Review: Wall2Wall, Abergavenny

Nigel Jarrett visits a jumping Abergavenny for the fourth Wall2Wall Festival, is moved to tears by Dennis Rollins and enjoys a Boogie Party

Brecon Jazz's shrinkage this year to a midget left out in the rain – and, to be honest, no-one could blame the promoter – diverted some attention a few miles south to Abergavenny, where the annual weekend Wall2Wall jazz festival took place 1-4 September.

There've been changes there too, though not so dramatic. Fringe events hitherto located around town were marshalled this year to appear under the same roof as the festival proper at the Melville Centre and Theatre, where organisers Black Mountain Jazz, the town's club, have decamped from their earlier abode at the Kings Arms Hotel. It's been 12 months in their new home for the club's once-a-month Sunday gigs but this was the first time the festival was held there.

Wall2Wall now means a more circumscribed set of structures, though there were workshops over the road at the St Michael's Centre and a final day of free-entry jigging around at the splendid Market Hall, at the other end of town, where in the evening a throng of ticket-holders put themselves about in the company of the Red Stripe Band, lauded as 'Best Newcomers' at Montreux 2010. It was described as a Boogie Party, and festival director Mike Skilton admitted it was the highlight of the four festivals to date.

This is an event – the festival as a whole, I mean – slowly establishing itself with the locals. As for musicians, they've long known about Abergavenny, which has a borough theatre, a tastefully-converted chapel with a gallery/performing space, a cinema, a few churches, a castle, jazz-friendly pubs and other places just waiting for something bigger to happen. Black Mountain Jazz, a not-for-profit company, would surely be at the forefront of any gear upwards.

Huw Warren knows about Abergavenny. He's Welsh and one of several standard-bearers for Paula Gardiner's jazz course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. He's on the staff there, and so are Iain Ballamy and bassist Dudley Phillips, who joined him at the Melville with drummer Zoot Warren as Trio Brasil plus Ballamy (pictured above right). Brazilian rhythms and colour permeated everything, even Flamingo, once it was prised from its Eastern European origins and its association with Earl Bostic.

Warren's group certainly sounded as though it could survive if obliged to play only the music of the Brazilian Hermeto Pascoal. Warren is a compelling and hugely watchable pianist and his gig resulted in contemporary jazz with its ensemble/solo conventions infused by a South American beat of samba, frevo, choro and others in a Mortonesque, "Spanish tinge" sense. You'd think young Zoot would have supplied most of the exotic input, but Warren was in blistering form – sheet music flew everywhere - and looked as though he could have performed a jazz version of Haydn's Farewell Symphony, in which he'd keep the vibe vibrating even if his colleagues went one by one to the bar.

Singer Kevin Fitzsimmons has the most unenviable job in jazz: sounding original in the male-jazz-vocalist mould that defies being broken or reconstituted. But he's his own man especially when accompanied by Leon Greening on keyboards, drummer Matt Fishwick and, on this occasion, Alec Dankworth, who was depping on acoustic bass.

Concentrating on jazz singing of the 1960s meant Fitzsimmons had to locate the corners into which jazz had been forced by that misnomered "swinging" decade. But there was much to uncover, not least songs from films such as The Italian Job (the Quincy Jones/Don Black number On Days Like These) and a few songs associated with Mel Tormé. Fitzsimmons is highly personable and "a musician's singer" – dread expression but one validated by the way Greening and Co. encouraged the vocalist and he them.

The other major depping job of the weekend was by organist Liam Dunachie in replacing the unavailable Ross Stanley as part of the Dennis Rollins Velocity Trio (pictured above left). It's a big part, too, responsible for reinforcing the architecture and providing the conventional walking bass. Literally opposite him was the all-action drummer Pedro Segundo, also driving in the customary manner but doing all sorts of other things with the kit as a percussionist. It's amazing how Rollins and his bear-hugging trombone licks aided by electronic gubbins puts it all together while operating between the two – again literally. There were tracks from the two albums, including from 11th Gate the moving The Other Side. Can a trombonist move you to tears? Rollins and his helpers can.

Rollins also knows Abergavenny. And so does violinist Chris Garrick, who appeared with David Gordon on keyboard. Garrick began his set with a piece by William Walton, setting up expectations of a typical Garrick gig at which a jazz violinist – steely tone with pick-up, brass-like attack and catholic tastes – comes at everything with the improviser’s sense of mischief. "Everything" included Stevie Wonder and C.P.E Bach, and in recognition of the passing of John Taylor, Coffee Time from the pianist-composer's Azimuth days.

Some lovely and lively exchanges with Gordon found the fiddler resorting to extended pizzicati. This was not conventional violin-playing, nor did anyone want it to be. Stephane Grappeli would have done things differently, including not bringing along a five-string, decorated instrument for a blues number. Garrick has done for jazz violin-playing what Earl Hines did for the piano in "trumpetising" it, but without stifling what it can customarily offer, a mode in which Garrick is insouciant advocate.

Warren's South American propensities were distilled in the Tango Jazz Quartet, from Argentina, which seems always to be travelling the world. Like Warren, leader Gustavo Firmenich on throaty tenor sax and snappy clarinet knows that sou' o' the border rhythms and sentiments are not just an option but a culture happily animating jazz language. Unlike Warren, he never allowed his colleagues to take off on their own, such were the ensemble's tight, circumscribed structures. The mild exception to this was keyboard player Horacio Acosta, a fine, two-handed performer who would have been better served by acoustic piano; or at least it would have been interesting to hear him playing it.

Firmenich apologised for his English pronunciation. The announcements only mattered in terms of tango niceties, though Piazzola's Libertango seemed to be in there somewhere and throughout the gig the music as an experience inclined the audience more to dancing than listening in a way that didn't apply to Warren's set. Certainly drummer Alejandro Beelmann and bassist Frederico Hilal were more attuned to strict tempo than any timekeeping that might have been suggested by the goings-on but which were more or less off limits.

It was left to local pianist Gareth Hall, as part of a duo set with the excellent Martha Skilton on saxes, to illustrate how improvisation could be formal as well as unpredictable. His notated playing on Bill Kinghorn's arrangement of Matt Dennis's Everything Happens to Me illustrated his point beautifully. Elsewhere, with Skilton giving memorable 1940s tunes their due, another depper, vocalist Debs Hancock, dropped in at the last minute for the absent Naomi Rae.

Others to appear included singer Lee Gibson, the Dave Cottle Trio, the KoGo Project and Baraka. Rollins and Gibson led workshops and inter-gig entertainment was provided by Coren Sithers, Tom Morley, "Stainless" Steve Garrett, Christine Heath, Ben Creighton Griffiths and, popping up again, Debs Hancock with Julian Martin. Not heard of them? You've never been to Wales. It's jumping.

Photos by Conal Dunn

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