Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Zoe Gilby Quartet

Zoe Gilby Quartet, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 28/04/2024.

Photography: Photograph by Kasia Ociepa

by Ian Mann

April 30, 2024


The standard of the singing & playing was exceptional throughout and the set was well balanced with a mix of jazz standards, well chosen covers, vocalese adaptations & excellent original songs.

Zoe Gilby Quartet, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 28/04/2024.

Zoe Gilby – vocals, Andy Champion – double bass, Mark Williams – guitar, John Bradford – drums

This keenly anticipated event finally saw Newcastle based jazz vocalist and songwriter Zoe Gilby coming to the Melville Centre to sing in front of a live audience. Gilby had been scheduled to perform at Black Mountain Jazz’s Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in 2020, but of course we all know what happened then.

Nevertheless Gilby and her regular trio, featuring her husband Andy Champion on double bass plus Mark Williams on guitar, were invited to Abergavenny to perform a livestream set filmed and recorded at the Melville Centre and screened as part of the Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival. That performance is reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann as is her 2014 Wall2Wall visit when she appeared on a. draughty outdoor stage  and was obliged to compete with the pealing of church bells.

Gilby has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages for a number of years and there are numerous reviews of a number of her recordings and several of her live shows to be found elsewhere on this site. In 2019 she was the winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for ‘Best Vocalist’, receiving her prize in the same year that The Jazzmann picked up the Award for ‘Best Media’. We were both delighted for each other and have established a strong friendship, so it was great to see her visiting one of my local jazz clubs. For her part Zoe was delighted to be able to perform in front of a near capacity crowd, declaring that she had brought her ‘A team’ along for the occasion, with drummer John Bradford joining Gilby, Champion and Williams.

Over the course of two lengthy and hugely enjoyable sets Gilby and her colleagues took us on a musical journey that variously presented her current projects, dipped into her back catalogue and paid homage to the various musicians who have inspired her creativity. The programme also included a number of high quality original songs written by Gilby and Champion, often in conjunction with Williams. These are seriously good songs and it’s the quality of these original compositions that really makes Gilby stand out from the crowd. The consistently high standards that distinguish both her recordings and her many live shows (she tours relentlessly) have helped to ensure that Gilby is an artist with a national reputation. She performs regularly at the EFG London Jazz Festival but also has fans all over the country.

The quartet commenced with a vocalese version of the Thelonious Monk composition “Rhythm-a-Ning”, which constitutes part of the repertoire of Gilby’s ‘Pannonica’ project.  The project was inspired by the 1988 Carmen McRae album “Carmen Sings Monk”, which saw the vocalist putting her own spin on a set of Thelonious Monk tunes with ‘vocalese’ lyrics largely written by Jon Hendricks. It’s a highly influential album for jazz vocalists and has also inspired vocalist / violinist Claire Victoria Roberts, another former visitor to BMJ. Gilby’s project is also known as ‘ The Baroness and Monk’ and is a celebration of the ‘Jazz Baroness’ Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter (nee Rothschild), the friend and patron of Thelonious Monk and his fellow bebop pioneers.  Although Gilby continues to tour widely with the project it is yet to be documented on disc.

Introduced by Champion at the bass this version of “Rhythm-a-Ning” featured a lyric extolling Monk’s musical genius together with a daring and dazzling scat vocal episode and a slippery, bebop inspired guitar solo from Williams. In addition to laying down a propulsive rhythmic groove Champion was also featured as a virtuoso double bass soloist on this most technically demanding of pieces.

Gilby’s decision to become a songwriter and to perform her own material in addition to songs from the standards repertoire was originally inspired by fellow jazz vocalist Jacqui Dankworth, about whom Gilby spoke very warmly. The first song that Gilby and Champion wrote together was “Your Words”, which appeared on Gilby’s 2010 album “Looking Glass”. I can’t recall seeing this played live before so its inclusion here was totally unexpected and a real treat. Gilby is a genuine storyteller who often sings in character and this was a classic tale of ‘love gone wrong’ with a bitter lyric hinting at the still all too current subject of coercive control. The instrumentalists provided empathic support with Bradford deploying brushes throughout and Williams providing a thoughtful solo imbued with subtle blues inflections.

Gilby’s latest solo recording is the 2021 release “Aurora”,  a highly accomplished album that sees her adding her own lyrics to a series of instrumental compositions written by the American trumpeter Tom Harrell.  She was introduced to Harrell’s music by trumpeter Noel Dennis, who had appeared on Gilby’s previous album “Twelve Stories”, from 2013.  Andy Champion later suggested that she write lyrics to accompany Harrell’s tunes.

Gilby’s album liner notes take up the tale;
“I was introduced to the music of Tom Harrell by my dear friend and musician Noel Dennis. I was soon inspired to put lyrics to these wonderful melodies, that already felt so natural for a vocalist to get their teeth into. I went to work on writing these lyrical interpretations, my gateway to emulating the mood and sentiment of these nine tracks. It’s been a fascinating path, curating a narrative for these compositions and vocally stepping inside this enchanting music”.

The Aurora project has won the approval of Harrell and his wife Angela and the album was recorded in January 2020, shortly before the pandemic began to take hold in the UK.  The recording features a quintet line up with Gilby, Champion and Williams joined by drummer Russ Morgan, with Dennis on trumpet and flugelhorn, essentially filling the Tom Harrell role. Released in the summer of 2021 the album is reviewed here;

The first tune from “Aurora” to be played was “Forget The Past”, based upon the Harrell composition “April Mist”, a phrase that Gilby incorporates into her lyrics. Ushered in by Bradford’s brushed drum intro the performance included Gilby’s agile rendition of her own evocative lyrics allied to a typically adventurous scat vocal episode towards the close. Fluent instrumental solos were provided by Williams and Champion, with Bradford also enjoying a concise brushed drum feature. Bradford also leads his own trio, JB3, a group that features his own compositions and which includes both Williams and Champion.

Although Gilby admires such iconic jazz singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Peggy Lee her real vocal heroine is Carmen McRae. In addition to paying homage to McRae via the Pannonica material Gilby also paid tribute via an inventive arrangement of the standard “Secret Love”, variously delivered in the vocal styles of “Doris Day and Carmen McRae”. The first half of the song saw Gilby singing sweetly in the style of Doris before switching to the earthier, bluesier style of Carmen as the music gathered momentum. The ‘Doris’ part featured just Gilby’s voice, subtly and skilfully shadowed by Williams’ guitar. The introduction of bass and drums and the resultant quickening of the pace marked Gilby’s transition into her ‘Carmen’ persona.

There was a return to the “Looking Glass” repertoire for “On The Edge”, a tale of obsession with lyrics written by Gilby from the viewpoint of a female stalker. A guitar led instrumental arrangement included a slippery Williams guitar solo underpinned by Champion’s mobile bass lines and the insistent tick of Bradford’s drums.

Encouraged by the positive audience responses to the original songs Gilby elected to continue with her own material and “Red Headed Girl from the North East of Nowhere”, a song co-written with Champion and Williams and sourced from the “Twelve Stories” album. Originally I had assumed it to be autobiographical, but in fact it tells the tale of Gilby’s mother and her adventures in 1960s “Swinging London”, prior to her eventual return to domesticity in her native North East. It was a measure of just how much the quartet had got the audience in the palm of their collective hands that you could hear the proverbial pin drop during the course of Champion’s extended and immaculately crafted solo double bass intro. Gilby’s lyrics evoked a real sense of time and place, while Williams’ neatly constructed guitar solo was the other instrumental highlight.

A long first set concluded with a vocalese version of the Wes Montgomery composition “West Coast Blues”, inspired by a recording by the late Nancy Wilson (1937-2018), another of Gilby’s vocal heroines. The lyrics are written from the point of a musician separated from his loved ones on the road. Incorporating instrumental solos from Williams and Champion this song is also the vehicle for Gilby’s lyrical improvisations, which usually involve thanking venues, promoters, sound engineers and others, which is exactly what happened here with  such BMJ stalwarts as organisers Mike Skilton and Debs Hancock, soundmen Mark and Sean and photographer Kasia all getting a name-check as the first half drew to a close.

Gilby and Champion often perform as a duo and in 2018 released the EP “Voice & Bass”, a typically eclectic collection of jazz standards, vocalese adaptations and inspired pop and rock covers. It includes a particularly stunning adaptation of Nick Drake’s “River Man”. The pair opened the second half with their as yet unrecorded cover of the Paul Simon song “Graceland” in a version inspired by the great American jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan. An extended double bass intro led into Gilby’s convincing rendition of Simon’s lyrics. In addition to her own abilities as a songwriter she’s an excellent interpreter of the songs of others. With Champion fulfilling both rhythmic and melodic duties the voice and bass combination is a particularly effective one and the duo’s EP is highly recommended.

Williams and Bradford returned to the stage and the full quartet performed “Shadowed in Solitude”, their second selection from the “Aurora” album. Originally titled “Moon Alley” this piece features one of Harrell’s most gorgeous melodies and the impression given is that this was a tune just waiting for the addition of a lyric. Tonight’s version began with an atmospheric intro featuring the sounds of Williams’ ambient guitar effects and Champion’s arco bass, with the latter eventually picking out the melody with the bow. Champion switched to the pizzicato technique as the quartet adopted a gentle bossa style groove and Gilby began to sing the typically evocative lyrics. Further instrumental highlights included a melodic plucked bass solo and a typically fluent guitar solo.

The original song “In It Together”, another Gilby / Champion / Williams collaboration appears on the “Twelve Stories” album. Introduced by voice and guitar only, subsequently joined by double bass and brushed drums, the song’s lyrics compare a relationship with the chapters of a book. An attractive and highly melodic song it’s one with something of the feel of a jazz standard.

There was a return to the Pannonica repertoire with Gilby delivering some stunning vocal gymnastics on a vocalese arrangement of the Thelonious Monk composition “Straight No Chaser”, with lyrics by Sally Swisher. Gilby’s vocal virtuosity was matched by similarly jaw dropping instrumental solos from Williams and Champion.

No Zoe Gilby set would be complete without a performance of the Gilby / Champion song “The Midnight Bell”.   Inspired by the Patrick Hamilton novel “20,000 Streets Under The Sky”, set in 1930s London, the song’s lyrics represent an atmospheric depiction of the era, while the music deploys a gorgeous and memorable melody to help generate a bluesy, after hours feel, evoking images of the public house of the title. This song is one of my favourites in the Gilby repertoire and even inspired me to buy and read the Hamilton novel. It’s a great book, and I can thoroughly endorse Zoe’s recommendation. The song itself is capable of a broad appeal and really should be better known by the wider listening public.

The second set concluded with a standard, the ever adaptable Juan Tizol / Duke Ellington composition “Caravan”, introduced by voice and drums only and with Gilby essentially deploying her voice as an instrument. There was also some dramatic scat vocalising followed by a Williams guitar solo underpinned by Champion’s rapid bass walk and Bradford’s rolling drum groove. Bradford was also featured as a soloist, at first in a dialogue with Champion and then completely solo. A version of this song was recorded for the “Twelve Stories” album.

The Abergavenny audience absolutely loved this quartet and the inevitable encore was “Red City”, a Gilby / Champion / Williams song, also from “Twelve Stories”. It represents a vivid musical and lyrical portrait of the sights and sounds of Marrakesh, the city where Gilby and Champion spent their honeymoon.  She and the band were later invited back to Morocco to perform the song at a festival in Rabat where they were accompanied by local Moroccan musicians. Tonight’s rendition began with an unaccompanied double bass intro, later enhanced by Bradford’s cymbal shimmers. Champion had adjusted the tuning of his bass in order to generate a more authentic North African sound, which helped to make the music even more atmospheric and evocative. He was aided in this regard by Williams’ exotic guitar sounds and Gilby’s muezzin like vocal wails. Like “The Midnight Bell” it’s a stunning original song that if there were any justice it would be as well known as the North African excursions of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

This was another excellent performance from Gilby and the quartet. The singer presented the show with her usual Geordie charm and the audience absolutely loved her. The standard of the singing and playing was exceptional throughout and the two sets were well balanced with the quartet’s characteristic mix of jazz standards, well chosen covers, vocalese adaptations and excellent original songs. It’s a winning combination and this was a performance that will have won the personable Gilby even more friends. CD sales were brisk, always the sign of a successful gig.

I’ve covered so many of their shows that I regard Zoe, Andy and Mark as personal friends and it was good to meet up with them again and to be introduced to John Bradford for the first time.  I learned that Living In Shadows, Zoe and Andy’s jazz / rock / electronica project has released a new single “Cast Away”, which I hope to take a look at in the near future. It’s a project that also involves Mark Williams. I’m also hoping to investigate John Bradford’s JB3 trio too. For the band a night at a Travelodge in Hereford awaited before the long drive back to Newcastle. I hope they thought it was all worth it.

It was also good to meet up with Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon of Brecon Jazz who had hosted Gilby in April 2023 when she gave another excellent performance in the company of a local trio led by the Cardiff based pianist Jim Barber. Review here;

Tonight really was an exceptional performance that helped to make it a really great night at BMJ. Sound engineers Mark and Sean also deserve credit for an excellent sound mix that helped to enhance the superb singing and playing. I couldn’t find fault with anything, so Mike Skilton is certain to be delighted with a second five star review in 2024!


blog comments powered by Disqus