Review: Abergavenny Jazz Festival

The Wall2Wall Festival impressed Nigel Jarrett with its programme of jazz for all tastes and the willingness of its audiences to 'give everything a go'

Abergavenny sits in the lee of the eastern Black Mountains, where it receives north-westerly breezes from Brecon and its beacons, but in jazz terms it's been holding its own for as long as the sometimes troubled Brecon Jazz has been shouting it from the mountain tops. Black Mountain Jazz, the Abergavenny club, organises its own summer festival, often featuring musicians already familiar to its members at a venue – the Kings Arms in Nevill Street – friendly and comfortable enough to be paid compliments by them.

It's called the Wall2Wall Festival to reflect that for two days, this year the 5 and 6 September, jazz is to be found in the Kings Arms satellites of Y Cantreff (an inn on the Brecon Road) and the cavernous Market Hall in the centre of town, as well as at any licensed premises willing to take part in a festival "Fringe", especially those which already hold regular blues and jazz sessions such as the Hen and Chickens pub, a mere holler away from the market.

While nothing of the ear-splitting free-improv school was included – though few doubt the music would be given a fair hearing – there existed the kind of variety that indicates how much depth exists in current UK jazz practice. If anyone wished to write an essay on how easily or otherwise the music wears its coat of many colours, this good-natured bash would have supplied evidence.

Festival director Mike Skilton turned the Market Hall into "Jazz Alley" on the Sunday, to which entry was free. His aim was to fit that same variety to a different purpose viz., encouraging idle humanity who care little for jazz per se to find out what it's all about and discover that forms of music they found congenial or a non-committal 'OK', were actually sitting for their enjoyment under the jazz umbrella. One supposed that the nine-piece Mankala, a cosmopolitan crew playing music from the African continent, were demonstrating, apart from anything else, where some of the inspiration for jazz originated, though their lively set was not intended to be educational: the band was having too much fun for that. But if you heard them and then attended the gig by the Ben Cipolla Band at the Kings on Saturday after buying a ticket, the connection would have been intriguing if not blindingly obvious.

Cipolla's is an interesting case. His Wiltshire-based crew are a product of the South West Music School, so their members have decisions to make about where they want to go with their music after they've made ones related to their further/higher education. So the amazing things about them were their EP of original Cipolla tunes, their breezy collectivity, and the leader's faux-brash persona as a blue-tux band vocalist from the 1930s. Their likes and loves include Gregory Porter and The Jungle Book. So, few inhibitions, which might serve them well.

Then there were other, older, bands with a settled and sometimes eccentric make-up. It would have been obvious to members of BMJ if not to the Market Hall curious that without jazz as foundation and/or infill musical structures would begin crumbling. Central to the Moscow Drug Club band, for instance, is the spirit and style of manouche, which has grown luxuriant appendages derived from pre-war Berlin cabaret, French popular song and any number of other influences of vague provenance. Fascinating was a much-interrupted version of Bei Mir Bistu Shein at the beginning of their set, which turned out to be a series of thwarted sound checks. Something was up, but lead chanteuse Katya Gorrie shrugged it all off and summoned everyone to musical pastures odd and not-so-odd. Radio Banska, the Bath-Bristol outfit co-led by violinist Nina Trott and guitarist Dave Spencer, often draw inspiration from the Balkans-Levant region though not all their stuff is Balkan or Levantine. It was geography with a tendency towards lebensraum. That explained Spencer's frequently ocean-hopping to New York: he needed little invitation to cut the cultural ties and shoot off on straight-no-chaser jazz guitar.

If it were a race and he were paired with alto saxophonist Ben Treacher, few would bet on the outcome. Treacher, sometime NYJO soloist, is now whizzing off on his tod with everyone playing catch-up. Yet here, with his quartet, he displayed a deadpan sense of humour, with a burlesque of On The Sunny Side Of The Street to contrast with a hard-bop full-frontal version of But Not For Me and a jaunty interpretation of Skylark. But in that McLean-ish onrush there were hints of other historical styles, however much sacrificed to post-Parkerism. At his side and impressing more as the set continued was keyboards player Will Barry, who reminded at least two members of the audience of Jason Rebello, a case of keeping comparison and contrast within our island boundaries.

Treacher's brand of jazz virtuosity, which means speed-playing at full throttle and sometimes chasing endless choruses, was reflected in the set from guitarist Remi Harris (pictured above right by DMA Photography) and his trio at the Kings on Sunday. But if regulars thought they were in for a nostalgic afternoon of gipsy jazz, they were to be pleasantly surprised. Our genial Hereford lad, hitting the buffers at the end of a tour, brought not only his post-Maccaferri guitar with him but also a Gibson Les Paul and a nominal jazz guitar to conjure Django Reinhardt, Peter Green, Freddie King and Wes Montgomery, to name just the main men. He simply couldn't stop playing, and he played well, with matchless articulation, intonation and attack and no fuzz and fluff at all. If it wasn't the gig of the weekend, Emily Saunders's with her band must have been, depending of course on predilections. Saunders is a new kind of vocalist, one who in a musically interesting way seems to want to be an instrumentalist like, on this occasion, trumpeter Byron Wallen. At sometimes impenetrable high pitch, she mixes double-jointed vocalese with lyrics that themselves appear to be morphing into wordless sounds. It's a wonderful conflation additional to her abilities as a straight songstress with a handle on tradition. She almost had a rival on the weekend in Sarah Gillespie, whose contemporary blues-inflected songs belted out with Janis Joplin licks in more than 12 bars or less, was a compelling presence, as was Zoe Schwarz (pictured above left) after her and Bluesy Susie at Y Cantreff the previous day. It was wise to be on the side of the distaff side.

There was lots more in the festival programme proper – 21 acts plus whatever the Fringe was offering - and it catered for all tastes. But this was an audience willing to give everything a go, even the onlookers in Jazz Alley, finding that their toes were mysteriously tapping as something someone else called "jazz" began to get to them.

Mike Skilton commented: "Feedback from those who attended ticketed events was very positive, with many great comments about the high quality and well-balanced programme. I thought Sunday's Jazz Alley was a great success. It attracted a large audience, which seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the music. Hopefully, some of them will now come to our monthly jazz nights. As for the future – it'll be the same again next year! South Wales needs to retain its few jazz festivals."

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