Local acts light up the 20th Manchester Jazz Festival

Usually when a festival the size of Manchester reaches a major milestone they call in the cavalry – jazz titans like the Marsalis Brothers, Charles Lloyd or Chick Corea come to take care of the fireworks and help put up the bunting and what you get is a programme full of international heavy hitters. But that’s not really the point of MJF and never has been.

This festival is less about bringing the world to Manchester and more about showcasing the best that the North West has to offer – which is saying a great deal. This is a city with a proud musical tradition after all – the home of Chetham's and the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), the Hallé Orchestra and the BBC Phil. It’s the parade ground of several of the UK’s most flawlessly twee brass bands and the indie hub that gave us Oasis, Elbow and The Smiths (which just about makes up for the Bee Gees).

Manchester’s jazz scene is one of enviable strength and depth and MJF’s programme has always been heavy on local bands with a view to flaunting and nurturing the city’s musical output. Though there were a smattering of international jazz stars on this year’s bill their sets certainly weren’t the highlights – at least during my visit, on the final weekend of the festival’s 10-day run.

I’m a huge fan of Robert Glasper. His duo performance with fellow Houstonian Jason Moran was one of the standout gigs at last year’s London Jazz Festival and I was privileged enough to watch his Experiment band play a blinder at the Sage Gateshead in 2013. His trademark blend of jazz, hip hop and R&B is one of the defining sounds of the past few years, one that has spawned legions of imitators and turned new audiences on to the tradition. Yet I found his MJF set, in front of a sell-out crowd at the RNCM, hard going.

The pianist took to the stage with his recently reformed trio of bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid and the three men displayed impressive interactive powers across a series of tracks from latest album Covered, cut with Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” and extended quotes from “Afro Blue” and “Till It’s Done (Tutu)”, by neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo. But on the whole the gig felt aimless and self-indulgent. Bursts of solo piano from Glasper lacked direction and the grooves were all on one level – laid back and lethargic. They would have made perfectly pleasant R&B beats, with a vocalist to add interest, and I wouldn’t have minded a bit if they’d been on the playlist at a house party, but as material for a sit down concert they left a lot to be desired.

Sunday’s set of ethereal soundscapes and indie pop-inspired originals from hotly-tipped French trumpeter Airelle Besson, winner of the Django Reinhardt Prize and this year’s French Jazz Musician of the Year, was also a little disappointing. Besson’s quartet played well enough, with vocalist Isabel Sorling contributing arcing lines that glowed like moon beams thanks to some subtle electronic enhancement. But the writing felt cluttered and the group’s strategy of allowing tracks to evolve organically (though perfectly sound if properly handled) made for a lot of wandering moments.

Gorka Benítez, a tenor player and flautist from the Basque Country representing Spain on behalf of the Manchester branch of the Instituto Cervantes, gave us an inspiring set full of Iberian flair and forays into free jazz that saved the away team’s blushes. But it was the local bands, and those with a local connection, who ensured that this anniversary went off with a bang.

I have my reservations about GoGo Penguin’s brand of jazz-inflected, acoustic dance music, which can be formulaic at times, but it’s hard not to be swept along by the energy and there was no doubting that the trio played up a storm, headlining the Thwaites Festival Pavilion on Friday night with tracks from v2.0 and their forthcoming debut for Blue Note. There's a primal quality to their melodies. Like a handprint on the wall of a cave, they awaken something within you and they get your pulse racing. The crowd was clearly delighted to see them back on home turf and greeted them with a thunderous roar.

John-Ellis-1-credit--Peter-Woodman
Just as engrossing was the premiere of Evolution: Seeds and Streams, by Mancunian pianist John Ellis (above),who headlined the first Manchester Jazz Festival back in 1996. Part of the MJF Originals series of new commissions, it was a piece of gently-unfolding, understated beauty – drifting in a world of its own, somewhere between chamber music, jazz and ambient art rock. There were yawning, richly-voiced horn lines; tinkling kora grooves; pointillist, pizzicato strings; snatches of sampled bird song and whispered vocal sounds. Ellis added bulging sci fi synth lines and shivering piano commentaries played on an old upright that sounded as though it had been knocked about a little over the years. The insinuations of honky tonk and the squeak of the pedals only added to the surreal quality of the atmosphere.

The Neo-Gothic splendour of Manchester’s town hall was an inspired choice of setting and an animated backdrop by Antony Barkworth-Knight, full of arresting visuals, was the perfect complement to the music. There were shots of water that ran as thick as oil, muted colours bleeding into one another, stylised flocks of birds and a roving eye. Best of all were a series of hands over which the camera lingered, searching the contours of the palm and the topography of the knuckles, finding beauty in the mundane.

St Anne’s church, the setting for a graceful and wonderfully fluid duo performance from Salford-born guitarist Mike Walker and Chetham’s alumnus Gwilym Simcock (below), was similarly well chosen – particularly as the pair opened with an extract from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. As was the Central Library’s circular reading room, its domed ceiling reverberating with the lilting melodies of trumpeter Neil Yates’ whisper soft Surroundings suite, originally commissioned in 2010 and pared down for a quartet completed by saxophonists Iain Ballamy and Tori Freestone with pianist Les Chisnall.

Walker Sym

\As well as demonstrating just how many of the British jazz establishment have ties to the North West, MJF does an excellent job of promoting lesser known acts from the region and there were a host of promising newcomers rubbing shoulders with the local boys and girls done good. The easy-going grooves and swaggering basslines of Afrika Jazz, a trio led by Congolese pianist and Birmingham Conservatoire student Tshepe Tshepela, ensured a laid back start to Friday’s programme and a performance from the Quarry Hillbillies proved an unexpected highlight. See a name like that and you fear the worst but don’t let it put you off. So called because they all teach at Leeds College of Music in Quarry Hill, the quintet take their playing seriously. Their set of contemporary, European jazz originals in the tradition of Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor was flawlessly polished, with plenty of inspiring improvised moments played out across merry-go-round chord sequences – the kind that swing you back to the top and feel like a dream to solo over. Once you’re on you never want to get off.

Drummer Jim Molyneux’s horn-heavy, Snarky Puppy-esque Glowrogues were another exciting discovery and a set of grungy, EWI-led jazz prog from young Leeds band, Stretch Trio (pictured top of page) was equally strong. Both groups would benefit from tightening up a few of their compositions, distilling them down to their essentials, but both have bags of promise and Glowrogues in particular have some killer hooks – choruses that make you want to throw your head back and shout “Choon!” They were on stage again for the festival’s after party at Northern Quartet club Band on the Wall, where they shared the bill with Kalakuta, a group of RNCM students and alumni whose set of high energy Afro Beat was similarly outstanding.

Walking back along Tib Street and through the city centre that night, past boarded-up boozers and livelier ones done out in red brick and glazed tile, I was in no doubt that I’d seen Manchester at its best and it hardly seemed to matter that the weekend’s overseas guests hadn’t lived up to their billings. Homegrown talent provided all of the fireworks this superb twentieth anniversary celebration needed.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

– Photos by Weiting Huang and Peter Woodman

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website

If you do not change browser settings, you consent to continue. Learn more

I understand

Breaking News

Taborn's Finessed Tapestry Of Textures F…

  The large number of musicians at this sold-out show says...

Read More.....

Abdullah Ibrahim, Gregory Porter, Yazz A…

The full line-up has been announced for Cheltenham Jazz Festival...

Read More.....

Irreversible Entanglements + Matana Robe…

  Matana Roberts (above) is so relaxed tonight her short opening set...

Read More.....

Jazz FM Awards nominations celebrate gia…

The names for the 2019 Jazz FM Awards were revealed...

Read More.....

Patchwork Jazz Orchestra premiere ‘Badge…

The London-based 17-piece Patchwork Jazz Orchestra are set to release...

Read More.....

NJYO, JCM, friends and family pay tribut…

As Jon Hiseman would say: “If you are going to...

Read More.....

Sons of Kemet, Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia …

The programme has been announced the inaugural We Out Here...

Read More.....

NCO hit bullseye with CTI at Ronnie Scot…

Tomorrow’s Warriors’ role as a springboard for emerging talent in...

Read More.....

Countdown To Ecstasy: Royal Academy Big …

  There are some people, who I've never understood, who smirk...

Read More.....

Melt Yourself Down, Laura Mvula and Kama…

The second edition of Love Supreme at the Roundhouse takes...

Read More.....

Michel Legrand 24/02/1932 – 26/01/2019

The prolific French film composer and pianist Michel Legrand was...

Read More.....

Hamasyan In Inspired Orchestral Manoeuvr…

The Brussels Jazz Festival is a relative newcomer, but this...

Read More.....

Zara McFarlane and Soweto Kinch turn up …

The night goes on and they keep on coming, a...

Read More.....

Jazz meets theatrical protest with The A…

Few styles of music can claim to have come as...

Read More.....

Snarky Puppy return with new album Immig…

Grammy-winning groove crew Snarky Puppy return with a new studio...

Read More.....

Blue Note spearheads 80th Anniversary Ye…

The iconic Blue Note label will celebrate its milestone 80th...

Read More.....

John Turville dives in Head First – new …

Pianist and composer John Turville returns with a new album...

Read More.....

Uri Caine and Henri Texier dazzle while …

Jazzfestival Münster is celebrating its 40th anniversary, but has only...

Read More.....

Ezra Collective bring the Brit-Jazz Nois…

Much like in other recent editions of New York's Winter...

Read More.....

Yazz Ahmed and Jasper Høiby line-up for …

For some there is a Holy Grail in jazz: to...

Read More.....

Matthew Herbert marks Brexit with Big Ba…

Composer, conductor and sampling-supremo Matthew Herbert is set to release...

Read More.....

Joseph Jarman 14/09/37 – 9/01/19

  The recitation of 'Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City' by Dante...

Read More.....

Wandering Monster step up with 'Samsara…

Bass-led progressive jazz group Wandering Monster are set to release...

Read More.....

Cécile McLorin Salvant, Oded Tzur Quarte…

  The unfeasibly warm November weather was matched by the heat...

Read More.....

Edinburgh embraces the Thrill of Belgian…

Belgium may be better known for its beer than its...

Read More.....

Mitchener And Yarde Break Blues Boundari…

The blues is a lived and living truth, as much...

Read More.....

Ra's Arkestra Announces Annual Lewes Aff…

The Sun Ra Arkestra – led by that indomitable intergalactic...

Read More.....

Steve Williamson, Silje Nergaard and Tin…

Southampton’s Turner Sims music venue has announced an impressive line-up...

Read More.....

19-year-old vibraphonist Sasha Berliner …

19-year-old vibraphonist Sasha Berliner wins LetterOne Rising Stars Award California-based...

Read More.....

Nordic Wonders: Rune Grammofon Bring The…

Determined individuals who ignore categories define the Norwegian scene, in...

Read More.....

Mehldau Marvels At Jazztopad

  The entire spectrum can dazzle at Jazztopad, a Polish festival in...

Read More.....

Jazz FM Awards return for 2019

The Jazz FM Awards return for a sixth time next...

Read More.....

Chick Corea, Madeleine Peyroux and Kamaa…

The organisers of the Love Supreme Jazz Festival, which runs...

Read More.....

Peter Boizot 1929 – 2018

The press obituaries for Peter Boizot, who has died aged...

Read More.....

David Mossman – 17 July 1942 - 8 Decembe…

Ahead of starting the Vortex in 1988, there is nothing...

Read More.....

Greg Fox and Pulverize The Sound punish …

  The second phase of Poland’s Jazz Jantar festival involved five nights...

Read More.....

Making The Cut Mpu 300x500px

Subcribe To Jazzwise

Advertisement

Call 0800 137201 to subscribe or click here to email the subscriptions team

Get in touch

Jazzwise Magazine,
St. Judes Church,
Dulwich Road, 
Herne Hill,
London, SE24 0PD.

0208 677 0012

Latest Tweets

emotion at the beauty of twilight’s light and shadow, what is all this if not the practicing of art? Why then this… https://t.co/NO6MmuslCO
Follow Us - @Jazzwise
Isn’t everyone a bit of an artist? Isn’t it true that mankind creates art not only on paper or on canvas, but also… https://t.co/AzFfFeJxRN
Follow Us - @Jazzwise

Newsletter

© 2016 MA Business & Leisure Ltd registered in England and Wales number 02923699 Registered office: Jesses Farm, Snow Hill, Dinton, Salisbury, SP3 5HN . Designed By SE24 MEDIA