Dave Mowat is a man of many parts and seemingly always in motion, constantly blending music, his politics and instincts for community organising and activism. BEJE (Bristol European Jazz Ensemble) is his project, a steadily mutating project, including flexing the boundaries to collaborate with Korean,Yunmi Sang last year. There’s more on the way it seems and early in 2019 there’s a gig at The Canteen in Bristol (January 15th), and another in one of St. George’s new smaller spaces in February/ March.
Dave has bigger plans however, and he’s shared an entertaining story of a quest to cross some geographic boundaries and take the ensemble to Europe. Here’s his account of an exploratory trip last summer.
I looked myself in the mirror and saw a silvery-haired 61 year old little-known trumpet player, rubbing his slightly numbed top lip after a bout of everyday practice. “This is going to be an adventure, even if no gigs come of it” I reassured myself. Armed with lists of venues and promoters to chase in southern France and northern Italy within reach of my chosen alpine base, my trusty trumpet in its fibreglass XR-stickered case, a stack of recent BEJE albums, I headed for the train on a hot August night.
Trains to Turin and twelve days followed, staying with an old friend from Sheffield Street band days of thirty five years before. Alun, Yorkshire-Welshman ex-pat, refugee from Maggie’s Britain, retired green economics lecturer is now a Piemontese smallholder. The first few days not a lot happened. I weeded his vegetable beds and practiced by day in a cobwebbed shed facing steep-sloping woodland full of woodpeckers laughing at my scales. By night we drank from his flagon of red wine, eat homemade pickles from jars bursting out of the fridge, with local prosciutto and cucumber-yogurt smoothies. The phone and internet connection came and went as he tried to make contact with jazz buddies.
Having gone through his Paolo Fresu CD collection, played extra loud to ward off this hamlet’s foreigner-hating neighbour, the first break-through was a tipsy and slightly bawdy phone call with Alun’s mate Marianne Delorme. She is a promoter and the daughter of the legendary and recently departed Michel Delorme, friend and cote d’Azur host of ‘Train, Miles and Carlos Santana. The long and short of it was yes, Marianne warmly agreed to introduce me to the Directors of Jazz Festivals in Nice and Cap Ferat.
I’d managed to get through to a Bristol friend, a dancer with roots in the region. She set me up with a little gig in Bussana Vechia, a village tottering above the Italian Riviera near to San Remo. Alun reckoned it was less than three hours away, so off we set one steaming hot afternoon. He’d talked us into accepting him as a player of Moroccan castanets. Rather sceptical I thought it wise not to question my potential future tour-driver.
I hadn’t banked on the lengthy packing of picnic hamper, sleeping bags, leaking water carrier damp duvet and canvas picnic furniture, nor on dropping in on Alun’s mate. Things became a little tense as we negotiated hairpin bends only to discover we’d gone over the wrong Liguria alpine pass. A very hot-and-bothered twosome inched their way up a narrower and narrower village lane, late for the gig.
I eventually settled down with the very relaxed bossa nova guitarist, the impeccable Silvio Del Mastro and after the gig we exchanged numbers, as you do, and he offered (was leant on) to help me set up a gig at Turin Jazz Club. The gig was a great success for the seven or eight customers and the castanets added a certain je ne sais quoi. The owner asked me back for a lunch-time gig the next day, lunch being the fee. Bussanna Vechia turned out to be a charming village, well able to host BEJE on a future tour with board and lodging in exchange for a free gig or two.
Late again, we set off to present one of my Yunmi Sang and the BEJE trio cds in person to Marc Peillon, the Director of Cap Ferat Jazz Festival that evening. Thanks to Marianne he was expecting us. This journey proved as tense as the last; Alun and I weren’t speaking to each other as he parked and I strode off to find the festival.
I calmed down with my back against a tree, beer in hand, a half-moon glittering over the med, enjoying Sarah Lancman and Giovanni Mirabassi’s sophisticated swing delight the smart set. Could I imagine BEJE with Yunmi and Sangyeon here? Buoyed up by the thought of my suave and sexy fellow band members, why not? After the show I found Marc and handed him the cd. It turns out he’s a relaxed jobbing jazz bassist, on a level, so I reckon we’ll get a fair hearing.
A couple of days later, back at base camp, I took the Cuneo to Nice railway journey to meet a friend at Nice Airport. The plane being hours late, a room was located at an old fashioned hotel in the village of Fanton, the last French place before Italy, and we hitched there with an Italian family in a camper van and their little barky dog. We caught the morning’s train back to Cuneo. We crawled and spiralled upwards, now catching sun on rockfaces, now dulled windows reflecting the carriage light, and as passengers dozed I bounced from window to window not wanting to miss anything. To the gently rocking train’s sounds of squealing and grinding a 2020 tour plan emerged.
Alun had told me that a dispute between SNCF and Italian Railways meant that this line was being run down in favour of the road. What a retrograde step at a time of climate warming! How about a BEJE tour beginning in Turin and ending in Nice or Cap Ferat Jazz Festivals, using the train line as our modus vivendi, with impromptu gigs in the carriages, music specially composed on a railway theme, with gigs in train-station municipal centres en route? We could arrange mutual publicity with groups campaigning to keep the line open, gigs paid by municipalities seeing the value of this theme, and cultural bodies funding the difference. Who knows, we might get audiences too!
Thus a great idea was born. What could possibly go wrong?