May Round-up: Nightingale in St James Square, Marsalis in Bath and a decade of Play Jazz Weekend

Mark Nightingale is probably heartily sick of bad puns on his name, but his appearance atmarknightingale the St. James Wine Vaults session in Bath in the middle of the month in a cellar bar beneath St. James Square, made allusions to singing and squares irresistible. Anyone who was there might also think it’s an apt comparison however. Opportunities to see one of our foremost exponents of trombone as the lead horn are relatively rare so this was a real treat. The fluency and agility of the playing were dazzling and Nightingale’s tone was like honey in the ear as he led the house trio through two sets of tunes from some less visited corners of the standards and jazz classics repertoire.  This was another absorbing evening in the fortnightly session’s programme, now a decade old, that continues to attract the best players on the scene.

It’s a year of anniversaries, as Play Jazz Weekend, an annual pop-up jazz jazz school held at Wiltshire Jazz Centre, reached a run of a decade under the stewardship of Rachel Kerry over the Bank Holiday Weekend . This year, as on some previous occasions, the tutors for the weekend assembled the night before for a gig at Bristol’s Be-Bop Club. Alan Barnes, Damian Cook and Andy Hague (alto, tenor, trumpet) formed the frontline of the band that also featured the fourth tutor Jim Blomfield on piano. Chris Jones on bass and Mark Whitlam secured a grooving, responsive rhythm section. This kind of gig is a Hague specialty. He arrived with a pad of arrangements in ‘roughly hard swinging, sixties Blue Note territory’  as he put it, making sure the impromptu sextet served up a fizzing set of familiar tunes  with new twists and the unfamiliar  with attention grabbing energy. So we got standards such as Like Someone in Love, Billy Strayhdorn’s UMMG, a little known rip-roaring Horace Silver, Smell my Attitude, evoking burning soloing all round. There were  moments of tender delicacy sprinkled throughout the evening as well. A rousing Marcus Printup stomper closed the evening,  loudly appreciated by  prospective Play Jazz students and regular punters alike.

The much reduced Bath International Festival took place over the week before the bank holiday weekend and the overtly jazzy gigs were on the first Saturday.  There’ll be more from me in Jazzwise about those, suffice to say that a solo Branford Marsalis gig in the Abbey, complete with tolling bells to welcome him to the stage, was a dramatic piece of billing. One man, his saxophones and a big church was certainly a challenge but Marsalis rose to it, sounding most compelling to these ears when he eased into some jazz standards, but mining  classical and contemporary sounds along the way and using the response of the natural reverb chamber to exhilarating effect.   Kansas Smitty’s House Band provided a raucous antidote later in the same evening, impossible not to enjoy.



Bath Festival and Jazz: reunited and looking forward

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.

Jazz is bursting out all over – Spring Preview : Local gigs Bristol and Bath , Cheltenham and Bath Festivals

With Easter and chocolate binges behind us, a scan of the live gig menu over the next couple months reveals a simple message; you won’t need to go far in Bristol and Bath to catch some outstanding jazz and music inspired by jazz.  There’s the obvious draw of two festivals in May (Cheltenham on the first bank holiday weekend and Bath around the second) of which more in a moment, but it would be a travesty not to notice the quality of what’s on offer week by week at regular sessions. Wade Edwards for example has excelled himself for the spring/ summer season at the fortnightly on a Thursday session at St. James’ Wine Vaults. The booker and occupier of the bass chair in the house trio has secured as a guest on the 16th April fabulous Bristol based Tenor Sax man,  Jake McMurchie (Get The Blessing, Michelson Morley) and then the unique Bristol treasure vocalist Tammy Payne on the 30th April.  Through May and June the house band will go into overdrive with a Hall of Fame series of guests from the British straight-ahead jazz scene.  Don Weller, now in his 70s famously depped for Mike Brecker in Gil Evans Orchestra in the 80s and comes to the Vaults on 14th May. Dave Newton, winner of Best Pianist in the British Jazz awards on multiple occasions takes the piano chair for a trio session on the 28th and then in June, guitar legend Jim Mullen returns with vocalist Zoe Francis.  Regular sessions in Bristol have comparable depth.  Fringe Jazz, now firmly established on Wednesday at The Mall in Clifton, continues with regular appearances from Andy Sheppard who seems to be in the creative overdrive at the moment. The Fringe Jazz sessions feature him in variety of line-ups but the Pushy Doctors are regulars (27th May for instance) and hook-ups with Birmingham based phenomenon on trumpet and bass Percy Pursglove are always worth catching (15th April). In between there’s a great variety, Michelson Morley Jake McMurchie’s looping, live elctronica meets jazz improv (now) quartet featuring guitarist Dan Messore is there on 6th May. Check out the Thursday sessions at Future Inn, an increasingly varied and interesting programme featuring plenty of visitors as well as local bands. Pianist John Law is there on April 30th with a quartet playing material from his new album.  Friday’s see the longrunning BeBop Club continue with a first class programme.  And there are plenty of occasional treats. The Lantern at Colston Hall plays host to Polar Bear on 23rd April and Bill Laurence of Snarky Puppy on 28th May.  Keep your eyes peeled for shows by The Bristol Composers Collective. Their ‘Scratch and Sniff’ Orchestra has started popping up trying out new material by the local scene’s most adventurous spirits.  The next one is on Monday 13th April at The Fringe in Clifton Village. And what of those festivals?  Cheltenham Jazz Festival has evolved into a multi layered affair on the first bank holiday in May.  You can catch Van Morrison, Rumer, Wilko Johnson of Dr Feelgood fame, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and the Average White Band no less.  Another strand sees  Sun Ra Akestra, Joe Lovano with his Afrobeat project, Dave Douglas and Lee Konitz Quintet, John Scofield with rising star German pianist Pablo Held‘s Trio. Yet another sees a more contemporary European flavoured programme mainly at the Parabola Theatre starting with Phronesis, ending with the sublime Julian Arguelle’s Septet and touching a lot of bases in between. With talks, films, jam sessions, a big Sinatra celebration and a Gershwin one too with the inevitable presence of Gregory Porter and Claire Teal too,  it would be hard not indulge most aspects of a musical personality at this cover the bases,  full immersion now five day festival.  Bath Festival is showing signs of recovering its mojo.  After a few years of mysteriously thin programmes and now loss of long term Arts Council funding  (no doubt funding struggles and consequent competing priorities were all part of the challenge) the festival has worked with Serious to come up with a  lean  series of gigs that offer something distinctive for the ten day festival at the end of May. Serious’ specialisms in folk and world as well as adventurous jazz is evident. A two piano gig with Jason Rebello and Gwilym Simcock rounds off Rebello’s year long association with Wiltshire Music Centre. A strong improv thread sees Orphy Robinson’s Black Top making an appearance and American pianist/ iconoclast Matthew Shipp in duo with bass player Matthew Bisio.  By way of total contrast, American exponents of hot jazz, The Hot Sardines put in an appearance early in the festival and there are uncategorisable collaborations with Mike Westbrook bringing his Westbrook Blake to St. Mary’s Bathwick joined by Bath Camerata choir whilst Will Gregory (of Goldfrapp) and drummer Tony Orrell renew an old association and perform an accompaniment to old silent film He Who Gets Slapped. The wildly, divergently creative duo will surely conjure up something magical.  The whole festival will come to a carnival like end with Hugh Masekela.

Festivals, programmes – vive la difference

A few jazz festivals have announced their programmes over the last month or so and of course Bristol’s has shown us what it was made of already a couple of weeks back.  A few thoughts have been rolling around my head so I’ll set them free here. They are however the thoughts of a punter rather than a promoter/ organiser so there’s definitely another side to all this.  Firstly Bath gets a loud cheer – jazz is back in the programme. A slight anxiety is how slender the whole programme is, more of that shortly. Secondly, some common threads are noticeable in the programmes of  a few others (Cheltenham, Love Supreme and Brecon – Jamie Cullum, Gregory Porter, Laura Mvula are going to busy this summer) but Bristol’s (feel the funk, gospel, New Orleans vibe) and Bath’s (don’t you just love it  when you have to look the names up… except Jan and Hilliard)  are different. More loud cheers – vive la difference!

Listening to comment gossip and whispering where opinions are expressed, they often seem to fall into a few camps: ‘its not jazz’, ‘its the wrong sort of jazz’ , ‘its not the right people playing the jazz … why them or why not the other?’  All quite understandable if one’s own particular favourite flavour is not well represented.  With the seeming explosion of music festivals more generally, large and small, standing out from the crowd becomes increasingly important.  An obvious point is that most of these festivals throw the net pretty wide and have quite a mix in the programming. That’s both  pragmatic in terms of selling tickets and mind expanding in that it exposes festival goers to more than their usual diet of listening.  Cheltenham, Love Supreme and Brecon have a pretty similar mix of headliners but alongside that there’s a lot of variety and some very adventurous music.  Bristol’s Jazz and Blues looks in a different direction and embraces funk and blues pretty wholeheartedly – vive la difference!

But its not just the programme on its own that marks them out. The location and how they draw on a local scene makes the experience of being there distinctive.   There’s an intriguing piece here about academic researchers working with festivals – the video’s worth a look.  Bristol’s festival is shaped by the sheer fun of being in the Colston Hall for the weekend, crammed in with thousands of others and the roster of mainly local bands playing on the free stage – ticketed programmed optional!  Brecon is defined by its location, the way the festival inhabits the whole town and a programme with plenty of  dynamic Welsh scene threaded through it (happily the drinkers in the streets, propped up against a mountain of lager gradually dissolving into stupor and raucousness seem  to be no longer a feature!).  Love Supreme has the boutique, jazz festival in field market cornered. No-one would call Nile Rogers and Chic jazz (would they?), but reeling out of GoGo Penguin, via Troyka to dance to Chic, before soaking up Terence Blanchard was quiet a ride last year – blazing sunshine helped.  Vive la difference!

And so back to hometown Bath.   For many years, under the stewardship of Nod Knowles, a music festival that embraced classical, contemporary, folk, world over three weekends had an intense jazz focus but with a determinedly European flavour. Having to look most of the names up was a near guarantee, as was hearing something magical the like of which one had not imagined (anyone remember that throat singing/ alpine horn duo?!).  After a mysterious wiping of the slate clean last year, a series of gigs is back, the grand finale is Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble’s grand finale (they are ceasing to tour apparently ) in Bath Abbey.  Did I already do the loud cheers?  Brass Jaw and Stacey Kent are familiar, I confess the Canadian and Finish piano trios were not – well, good!   But look at the scope of the whole programme and reduced funding, and other priorities are clear. It’s slender. The vision  spelt out on the website is pretty exciting; I don’t see it reflected in the programme more generally.  There’s a big idea lurking there, I wonder what’s stopping it hollering from the rooftops – vive la difference?   Is it as simple as funding?

Not the Bath Festival Preview.. but jazz lives on

I have already written my lament for the changed shape of the Bath Festival programme this year.  It seems I was not the only one to notice, with my friend Tony writing an open letter to the festival director. Judging by this interview with Alisdair Nicholson, the Artistic Director, our initial impression was accurate. He either hadn’t noticed or didn’t think it was important that Bath’s festival had established an international reputation for an adventurous jazz programme that enriched the rest of the festival. Ho hum. Given his extended tenure and the lack of riots in the streets of Bath in protest, that would seem to be that – barring a twitter storm! I should correct one observation from my previous post. I asserted that there wasn’t going to be a ‘party in the City’ on the opening night. The finalised programme does include that bit of fun. Good.  But jazz lives on. I’ll be helping out at Play Jazz Weekend that weekend. A weekend workshop based in the Wiltshire Music Centre ( a mere 8 miles from the festival city). I’ll be mainly making tea and taking sandwich orders and cheering on the efforts of the punters and tutors. It’s always a great weekend and another example of someone (Rachel Kerry in this case) making something happen that enriches lots of people’s lives for no other reason than its a great thing to do (and no particular reward other than the payback of all that joyful noise). It’s in it’s 8th, wholly unsubsidised, year under Rachel’s stewardship. Bravo!

Bath Festival Jazz; thanks for the memory

May 2008. American pianist Jason Moran slides onto a darkened stage at Bath’s Pavilion. A recording is playing of Thelonius Monk tap dancing (no .. really!). Moran takes his place at the piano and starts playing Little Rootie Tootie – its the rythmn of this tune that Monk is tap dancing. Its as if he’s in the room. An extraordinary spine tingling moment that’s stayed with me. There are plenty more from the years I’ve been going to the festival  many of them surprises on a double or triple bill of performers. Gianluigi Trovesi in duo with an accordion player several years ago – I left feeling the world was a better place; A totally compelling, hear a pin drop trio gig by Abdullah Ibrahim – I nearly turned blue forgetting to breath; Andy Sheppard’s Trio Libero last year; the moment the Mingus Big Band roared in after a solo baritone started the gig with a meaty riff – I nearly burst into tears such was the emotional force of the moment.  There has always been a distinctive flavour with European musicians strongly featured and introducing me to plenty of bands and musicians I would never otherwise have heard. The festival in recent years booked plenty of American artists too, during Joanna McGregor’s tenure as Director.

Why the reminiscing? Well, as I get excited about going over to the start of Bristol’s Jazz and Blues Festival tonight, and drooling over the recently announced programme for Cheltenham Jazz, I’m ‘baffled of Bath’ over the complete absence of the the jazz and improvised music related strand of the programme in the Bath Music Festival. National treasure Norma Winstone is there on the first Saturday, but that’s it.   I don’t count myself as completely naive. Funding is tight, the festival as a whole is noticeably thinned – no opening party night for instance (ironically the webpage background has a large cheery crowd clearly enjoying gigs on previous opening nights and there are no gigs on the programme that would inspire the sort of dancing depicted!). There is still scope for choice though and clearly the programmers have chosen not to include this thread.

I’m an upbeat appreciator of what our local scene has to offer generally, so I’m moved to say thanks for all those years of delight and inspiration whilst remaining a bit baffled as to why its gone.  I’ll even miss what used to be an annual debate in the letter pages of the Chronicle as to whether what was on offer was really jazz!   And an offer: If its because the new team was somehow unaware of the rich legacy of past festivals, or they couldn’t think of how to put together an exciting jazz thread of the programme that would be attractive but not break the banks then I’d gladly help them put it together and know a few others with plenty of experience locally who would too.

Baffled of Bath

Zoe Rahman Quartet, Komedia, Bath Festival, Sunday 3rd June

Exuberant, heart-felt, life affirming; the presence and impact of Zoe Rahman’s band is what I left with yesterday afternoon.  No need to scoop up the merchandise in my case as I’ve been enjoying the  Kindred Spirits CD, but a few hardened gig goers were spotted handing over the folding stuff to their own surprise (you know who you are!).  The quality of the band and the musical territory should have been no surprise – the blending of her own Bengali/ English/ Irish cultural inheritance is well trailed and evident in the material on the CD from with much of the repertoire in the gig was drawn; arrangements of melodies by Rabindranath Tagore, traditional Irish Melodies and her own originals.  From the first rhythmic push of the  McCoy Tyner -ish left hand chords that launched  ‘Down to Earth’ and the urgent rolling entrance of Gene Calderazzo’s drums, welcomed with big grin from Zoe, the energy was through the roof. The band live and present added a whole other dimension. It wasn’t just me who leaned forward on my seat. There’s something dance like about the themes on the driving trio numbers . Modal sounding tunes with tricky rhythms and meters underneath them. It all feels totally natural and joyful. A thread through the gig was the combination of piano and drums with the propulsive bass playing of Davide Mantovani. Friday 13th, a composition by Zoe’s one time teacher Joanne Brackeen, had the bass and the left hand doubling a little figure payed against monkish phrases and a stop start scatter gun momentum gave a little window into where the jazz instincts lie, added to by the openers in the second set with more rhythmic interplay,  crashing block chords and fizzing runs from the right hand.  I wanted to hear more from the trio. Not that the sections with Idris Rahman on clarinet and tenor weren’t equally compelling. The lyrical, lament like ballads and swirling Bengali melodies took us to different places interspersed with disarmingly frank, personal and playful banter from the leader.  The whoops and shouts for more at the end were more than the usual end of gig rituals. We had all felt it.