Amid the Victorian splendour of the Spa and sweeping views of the South Bay, the 2016 Scarborough Jazz Festival was jam-packed with talent, encompassing a wide variety of styles and genres, and frequented by an audience with refreshingly open ears.
The festival opened with pianist Gareth Williams and saxophonist Trish Clowes (pictured top). The pair instantly sparked off each other on Gordon Jenkins' ballad 'This is All I Ask', with Clowes' warm tenor sound filling the Spa's Grand Hall. Between the slow funky groove of Wayne Shorter's 'Aung San Suu Kyi' and standards such as 'Don't Ever Leave Me' and 'Everything I Love', came a new commission by Williams called 'Traffic Noise', with influences of minimalism and a catchy opening left-hand hook. There was also original material from Clowes in 'Pfeiffer and the Whales', taken from her Pocket Compass album. Inspired by whale watching and a visit to Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, Clowes evoked whale song with multiphonics blown over resonating piano strings, before gradually introducing a beautiful main melody.
Billed under the 'Something Different' section of the festival programme, the trio of Mark Lockheart (sax), Liam Noble (piano) and Jasper Høiby (bass), whose first name letters combine to form their band name Malija, provided one of the standout performances of the weekend. Drawing on tunes from their first album together, The Day I Had Everything, Malija opened with 'Wheels' and 'Almost a Tango', both of which had moments of uncompromising dissonance, with Noble never afraid to venture into bi-tonal waters. Appropriately enough, the highlight of the set was a tune simply called 'Malija'. Noble layered shimmering countermelodies over the delicate central theme, and there was a palpable sense that all three players were contributing and listening as equals, creating their own unique chamber music. Høiby's bass-playing was intelligent and imaginative throughout, often providing the glue that kept Lockheart and Noble together, but by no means taking a back seat and shining in particular on his solo epilogue to 'Squared'.
The Abstract Truth Big Band – a special ensemble created by saxophone power duo – Dave and Judith O'Higgins (pictured above)to celebrate the music of Oliver Nelson's iconic 1961 album – performed arrangements by Jörg Achim Keller, in which Nelson's original seven-piece scores are expanded to fit full big band forces. Original Freddie Hubbard and Eric Dolphy solos from the recording are transcribed and transformed into virtuosic tutti passages, and the themes from classics such as 'Stolen Moments' felt as if remastered in high definition 3D. The band itself had an all-star cast: Mike Lovatt's lead trumpet threatened regularly to take the roof off the Spa, Sam Mayne wowed with his alto on 'Butch and Butch', and 'Yearning' featured great solo work from Mark Nightingale on trombone and Martin Shaw on trumpet. Dave O'Higgins came to the fore on 'Hoe Down' with a full-bodied tenor sound, and drummer Sebastiaan de Krom delivered power and panache in the engine room.
Pianist Alex Webb explored Charlie Parker's mid-1940s recordings for the Dial label with a live sextet featuring Nathaniel Facey on alto and his Empirical stablemate Shaney Forbes on drums. The band played tunes made famous by Bird's iconic Dial sessions, such as 'A Night in Tunisia', 'Moose the Mooche' and 'Scrapple for the Apple', and in between numbers Webb highlighted the context of Parker's struggles with addiction and his six-month stint in the psychiatric ward of Camarillo State Hospital in 1946. Facey fared well in the unenviable task of representing Parker on stage; delivering inventive, intricately ornamented lines at blistering pace, and dispatching a beautiful cadenza at the end of 'The Gypsy'. Vimala Rowe joined on 'Dark Shadows' and 'This is Always', providing rich vocals.
Vula Viel brought cascades of polyrhythms and compound time signatures to the party. Featuring Bex Burch on the gyil (a type of Ghanaian marimba), unassuming pentatonic melodies gave way to rhythmic and metric mischief as the band's two kit players joined the fray and Dan Nicholls cultivated cavernous bass sounds and shifting 1980s synth textures. Drawing upon traditional Dagaare music, Burch and her band transformed these melodies and harmonies to produce rhythmically supercharged tunes, packed with energy and seasoned with electronica.
Elsewhere, Alan Barnes and Dave O'Higgins showcased a series of arrangements and compositions for five saxes and rhythm section. Barnes' 'Orejas de Cerdos' (Pigs Ears) had a terrific latin groove, and an arrangement of Count Basie's 'Topsy' had all five saxes roasting through a transcribed and harmonised Sonny Stitt solo.
Late on Saturday night, Steve Waterman, Mark Nightingale and Alan Barnes (above) surveyed the music of Henry Mancini, as part of a specially formed sextet. Nightingale's arrangement of 'A Shot in the Dark' was given plenty of groove by young bassist Adam King. The festival also gave a platform for the next generation with a performance in the Spa's Sun Court by the E.A.S.Y. (Eastern Area Schools Youth) Jazz Orchestra, with special guest leaders Alan Barnes and Gareth Williams – highlighting the vital role the Scarborough Area Music Centre plays for developing young musicians in North Yorkshire.
Scarborough Jazz Festival is flourishing through bold programming and a refusal to be just one thing. Bebop is as welcome here as the avant-garde, duos sit alongside big bands, and ballads from the Great American Songbook coexist with thumping new beats.
– Jon Carvell
– Photos by Mike Jackson
The E.A.S.Y Jazz Orchestra is raising funds to support young musicians in North Yorkshire www.scarboroughareamusiccentre.co.uk