Monday 14 December 2015

Full marks to Champs Hill for bringing us the David Rees-Williams Trio’s new Christmas disc, Ex-Mass which is a real winner

The David Rees-Williams Trio was formed in 1988 and features David Rees-Williams on piano, Neil Francis on bass guitar and Phil Laslett on drums. Based in Canterbury, Kent, they have performed many concerts in a diverse selection of festivals and events in the UK, Europe, The United States and Barbados.

The Trio set about re-inventing and re-working well known music from various eras and styles. Rees-William’s arrangement of Purcell’s When I am Laid in Earth from their CD Classically Minded was played on BBC 3’s In Tune leading to an extraordinary number of enquiries about the Trio and a commercial disc.

Since then another recording Hidden Colours featuring arrangements of Purcell, Bach, Grieg, Faure, Debussy and Ravel has been widely praised becoming Editor’s Choice in HMV Choice Magazine and best of its genre by the Financial Times.

Following an equally well received recording Time Scape that included arrangements of works by Ravel, Bach, Chopin, Stanford, Purcell, Buxtehude, Elgar and Warlock they have now recorded a Christmas disc for Champs Hill Records  entitled Ex-Mass.


The title of this new release, Ex-Mass is not only a play on the word Xmas but also reflects taking this music out of its ecclesiastical setting.

Gabriel's Message has as its origins a Basque melody, this arrangement opening with the piano of David Rees-Williams to which a rich bass line is given by Neil Francis, subtly adding a warmth. The carol takes a lovely flowing line soon pointed up by the percussion of Phil Laslett before developing some terrific, free flowing piano passages to which Hammond organ and vibraphone passages are added.

The 14th century Bavarian melody Personent hodie is given a lovely mixture of instrumental sounds, piano, bass, Hammond organ and drums in a light rhythmic version. This Trio bring a real feel of improvisation as the tempo picks up a really jazzy pace. There is some terrific playing here with David Rees-Williams showing himself to be a very fine jazz pianist.  

Peter Warlock’s lovely Bethlehem Down finds Rees-Williams bringing a gentle, freely developed improvisatory arrangement. Eventually bass and drums join to add a gentle rhythm. This is a lovely performance with the organ adding occasional texture.

Quem pastores (Whom shepherds) opens here with piano, bass and drums gently and slowly developing into the well-known English hymn tune. The organ adds sonority before there is an increase in tempo through some terrific passages.

Der Tag... (der ist so freudenreich) (The day is so full of joy) is taken from Bach’s Orgelbuchlein and brings much of Bach’s contrapuntal invention with a fast rhythmic forward drive. It develops some fine passages with a broad piano line taken over a faster accompaniment with the addition of an organ especially appropriate.

With the Czech carol, Rocking Rees-Williams brings a contrasting slow, quieter arrangement gently pointed up by Laslett’s drums, Francis’ bass and some passages for Hammond organ as it develops some fast jazzy lines. Absolutely terrific.

There is more Bach with an arrangement based on the famous Chorale prelude, Erbarm’ dich... (DRW 911) (Erbarm’ dich mein, o Herre Gott, BWV 721) where Rees-Williams’ use of an electric keyboard brings an amazingly effective approximation of a church organ. Though he re-creates the sound world of Bach, hidden within is a popular song for listeners to guess. I’ll not give the game away here.

The traditional Czech Zither Carol hurtles off with an unashamedly fast, jazzy rhythmic arrangement, enough to raise the spirits on the dullest December day.  

The piano of David Rees-Williams gently wanders around the theme of perhaps the most popular carol here, Stille Nacht, with light percussion accompaniment and a light use of bass. Slowly the familiar melody appears in this rather magical arrangement.

There is a lovely flowing King Jesus Hath a Garden with light percussion and the organ subtly adding to the texture and bass adding a lovely subtle warmth and rhythmic point to this arrangement of a traditional Dutch carol.

The piano slowly picks out the theme of O Come, O Come (Emanuel) before soon broadening through gently flowing, freely improvised passages. It develops some rhythmic phrases, almost as though creating bell chimes with the Hammond organ adding a lovely sonority over the other instruments. This is another glorious arrangement and performance.

Finally there is an upbeat arrangement of the French carol, Il est né, le divin Enfant … (He is born, the Holy Child) with piano, percussion and bass bringing a fine rhythmic drive. The vibraphone subtly appears to add colour when the organ joins, the jazz variations increase, rising to a joyful, rhythmic conclusion.

Full marks to Champs Hill for bringing us this terrific disc. These fine musicians bring a freshness to this well-known music. It is a real joy. 
I can see this being a favourite Christmas disc for many – a real winner.

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