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Woodstock Jazz

New montly jazz concert series featuring a glittering variety of stars from Britain and beyond
Brian Corbett and co. at Woodstock Jazz - photo by Stuart Constable
St Hughe's Centre, Hensington Rd, Woodstock OX20 1JL, one Friday every month

April 26, 2019
Trumpet virtuoso woos us in Woodstock

Bryan Corbett with Alex Steele, Paul Jefferies and Charlie Stratford - Thu 25th April 2019

Today’s jazz musicians are lucky. They have a far broader repertoire at their disposal than the greats on whose legacy they are building. More than that, they have fresh styles and influences to draw upon. Where Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and the rest were mostly working with swing, trad and the popular standards of their day, the young guns of modern jazz have grown up with soul, rock, funk, hip-hop, heavy metal, electronica and all the variations on countless other genres.

It shows. Bryan Corbett, with a lengthy string of credits that includes sessions for Ben E. King, The Brand New Heavies and Gary US Bonds, is passionate about the jazz greats. But his interpretations of their work, and his own compositions, demonstrate a wider consciousness. There are dimensions and dynamics to his playing that only someone growing up in a post-rock and funk-laden world could bring to the hard bop format.

This was the fourth Woodstock Jazz session, launched by bassist Paul Jefferies and his partner Jayne, whose Little Live Music Company is establishing a thriving jazz scene in Oxfordshire and the surrounding area. Corbett was backed by Jefferies on bass, with pianist Alex Steele and Charlie Stratford on drums. They made a fine quartet, the backing trio coming fresh to the charts and providing a sensitive and responsive platform for the soloist. Standards like Softly As In A Morning Sunrise and Bernie Miller’s workout Bernie’s Tune were blended with a soulful take on Try A Little Tenderness and a funk-infused version of McHugh and Loesser’s Let’s Get Lost, which became a Chet Baker classic.

Corbett, while honouring the spirit of his heroes, has a technical command that allows him to explore the changes with the boldness and fluency of someone whose formative musical landscape had been further broadened by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Prince and the later explorations of Miles Davis. The freedom and dynamics of his playing, occasionally calling in touches from New Orleans and Memphis for good measure, took every piece into richly expressive and inventive territory.

The second set included two original compositions. Cathedral Run is a Latin-flavoured groove with a dancing hook, while Crystal Water is an evocative ballad featuring Corbett’s elegant flugelhorn playing. It also gave the trio a chance to embark upon a passage that took things almost into free jazz territory, without ever losing the essential feel. It was a fine piece of collective improvisation.

Corbett concluded the session with his nod to the 60th anniversary of some of the most influential albums in jazz, of which Miles’ Kind Of Blue is arguably the most famous. It was characteristic of his adventurous approach that he chose a track rarely performed by other musicians, the ethereal Flamenco Sketches. His interpretation of the melody was rich with Spanish colour, recalling that other Miles Davis classic Sketches Of Spain, and his solo was a masterclass in restrained power. It was an exquisite end to an absorbing evening’s music.

The next Woodstock Jazz evening is on Friday May 25. It features acclaimed singer Kevin Fitzsimmons swinging his way through the American Songbook, backed by the dazzling piano of Leon Greening.

March 26, 2019
A Little Touch of Peterson in the Night

The ‘Maharaja of the keyboard’ certainly got good representation tonight, and as frontman pianist Craig Milverton acknowledged, Oscar Peterson was, in his view, the greatest of all jazz pianists. Most of the lineup Milverton had chosen to give us his own inimitable take on tonight were O.P. numbers, with the opening piece being ‘Hallelujah Time’, a fast-paced tune with cascades of breakneck jauntiness on the keys. What followed was ‘Night Train’, which had me settling a little deeper into my seat with its mellow rolling jive.

Milverton did something during this piece which I came to realize as we progressed through the set was a signature move by him - towards the latter half of the number, when the groove was really well established, he quietened his tone on the keyboard to a very soft, muted playing style, softly exploring the chords underlying the whole thing, and resonating peacefully with those, before rebuilding the energy and pace once again to bring it home. This also gave room for Paul Jeffries’ fabulous bass lines to take centre stage. I came to think of these softer middle sections as the Milverton interludes.

‘Wheatlad’, a curiously pastoral piece of jazz, followed, providing a palette for Milverton to daub notes from up and down the keyboard onto an acoustic canvas. ‘The Love Ballad’ was up next and then ‘Falling in Love with Love’, though Milverton introduced it as ‘Falling in Love with Hove’ to much audience amusement. This featured the first of several outstanding drum solos from ace drummer Nick Milward. Duke Ellington’s ‘I Got It Bad’ was a laconically mellow and mellifluous affair which followed next.

There was a real interplay between Milverton and Milward, who obviously share more than a syllable after their eighteen years working together (though Milverton did claim they’d been working together since four years before his birth, which I could almost imagine was true!). Milward also shared this uncanny ability to conjure profound feeling via the softest touch, and some of his solos worked the rhythms of the drum all the way down to the quietest rattle, as the audience listened rapt to his every tap. The last number before the interval was ‘Topsy’ which featured the best drum solo of the lot.

After the break, a piano solo started us back in, followed by a gloriously bluesy ‘Hymn to Freedom’ which had a real gospel feel, replete with shimmering keys and drums. We were treated to a versatile array of numbers in the second half including Lefko’s ‘You Look Good To Me’ which Milverton described as ‘starting classical… before reaching a really righteous groove’, a bossa nova number entitled ‘L’Impossible’, a fast filibuster of a track by the name of ‘Place Saint Henri’ featuring another standout drum solo, before the trio closed out the night for us with O.P’s ‘Tenderly’ and a lovely encore rendition of Cole Porter’s ‘I Love You’.

Milverton comes off as a grand master with a sense of humour - gruffly joking his way through the set between numbers, and transporting us elsewhere within each piece. A wonderful night from a real jazz pianist.

February 25, 2019
Ben Holder's Gypsy Jazz Trio, Fri 22nd Feb 2019

Ben Holder is not so much a jazz violinist as a force of nature with a violin sprouting out of his left shoulder! He’s technically brilliant, a virtuoso with a serious turn of speed perfectly suited to this form of jazz, but what carries his performance most is his rampant and unabashed passion for the music itself. Backed up by a very capable Paul Jeffries on double bass and Jez Cook on guitar, these guys had no need of a drummer as they owned the rhythm and the fills all at once.

Holder opened things up with George Gershwin’s ‘Lady Be Good’, playing at a blistering and breakneck pace and moving about on stage with his signature gyrations and leg kickings, looking more like an electric guitarist than an acoustic violinist, based on his body movements alone. He owned the space, and the instrument, and as the evening progressed it was very clear he’d had a love affair with the violin for a very long time. As with many jazz legends, he wasn’t afraid to make little appreciative moans as he played. Ben is a performer without filters - what you see is what you get, and that’s a good thing since he’s a very charming and affable gent, regaling the audience with jokes and stories in between blasting them away with his music.

‘Jesus I’m out of breath’ gasped Holder before encouraging the audience to ‘turn to your left and give that person a big kiss’, then promptly launching into another Gershwin number, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’. We found out during this number that Holder also sings, extremely well. His vocals were natural, warm, on point and very chilled all at once.

We were then treated to a hot version of Duke Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’, one of the highlights for me, featuring a double-speed rock-out on violin. Holder joked about the little man on his shoulder shouting ‘go faster, you can do it!’ in his ear. He also mentioned that the band is kept on their toes by not knowing the lineup in advance. Well, they were certainly up to the challenge!

We got to hear an original composition from Holder entitled ‘You’ with some sweet high range singing from the man himself, some poignant lingering notes on the violin and some mellow scat vocal sections, finishing up with what I can only describe as his signature rock-out seizures towards the end!

The first half closed out with two numbers from Django Reinhardt including a fantastic version of ‘Minor Swing’ and a wonderful version of The Beatles’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’. The room was fired up throughout the short break, and ready for more.

The false endings were flying through the second half, and as Holder said himself ‘who knows when the ends are gonna end!’, we heard some fabulous interplay between guitar and violin during Earl Hines’ ‘Rosetta’, a brilliant interpretation of Cole Porter’s ‘Why Can’t You Behave’, and ‘Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby’ blew us out of the water.

Finally a particular highlight, as Holder brought the band down into the heart of the room, right next to our table in fact, and we got a close up view of the intense fingerwork on that violin during the numbers ‘Swing 48’, and a hauntingly vibrating and entrancing performance of 'Souvenir de Villengen' by Stephane Grappelli. It was truly moving being so close to the technical skill and passion involved in Holder’s playing.

I haven’t smiled so often and so wide at a gig for quite some time, by the end of the night my cheeks were aching and I felt a serious buzz. Holder has a unique energy and it transmits readily across a room. He deserves to be on a much larger stage, and the standing ovation he received from the audience was absolutely his due.

January 21, 2019
Energetic and accessible

The St. Hughe’s Centre in Woodstock had been granted a relaxed character very suited to a jazz club by virtue of numerous circular tables scattered across the open space, the audience already settling decorously in to their seats, with a healthy range of bring-your-own booze arranged amongst them. Glasses and soft drinks were provided, a nice alternative to a full bar, adding to the personal nature of the place.

Something else which brought intimacy was the choice to place the stage on a simple spread of carpet at the front, on a level with the audience. Organiser and resident double bassist Paul Jeffries introduced the event, assuring the room that this would be no ‘scary jazz’ and that we’d be revisiting numbers from the ‘40s and ‘50s. The charismatic frontman of the quartet, saxophonist Simon Spillett then took the mic, and with an accomplished and easy jazzman drawl talked us into an even more receptive state.

Spillett was engaging in his speech, but when he started to play the first number, Count Basie’s ‘Broadway’ he quickly became enthralling. I was drawn to the confidence of the rhythms of his right hand low down on that sax as he swung into the rapid piece. Pianist Alex Steele gave space in the background of the sax’s lead, but when Spillett took a step back and Alex came in for his solo it became eminently clear: the piano man can play! His crazy riffs came to a soft conclusion as he counted the sax back in, and they closed the number out in style.

The second number, Frank Foster’s ‘Shiny Stockings’ was an incredibly mellow and mellifluous affair, and felt resplendently groovy. With some delicate high bass notes with bold phrasing in the bass solo, false endings galore and a real sense of flow, this one carried me away somewhere.

With signature deadpan humour Simon introduced the third number, Erroll Garner’s legendary ‘Misty’ which was evoked with rolling, billowy swells of sound. It was a determinedly dreamy piece which left a lingering sense of familiar warmth, and closed with a sax solo which felt both deeply personal to the performer and yet nuanced with a cheeky sense of flair.

Duke Ellington’s ‘Cottontail’ saw us through to the interval, and as Simon joked, 'watch the drummer - he’s very excited for the twiddly bits'. This was such a fast-paced number that Spillett leaned laconically over my shoulder during the piano solo and accused me of writing him up a speeding ticket as I scribbled notes. Indeed it felt that we were racing somewhere even while sitting still and chill, and I noted Spillett’s commanding stance as he leaned in to his saxophone, pitching forward towards it as he embraced it. Towards the end of the number the drummer, the excellent Charlie Stratford escaped entirely from his cage and unleashed a potent and full-powered solo.

The second set didn’t let up the pace, with Sonny Robbin’s ‘Doxie’ filled with Steele’s trembling keys solos, some beautiful call and response between sax and drums, and a long blast ending. A ballad followed, with Coleman Hawkin’s ‘Body & Soul’ seeing Spillett’s saxophone solo playing lost and found as he explored the full harmonic range. He took us on a journey in this number, which steered its way to an impossibly mellow ending.

The intro for an incredible bossa nova piece named ‘Black Orpheus’ had me chuckling, as Spillett counted in the band, ‘Jingety jongety janga jeh’ and they tore into it with frenetic cool. I felt we were in a controlled tumble down a set of musical Escher staircases of syncopation, the piano tremulous and the drummer hitting rimshots at the back end. The closing number, Thelonious Monk’s ‘Blue Monk’ saw a creeping bass solo hitting all the high notes, feathery drumwork, and immaculate fingering on the sax. It also saw a beautifully pause-laded drum solo building into wave after wave of roiling energy and a little last blast party from the band after a sweet false ending. They closed out with an encore number performed at breakneck pace, a groove on Sammy Fain’s ‘Secret Love’.

I left with more rhythms going round my head than I’d truly bargained for, and will surely be back for more next month.

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