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Zoe Gilby Quartet

Zoe Gilby Quartet, Playhouse Cinema, Leominster Community Centre, Leominster, 11/03/2017.


by Ian Mann

March 15, 2017


The customary mix of intelligent original songs and inspired and unusual covers. This is a musical alliance which is still moving forwards.

Zoe Gilby Quartet, Playhouse Cinema, Leominster Community Centre, Leominster, Herefordshire, 11/03/2017.

This performance by the Tyneside based vocalist and songwriter Zoe Gilby and her quartet was part of a short rural tour organised by the local arts association Art Alive. The previous evening the Gilby group had attracted an enthusiastic audience of over forty people to an isolated village hall in the wilds of Shropshire. Tonight, Leominster, a town with a population of over 11,000 could barely muster a crowd in double figures.

As some of you may know Leominster is my home town. I was born here and have always lived here and now can’t really imagine living anywhere else – and couldn’t afford to do so in any case. But it’s definitely a love-hate relationship, sometimes I despair of the apathy of my fellow townspeople. I felt personally embarrassed by the pitifully small turn out and found myself apologising to Zoe and the band for the indifference of the local populace.

It’s difficult to know why the turn out was so low, audiences for jazz gigs are notoriously difficult to anticipate. Arts Alive have established a good reputation for the quality of their events, the show had been well publicised around the town and in the local print media and, to be fair, the last couple of live musical events that I’d attended at the Playhouse, both more towards the folk end of the musical spectrum, had been reasonably well supported. Sometimes I fear that it’s the “jazz” word itself that puts people off - despite the fact that Gilby’s skills as an inspired interpreter of rock and pop material had been well emphasised in the publicity for this show.

I don’t like to start reviews on a negative note but as a denizen of Leominster I felt genuinely embarrassed by this show of indifference towards an artist whose work I’ve admired since first hearing her sing at the Lichfield Real Ale Jazz & Blues Festival in 2010. I’ve since seen Gilby perform at further festivals in Abergavenny and Titley and at a very well attended club night at The Hive Arts Centre in Shrewsbury. A vocalist with a national reputation she has also appeared at the EFG London Jazz Festival. Good enough for the capital, but not up to the standards of Leominster’s discerning citizens it would seem (joke). 

Of course the stay-aways missed an absolute treat. Gilby and the band seemed a good deal less perturbed by the absence of people than I did. “Sometimes it’s good to perform to small audiences” she explained, “It feels more intimate somehow”. And certainly it did sometimes feel as if Gilby was singing just for me as she and the band turned in a consummately professional performance to a handful of people.

I’d been looking forward to this gig for a long time as it was to be the first Zoe Gilby show I’d seen performed by a quartet. The previous performances had all featured the trio of Gilby, her husband Andy Champion on double bass and the supremely versatile Mark Williams on guitar. Tonight’s show also featured Richard Brown, an interesting character who divides his time between performing as a professional drummer and working on the family farm in the Tees Valley. Brown’s understated performance saw him adding subtle propulsion and dashes of additional colour as he formed an effective rhythm partnership with the excellent Champion. The bassist is a band-leader in his own right, leading his own instrumental quintet ACV and performing as part of the co-operative trio Shiver. As the first call bass player in the North East he’s also a prolific sideman.

Brown appears on Gilby’s most recent album, the excellent “Twelve Stories” (2013) and also on its predecessor “Looking Glass” (2010).  Gilby made her recording début in 2007 with the sassy “Now That I Am Real” which saw her fronting an octet led by drummer Tony Faulkner which embraced more of a “mini big band feel”. The two most recent albums are far more intimate and more representative of the singer’s current musical stance.

Over the course of two sets Gilby and the quartet performed their customary mix of intelligent original songs, many of them written by the trio of Gilby, Champion and Williams, and inspired covers. The show included previously unheard material from both categories and a fourth album is already in the pipeline, something encouraged by Gilby and Champion’s recent establishment of their own home studio in Gateshead.

Nonetheless they began in familiar fashion with “Is It Me”, a witty original bemoaning the state of the modern world which has acquired an even greater relevance in the wake of Trump and Brexit. Besides Gilby’s lively vocals the song also included instrumental features for each member of the quartet and represented a good introduction to the musical personalities of the band.

In terms of outside material what marks Gilby out as different is the range of material that she chooses to cover. Yes, she dips into the Great American Songbook but tends to avoid the obvious choices, and in any event her arrangements are interesting and innovative. She also explores the work of more contemporary singer-songwriters including Kate Bush, Paul Simon and Tom Waits, but casts her net even more widely. Who would have predicted hearing a Thin Lizzy song at what was notionally a jazz concert. Yet that’s what we got with a delightful ballad interpretation of Phil Lynott’s love song “Dublin” with Gilby investing the wistfully nostalgic lyrics with an admirable poignancy that was complemented by the elegant instrumental solos from Williams and Champion.

The original “Find A Secret” juxtaposed a rapid fire lyric with an expansive and leisurely solo from the consistently imaginative Williams. Meanwhile the jazz waltz “Eleanor”, written for Champion’s daughter, again emphasised the gentler side of the band with Brown moving from sticks to brushes.

As a lyricist Gilby isn’t afraid to tackle dark or difficult subject matter as the unsettling original “On The Edge” was to demonstrate. This tale of female obsession, or stalking if you will, was enhanced by a decidedly edgy guitar solo from the supremely adaptable Williams.

Gilby’s initial decision to compose her own material was inspired by the song writing of another jazz vocalist, the esteemed Jacqui Dankworth. The song “Your Words” was the first piece to be jointly written by Gilby and Champion and for a husband and wife co-write it contained a surprisingly bitter lyric, this again complemented by the blues inflected sound of Williams’ guitar.

I’d always assumed that the original tune “Red Headed Girl” was autobiographical but tonight we learned that the song is about Gilby’s mother and her adventures in 1960s “Swinging London” prior to her eventual return to her native North East. In a sense it’s a companion piece to Sarah Gillespie’s equally excellent “Glory Days”.  As with most of tonight’s songs Gilby’s technically adept vocalising and perceptive, evocative lyrics were superbly complemented by the fluent instrumental solos from Williams and Champion.

The final number of the first set came from another unlikely outside source. “Red Right Hand” was originally performed by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and was another song to address life’s darker side. An unusual choice perhaps, particularly for a jazz singer, but the frightening and evocative lyric did emphasise Gilby’s love of a good tale. The album title “Twelve Stories” is particularly appropriate, a strong sense of narrative consistently infuses Gilby’s albums and performances. Musically the piece featured an extended voice and double bass duet, Gilby and Champion have often performed whole gigs as a duo, something I’ve not witnessed, but I’d wager that even in this pared down format the songs remain highly effective.

The first half had contained a fair amount of new material whereas most of the songs in the second set were already familiar to me from previous live performances. The engaging opener “In It Together”  featured more excellent instrumental work from Williams and Champion to complement Gilby’s breezy vocal.

Gilby is currently working on “Pannonica”, a project based on the music of Thelonious Monk and inspired by “Carmen Sings Monk”, an album by vocalist Carmen McRae which saw the singer tackling vocalese versions of various Monk tunes. Gilby’s version of Straight No Chaser” with its rapid fire vocalese lyrics was a technical tour de force and her bravado singing, including a scat vocal episode, was matched by the instrumental solos from Williams and Champion.

The original “Believe”, a song addressing the subject of escape by retreating into oneself was given momentum by Champion’s melodic bass motif and Williams’ lithe guitar solo. Lyrically a companion to Caravan’s “Place Of My Own”, perhaps?

That prog rock reference brings us to the next cover, “Parents” by 70s Welsh rock band Budgie, a song almost certainly brought to Gilby’s attention by Champion, whose own prog rock past is partially reflected in the music of ACV.  It’s actually a very beautiful piece of writing and very different from much of the rest of Budgie’s output. Gilby and her band have made it their own with a kind of bossa nova arrangement that has won the approval of former Budgie drummer Ray Phillips. It’s come as something of a surprise to rediscover just what a good song “Parents” is and how well it stands up forty years after it was written. Gilby’s interpretation is a fine homage to the original. The choice of such obscure but rich material to cover is something that sets Gilby apart from the raft of run of the mill identikit jazz singers.

The quartet’s spirited arrangement of the Duke Ellington / Juan Tizol composition “Caravan”, one of the very few jazz standards in the set, featured the deft drumming of Brown in a voice and percussion intro alongside further instrumental features for Williams, Champion, and Brown again.

Gilby’s love of story telling and literature is best captured in the splendidly evocative “The Midnight Bell”, one of several songs inspired by the novels of 1930s author Patrick Hamilton. With its poetic lyrics and gorgeously melody “The Midnight Bell”  is a highlight of any Zoe Gilby performance.

As ever the band closed with “Red City”, a vivid musical and lyrical portrait of the sights and sounds of Marrakesh, the city where Gilby and Champion spent their honeymoon. Evocative lyrics combined with equally evocative music as both Champion and Williams conjured Moorish style sounds from their respective instruments, this time assisted by Brown’s crisp drumming. With Champion flourishing the bow and Williams deploying a series of guitar FX the quartet were able to summon up an even wider range of sounds than usual on this delightfully exotic song. Gilby responded with some of the most experimental wordless vocalising that I’ve ever seen from her, almost straying into Julie Tippetts territory at times. Introducing the tune Gilby told us of how she and the band were invited again to Morocco to perform the song at a festival in Rabat where they were accompanied by Moroccan musicians.

With such a small audience there was never going to be an encore. Nevertheless despite the paucity of crowd numbers Gilby and her band had delivered. The select few that were there to witness this performance absolutely loved it and the personable Gilby, a refreshingly humorous and down to earth personality, was more than happy to chat to the audience members after the show. She and her group overcame the lack of atmosphere and reached out to those who were there, making this show about those who DID turn out rather than those who didn’t. In its own way this represented an impressive feat, she made the adventurous few feel special.

My thanks to Zoe and Andy for speaking with me after the show. Theirs is a musical alliance which is still moving forwards. The next album will be very keenly anticipated.

Leominster, where were you?

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