Wall2Wall Festival, Wales

Shez Raja, Tony Kofi and Wendy Kirkland were among the players at the annual festival in Abergavenny

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Shez Raja (bass) and Lewis Moody (keyboard) at the 2021 Wall2Wall festival

Wales continues to help guide UK jazz musicians through the privations of the pandemic, with Black Mountain Jazz at Abergavenny organising its “virtual” Wall2Wall Festival for the second year running and paying bands their full fees.

Cocking a snook at SARS‑CoV‑2, the BMJ added another venue to its annual festival this year. Four of the five featured bands were filmed in summer at its Melville Centre For The Arts base in the day, without an audience, and then they braved the fastnesses of the Monmouthshire countryside to perform before a limited, socially distanced, and breezily ventilated audience at a barn in Llanvetherine, renamed ‘The’ Barn to give it Covid kudos. The fifth, Shez Raja’s Sextet, played instead two back-to-back gigs at the Melville before an audience.

Raja and his band, with guest and admirer Tony Kofi on alto, consolidated a BMJ affinity. He’d been in Abergavenny before and so had Kofi (on baritone sax at Wall2Wall 2018 with The Organisation), both plugging recent albums. Trailing Raja this time was his album Tales From The Punjab, tablaman Gurdain Rayatt clinching the argument that sub-continental percussion rhythms need only a light shove to be transmogrified into what might be called Indo-jazz-funk, except that Raja’s origins are Pakistani. The opening Quiverwish had Raja central to proceedings as both a mobile and engaging physical presence and a sprightly electric bassman. When the complex vocalese of Unnati Dasgupta made a unison frontline trio with Raja and Kofi, that tabla sound floated behind like the immemorial Indus.

Drummer Sophie Alloway upped the ante on the album’s Shambhala, with Kofi screaming away to places permitted by this southern Asian provenance, Raja performing a more fundamental bassman’s role and Lewis Moody adding keyboard colour. Moody epiphanised on Epiphany before the tune with Dasgupta’s help segued to its catchy core. There were more unison voicings before Moody launched into keyboard fantasticals as super timekeeper Alloway kept everyone up to the mark. It was all of a piece, proving that frontline guests, Kofi as surpassing an example as any other, lift the band’s steady groove without losing sight of strict geographical locations.

Popular pianist-singer Wendy Kirkland with her trio and guest singer Annette Gregory celebrated jazz’s divas. It’s a subject already enshrined in a Kirkland band album (not with Gregory) and acclaimed and toured widely, including at BMJ. Gregory couldn’t have wished to be in better company than Kirkland, whose blessedly two-handed piano style encompasses the sinewy and the delicate and whose singing covers wit (Frishberg-Dorough’s I’m Hip), laid-back swing (Frank Loesser’s Slow Boat To China), and tenderness (Bernstein’s Some Other Time). The gig bowed not only to divas but to landmark interpretations, in this case and respectively, Blossom Dearie, Canadian pianist-singer Carol Welsman and Diana Krall. Kirkland, here in the watchful company of bassist Pat Sprakes and drummer Steve Wyndham, was a two-pronged jazz power source, her vocal introduction to Peter Nero’s Sunday In New York followed by a piano solo that was inspired extension rather than instrumental respite.

Gregory, making similar references back, decided on happy-go-luckiness for April In Paris in contrast to the Billie Holiday version. She also had in mind Anita O’Day’s interpretation of That Old Feeling, Ella Fitzgerald’s of How High The Moon, and Sarah Vaughan’s of On A Clear Day. The first began with shuffling brushwork by Wyndham, joined by Sprakes, who a few minutes later delivered the gig’s extended bass solo. But all were Gregory’s own possessions, not least the equivalent determination of Nancy Wilson’s Never Will I Marry, essayed on the version with alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley.

Dom Pipkin, like Kirkland, is a pianist and a singer but from a different street. His style is a fascinating mixture of barrelhouse/boogie, R&B, rock & roll, and modern jazz, all deployed to a single-minded musical purpose alongside Dom’s own take on rollicking vocals. With delinquent bravado, the piano keyboard often absconded cartoon fashion into regions beyond its New Orleans origins; sort of Dr John by Fats Domino out of McCoy Tyner. Add the lively drumming of Jimmy Norden and the depth of long-time Pipkin associate Nick Kacal’s bass and Dom took off into worlds of his own, but ones sealed hermetically to a tradition.

Pipkin’s own take on the culture he’s immersed in was reflected in some original material, including the tender I Love You, written for his artist wife Hannah Luxton, and the boisterous (if hardly believable) I Don’t Want To Go Back To New Orleans, a piece charged with binary rhythms and with echoes at one point of ska. His Take The Whole was written locally and is a philosophical meditation on songwriting’s hits and misses, proving that New Orleans can even take in philosophical meditation conceived in the Welsh hills. Also compassionate was Love Affair With New Orleans, taken from his solo album C’Mon Sunshine, which also includes Heading South, here played as an exuberant keyboard thrash and with not a hint of Crescent City innuendo.

Each of the five acts featured vocalists – Kirkland’s two – and not least was Jack Mac in the BMJ Collective, a quartet put together by versatile drummer Alex Goodyear to function as BMJ’s house band at the Melville. In Goodyear’s The Journey Of Trad (meaning “traditional” rather than 1950s UK trad jazz) he outlined jazz history up to 1930s swing, after which the music became, as he put it, “multi-faceted”. The quartet of Goodyear, Mac (also on clarinet and tenor sax), Luke Adams (banjo) and Clem Saynor (acoustic bass) steamed through classic and illustrative tracks, including spirituals (Down By The Riverside), Tin Pan Alley (Alexander’s Ragtime Band) and swing itself (It Don’t Mean A Thing, etc). The band was careful to give these almost hackneyed tunes its best shot, with structured emphasis on Goodyear’s snare to bookend the marching song John Brown’s Body, Adams’s plucked banjo solo on Down By The Riverside and elsewhere, and Saynor’s opening and closing bass on the gospel song Wade In The Water. By the end, despite Mac’s switch from clarinet to tenor, the historical developments demanded different instrumentation, but we got the message.

A Tribute To The Great American Songbook was the catch-all title of an appearance by up-coming vocalist Ella Hohnen-Ford and pianist Joe Webb. Almost all trilling in jazz is a GAS tribute in some form, so at the portal of entry to a region heavily populated today by the distaff side, originality is all. This couple’s resourcefulness lay in coming at tunes from a fresh angle, even if that meant simply decelerating the tempo, as in Singing In The Rain, or bearing down on the emotions, as in the Schwartz-Dietz chart I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plans, which is not a travel problem but a consequence of love gone awry. Another way of avoiding cliché formats is to have the pianist as an equal musical presence rather than an accompanist. Webb’s Tatum-like tendencies were manifest in I’ll Get By, which Tatum recorded, and in Just In Time, with him and the singer forging ahead line abreast. The whole gig was a cornucopia of fulsome sounds.

For the second virtual Wall2Wall festival in succession, Mark Viveash’s 47 Studio & Productions, based in the town, created the highest quality videos, which are now being streamed until February.