I came out of lockdown a completely different drummer with even more determination to pursue the music I love.
In small clubs and venues up and down the country there can be heard some wonderful jazz, and last week it was the turn of Kendal in the Lake District to sit back and enjoy some swinging jazz from the Gaz Hughes Trio.
The last occasion I had had the pleasure of meeting Gaz and hearing him play was three years ago just as the Covid-19 swept the UK and the first lockdown began.
In the middle of a tour with his Plays Art Blakey band, Gaz performed for the Kendal Jazz Club with a band featuring Alan Barnes on saxophone and a rhythm section completed by Andrzej Baranek at the piano and bassist Ed Harrison.
A cracking night was had by all as the audience basked in the sound of the quartet, oblivious to the events that overtake us all just around the corner.
Fast forward three years, and Gaz Hughes is back playing for Kendal Jazz Club, this time with a trio that retains the services of Andrzej Baranek and Ed Harrison playing a set of original compositions by the drummer from the new album, Beboptical Illusion.
The First Set
The audience settled down as the three musicians took their places, and Hughes counted of the tempo for the opening number and title track from their new album. An up tempo and driving number ‘Beboptical Illusion’ was actually under no illusion about what the trio was about to serve up. Good honest swinging bebop and hard bop jazz.
What was impressive was how quickly the band hit their stride, and from the word go the trio swung hard. Following this with another swinging number in ‘Stomping at the Savoy’, the trio were certainly in no mood to hang around, and yet the solos from both piano and bass were fleet fingered, and with a deep solid rhythmic footing.
In an easing off the tension, pianist Andrzej Baranek took an extended introduction and solo on ‘Sophisticated Lady’ before being joined by bass and drums; and then it was straight back in with another burner in ‘Sticks and Stones’ with a blistering solo from Baranek again.
This delicious feeling of tension and release whilst felt in each of the numbers played was also present in the programming of the set that allowed all some respite and to catch one’s breath.
Bassist, Ed Harrison turned in a lovely arrangement of ‘Have You Met Miss Jones’ with some excellent brushwork from Hughes, to be followed by a blues written by the drummer for his young sons in ‘To The Moon And Back’.
A gently swinging groove was set up by the drummer, this time using his hands on the drums, to be picked up by the bass with a cheeky little melody line. With Gaz switching to sticks the music kicks up a gear producing another driving two handed solo from Baranek.
Rounding off the set with ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ with a calypso feel brings the first set to a satisfying close, and as the band take a break, I catch up with Gaz to chat about the trio and his new album.
The last time we met up was while you were touring the Plays Art Blakey album. You were in the middle of a big tour that got hit by the pandemic. That must have been very frustrating to have to cancel gigs after working so hard to set up the tour, and having the album to promote?
Yes, at the time it was incredibly frustrating because it’s so much work to record an album and organise a 32 date tour. We only got halfway through the tour when lockdown happened. Like many self-employed people, my life turned upside down when the pandemic happened, but in retrospect, it was an amazing opportunity to reassess my life.
I also, took time to think about my playing and I practiced a hell of a lot! I took lessons with Jeff Hamilton and Ralph Peterson Jr. They changed my whole perspective. I came out of lockdown a completely different drummer with even more determination to pursue the music I love.
Since then, you have continued to develop a close musical bond with Andrzej and Ed as trio. What prompted you to pare down the line up and work as the Gaz Hughes Trio?
I decided to work with a smaller ensemble because of 2 factors. The first being the situation we were in at the time in between lockdowns, Dean Masser wasn’t available, and Alan Barnes and Bruce Adams were too far away to just meet up for a rehearsal and try out new music.
The second factor that made the line-up smaller was to do with trying to rebook the tour. Many promoters were reluctant to book the sextet as they were unsure if audience numbers would return to pre pandemic levels, and they didn’t want the financial risk of such a big line up. During the conversations it came clear that if I wanted to tour after lockdown again I would need a smaller group.
Your album ‘Beboperation’ with the trio drew really favourable reviews with a programme of standards. Your latest album, ‘Beboptical Illusion’ sees a further development of the trio with a set of original material written by yourself. What got you interested in composing your own music and where do you draw the inspiration to do so?
My ‘Plays Art Blakey’ album was originally going to be an album of original music, but I lost confidence in my writing abilities with a month to go to the recording and so decided to do a Blakey project instead.
In hindsight, it was a great move because it meant that clubs in the UK were more likely to book my band as it was easier to sell to their audiences. But long term, I always knew that if I want to continue to play on the better scene of gigs, I will need to release my own music.
When I started to think about making ‘Beboptical Illusion’, I knew it had to be a leap forward in some way. I was still not feeling confident about writing my own music but just decided to get on with it. I actually found the process of writing to be really enjoyable and the music came very easily to me.
Before starting to write the music, I set myself out some goals. Firstly, like my favourite albums of the late 50’s, I wanted all the tunes to be memorable and had to stick in your head in some way.
I started thinking about what would contribute to this and realised that I needed some tunes with familiar chord progressions. Some tunes with bass lines that are instantly recognisable. I also needed melody lines that nodded to the Bop era without being a parody of the music.
Secondly, there needed to be space for interaction between the musicians. Time to stretch out and build ideas. The tunes couldn’t be so complex that everyone would be hampered by worrying about what’s coming up next rather than just being able to relax and play well.
Lastly, the music needed to have energy! I’d sooner the tunes have some mistakes in because everyone’s pushing themselves and going for it than it being too safe and lifeless. For me, listening to music should be enjoyable and there’s nothing I enjoy more than hearing a group of people giving it everything!
I know that you have some exciting new plans for the future, and a couple of recordings in the pipeline. Can you tell us a little more?
Yes, it’s an exciting time, I have a live album that we recorded at Peggy’s Skylight whilst on tour. I didn’t tell the guys that the gig was being recorded because I didn’t want them to feel the pressure of being recorded. It was only after the gig that I told them we had just recorded a live album!!
Every gig that we’ve played on tour the audiences have been really into the music, you can hear it perfectly on this recording.
It’s also incredible how differently we play when there is an audience reacting to the music. Another thing that you can hear on the album is us egging each other on as we’re playing, there’s such a great vibe that we haven’t been able to capture in the studio yet.
I also have plans for another album to be released next year called ‘Nuclear Bebopalypse’. I’m halfway through writing the album and we’ve booked some dates in July to record it. I know that this one will be special because after the last few years of touring and recording, we’re playing so well as a group.
I have some more gigs for later in the year. I’ve got dates in the diary for Paris, Frankfurt and Ireland. Long term I want to be touring all over Europe. I’m also planning a big tour for next year, I’ve got 10 gigs already booked in with the album launch being at Southport Jazz festival next February.
Lastly, I’m considering starting my own record label/ music management company. Since I’ve been doing my thing, other musicians keep getting in touch to ask me how I keep organising my tours and if I can help them to do the same.
I’d like to be able to help others but if I’m going to do it, I want to do it properly and offer the best service possible. With this in mind, I need to restructure my other work commitments with the view to starting the label in the summer of 2024.
The Second Set
And with that, it was time for Gaz to take his place at the drums as the trio prepared to kick off the second set with one of his own compositions ‘Concorde’ which is immediately followed by a stunning arrangement of Victor Feldman’s ‘Seven Steps To Heaven’. This was an absolute delight and one of the highlights of the evening.
The three musicians have developed a remarkable understanding of each other’s playing and how best to deploy this as a unit. The relationship between Hughes and bassist Harrison lets the music flow effortlessly and can swing with the best or lock into a groove that is as tight as one could possibly wish for.
This must be a dream come true for Baranek as he can take the music wherever he wishes in his solos secure in the knowledge that bass and drums are right with him.
As if to prove this point, the pianist revels in the brisk tempo of Sonny Rollins’s ‘Oleo’ with a solo that he really got stuck into. Baranek seemingly has an endless flow of ideas, and rather than being exhausted by his efforts on this u tempo romp, he is immediately able to switch to a ballad reading of ‘Body and Soul’ that was deeply moving.
In another excellent composition by Hughes, the trio delivered up ‘The Messenger’, the drummer’s tribute to Art Blakey. This elicited yet another mighty solo from the pianist, as if playing with the shadow of Horace Silver looking over his shoulder.
A brisk reading of Monk’s ‘Straight No Chaser’ and the gig was over, yet there was not one member of the small but appreciative audience that did not leave knowing that they had heard some first rate jazz from an exciting trio.
For more information visit Gaz’s website.
Click here to read our review of ‘Beboptical Illusion’.