by Ian Mann
October 20, 2020
An enjoyable, entertaining and highly informative event. The quality of the singing and playing was excellent throughout, as was the quality of the original songwriting.
Zoe Gilby Trio
Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival 2020
First livestreamed 18/10 2020
Available via ticket only until 28/11/2020
Zoe Gilby – vocals, Andy Champion – double bass, Mark Williams – guitar
Tyneside based vocalist and songwriter Zoe Gilby had been scheduled to perform at the annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival Dinner at the Angel Hotel, an event that had to be cancelled for all too obvious reasons.
Nevertheless Gilby and her regular trio, featuring her husband Andy Champion on double bass plus Mark Williams on guitar, were invited to the town to perform a livestream set filmed and recorded at the Melville Centre, the regular home of Festival organisers Black Mountain Jazz.
I first saw Gilby perform more than a decade ago when she appeared at the Real Ale, Jazz and Blues Festival in Lichfield. I’ve followed her career ever since and seen and enjoyed numerous other live performances at venues ranging from jazz festivals to village halls. She appeared at the 2014 Wall2Wall Festival on a draughty outdoor stage but seemed genuinely delighted to return to the town to perform in the more comfortable environs of the Melville. For the singer and her trio performing any kind of live gig, even a ‘virtual’ one, in the present circumstances was something to be welcomed.
Gilby has never been afraid of hard work and has gigged all over the UK. She’s visited my home county of Herefordshire on numerous occasions, appearing at the now defunct Titley Jazz Festival as well as performing on the Arts Alive organisation’s rural touring scheme. At the other end of the scale she has performed regularly at the EFG London Jazz Festival and is an artist with a national reputation.
In 2019 she was presented with the prize of “Best Vocalist” at the 2019 Parliamentary Jazz Awards ceremony in London, a just reward for her endeavours and an award that she was genuinely thrilled to win. The Jazzmann was at the same event, picking up the award for “Best Media”, and Zoe and I were delighted for each other, two ‘out of towners’ from very different parts of the country, each surprised and exhilarated to be receiving such acknowledgement for our work.
Gilby has released three full length albums to date, “Now That I Am Real” (2007), “Looking Glass” (2010) and the excellent “Twelve Stories” (2013). The last named, comfortably her best so far, is reviewed here;
Of the numerous Gilby live shows I’ve seen over the years my favourite is probably the one from 2014 that saw her trio playing to a large and highly appreciative audience at The Hive in Shrewsbury. Review here;
Her show at the Community Centre in my home town of Leominster (I actually walked there) saw the core trio of Gilby, Champion and Williams augmented by drummer Richard Brown, which added rhythmic colour and impetus to the music, but the poor audience turn out meant that the event was somewhat lacking in atmosphere. Musically however, it was right up there.
This livestream from Abergavenny interspersed musical performances by the trio with an interview with Zoe conducted by jazz journalist and broadcaster John Hellings, who presents the Sunday night jazz show on BBC Hereford & Worcester, a programme that is also transmitted on several other local radio stations. However, even this is in abeyance in the wake of Covid as the cash strapped BBC veer away from specialist radio programming.
The ever gracious Gilby was quick to praise the professionalism of the filming / recording crew at the Melville. She then went on to explain that she and Champion have remained highly musically active during lockdown, performing regular voice and bass duo gigs from their living room in Gateshead via their Patreon account. These were real time “warts and all” performances explained Gilby, with audience members invited to send in requests. These Patreon gigs “kept us financially and creatively solvent” stated Gilby.
I have to admit that I didn’t actually tune in to any of these. However I do recall hearing Gilby and Champion perform a stunning duo version of Nick Drake’s “River Man” on BBC Radio 3’s “Late Junction” during the lockdown period.
An earlier Wall2Wall Festival livestream had seen Carmarthen born, Manchester based vocalist and violinist Claire Roberts performing music from Carmen McRae’s album “Carmen Sings Monk”.
That album was clearly an inspiration for Gilby too, and the trio commenced with “In Walked Bud”, a number that the Roberts Trio had also performed in their set. With guitar replacing piano this version was subtly different but also included a playful scat vocal episode alongside the instrumental solos from Champion and Williams, with the guitarist favouring a clean, classic jazz guitar sound. Both instrumentalists are bandleaders in their own right, with Williams leading his own trio and Champion involved in a number of jazz and improvised music projects, including the prog-jazz quintet ACV.
Hellings talked to Gilby about her “Family Jazz All Stars” project, a jazz show suitable for 3-9 year olds that she has performed on more than one occasion at the EFG London Jazz Festival and at many other venues around the UK. With its mix of jazz standards, Disney songs and Gilby originals allied to interactive quizzes and dances the show is aimed at families and performs the educational function of introducing people to jazz and proving that the music can be fun. The show has acquired a good reputation at London and other festivals, with Gilby ensuring that the performance has enough ‘real’ jazz content to also appeal to the more committed ‘serious’ jazz audience. Given BMJ / Wall2Wall’s commitment to community outreach it’s not inconceivable that the show might come to Abergavenny in a future, more normal year.
Gilby’s recordings and live sets have regularly featured a mix of jazz and bebop standards together with inspired arrangements of pop and rock material, often from the most unlikely of sources, such as her take on the song “Parents”, originally written and recorded by Welsh heavy rockers Budgie.
But even more important to Gilby’s identity are her original songs, often written in conjunction with Champion and Williams. It’s the quality of these self written songs that help to make the Gilby trio so distinctive and to stand out from the ‘identikit jazz singer’ pack.
The first of these in this livestreamed set was “Midnight Bell”, a song from the “Twelve Stories” album. 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.
As Gilby told John Hellings she and Champion have been working on a new project during lockdown. Living In Shadows draws on their shared love of British progressive rock and alt pop (influences that also inform the music of ACV), allied to their continuing commitment to jazz. Williams has also been involved with the project and recordings have been made at the Champions’ home studio, with Gilby making use of multi-tracked vocals. A single, “Sending Electricity” has already been released, with a full length album to follow shortly.
Next up today was the trio’s arrangement of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You”, most famously recorded by The Carpenters. The Gilby Trio brought a darker feeling to the song with Champion’s dark, grainy arco bass contrasting with Williams’ crystalline guitar lines and Gilby’s emotive vocals. The song was also covered by Carmen McRae on her “Songbook” album, and it was this version that probably inspired Gilby.
Hellings talked to Gilby about her Parliamentary Jazz Award, which has been framed and mounted on the wall at her house, the certificate also serving as reminder of, and tribute to, Gilby’s late father, himself a jazz musician.
“In It Together” represented another original song, one comparing a relationship with the chapters of a book, again evidence of Gilby’s literary leanings. The performance also included instrumental solos from both Williams and Champion.
“Time After Time” proved to be the song from the ‘Great American Songbook’ written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in 1947. Gilby’s version was inspired by the Chet Baker recording and the sparse arrangement placed the emphasis on her voice. Even so Williams and Champion were featured with instrumental solos, following which Gilby enjoyed herself by singing some improvised lyrics thanking her band mates and praising Abergavenny and the Wall2Wall Festival.
As John Hellings later pointed out the Gilby Trio would have been equally at home with the Cyndi Lauper song of the same name, famously covered by none other than Miles Davis. Of her approach to covering other peoples’ material Gilby declared; “We try to remain within the sentiment of the tune, but we put our own stamp on it”.
Gilby also talked about other ongoing projects including Pannonica, her own take on the “Carmen Sings Monk” album, the title of the project inspired by the ‘Jazz Baroness’, Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the friend and patron of Thelonious Monk and his fellow bebop pioneers. The Pannonica project features Gilby and Champion alongside pianist Paul Edis and drummer Richard Brown.
The busy Gilby is also involved with Aurora is a ‘vocalese’ project that finds Gilby adding words to the tunes of American trumpeter Tom Harrell in the company of Champion, Williams and drummer Russ Morgan, with trumpeter Noel Dennis, who appears on “Twelve Stories”, fulfilling the Harrell role.
An example of this was featured here with Harrell’s tune “Moon Alley” becoming “Shadowed In Solitude” with the addition of Gilby’s lyrics and vocals. Her haunting vocal delivery was complemented by Champion’s melodic double bass solo and a guitar feature that saw Williams making subtle use of electronic effects.
The Aurora project has been approved by Harrell and his wife and it is intended that a full length album of vocalese versions of Harrell tunes will be recorded. The idea for the project initially came from Champion, who suggested to Gilby that she write lyrics for a selection of Harrell tunes. Gilby enjoyed the challenge of writing lyrics for existing melodies and, as with the “Carmen Sings Monk” album, the titles were changed to protect the copyright.
Harrell’s tunes lend themselves particularly well to this approach and we also heard the Harrell tune “Scene”, retitled “Your Dear Heart, My Dear Heart” with the addition of Gilby’s lyrics.
Bisecting the two beautiful, but somewhat melancholic, Harrell pieces was the upbeat original song “Enchanted Streets”, a song about “being lost in a magical land”, a kind of imaginary alternative reality, with Williams featuring strongly on guitar.
“Rhythm-a-Ning” returned us to “Carmen Sings Monk” territory with Gilby’s scat vocals complemented by guitar and bass solos from the two instrumentalists.
A third Harrell piece was featured in the form of “The Water’s Edge”, retitled here as “Ebb and Flow”. This mixed suitably aquatic lyrical imagery with wordless vocal melodies and solos for both guitar and bass. The eventual release of the Aurora project album will be keenly anticipated.
The Gilby original “Red Headed Girl From The North East of Nowhere” appeared on the “Twelve Stories” album. Originally I 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 her native North East. Introduced here by Champion’s bass it’s an evocative piece of story telling and a highly accomplished example of the trio’s songwriting skills.
This excellent livestream performance was concluded by “Centre Piece”, a song most closely associated with the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross but with Gilby’s version inspired by a recording by the Italian vocalist Roberta Gambrini. Described by Gilby as “a little bit of fun” the performance saw Gilby exchanging joyous, bebop derived scat vocal melody lines with the instrumentalists.
Even in the confines of an empty theatre one could sense that Gilby and her colleagues had enjoyed playing this live gig. It also gave them the opportunity to talk about and present their new projects with the music from the Tom Harrell inspired Aurora getting a generous airing.
This was a typically wide ranging Zoe Gilby set that explored various strands of jazz but which included some impressive examples of the trio’s original songwriting too. Gilby is a warm and unpretentious performer and her buoyant personality shone through both in the performances and in her conversations with John Hellings, the latter again doing an excellent job in the interviewer’s role.
For an established fan of Gilby’s music this was an enjoyable, entertaining and highly informative event and I shall look forward to hearing the recordings featuring some of the projects we learned about tonight.
For those new to Gilby and her music there was also much to enjoy and the quality of the singing and playing was excellent throughout, as was the quality of the original songwriting.
Gilby and her colleagues have been hugely creative during the lockdown period, their work ethic and their enthusiasm for music and for live performance undimmed. Hopefully better times are around the corner, for them and for all of us.
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