Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Zoe Gilby with the Jim Barber Trio

Zoe Gilby with the Jim Barber Trio, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 11/04/2023.

by Ian Mann

April 13, 2023


Gilby's adventurous approach to jazz paid off and the trio rose to the challenge magnificently. The level of rapport that they managed to establish was genuinely impressive.

Zoe Gilby with the Jim Barber Trio, Brecon Jazz Club, The Muse Arts Centre, Brecon, 11/04/2023.

Zoe Gilby – vocals, Jim Barber – keyboard, Bill Fletcher – double bass, Greg Evans – drums

Tonight’s event was one of those special Brecon Jazz ‘one-offs’ when Club and Festival organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon bring together performers who have never played with each other before and make it work, turning the resultant collaboration into an EVENT.

Lynne and Roger seem to have an instinctive knack for knowing which musicians will ‘hit it off’. In this instance it was Tyneside based vocalist and songwriter Zoe Gilby and a Cardiff based trio led by pianist Jim Barber.

The Barber trio are particularly adept at accompanying singers and one of the last gigs I saw before lockdown was in March 2020 when they performed with Bristol based vocalist Victoria Klewin at a Brecon Jazz Club event The Muse. In August of the same year they provided ‘remote’ accompaniment for the Seattle based singer LaVon Hardison as part of the ‘Virtual’ Brecon Jazz Festival. Both the Klewin live gig and the Hardison online performance are reviewed elsewhere on the The Jazzmann.

These events both focussed on standards based programmes with Klewin concentrating on the ‘Great American Songbook’ and with Hardison also throwing a few pop and soul covers into the mix. Due to the unfamiliarity of the performers I was expecting tonight’s event to be more of the same but Gilby is also a songwriter, and a highly adventurous one at that, and tonight’s programme included a surprising amount of original or little known material from Gilby’s various projects.

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 as she made her first visit to Brecon as a performer.

On a filthy day weather wise, with heavy rain and gales, Gilby had made her way down from Newcastle by train, halting in Abergavenny and then getting the service bus from there. A committee member was hosting her overnight before she made the return journey the following day for a brief sojourn in the North East. She was then due to venture south again, by car this time, with her regular trio, featuring her husband Andy Champion on bass and Mark Williams on guitar, for gigs in Lyme Regis and Highworth near Swindon. It’s a schedule that is typical of the indefatigable Gilby’s work ethic and her intense love for the music. Who said the jazz life was glamorous?

The evening began with an instrumental from the Barber trio that demonstrated their considerable abilities. The leader was playing an electric keyboard on an acoustic piano setting and following an introductory passage of unaccompanied piano the trio launched into a swinging version of the standard “You Must Believe in Spring”, with Fletcher’s propulsive bass lines and Evans’ brisk drumming fuelling an imaginative solo from Barber, this followed by features for Fletcher on bass and Evans at the kit, the latter with a series of brushed drum breaks.

This was a good introduction to the capabilities of the trio and they were now joined by Gilby for an arrangement of the Thelonious Monk tune “In Walked Bud”, a vocalese version featuring Gilby’s skilful rendition of John Hendricks’s tongue twisting lyrics and a virtuoso scat vocal episode. One of Gilby’s ongoing projects is her interpretation of Carmen McRae’s classic 1988 album “Carmen Sings Monk”. McRae remains something of a touchstone Gilby, alongside more familiar names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee and Billie Holiday.

Gilby’s latest full length album release is “Aurora”, a highly accomplished set 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”.  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 actually recorded in January 2020, shortly before the pandemic began to take hold in the UK.  The album 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;

In a sense “Aurora” is Gilby’s own “McRae Sings Monk” album and as with that recording the titles of the original instrumental pieces have all had to be changed for copyright reasons. Thus in Gilby’s hands Harrell’s “Moon Alley” becomes “Shadowed in Solitude”, performed here by the singer and the trio as a contemporary jazz ballad, introduced by Barber at the piano, later joined by double bass, brushed drums and finally voice. Gilby’s talent as a lyricist, adding words to existing melodies, recalls that of the great Norma Winstone, although their vocal styles are very different.

A 1936 recording by Benny Goodman was the inspiration for a playful version of “You Turned The Tables On Me” with Gilby’s vivacious vocals matched by a fiercely swinging performance from the trio. Gilby’s inventive scat vocal episodes were augmented by excellent instrumental solos from Barber on piano and Fletcher at the bass.

“I try to take standards, twist them and make them my own” explained the highly personable Gilby, a case in point being her arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me”, here given a subtle rumba feel that elicited another excellent vocal performance and a fine solo from Barber at the piano.
Gilby’s original song “The Midnight Bell” is inspired by the writing of the author Patrick Hamilton (1904-62) and particularly his trilogy “20,000 Streets Under The Sky”. Named for Hamilton’s fictitious 1930s London pub the song’s lyrics evoke the atmosphere of the era, while the music deploys a gorgeous and memorable melody to help generate something of an after hours feel. Performed tonight in the style of a “slow bossa” Gilby’s wistful vocals were again augmented by a fluent piano solo from Barber.

Gilby has a fondness for the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and delivered a version of “No More Blues”, singing the English lyric above the trio’s “syncopated vamp” in what she described as “a Geordie American” accent, later dubbed “New USA” by The Muse’s Angus Kings. Barber’s piano solo included a sprinkling of daring Latin flourishes.

The Rodgers and Hart composed ballad “It Never Entered My Mind” commenced with a remarkable solo vocal passage from Gilby, a singer whose technique gets better every time I see her. With Evans deploying brushes throughout Barber mixed piano and organ sounds, the latter providing additional splashes of colour and texture, but with his solo delivered in acoustic piano mode.

An excellent first set concluded with a return to the “Carmen Sings Monk” material and a stunning vocalese version of “Rhythm-a-Ning”, introduced by a passage of unaccompanied bass from Fletcher and featuring further instrumental solos from the bassist, Barber and Evans, the latter deploying brushes.

The second set mirrored the first by beginning with an instrumental, in this instance a swingingly energetic reading “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” which included a brilliantly inventive piano solo from Barber, plus further features for Fletcher and Evans.

Gilby rejoined the trio for the opening track from the “Aurora” album. Harrell’s “Little Dancer” became “Leap to the Limelight” with Gilby’s lyrical allusions to the art of dance augmented by instrumental solos from Barber and Fletcher.

Nancy Wilson is another of Gilby’s vocal heroines and it was her version that inspired Gilby’s interpretation of the standard “Angel Eyes”. Described by Gilby as a “saloon or torch song” this was delightful ballad performance introduced by Barber at the piano and featuring Gilby’s emotive vocals. Barber again deployed a mix of piano and organ sounds and added subtle blues inflections to his lyrical piano solo. The performance was also notable for Fletcher’s melodic bass playing and Evans’ deft brush work.

“One Note Samba” saw a return to the Jobim repertoire, with Gilby again delivering the lyrics in English. A lively interpretation of the song included instrumental solos from Barber and Fletcher.

In addition to the Monk material Carmen McRae was also an influence on a blues inflected version of “I Only Have Eyes For You”, with Barber again mixing piano and organ sounds and “Bass fill Bill” enjoying a brief cameo.

Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay” was performed in swinging fashion with Gilby’s adventurous vocals augmented by solos from Barber and Fletcher.

“Let’s raise the intensity” said the singer as she introduced a version of the Duke Ellington / Juan Tizol composition “Caravan”, a tune that represents a wonderfully versatile vehicle for jazz musicians. Gilby’s audacious scat vocals were matched by spirited instrumental features from Barber, Fletcher and Evans.

A highly enthusiastic reaction from an audience that included Cardiff based guitarist James Chadwick ensured that an encore was inevitable. This proved to be a McRae inspired version of Monk’s “Straight No Chaser”, with lyrics by Sally Swisher. This also featured more dazzling scat vocals, in addition to instrumental solos from Barber and Fletcher.

Tonight’s performance was far better than any “guest singer plus pick up band” event had a right to be. Gilby’s adventurous approach paid off and although by her own admission she “threw a lot at them” the trio rose to the challenge magnificently, and particularly Barber who played some truly inspired piano solos. Yes, there were a number of standards in the set list, but there was also much that would have been new to the trio, notably the original song “Midnight Bell” and the Harrell / Gilby “Aurora” pieces. In addition the vocalese versions of the Monk tunes are hardly part of the regular repertoire. Gilby had only met her band mates for the first time just three hours before the performance and the level of rapport that they managed to establish was genuinely impressive. Thanks to her choice of material this was unmistakably a Zoe Gilby show but the Welsh trio also played a huge part in its success. Greg Evans stood in on the night for drummer Ian Poole. Both are regular performers with the Barber Trio. Poole had acted as liaison for the Trio with the Club, but was unfortunately unwell on the night of the event. All at The Jazzmann wish him a speedy recovery.

Gilby presided over the performance with her typical Geordie wit and charm and yet again this well travelled artist made many new friends with this show. Her adventurous approach to jazz, which in other contexts also includes innovative jazz interpretations of pop and rock material, not all of it familiar, is genuinely refreshing and her stock can only continue to rise. Now that she has established links with Brecon it is to be hoped that she will one day return.

A genuinely memorable evening, and one worth braving the elements for.


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