With a week or so of dust settling time since a barn storming performance by Hugh Masekela brought the curtain down on the 2015 Bath Festival, now seems a good time to reflect and celebrate a turnaround that seemed unlikely at the start of the year. Then, after a 2014 festival that was wafer thin in all genres let alone jazz, the early departure of the director and the loss of Arts Council funding, the most likely result seemed a further decline of a once proud International festival. Instead, there was an absorbing, varied, sometimes challenging programme of jazz related music, still no-where near the scale of the generously funded glory days but enough to draw substantial audiences. A summary of mine of the jazz strand is on the Jazzwise site and a further live review is coming in the magazine so I won’t say too much here, save to say a programme that as well as the Masekela party included American iconclast pianist Matthew Shipp, Jason Rebello and Gwylim Simcock in a piano face off and Mike Westbrook leading his unique project of settings of Blake’s poems, gives notice that some of the spirit of former times is back, bringing great but perhaps less visited or unfamiliar music.
So what made the difference? A typically acute piece from John Fordham in the Guardian sets much of it out. The appointment of Artistic Directors with a strong track record (David Jones of Serious and James Waters from the classical world) was a critical move. Jones in particular clearly knows the history of the festival and loved the approach to booking that brought so much adventurous and glorious music to Bath through the tenures of Nod Knowles and Joanna McGregor. There’s a genuine sense then, that if that’s what’s been missed, then with his re-appointment for a further three years there’s a real commitment to bringing something different, encouraging unique collaborations and bringing new audiences in. So credit where credit’s due. There was plenty of muttering about the Festival administration for managing decline so they deserve a thumbs up for making the moves that made this year possible.
A one year exciting re-energising of a still necessarily limited programme doesn’t secure the future however. There’s a really interesting challenge spelt out at the end of John Fordham’s piece. There isn’t a lot of money or resource behind the festival, no doubt part of the reason for the bumpy ride of the last few years, so David Jones is quoted as identifying working with other organisations and partners locally to combine resources (and imaginations!) and put things on (during the year as well as the ten days of the festival) as an important approach to building up the festival.
Now there’s an opportunity and a challenge for both local Arts// Music bodies and for the Festival. Can they put resource in, can the Festival be open enough to give them a say to make the next few years of Bath International festival really exciting as a jazz and improvised music happening? With two universities with Arts programmes in the city, concert halls in all directions within ten miles or so and a dynamic local scene the possibilities are tantalising.