Live Review

Abergavenny Jazz & Blues Festival, 31st August 2013

Blues standards and original songs rooted in the blues tradition but with plenty of room for the instrumentalists to stretch out and improvise.

Raw and exciting with Schwarz’s powerful vocals well supported by the work of some of the UK’s top instrumentalists.

Koral is a highly versatile guitarist... with solos heading for the stratosphere…. Si Genaro bring restless energy and an extra visual focus point to this highly accomplished and thoroughly entertaining group.

Opening the programme at the Marquee Venue was Blue Commotion, the six piece group fronted by vocalist Zoe Schwarz. The band neatly straddles the boundaries between blues and jazz playing a mixture of blues standards and original songs rooted in the blues tradition but with plenty of room left for the instrumentalists to stretch out and improvise. Joining Schwarz were guitarist Rob Koral, organist Pete Whittaker and drummer Paul Robinson. Alun Vaughan did a fine job of filling in for Blue Commotion’s regular bass player who is currently too unwell to travel and the group was completed by Si Genaro on harmonica and vocals. The hyperactive harpist is definitely the group’s wild card, a larger than life character credited as "entertainer" on the sleeve of the band’s latest album "Good Times"(2012).

Schwarz and Koral (also her husband) have a long standing relationship with the 33 Record label and I’ve previously reviewed the original "Blue Commotion" album (2011), the more intimate duo recording "Celebration" (2009) and 2012’s trio album "Slow Burn" made in conjunction with saxophonist Ian Ellis. All are classy and sophisticated pieces of work with the high production values one has come to expect from 33. However in a live context I was pleasantly surprised by just how raw and exciting Blue Commotion sounded with Schwarz’s powerful vocals well supported by the work of some of the UK’s top instrumentalists.

The sextet kicked off with their version of Etta James’ "It Must Be Love" with Schwarz’s authentic blues voice augmented by fine solos from Genaro, Koral and Whittaker on wailing Hammond.

Koral is a highly versatile guitarist with a thorough command of jazz, blues and rock styles. During the early 80’s he was a member of the fondly remembered fusion group Sketch fronted by vocalist Sue Hawker. Koral and Hawker still maintain a song writing partnership and their tune "Just Another Day" was up next, a convincing updating of the blues tradition with Schwarz’s big voice bemoaning the workaday drudgery of life in contemporary Britain. Instrumental highlights came from left handed guitarist Koral and Whittaker on his two manual Crumar keyboard, an instrument that looks and sounds like an authentic Hammond. I’d seen Whittaker playing the same instrument just three weeks previously with John Etheridge’s Blue Spirits trio at Brecon Jazz Festival.

The duo of Koral and Schwarz is also a well established song writing partnership and this set incorporated many of their tunes including the impressive "The Blues Don’t Scare Me" with solos coming from Genaro and Whittaker.

Thus far the group had played hard and fast and the dramatic Koral/Schwarz composed slow blues "I Believe In You" represented a welcome change of style and pace with solos from Whittaker and Koral, the latter eventually heading for the stratosphere.

The blues boogie of the witty Schwarz/Koral original "Too Darn Rich To Be Happy" represented yet another blues style with solos from Genaro, Whittaker and Koral.

I first encountered the playing of Paul Robinson back in the late 70’s when he was a member of the late Jeff Clyne’s much loved fusion band Turning Point. Now a vastly experienced professional he spent nineteen years as the drummer of choice of Nina Simone and more recently has been part of the re-activated Back Door led by bassist Colin Hodgkinson. Robinson’s stint with Simone was honoured here by the inclusion of "Feeling Good", a song indelibly associated with Simone but actually written by Anthony Newley.

"Liberated Woman", a Koral/Schwarz original featured strong contributions from Genaro and Whittaker and was followed by a Koral/Hawker slow blues that I didn’t catch the title of . Next up was another slice of blues boogie featuring Genaro and Koral and then a superb interpretation of Lowell Fulson’s "Reconsider Baby".

"Buck", written by Andy Stroud, represented another tune from the Nina Simone songbook. Here Genaro revealed yet another side to his talent with an entertaining and convincing mid song rap. Schwarz and Koral plucked him from an obscure Bournemouth pub band and he brings raw talent, restless energy and an extra visual focus point to this highly accomplished but thoroughly entertaining group. At this family friendly festival Genaro enjoyed bantering with Schwarz and Koral’s seven year old daughter Cassie who was dancing with her teddy bear at the side of the stage.
Uncle Si’s a bit of a character, that’s for sure.

Two Koral/Schwarz originals closed the show, "Say It Isn’t So" and the slow blues "We’ll Find A Way", a potential lighter waver if ever there was one.

Blue Commotion were well received by the festival crowd as they overcame the sound of church bells ringing out in competition from a nearby House of God. Definitely a resounding victory for the Devil’s Music.

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    • Words by: The Jazz Man