Miles Kington famously remarked that he travelled from Wales to London for jazz, only to discover that jazz had decamped to Wales in a form that might have obviated his first journey.
He was referring specifically to the Brecon Jazz Festival, later to be known as Brecon Jazz, when it was attracting international musicians and populous support. That the festival is no more, after a few promoters took it on with a resuscitator close at hand, is still widely lamented.
But jazz has always thrived here in the shape of Welsh musicians, despite the regrettable scuttling of the Brecon flagship. That they can still surprise with their high standards and wide embrace of tradition was no more evident than at this gig hosted by Black Mountain Jazz at Abergavenny Community Arts Centre, in its Melville Theatre.
Chop Idols are trumpeters Ceri Williams and Gethin Liddington, backed by pianist Richard West, bassist Ashley John Long and drummer James Sherwood. The band set about commemorating some of jazz’s great trumpeters, including Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge, but the irony of its name in aping the bland simulacra of pop-rock ‘tribute’ bands was a moniker only musicians of superior musical ability would employ.
‘Chops’ is the term used by the jazz fraternity for those who blow into their instruments, specifically trumpeters, to denote the combination of embouchure and lung power. This suggests a competitive element – jazz was once renowned for its ‘cutting’ sessions, in which musicians tried to blast each other off the podium – but this gig was notable for its equivalence rather than its combative brilliance.
Those who’d never heard Chop Idols or encountered the upfront partnership it featured, must have wondered how the evening would proceed. Well, it started as it intended to go on, with the trumpeters duetting a ‘head’ arrangement by the American Rich Willey and then launching choruses of variable length as soloists. Willey is witty and clever. The first duet was dazzlingly contrapuntal, like the others, and based on the changes of Frank Loesser’s Slow Boat to China. Willey has re-named it Speedboat to Singapore, maybe the first arranger to acknowledge that a tune based on an erstwhile chord sequence possibly deserves a new – if unofficial – label: a case of an arranger wanting his creativity noted.
Ceri Williams was up to the microphone with trumpet and as vocalist with a nod towards Louis Armstrong in the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields number I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. And that the band could time-travel with ease was illustrated by the next one, Gillespie’s Night In Tunisia, with Gethin Liddington quite rightly declining to match the goatee-bearded be-bopper’s extended stratospheric flights (one was sure that he could have if he’d wanted to) but instead enshrining what was involved in that trumpet style without slavishly imitating it. He followed with a masterly essay in restraint and leisurely invention on Johnny Green’s Body And Soul, not least wresting it from the proprietorial clutches of tenor saxophonists, led by Coleman Hawkins.
Williams admitted that Clark Terry had been a strong influence on him and his colleague, and there followed his superb take on Terry’s fun tune Mumbles, also known as Incoherent Blues. It involved an epic story told in weirdly meaningful vocalese. Terry himself would have loved it.
All this time, anyone with a ear for the exceptional must have been turning often to the keyboard, where young Richard West was wowing everyone with solos and comping interpolations based on an instinctive harmonic sense and a double-handed technique. We’ll be hearing more of him, or I’ll eat my pork pie hat. Similarly, Sherwood was unobtrusively busy at the kit and Long, both in walking mode and upper-register fertility, gave the band its ever-onward propulsion.
It seems perfunctory to note that both Liddington and Williams doubled flugelhorn, playing that mellower instrument with more relaxed ‘chops’. Williams’s homage to the much-missed Clifford Brown on Richard Rogers’s It Might As Well Be Spring, a tune associated with saxophonist Ike Quebec but pre-eminently with Brownie, was once more an example of how to pay homage without trying to copy a musician’s style or personality to the note. In our more charitable moments we might ascribe that to a modest form of genius; to top-class musicianship, anyway.
It would be difficult to better a jazz gig that set out with the simple aim of reminding its audience of the music’s history, its flamboyance, and its quiet allure, and which made such a compelling case with unforced artistry. That it was performed with home-grown musicians almost went without saying, but it should be said anyway. Oh, another of those Willey retitles was Better Get Out The Rake, for Autumn Leaves. Less tortuous was My Indiana Home, for Jimmy Hanley’s Indiana. And if it’s not too much to take in, the final outro chorus of that was the ‘head’ of Miles Davis’s Donna Lee, based on Indiana’s chord changes. You have to keep your ears pricked when this band is on the move.
Nigel Jarrett is a former daily-newspaperman and a contributor to Arts Scene Wales, the Wales Arts Review and other publications, including Jazz Journal and Acumen poetry magazine. He is a poet, novelist, and story writer. His first collection of stories, Funderland, was warmly reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian, and the Times, and long-listed for the Edge Hill prize. His latest collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published in 2016. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first poetry collection was Miners At The Quarry Pool. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.
BMJ’s monthly jazz presentation on April 29 will be Piano Divas, in which pianist Wendy Kirkland’s trio will be commemorating the women pianists and singers of jazz, including Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, Blossom Dearie, Nina Simone, and Shirley Horn. Www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk Ticket reservations: 07958612691