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Live From Solihull, England: Jeff Barnhart, Jim Fryer & Martin Bennett

Live From Solihull, England: Jeff Barnhart, Jim Fryer & Martin Bennett
Martin Longley By

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The Fryer-Barnhart International All-Stars
Solihull Arts Complex
May 19, 2014

Over the last 15 years, this has become a regular UK touring jaunt for the visiting Americans Jeff Barnhart (piano) and Jim Fryer (trombone), both of whom also sing their ample share of rousing songs. They latch onto a local Midlands group of seasoned players, then trot out to the festivals, also peppering their schedule with one-off dates. The English contingent are fronted by Sidney Bechet disciple reedsman George Huxley and trumpeter Gordon Whitworth, who have been playing together in front lines for around 50 years. The other Midlanders are guitar and banjoman Brian Mellor, hyperactive bassist Annie Hawkins (whose style has one leg in rockabilly) and antique-kit drummer Nick Ward (spindling around his rack of clacking woodblocks).

It took a few numbers for the band to crank up their engines, but there was ample time to take the curve at a measured pace, with two sets of around an hour each, preceded by the incongruous local comedian Malcolm Stent, delivering a pair of 15 minute warm-up spots. The fuse was lit around the time of Fryer's Kid Ory "Creole Trombone" showcase, but the intensity turned into a different type with Huxley's reading of "Petite Fleur," Bechet also providing the spirited set-closer "Viper Mad," another chance for Fryer to show off his fleet vocal pronouncements, veiled drug references all, along with a run of romping solos from his cohorts. Raconteur Barnhart altered the mood once again with "The Moving On Blues," his own composition, played completely solo, and evoking the melancholy of the itinerant musician who might have found a fleeting sense of homeliness.

The second set was more compressed, tighter and faster in its selection. The lesser-played "Sunset Café Stomp" threw in a welcome touch of Louis Armstrong, but the only sedate part of this half was the unnerving interpretation of Leon Redbone's "So, Relax," which might have been the ultimate reclining anthem (er, lull-em?), but succeeded in gripping the audience with a strange sense of suspense, as each band member gradually slumped into slumber, then began to kick off their shoes. As part of a mainstream old-time jazz gig, this was almost a revolutionary act of performance art, and was curiously shocking, as several elderly gentlemen started to curl up comfortably across the boards, Huxley serenading whilst perched on the edge of the stage. Then, Ward revealed his illuminated bass drum, painted with a Hawaiian sunset scene, delivering a short impressionistic solo under atmospheric lighting. Yes, the closing parts of this gig turned somewhat surreal for a traditional jazz session.

Martin Bennett's Old Green River Band
Solihull British Legion
May 25, 2014

Pianist Martin Bennett's band is one of the best on the UK traditional jazz scene, hailing from the northern Manchester-ish parts of England. He started out playing trombone but has now switched instruments, carrying an electric keyboard, lately safe in the knowledge that programmed piano sounds have improved immensely in recent years. Rolling up to the regular Sunday lunchtime session at Solihull's British Legion, the combo soon started playing as if in the throes of a late evening party spasm, mostly trotting out swift swingers, with even the ballads chugging with a mean bluesy streak. The club's like a time-warp to the 1970s or earlier, with most of the regulars clearly followers of this scene for maybe five decades. New blood, as ever, is going to be a future problem for this musical zone. Nevertheless, the session had no shortage of energy, with early afternoon dancing being very popular.

All of the band offered supple solos, at just the right length: not too long to flag, not too brief to frustrate. Humour was rife, as the gang joyfully debunked all, including themselves. Trombonist Derek Galloway is also a key member of The Temperance 7, trumpeter Chez Chesteman reserved as much gusto for his vocal exhortations as for his horn, whilst reedsman Howard Murray is something of a collector, with alto, tenor and baritone saxophones ranged around his feet, as well as a clarinet. When Bennett took a vocal, as with "Be Easy With Me, Baby," he savoured the words in an almost sinister way, swilling them around for added meaning, drawling to savour their sound. The combo romped through "At The Jazz Band Ball," then Galloway sang "Georgia On My Mind," in a quaveringly sincere manner, but songs such as "Don't You 'Sweetheart' Me" and "Hard-Drinkin' Baby" had more of an edge, whilst "Perdido" represented an uncomplicated bounce of optimism.

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