The stars, planets and weather lined up for the 2ndBristol Jazz and Blues Festival this weekend. As the sun came out the crowds flocked in to hang out in the foyer of the city’s Colston Hall, lining the soaring staircase, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying some of the 70 events featuring over 400 artists whether it was the free foyer programme or the diverse series of ticketed gigs.
They ranged from funk legends Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley (pictured above), through a fizzing set of standards from an Alan Barnes/Howard Alden led band, a double bill of the contrasting lyricism of Dan Messore's Indigo Kid, the bluesy soul-jazz of New Orleans star Lillian Boutté (pictured top), and Get the Blessing in riotous form and a wind it down, improvised set from Andy Sheppard (below) and Italian percussionist Michele Rabbia that closed the festival in the smaller of the two concert halls, The Lantern. On the way there was the mass particpation of a Gershwin Spectacular with a colorful choir of 200 and the more intense meeting of classical and jazz with the premiere of Kate Williams and Will Goodchild's Interplay project.
There was a tremendous buzz and frequent outbreaks of dancing all weekend. The jam sessions on the foyer stage ensured that the night-owls were able to keep going until the early hours. Diaries are already being marked in hopeful anticipation of another festival next year.
– Mike Collins
– Photos © Tim Dickeson
If ‘too many piano trios’ is a bellyache that has rumbled around the jazz body politic for some time, this was a dose of strong medicine against it. Hailed for its performance at last year’s Vision Festival, Kris Davis’ outfit provided a quite gripping example of how fresh the format can be, presenting a sound that, while marked by the sensibilities of New York’s improvised music scene, had an individuality and sense of purpose germane to the Brooklyn-based, Canadian pianist.
The bulk of the music was drawn from the current album Waiting For You To Grow, which was inspired by her experience of pregnancy, and the expectations, projections, imaginings and above all physical realities of new life. On many occasions the compositions vividly conveyed all of the above, none more so than the quite startling ‘Hiccups’, a piece in which Davis’ responsive and dynamic partners, double bassist John Hébert and drummer Tom Rainey, came into their own. As the title suggests, this was an evocation of bumps, jolts and little kicks inside, but Davis did not reduce the form to anything as transparent as a succession of broken grooves or melodic tease and tickle. The hyper-rockabye derived more from a sharp tension between different implications of tempo and meter by each player, as if they were in a post-Ornette/Blackwell marching band where the idea is to move in spirals and circles rather than straight lines. The rub being that the points of overlap were dramatically precise, and that the second half of the piece, where the trio settled into a more regular beat, didn’t forego the playful internal jockeying that had marked the first.
If that composition showcased the band’s quality in expansive mood, then there were moments where the onus was on spare phrases. But they often grew. At one point Davis played a skewed, walking line in the low register, and then turned each note into a deliciously dense chord to create a sensation of weight gain amid forward motion. Elsewhere her right hand work was slightly glacial but not bloodless. While the oblique character of some of her songs may prompt the tag of avant-garde, Davis’ idiomatic range is too wide for that, and in this respect she joins a group of stellar pianists – Taborn, Lossing, Delbecq – for whom the key creative ethos is ‘traditions’, not tradition.
– Kevin Le Gendre
Much is made of Chris Barber’s longevity; after all, he’s in his eighties now and he and his band seem to have been on the road since the dawn of time. Surely, ennui must set in at some point. Try telling that to the expectant crowd that thronged this imposing hall, part of the rather splendid array of buildings that make up the St Paul’s school campus in Barnes.
The enthusiasm of those packed in to Wathen Hall knew few bounds and Barber responded – after all, he is one of their own, having attended the school himself, albeit a lifetime ago – with a cleverly constructed set of small group numbers and expanded pieces, all moving along at a fair old pace.
Choreographed and pre-defined (the sequence of songs exactly matched those observed at an earlier concert) it all may be but that was no matter for an audience so suffused by the rosy glow of nostalgia. While it remains pleasurable to hear clarinettist Richard Exall recreate ‘Petite Fleur’ so exultantly, there were perhaps greater rewards in observing the big CB band as they got their teeth into their chosen Ellington compositions, paced by the expert wa-wa trombone of Bob Hunt.
With a wide stage, the bandsmen (and one woman, saxophonist Amy Roberts) lined up abreast, stepping forward to solo as each piece followed upon another. Given this predictability, it’s easy to locate Barber and his cohort of brilliant musicians among the various show bands that throng the variety circuit. Maybe so, but that is to downplay the verve and the sheer musical class of these performers, typified by new-ish recruit Bert Brandsma, soaring on clarinet on ‘Wild Cat Blues’ or the zesty precision of trumpeters Peter Rudeforth and Mike Henry on ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’ and the startlingly effective flute playing of Roberts on the penultimate ‘Saints’. What is clear is that Barber’s desire to perform this crowd-pleasing combination of New Orleans staples and Ellington originals is apparently unquenchable, the concern for ensemble dynamics, and for order and structure, coupled with the joyful professionalism on view still noteworthy after all these years.
Given this invitation to an ‘old boy’ to fly the flag for jazz, it’s pleasing to report that alto-saxophonist Tom Smith, a present-day pupil at St Paul's, is listed as a finalist in the BBC’s inaugural Young Jazz Musician of the Year. Call it continuity or coincidence, either way it’s a feather in the cap for Tom and his instructors. He joins the Royal Academy of Music course in September.
– Peter Vacher
After a sparkling performance at the London Jazz Festival, the Trinity Laban Contemporary Jazz Ensemble was back in action at Ronnie’s on Monday, with two imaginative sets of arrangements. The first, directed by Malcolm Earle-Smith, was a compilation of standards; the second, for which the band was bolstered with serious professional assistance in the shape of drummer Nic France and bassist Laurence Cottle (pictured), directed by Julian Siegel, was a sensational set of Jaco Pastorius arrangements.
Ronnie’s was full, and the atmosphere at its most carnivalesque, but the players were admirably unfazed. The first set pieces were taken straightahead, but were lovingly phrased, with a craftsmanlike appreciation of the music’s dynamic requirements. It must be most students’ dream to play a Ronnie’s solo, and the arrangements were well adapted to enable many of them to have their moment. Given the numbers, there isn’t space to name every one, but standouts included Rachel Bennet’s sweet, yearning vocals, Rosie Turton’s smooth, muscular trombone, and Milo McKinnon’s athletic trumpet. Earle-Smith was a beacon of enthusiasm, giving his young band just the right amount of space to flourish. Occasionally a little more elasticity in the tempo would have kick-started the swing, but otherwise these were extremely vivid and enjoyable renditions of a well-chosen range of standards.
Pastorius is now universally admired for his revolutionary work on the fretless electric bass, massively expanding its repertoire and range, making it an vivid solo instrument and not just a plunking part of the rhythm section. Too many big bands, especially amateur ones (though these fine young players are all on the cusp of professional careers, of course) offer gale-force unison playing, as stiff and flat as a starched shirt. They make audiences think dark thoughts, about trombones and tubas in particular. The big band, like the bass of 40 years ago, needs more variety and complexity in its melodic lines. Which is why it was such a brainwave to arrange Pastorius for this band – his genius was to bring variety and imagination to what was once plodding and dreary.
British bass legend Cottle has picked up Jaco’s gauntlet and revived his music for a new generation – he’s one of the few contemporary players who can both play Pastorius’ lines with their original flare and daring, while also creating searing new arrangements of the material. Thus the second set was a riot of outrageous, thrusting energy, with fluidity to both the melodic lines and the tempo that made every phrase a surprise and a pleasure to hear. The rhythms were also more layered, with sharper elbows and more elastic responses. The whole sax section was made to work hard, with particular brilliance from Theo Erskine’s tenor and Mike Underwood’s alto, while Dan Marks played some sparky bop piano, and Jessica Dowdeswell sang with melting elegance.
The repertoire was varied, within Pastorius’ output, including his arrangement of Ellington’s ‘Sophisticated Lady’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Dry Cleaner from Des Moines’, and a final amendment to the Pastorius rule with Pee Wee Ellis’ ‘The Chicken’, which became Pastorius’ theme song, although not his own composition. Many of the players were the same as the first set, though a combination of superb material and the gentle encouragement of Laurence Cottle, whose solos were, as expected, wonderfully powerful yet sensitive, and Nic France, spinning tropical vibes on the steel pans, raised the performance to masterful. There’s no better tribute to Trinity Laban’s students and teachers than this sublime performance.
– Matthew Wright
Edinburgh-based saxophonist Martin Kershaw (pictured) and guitarist Graeme Stephen are launching a new musician-run music night called Playtime at The Outhouse in the city’s Broughton Street Lane on 20 March. The plan is to run weekly sessions presenting new compositions in the Outhouse’s intimate loft setting and the first two sessions will feature Kershaw and Stephen with Mario Caribe (bass) and Tom Bancroft (drums).
“Since the demise of Henry’s Jazz Cellar as a regular hub where musicians could try out new ideas and formats in a listening environment, it’s been very hard to find a sympathetic venue,” says Kershaw, who as well as fronting his own projects is a stalwart of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s saxophone section. “We’re hoping to create the right setting that will give a platform for the creativity that we know exists on the scene both locally and nationally.”
– Rob Adams