Gregory Porter, Roberto Fonseca and Ibrahim Maalouf go down a Gateshead storm

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Held in one building across one weekend, Gateshead International Jazz Festival is small by UK standards, but it’s always so impressively comprehensive. Wandering between the Sage’s two concert halls, the jazz lounge and the free stage on the concourse, beneath all that rippling glass, feels like being inside some giant music-themed snow globe. It’s as if the organisers have shrunk the world’s jazz scene down to miniature, showcasing local talent and booking ensembles from the freer end of the spectrum as well as luring big names up north.

They don’t come much bigger than Gregory Porter, who headlined the opening night alongside a souped-up band that featured UK trumpeter Chris Storr and the excellent Tivon Pennicott on tenor sax. I’ve seen Porter three times now and I still can’t get over his voice. It’s just so beautiful – as warm and richly textured as vinyl – full of pops, crackles and purrs. It sounded sublime on old favourites ‘Be Good (Lion’s Song)’ and ‘Hey Laura’, with their storybook lyrics, and it made instant classics of ‘Don’t Lose Your Steam’ (a bluesy burner) and ‘Holding On’ (a smouldering ballad) from his hotly anticipated new album, Take Me To The Alley.

Roberto Fonseca was another headliner who emphatically lived up to his billing. The Cuban pianist has a long-running association with the North East. He played one of his first UK gigs at Newcastle City Hall alongside Buena Vista Social Club’s Ibrahim Ferrer in 2003 and he was one of the hardest working musicians appearing on day two, running a workshop and playing the concourse free stage on top of a virtuosic late night set in the intimate Sage Two.

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When it comes to groove, Fonseca’s trio of bassist Yandy Martinez and drummer Ramsés ‘Dynamite’ Rodriguez are on another planet. Their understanding of rhythm is so profound they seem to be able to forget about time signatures altogether, to float free of bar-lines and to go wherever they want. Their set ranged from fiery latin jazz numbers full of theatrical stops to ballads that sounded like classical nocturnes with a Caribbean twist and tunes built on skiffling breakbeats and vocal samples recorded at an Afro-Cuban Abakuá ceremony. With Fonseca pounding out montunos as he raced up and down the keys and Rodriguez obscuring the beat with jaw-dropping solos and fills, I lost the ‘one’ somewhere in the first number and didn’t find it again until well after the cheers had died down and the elated crowd had gone home.

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A performance from the Alexander Hawkins Trio, playing the music of special guest John Surman, was a far subtler affair but another highlight. A patchwork of folky themes and textural abstractions, splintered piano motifs and snuffling bari-sax lines with a wonderfully organic sense of development, it made for the most emotionally wide-ranging gig of the weekend.  

With Terence Blanchard’s hard-hitting E-Collective headlining on Saturday night and local street-beat maestros the Northern Monkey Brass Band bringing some Mardi Gras swagger to BBC Jazz Line Up’s free stage, the rest of the programme was a trumpet player’s dream.

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Ibrahim Maalouf’s Red & Black Light project made for an electrifying closing gig, enhanced by strobes and smoke machines. The heavy trance grooves, EDM hooks and audience sing-a-longs began to wear a little thin by the end, but Maalouf’s trumpet playing was never less than inspiring – particularly on ‘Goodnight Kiss’ when he stitched together hard-swinging bebop lines and snatches of baroque counterpoint with his signature Arabic maqam-style phrases, like virtuosic calls to prayer.

Final proof of Gateshead’s breadth, came via an impromptu set from pianist Liam Noble and Birmingham-based trumpeter and bassist Percy Pursglove in the jazz lounge that afternoon, following a cancellation from Airelle Besson. The duo was an inspired choice of replacement. Pursglove is easily the most exciting trumpeter in the UK at the moment and he proved as much here, counterpointing Noble’s cryptic interpretations of standards, working in sudden Kenny Wheeler-style leaps, elegant old-school phrases and arresting new sounds – chittering bird calls and drones that crackled and groaned like a hailstorm. At least, it could have been hail. Perhaps it was snow – the welcome sound of an avant garde duo giving this musical snow globe a shake.

– Thomas Rees

– Photos by John Watson