Bath Jazz Weekend 3rd-5th January, Widcombe Social Club

Having let a week go by since the immersive experience of the Bath Jazz Weekend, I see Tony Benjamin has posted not one, but two round-ups, one each for Jazzwise and Bristol 24/7 comprehensively capturing the breadth of the programme. I’ll just savour the memory here and a few things that caused my fickle heart to flutter.

The line-up for the weekend would attract an audience where-ever it was staged, such was the quality and distinctiveness, but there was a consistent, quirky, connection with Bath. The event is the brain child of Nod Knowles and takes place at Widcombe Social Club, which since a lengthy refurbishement and rebuild a few years ago, is becoming home to an increasingly engaging and quirky series of events, with Nod on the management committee. The jazz event’s bands and artists all either live very locally, or had worked with Nod previously, most often in his time with Bath International Festival (frequently both).

Amongst other things, it was a weekend of pianists. Sprinkled throughout the weekend were three solo sets from Nikki Yeoh, (last seen by me opening for Brandford Marsalis at the Barbican); Joanna MacGregor, taking a new year break from the concert platform to tango us; John Law reminding us, as if it was needed, of his protean capabilities at the piano and dazzling creativity. The piano itself wasn’t in quite the same league it has to be said (see a note below).

The solo sets were an undoubted highlight. It goes without saying that a concert pianist with an international reputation has control of the instrument, but still, the shape and arc of the pieces MacGregor played was breathtaking as the sound swelled from whisper to tumult and the simplest of Jobim bossas glowed under her touch. John Law was no less fluent as he treated us to a set of mainly originals. Always one to challenge himself (I can still remember him playing two rhythm changes based tunes simultaneously one in each hand one night at the BeBop club), he closed with his quartet arrangement of Over the Rainbow distilled onto the piano and into two hands; a sublime moment, each part singing clearly.

There were plenty of bands and a couple of duos. MacGregor’s set seemed to set us up for a South American evening as Huw Warren‘s trio, augmented by Iain Ballamy, spent most of their set in Brazil including a hatful of Hermeto tunes, but another glistening moment for me was their quiet encore of Ballamy’s own This World, an exquisite hymn-like rubato ballad. Despite the marquee names, another of my favourite few minutes was spent listening to the Sam Crockatt/ Andrew Bain Quartet. The quartet are all bandleaders and composers in their own right (Rebeca Nash was at the keys and Riaan Vosloo on bass). There’s a special quality to the two leaders’ writing and they’ve chosen sympathetic collaborators. Crockatt seems, to these ears, to have an instinct for writing and arranging small band pieces that develop deceptively simple motifs to maximum effect, exploiting texture and atmosphere without losing a strong melodic logic. His pieces evoked a particularly lyrical and expressive response from Nash. And he can really blow the roof off when called upon. There were a couple of blistering work-outs in the set.

I was accompanied by a second pair of ears for the weekend who as well as the MacGregor vote, volunteered drummer Tony Orrel’s Big Top who were the last band of the weekend for a special mention. They were on great form with the two drum attack of Orrel and Matt Brown judged to a tee, never over powering but always generating hectic excitement and momentum. The ring-master’s terrible shaggy dog stories and collection of whacky percussion accessories (the skull shaped cymbal possibly the most weirdly apposite moment) heightened the irrepressible joie de vivre of the set.

With Friday evening and two triple bills on each on Saturday and Sunday this was an intense, concentrated feast of music and an uplifting and yes, inspiring way to launch 2020.

A note about that piano: It fit all the visual requirements: black and shiny, a grand: It does have a lengthy pedigree however. Bryan Adams’ power ballad Everything I do may still hold the record for weeks at No 1 (or was it months!) in the early 90s, and there was a video with Robin Hood themed goings on in the woods. This same piano featured in that video. It has spent the last 25 plus years as a hired hand at countless gigs and lovingly tuned and cared for. Like many a touring beast however, the pace is telling. It didn’t sound quite in tune from the first chord of Nikki Yeoh’s set on Friday, and a couple of tunings over the weekend never quite restored it. Its a minor speck of dust in the eye over the weekend however.

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