Bobby Wellins Quartet
(North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford, 23rd April 2011, part of Oxford Jazz Festival Review by Hamish Birchall; photo credit: Barker Evans )
North Wall Arts Centre is an intimate venue, a small theatre with an excellent acoustic, perfectly suited to the confiding style and sublimely beautiful improvisations of Scottish tenorman Bobby Wellins. His performance was, in turn, perfectly complemented by the sensitive yet powerful trio of Liam Noble, Dave Wickens and Dave Whitford.
At 75, Wellins might be forgiven for taking it easy. But while he confessed to a touch of sciatica, there is no sign of an artistic sunset. His unique jazz talent shines as brightly as it did in the 1960s.
He dedicated his opening number, a ballad, to his friend Ray Smith, who died only a week ago. Wellins and Smith shared a London flat in the 1950s. Smith, a drummer and jazz devotee, opened the famous Ray’s Jazz Shop in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1983 where it remained for nearly 20 years, until moving to Foyles under new management.
The magic began with the opening melody. Wellins’ characteristic thoughtful phrasing, and slow vibrato, full of pathos, made every note count. Noble’s piano was delicate and supportive, while drummer Dave Wickens applied minimal percussive decoration, susurrating brushwork and gentle cymbal touches. Dave Whitford‘s warmly resonant double bass underpinned the whole, even while taking a lyrical, well-paced solo.
Wickens’ superb brushes continued, opening the second piece, ‘Mad about the boy’, with an irrestible samba groove. Introduced by Wellins as a tribute to Noel Coward, the phrasing in his own solo took up the infectious rhythm effortlessly. Noble is clearly more than adept at latin grooves himself, but never heavy-handed, implying rather than stating the time. Whitford again moved from groove to solo and back without any loss of momentum.
Gershwin’s ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ was delivered with equal artistry by all. Noble started the Rogers and Hart ballad ‘It never entered my mind’ with a masterly, introspective solo, and Wellins’ solo was tenderly evocative.
Returning after the interval, Wellins paid generous tribute to the musicianship of Soweto Kinch, a fellow OJF highlight, and who was in the audience. The second set began with one of Wellins’ own compositions from the late 70s, ‘Dreams are free’. Starting in African 12/8 time, it metamorphosed seamlessly into swing and double-time. Wickens solo was a joy, always musical, never dominating.
Wellins left the stage to the trio for ‘Take 5’, from their 2009 CD ‘Brubeck’ (which prompted Brubeck himself to write in fulsome praise to Noble). But although the treatment was inventive and the playing collectively masterful, the evening’s focus was temporarily lost. It returned in full strength, however, with Wellins’ return. Moving renditions of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘If you never come to me’ and ‘Monk’s mood’ by Thelonious Monk. The evening closed with a 12 bar blues.
Thanking the audience, Wellins turned to the band: ‘These gentlemen are an absolute joy to make music with’. Undoubtedly true, but they must surely say the same of you, Bobby.
You summed up the evening perfectly. It was the perfect end to a perfect day and a beautiful tribute to Ray Smith.