An evening of unpretentious, gently swinging jazz

The final BMJ event of 2014 saw North Wales based guitarist Trefor Owen bringing his Shades Of Shearing quartet to the Kings Arms to perform a selection of material associated with the late, great British pianist and composer George Shearing.

Blind from birth Shearing was born in London in 1919 and initially trained as a classical pianist. Turning towards jazz he played in pubs and music halls before moving on to make recordings and radio broadcasts, making a name for himself in the UK before settling in the USA in 1946. Shearing was one of of a only a very few British jazz musicians of that era to establish a truly international reputation (Victor Feldman was to follow a similar course in the 1950s).

Eventually dividing his time between England and the US the long lived Shearing remained creative until well into his 80s and was knighted for his services to music in 2007. He died on Valentine’s Day in 2011.

Shearing worked in a variety of instrumental configurations including performances as a solo pianist but his favourite line up was a quintet incorporating the unusual configuration of piano, vibes and guitar. Among his many collaborators were guitarists Chuck Wayne and Jim Hall and vibraphonist Cal Tjader. In the latter part of his career he linked up with younger musicians including Irish born guitarist Louis Stewart and contemporary vibraphonists Steve Nelson and Stefon Harris.

It might seem strange for an act paying tribute to a pianist to include no piano. However Trefor Owen’s group does include a vibraphonist in the shape of Paul Sawtell, himself an accomplished pianist, with second guitarist Andy Hulme effectively filling Shearing’s own role. Double bassist Dave Turner completes what is essentially a “chamber jazz” group but one that swings thanks to Turner’s subtly propulsive bass work and the able rhythmic comping of the two guitarists as Owen and Hulme ration the soloing duties pretty much equally. Melody lines are often doubled by guitar and vibes in the manner of Shearing’s own groups, a distinctive sound that has many admirers. BMJ supremo Mike Skilton announced himself delighted with an audience of forty plus, seated cabaret style at the Kings Arms, all of whom enjoyed an evening of unpretentious, gently swinging jazz.

Trefor Owen has long been a stalwart of the jazz scene in North Wales as performer, educator and organiser of the North Wales Jazz Guitar Festival. As a guitarist he is inspired by American jazz and bebop masters such as Charlie Christian, Barney Kessell, Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell with Pat Martino a significant contemporary influence. He favours a clean, orthodox jazz guitar sound which is particularly well suited to his interpretations of Shearing’s music.

The programme consisted of pieces associated with Shearing but not always necessarily composed by him. Opener “Yesterdays” introduced Sawtell as a major vibes soloist, the four mallets fairly flying over the bars. As hinted at previously Sawtell initially made his reputation as a pianist, his trio being the first call for guest soloists such as saxophonist Peter King on their irregular visits to the Welsh Borders. However in recent years Sawtell has been dazzling audiences with his playing on his “second” instrument -“second” being a term that applies only very loosely. Sawtell is a brilliant vibes soloist who is clearly enjoying every minute of this aspect of his music making. Earlier in 2014 I saw him give a hugely impressive performance on vibes at a Cal Tjader tribute show at The Hive in Shrewsbury led by multi reeds player Casey Greene.

“East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon” also saw Sawtell taking the first solo closely followed by the two guitarists. Owen impressed throughout with his sophisticated chording and lithe Wes Montgomery style single note runs. Hulme’s solo contributions were characterised by their careful construction and strong sense of narrative, qualities I’ve previously seen him bring to the young Brownfield/Byrne Quintet co-led by trumpeter Jamie Brownfield and saxophonist Liam Byrne.

“How About You” featured a highly interactive arrangement with solos from Owen, Sawtell and Hulme. The vibraphonist squeezed a quote from “Buttons and Bows” into his feature and a sense of fun, both musical and verbal, is an essential element of his performance. His banter with leader Owen was often laugh out loud funny and helped to create a relaxed atmosphere for the audience. This is a man who is quite clearly made a thorough study of the Ronnie Scott joke book.

Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” represented a genuine ballad with solos from Sawtell’s shimmering vibes and Hulme’s warm toned guitar. Owen’s solo demonstrated more of that sophisticated chording, the man’s fingers are almost prehensile, and also included a quote from another famous love song, “My Funny Valentine”.

A swinging version of “I’m Old Fashioned” closed a thoroughly enjoyable first half with Owen utilising the body of his guitar as auxiliary percussion. Solos came not only from Sawtell’s vibes and both guitars but also from the unassuming Turner who turned in a delightfully melodic, but still swinging, bass solo. So often the backbone of the band it was good to see him enjoying a moment in the spotlight.

The second set offered more of the same popular formula beginning with George Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day In London Town” introduced by Owen on unaccompanied guitar. Subsequent solos featured both himself and Hulme (the pair regularly perform and record as a duo), Sawtell on vibes and the freshly liberated Turner at the bass.

“Laura” was this set’s ballad feature, the theme beautifully played by the ensemble before subsequent solos from Hulme, Sawtell and Owen.

The quartet proved that they could think on their feet by playing a request from a member of the audience. Their version of “September In The Rain” included solos from Sawtell plus both guitarists.

“Lullaby Of Birdland” is, perhaps, the best known of Shearing’s compositions and with the doubling of the melody on vibes and guitar it was performed in his signature style with solos later coming from Sawtell, Hulme and Owen before a series of exchanges between Turner and Sawtell that equated to the familiar “trading of fours” with a drummer.

Luiz Bonfa’s “Manha de Carnaval” (also known as the theme song to the film “Black Orpheus”) was played as a breezy bossa with solos from Owen, Hulme and Turner.

Something of an international theme continued into the last number, a good natured version of “April In Paris” with solos from Sawtell, Owen and Hulme.

The skill and charm of the quartet’s performance saw them enjoy a very warm reception from the BMJ audience and they returned to romp through Henry Mancini’s “Days Of Wine And Roses” (or “Days Of Runny Noses” as Sawtell put it). The vibist’s mallets were a blur as he delivered a dazzling solo alongside further features for Hulme and Owen plus a series of thrilling exchanges between vibes and both guitars with Turner in his familiar anchoring role at the bass.

With every table occupied Mike Skilton announced himself delighted with the night’s events as the gig broke even financially and gave a great deal of pleasure to the Abergavenny jazz public. It was a great way to bring the curtain down on a successful 2014 for BMJ but a good curtain raiser for my forthcoming week at London Jazz Festival. Thanks to to Trefor Owen and Paul Sawtell for taking the time to chat with me before and after the gig.