King’s Arms, Y Cantreff, Market Hall, Abergavenny, 5-6 September 2015
Kings Arms, main stage: Ben Cipolla Band, Radio Banska, Emily Saunders ESB, Ben Treacher Quartet, Moscow Drug Club, Donnie Joe’s American Swing, Remi Harris Trio, Jamie Brownfield Quartet, Sarah Gillespie Trio, Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion.
Y Cantreff, blues stage: Mansel Davies, Bluesy Susie, Sicknote Steve, Silurian.
Market Hall, ‘Jazz Alley’: RedRug, Tarion Band, Mankala, Lindy Hop and Jive, FB Pocket Orchestra, Synergy, Zoe Schwarz and Rob Koral Duo.
Abergavenny’s contribution to the plethora of small jazz festivals is not a derivative of the nearby Brecon Jazz but it does partake of something perennially rarefied above the Beacons and eastern peaks. The two-day event organised by the town’s Black Mountain Jazz Club – three if you include the Made in Wales festival supper on the Friday evening – also bears the responsibility of focusing at least some of the time on young musicians. That said, UK jazz today presents youth as being far from synonymous with musicians parked on the learning curve, from which alto-saxophonist Ben Treacher for one has long since taken off. Treacher’s sustained and onrushing flights would have been an example to the Ben Cipolla Band, first of the main acts to appear at the Kings Arms.
But to begin at the end – the final day was sun-blessed and the last two gigs a distillation of the wide variety of jazz heard in the previous forty-eight hours. The penultimate act had Sarah Gillespie dispensing her brand of edgy roadhouse blues, covering Bessie Smith, echoing Janis Joplin and hanging contemporary mores out to dry. She gave way to blues proper in the form of Zoe Schwarz and Blue Commotion playing the sort of cranked-up, no-nonsense material in an instrumental setting more fitting than Gillespie’s on the night. Indeed, Gillespie backed by Schwarz’s Blue Commotion would have been some show, but her output is not easily categorized. Schwarz also did a double by also appearing, gratis, in Jazz Alley, with band guitarist Rob Koral.
On Saturday, Cipolla was first among equals of a sort, as ‘wall to wall’ meant jazz of various kinds at different venues. When Cipolla began, Mansel Davies, on form as ever, was preparing to open proceedings at Y Cantreff, to be followed later by the divine Bluesy Susie. At the same time, organisers were preparing for events at the Market Hall the following day, which resembled a festival on its own. On Sunday too, the blues stage at the inn was host to the popular and ironically-named Sicknote Steve, and then Silurian, described as a dynamic duo; they were. And there was a modest fringe at a couple more pubs. Festival director Mike Skilton’s cunning plan was to present free-admission acts in the Market Hall’s ‘Jazz Alley’ to attract the curious as well as the committed. Sound move, fully vindicated.
Wiltshire-based singer-composer Cipolla and company are products of the South West Music School. They stand ready and able beneath the signposts of a career in the business but sounded pretty much fully-formed in the kind of music they want to play. They illustrated how often jazz is now successfully fused with other forms of popular and traditional music so that the listener is not aware of any unease – not much, anyway. Their repertory included Gregory Porter covers (‘We all love him and hope to meet him some time,’ Cipolla announced, disarmingly) to The Jungle Book. Cipolla, in a powder-blue tux, affected the persona of a 1930s swing band vocalist. Post-modern or what?
Treacher enjoys national prestige and has local connections, having graduated from the jazz course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama with a first. But he’s always put himself about a lot – National Youth Jazz Orchestra and a full calendar of work – and his reach is stellar. From the hard-bop and full frontal of ‘But Not For Me’, to an almost burlesque ‘On The Sunny Side Of The Street’ via a jaunty view of ‘Skylark’, the band, including hot-property keyboard player Will Barry, cascaded thrills and confidence. Treacher’s comprehensive equipment included an ability to echo, if distantly, the sax’s historical personalities. Well, I could hear them.
On Sunday, trumpeter Jamie Brownfield and his quartet did for brass what Treacher had done for winds the previous day. Cipolla was a universe away from singer Emily Saunders and her band. Saunders’s lyrics skedaddled with little notice into double-jointed, high-pitched vocalese and back again, sidling up to her fellow musicians, particularly trumpeter Byron Wallen, with a yearning for affinity. On her own composition, the laconic ‘You Caught Me’, words and wordlike sounds mingled mysteriously. She is some performer, deservedly winning plaudits everywhere.
Vocals in the Moscow Drug Club band (don’t ask!) were led by chanteuse Katya Gorrie with 1930s-style refrains from the rest of the band, which dispensed a conflation of manouche jazz, Berlin cabaret songs, French chanson and other elements too numerous to mention. It offered the most entertaining sound-check ever: a multi-interrupted version of ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Shein’, which, for all we knew, was part of the kaleidoscope. At one point I think we were at a Mexican street carnival. Above this band and one earlier in the day – Radio Banska – the jazz compass oscillated wildly, seeking the direction of its natural home. That’s sometimes difficult these days, but mostly worth the enjoyable wait. Banska’s ground colouring is Levantine, with musico-geographic excursions elsewhere. It’s an area from which this quintet’s co-leader and guitarist, Dave Spencer, often departed to swing ferociously with jazz and rock elements combined. (There was a lot of style-mixing all weekend.) It was Balkan, often surreal and, in the final number, ‘Cinema’, hard-driving. The band is Bath-Bristol based. Check them out, but carry a map of the Middle East. Donnie Joe’s American Swing completed a main stage trio of bands whose collectivity outshone any individual flair, conspicuous though it was.
As the weekend progressed, the two stages in the Market Hall were attracting bigger crowds. The Afro-Caribbean backbeat of the Tarion Band evoked, among other things, summer on City Road, Cardiff. They segued into the all-action Mankala, a pan-African nonette with members from everywhere, who were used to having people dance naked in front of them, presumably as a result of helpless abandon to their music. That’s what they said, multi-cultural tongues in cheeks.Teenage band RedRug gave a lot and must have experienced much that will be useful. No era was circumvented, least of all by Abergavenny a capella choir Synergy, the 1920s FB Pocket Orchestra and the non-stop Lindy Hop and Jive.
Many thought the session by Remi Harris and his trio and Remi’s illustrated history of jazz guitar was the best offering of the weekend: Django-style manouche played on post-Maccaferri instruments, blues and blues-rock on the Gibson Les Paul (invoking Freddie King, Peter Green and others) and everyone else on the nominal jazz guitar, complete with octave licks to ape Wes Montgomery. Harris was wide-ranging and unstoppable, as only a man at the end of a tour can be. This was phenomenal playing and artistry from an unassuming and intelligent musician who needs to be seen and heard live. He could look upon his latest spate of gigs as this enterprising festival reviewed its weekend: with pride and no measure of understated success.
Header photo of Moscow Drug Club and all live photos credit: Conal Dunn.