williams is also a music educator, working closely with the Merthyr based charity Community Music Wales. Lockdown saw her collaborating with artists from around the UK on the politically charged Plague Songs multi-media project. She also performs regularly in care homes and has written about the impact of the pandemic on this sector.

Williams’ film was followed by the vocal version of the charming “Lylabai”, with its message of hope and mix of English and Welsh lyrics.  Williams took the lead vocal, accompanying herself on ukulele, with the main instrumental solo coming from the impressive Porteous on violin.

A pared down version of the ensemble then performed the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” in a wistful, melancholic arrangement featuring Williams on voice and uke, Gardiner on acoustic guitar and Porteous on violin, the last named again the featured instrumental soloist.

The first half concluded with a reprise of “Roll Jordan Roll”, introduced by Exell’s military style drumming and featuring the joint lead vocals of Waters and Williams. This arrangement followed the format of a New Orleans jazz funeral, with the second half of the performance speeded up in the style of a ‘second line’.

This was a good way to end a highly successful first set and the septet enjoyed an excellent reception from a highly appreciative audience.

Set two commenced with the standard “Willow Weep For Me” with Waters and Williams sharing the vocals and with Glenister taking the instrumental honours on tenor sax. Violin, viola and double bass were also featured but a distinctive arrangement saw drummer Exell sitting out.

The first film of the second set featured violinist Xenia Porteous, born in Aberystwyth of Croatian / German heritage and now resident in Cardiff, where she shares a home with her husband and two young children aged four and seven, both of whom are already learning instruments. Porteous learned the violin from her father and played folk and country music before turning towards jazz. She spent time backpacking around South America before returning to Wales and establishing herself as a regular at Rumney Folk Club in Cardiff. Since 2018 she has been a regular visitor to Brecon Jazz Club / Festival, performing with the bands Hot Club Gallois and Swing Strings Trio and also with guitarists Trefor Owen and Andy Hulme, jazz French horn player Rod Paton and Czech saxophonist Pavel Zlamal. Lockdown saw her featuring in a special online event with the Tango Jazz Quartet from Argentina as she put her love of South American music to good use.

Having enjoyed seeing Porteous perform on several occasions I enjoyed learning a little more about her from this film, but again her words were too often drowned out by the musical backing.

Porteous’ contribution with the pen was her composition “Saturday Sundae”, an instrumental tribute to Doris Day performed in a broadly Hot Club style with solos from the composer on violin and Glenister on clarinet.

The next film featured vocalist Siobhan Ellen Waters and was underscored by her pieces “Trafaelias y byd [in the garden]” and “The Current”, the latter inspired by the River Taff. The music featured Waters at the piano and Glenister on flute as we learned that Waters was born in the Lake District of Irish heritage and began singing at the age of seven. She studied on an RWCMD summer school before moving to Cardiff to study jazz full time at the RWCMD under the tutelage of Paula Gardiner, and with her vocal tutors including Nia Lynn and Brigitte Beraha. She also plays flute and sax and was quick to praise her teacher Paul Froggatt. Waters has also been mentored online by the Israeli born, New York based guitarist Gilad Hekselman, a musician who has close links with the RWCMD.  Following graduation Waters opted to settle in Cardiff and she is currently the featured vocalist with the Cardiff based big band Siglo Section, co-led by multi-instrumentalist and arranger Matt Lush and trumpeter Laurence Collier, the band name being sourced from the Welsh word for ‘swing’.

Water’s original song “Same Four Walls” proved to be one of the stand-out performances of the evening. This tale of a callous lover was performed by a quartet of Waters on vocals, Glenister on piano, Gardiner on double bass and Exell at the drums and incorporated elements of pop, soul and blues. It was a piece capable of appealing to a broad listenership, beyond the usual jazz demographic.

The penultimate film featured Sussex born drummer Liz Exell, a member of the faculty at RWCMD and now based in the Welsh Valleys. Like most of tonight’s performers she was introduced to music at an early age and began learning piano at four with drum lessons following at the age of eleven. She subsequently studied at the Royal Academy of Music whilst also playing drums with her stepfather’s rock and roll band while she was still a teenager. Further studies at Trinity Laban saw her joining the Trinity Big Band and playing the music of Charles Mingus, notably “The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady”. During her time with the highly acclaimed all female septet Nerija she appeared at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. Exell also led the Old Hat Jazz Band, a collection of young, London based musicians that put a contemporary spin on the jazz of the 1920s and 30s. Their 2016 album “The Sparrow” is reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann. She has also recorded with trumpeter Laura Jurd and appears on Jurd’s 2019 album “Stepping Back, Jumping In”. Exell now teaches drums at the RWCMD and since moving to Wales has quickly established herself on the local jazz scene performing in Brecon with bands led by Gardiner, saxophonist Dick Hamer and Birmingham based trumpeter Bryan Corbett. In addition to her jazz influences Exell also cited the influence of rock musicians such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the members of Led Zeppelin.

Exell’s film was subtly underscored with Exell’s subdued mallet rumbles setting the mood. Her composition “Hello Goodbye” followed, an intriguing piece introduced by pizzicato viola and featuring Glenister on flute and Waters on wordless vocals. The use of pizzicato strings in conjunction with the leader’s drums resulted in a myriad of interesting rhythmic possibilities.

The final film featured Gardiner, the Head of Jazz at RWCMD, who lives in the Rhondda Valley with her sheepdog Gwen. Originally from Kittle, near Swansea, Gardiner began learning the recorder at the age of seven before moving on to acoustic guitar and eventually to the bass. She describes herself as an ‘accidental bassist’ having first played electric bass with the Cardiff based Afro-Cuban band Bomb ‘n’ Dagger before graduating to the upright acoustic version, initially under the guidance of Mick Hutton. The double bass has now become her main instrument, although she still plays guitar and flute. She has recorded three albums as a leader, “Tales of Inclination” (1995), “Six” (1999) and “Hot Lament” (2008) as well as working prolifically as a sidewoman on the Welsh jazz scene and beyond.

The scheduled performance concluded with Gardiner’s politically charged song “Hold Your Breath”, but such was the audience reaction that the septet remained on stage to deliver another Gardiner song, “Retrograde Submersion”. Combining an element of humour with sharp social comment this encore featured a near rap episode from Waters plus instrumental features from Porteous on violin and the composer on double bass. Glenister was featured on tenor sax and Lamburn on bass clarinet.

All in all the evening was a terrific success with the members of the septet enjoying a great reception from the near capacity crowd. The feedback from the gig from musicians, promoters and audiences alike has been overwhelmingly positive and it seems highly likely that a similar event may take place at some time in the future.

As enjoyable as it all was it was far from perfect. In a one off group the playing was a little ragged at times, but this could easily be forgiven. My main reservation was the underscores, which sometimes drowned out the speaking voices of the musicians being profiled, with Lamburn and Porteous particularly badly affected. On balance it would perhaps have been better for the films to have spoken for themselves, particularly in view of the obvious care that went into making them.

Porteous’ Facebook page says of the films;
“The performance will feature a short film about each of us - seven in total - telling our stories. Rather than have recorded music over the films we are going to improvise live over them, but like they did 100 years ago before talkies”.

Which kind of reinforces my point – these films WERE talkies and were interesting enough in themselves – therefore they didn’t require musical accompaniment. A thought for next time perhaps, assuming any subsequent performance follows a similar format.

Porteous’ own playing was one of the highlights of the evening with several excellent solos but every musician performed well, with Glenister, Lamburn, Williams, Waters and Gardiner all multi-tasking impressively. A word too for Exell’s drumming, mainly with brushes, which was sensitive and understated but always right on the money. Drums don’t necessarily have to be loud.

Finally my thanks to Rachel Kilby Chadwick of Archwilwyr Jazz Explorers for providing my wife and I with press tickets for this highly successful event.




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