Wall2Wall festival 2020

The streamed festival from Abergavenny included celebrations of three jazz centenaries - those of Charlie Parker, Peggy Lee and Carmen McRae

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Martha Skilton (s) and Jonny Bruce (t) play bebop at the Wall2Wall festival 2020

Continuity emerged on a couple of levels at this year’s Wall2Wall festival, organised and presented by Black Mountain Jazz at Abergavenny. For a start, the annual event took place despite the pandemic and a national lockdown. Bands were video-filmed and socially distanced on various dates this summer at the club’s Melville Theatre for later streaming.

At a time when any happy circumstance was welcome, the club had already decided to change the date of the week-long bash from the end of August to mid-October, which gave it time to prepare in reasonably relaxed conditions. Director Mike Skilton and his team had also agreed to pay musicians the fee they would have received had they been performing “live” in a virus-free atmosphere two months later. At a time when some UK musicians were accusing others of busking gratis online it restored some well-needed decorum and professionalism to the scene.

The decision to stream had financial implications for this not-for-profit organisation. Despite subsidies gratefully received each year from local underwriters, it was necessary to charge punters to tune in to each gig, something made easy for them by an easily navigated and informative club website and with fair ticket prices. And there were extras, including interviews with musicians and a discussion on the eras of jazz.

There was further seamless progression, nay enhancement, in the way local firm 47 Studios & Productions, positioned their cameras – aerial shots on Alex Goodyear’s drums, close-up on the piano for Dave Jones, Fergus McCreadie and Guy Shotton, floor shots for the bass of Ashley John Long, and guitarist Mark Williams, for examples, and variety of view elsewhere for front-line musicians. It was so good that, costs permitting, virtual jazz performance is likely to become part of the offering from jazz clubs which have confronted lockdown with video cameras and triumphed.

Goodyear narrated the story of Charlie Parker, whose centenary it is. He, Jones, Long, Jonny Bruce (trumpet) and Ben Waghorn and Martha Skilton (saxes) played bebop tunes – Groovin’ High, Scrapple From The Apple, Barbados – with bravura if no little evidence that it’s too easy to allow bop complexity to swirl inwards rather than with outward, Parkeresque abandon. Bruce adopted the ruse of recalling Roy Eldridge-like licks as well as Gillespie-like skywards rocketing. The other centenary was Peggy Lee’s. Despite having sung with Benny Goodman, as narrator Ceri Ellis reminded us, Lee doesn’t always figure in jazz lists, but Debs Hancock, Victoria Klewin and Becki Biggins sometimes gave her associated tunes – Black Coffee, Linger In My Arms, Why Don’t You Do Right, and Fever – more jazzy inflexions than she had. The accompanying Goodyear, Shotton and bassist Nick Kacal created the ideal bedding.

Pianist McCreadie and singer Luca Manning were the festival’s current award-winning guests along with singer Zoe Gilby. It was McCreadie’s second visit to Abergavenny this year, his trio having earlier attracted one of the club’s biggest audiences. He and Manning are a duo if not made in heaven then conceived in some other celestial place. The singer ventures with assurance beyond conventional musical parameters, both on familiar tunes such as Laura and on his own Our Journey, setting the pianist down to embark on lengthy and florid expansions. Never has the club’s upright been taken on so many all-embracing and scenic travels. Our Journey was from the pair’s album When The Sun Comes Out, from which Where Are The Arms was plucked like the tender blossom it is. This was more than a singer-pianist duo: it was a singer fully fledged and a pianist fully equipped coming together for a whole if not greater then brighter and more capacious than the sum of its parts.

A third centenary, Carmen McRae’s, was marked by singer-violinist Claire Roberts, whose BMJ gig in lockdown, like others, had to be cancelled. Roberts, no stranger to the coup de maitre, decided especially for the streamed festival to perform charts from McRae’s 1988 album Carmen Sings Monk, itself a hit, if a tad eccentric – “a tribute to a tribute” Roberts noted, telling McRae’s story much as Parker’s and Lee’s had been. There were vocalised charts as well as one with added lyrics, such as Jon Hendricks’s for Monk’s Rhythm-A-Ning (Listen To Monk in McRae’s adaptation) and Mike Ferro’s for Ugly Beauty (McRae’s Still We Dream), and instrumental variants aplenty as well as wit, the latter enhancing In Walked Bud (magicked by McRae to Suddenly, again with Hendricks lyrics). Roberts’s gig was bursting with delights, thoroughly prepared, smartly executed with pianist George King and bassist Grant Russell, and sparkling with the élan of a project put together especially for the occasion.

Gilby’s gig, spliced with interview material by broadcaster John Hellings, was crammed with information, not least in the words of her songs. Here accompanied by husband-bassist Andy Champion and guitarist Mark Williams, she repeatedly drew from lyrics, her own or by others, all the narrative power it’s possible for them to yield up. Even her distinctive vocalese, or scatting, sounds like a language worth decoding. Like Roberts, she whizzed through the Hendricks words to In Walked Bud and did the business too on Rhythm-A-Ning. Among her several projects is one in which she adds words to tunes written by trumpeter Tom Harrell, changing their titles (à la McRae-Roberts) with literary aplomb. So that Harrell’s Moon Alley became Gilby’s Shadowed In Solitude and an example of her skill in not only respecting the melody but releasing its hidden tale.

Gilby’s praise for the BMJ “virtual” project might have been reciprocated in enumerating her many activities, not least the domestic streaming she and Champion have undertaken in 40-minute takes at home, once involving – and accommodating – the arrival of the postman. It’s another story. And so was The Midnight Bell, a sombre tale of a pub inspired by a Patrick Hamilton novel, and another Gilby-Champion number, In It Together, in which a partnership is likened to the pages of a book. Gilby is not only industrious and sure-footed but that rare musical being, a musician-lyricist who is not confined by jazz but inspired by it as an impetus for invention. She’s making a lot of discoveries.

No festival act did more to disguise the absence of a live audience than the Kim Cypher Quintet, with its unabashed take on jazz’s soul-funk guise. She and drummer husband Mike have also been active in live streaming from home, but here it was full throttle, especially in the James Brown style derived from the Cypher’s friendship with former Brown sideman Pee Wee Ellis. Sax-switching Kim and the band paid due homage on Yellow Bird, with her tenor contrasting effectively with the guitar of Chris Cobbson. There was more of the same on George Benson’s Breezin’, Kim’s soprano an example of her judicious choices of which sax suits which chart. I Love Being Here With You featured Kim’s vocals, more of which might have been a plus.

Alex Goodyear popped up again as interviewer and drummer (with Long and pianist Michael Blanchfield) backing saxists Josh Heaton and Daniel Newbury, trumpeter Thom Dalby, guitarist Alex Lockheart and singer Sarah Meek in a “Tomorrow’s Headliners” gig, a chance to show what college jazz studies graduates are made of in music desperate for the young to come up with something innovative based on the fundamentals they’ve mastered. It’s no small requirement. The Argentinian Tango Jazz Quartet (TJQ) were filmed at home especially for Wall2Wall, and again delivered with interest their ability to swamp neither jazz nor tango in the brave admixture of the two. The band has visited Abergavenny and again showed huge commitment to their project, sensing how favourably it had already gone down with its Welsh audience.

The Wall2Wall 2020 videos are all available for streaming until November 20. For full details, tickets and other information, go to the BMJ festival website: http://blackmountainjazz.co.uk/wall2wall-jazz-festival/