Shrewsbury School is one of the leading fee paying educational establishments in the UK with a thriving music department presided over by Head of Music John Moore. The School also hosts public concert performances in the auditorium of its music facility housed in the Maidment Building.
Co-ordinated by Events Manager Darren Wood, the concert programme is primarily classical but jazz events are also held periodically with a particular emphasis on the sound of the piano. Previous jazz performances have seen Neil Cowley, Philip Clouts and the highly popular Joe Stilgoe grace the keyboard of the School’s rather splendid grand piano. Indeed several years ago Cowley gave the instrument such a pounding that he managed to damage one of its pedals which resulted in his trio’s performance being cut short.
Fortunately there were no such incidents tonight as Jason Rebello treated the piano with rather more decorum. He was leading an all star trio featuring Tom Farmer on double bass and Troy Miller at the drums. During the day Rebello had conducted a workshop with a number of the School’s music students and the trio were joined by student instrumentalists and vocalists on some of the tunes, the young musicians all acquitting themselves very well. The Maidment Auditorium was almost full to capacity, with parents and school dignitaries joining Shrewsbury’s jazz enthusiasts in a large and appreciative audience.
Rebello, born in London in 1969, first came to prominence at the tail end of the 1980s jazz boom and released his début album “A Clearer View” in 1990. He has released a total of seven albums as a leader but is perhaps best known for his lengthy stint as the keyboard player in Sting’s band. He has also worked with guitarist Jeff Beck and in the band of French drum superstar Manu Katche. As a practising Buddhist he spent some time away from the music business in the 1990s before returning to the fray as a session musician.
Rebello is a highly versatile musician who has always played electric keyboards in addition to the acoustic piano and his recorded output has embraced elements of jazz, soul, rock and pop. I remember seeing him lead a group at the short-lived Birmingham branch of Ronnie Scott’s sometime in the early '90s and being highly impressed by both his piano and synthesiser playing. Since then I’ve seen him make a strong contribution on piano with Manu Katche’s band at the 2008 London Jazz Festival. Recently he has been working with soul/jazz vocalist Joy Rose.
Tonight’s show in Shrewsbury saw Rebello returning to his jazz roots and demonstrating what a versatile and accomplished jazz pianist he is. The self penned opener “Hole In One” saw him combining chunky, Thelonious Monk chord patters with more open and expansive soloing. I was also highly impressed with his comping skills as he accompanied Farmer’s solo on double bass.
Rebello acknowledged his former boss with an arrangement of “La Belle Dame Sans Regret” co-written by Sting and his guitarist Dominic Miller. This subtle adaptation retained the structure of the song (incidentally the original lyric is entirely in French) while allowing for subtle but colourful improvised solos from Rebello and Farmer, with Miller providing sympathetic brushed support.
Following this lyrical interlude a turbulent take on the jazz standard “But Not For Me” saw a tumbling piano solo from Rebello with powerful left hand rhythmic figures. He was given vigorous support by Farmer’s rapid bass walk as Miller switched from brushes to sticks as the piece gathered momentum. After laying down an increasingly propulsive groove, Miller climaxed his performance with an energetic solo drum feature.
Rebello revealed that the great Herbie Hancock is his all time keyboard hero. A gently lyrical arrangement of Hancock’s classic “Dolphin Dance” was a fitting tribute, with Farmer taking the first solo followed by Rebello. Farmer’s brief use of the bow and Miller’s cymbal scrapes made for a distinctive ending.
An energetic solo piano performance of Errol Garner’s “Play Piano Blues”, a stride piano piece written in the 1940s was hugely impressive with Rebello’s left hand again playing a vital role as he tackled the syncopated rhythms.
A return to the Herbie Hancock songbook and the eternally popular “Cantaloupe Island” saw Rebello welcome three young student musicians to the stage. Bassist Richard Walsh and drummer Brooke Plumptre took over from Farmer and Miller, with Ben Sansom adding the sound of the alto sax to the musical mix. Rebello revealed that he and the students had been playing along to Hancock’s recording of the tune before coming up with their own arrangement. Sansom opened the soloing, impressing with a blues inflected tone that reminded me variously of Jackie McLean and the Russian-born, London-based Zhenya Strigalev. Rebello followed him before handing over to Plumptre for an impressive solo drum feature. The three student musicians were given a tremendous reception by a highly supportive audience.
Rebello maintained the positive, effervescent mood going into the break as Farmer and Miller returned for a good natured romp through “The Flintstones Theme” - a tune based, like so many others, on the chord changes of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. Rebello opened the soloing as he danced above Farmer’s vigorous bass walk and Miller’s skittering drum grooves. Farmer and Miller also enjoyed solo cameos and there was a delightful exchange of ideas between Rebello at the piano and Miller at the drums as the first half ended on an energetic high note.
Rebello has a penchant for creating swinging jazz arrangements out of children’s songs and the second set began with a playful take on the theme from Thomas The Tank Engine with solos from Rebello and Farmer. The Empirical bassist deployed strumming and slapping techniques in an engaging solo as Rebello again demonstrated the comping skills that have made him such an in demand accompanist and sideman.
As a long term fan of Pat Metheny and his associates, my personal set highlight was the trio’s version of Lyle Mays’ “Chorinho” , a tune sourced from the keyboard player’s 1988 solo album “Street Dreams”. This breezy Brazilian flavoured tune was given the samba treatment with solos from Rebello and Farmer, the latter accompanied by the gentle patter of Millers’ hand drums.
It was back to the bebop repertoire for Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce”, introduced solo by Rebello at the piano before another series of engaging exchanges with Miller as the tune developed.
Rebello called teenage vocalist Nina to the stage to sing “Summertime”. Initially her voice was a little too low in the mix but prompt remedial action by the sound engineer soon corrected the situation. The young singer received sympathetic support from Rebello and his colleagues, with the pianist taking the instrumental honours with yet another fine solo.
Solo piano introduced the ballad “The Londonderry Air” (aka “Danny Boy”), a song rarely heard in jazz circles. Rebello and the trio treated the timeless melody with sympathy and respect with Farmer producing his best solo of the night. His bass had been rather too deep in the mix in the first set but was altogether more resonant in the second as his feature here testified.
To close the second set Rebello invited three teenage singers to the stage. Loren Kell, Emily Skelton and Ben Higgins were also joined by Brooke Plumptre who shadowed Miller on an auxiliary snare drum. The expanded group gave a good humoured rendition of “Spider”, a song from Rebello’s second solo album, 1993’s “Keeping Time”. Rebello revealed that the song was co-written by himself and vocalist Marianne Jean-Baptiste. The former singer has gone on on to have a high profile career as an actress, recently playing the prosecuting barrister, Sharon Bishop, in the second series of “Broadchurch”. The three young vocalists clearly relished tackling the vocal harmony parts that swirled around the Afro-Cuban rhythms with Rebello the featured instrumental soloist.
The pro musicians and students took their bows to well earned applause with many of the audience members getting to their feet to express their approbation. The trio then returned to play an encore in the form of the jazz standard “Someday My Prince Will Come”, introduced by unaccompanied piano but subsequently including features for all three musicians.
By involving the students, the concert organisers had ensured that this was a highly successful school event that was greatly enjoyed by the audience. Rebello’s relaxed and humorous presenting style also helped and he’d obviously done some great work with the students and established a happy and healthy rapport with them.
For the hard core jazz follower it was also an excellent reminder of Rebello’s abilities as a straight ahead jazz pianist. Farmer and Miller also made excellent contributions and it was good to hear the latter playing in a variety of jazz styles. He can be a very powerful player and when I’ve seen him before with Jean Toussaint, Soweto Kinch, Andrew McCormack and Roy Ayers, he’s really driven the band hard. Tonight it was good to see him deploying a lighter touch on the ballad items in the trio’s repertoire.