Jasper Høiby’s Fellow Creatures, Yazz Ahmed and Dinosaur among the delights at Bristol Jazz Festival

Now in its fifth year the Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival has matured well, and this year's programme managed to balance crowd-pleasing headliners and popular mainstream jazz and blues acts with a weekend's worth of well-chosen contemporary jazz action that was gratifyingly well-attended.

Andy Sheppard's specially-commissioned soundtrack for Fritz Lang's silent classic Metropolis made for an impressive opener: Sheppard's score pitted an eight-strong horn section against his own trio with guitarist Eivand Aarset and Michele Rabbia's percussion. Their adroit and imaginative use of electronics wove around strongly thematic brass parts to capture the essence of the film's themes, notably the tension between the remorseless machinery and human needs. By leaving space for individual improvisation the music, notably the guitar and saxophone, was able to mirror the emotional tides of the story while permitting the more tightly scored music to return with split-second timing. As always with soundtrack performances, the trick was to make it interesting without being unduly distracting and this was certainly achieved.

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By contrast, Jason Rebello's (above) solo piano performance was intense and intimate, drawing the listener into the physical mechanics of Herbie Hancock's richly riffing 'Canteloup Island' or Errol Garner's powerhouse stride on 'Play Piano Play'. These were rhythmically dense numbers, like his own 'Pearl', whereas his Jarretty ruminations for Sting's 'Every Little Thing' or the self-penned 'Closeness' played with the melody, savouring the possibilities of the phrasing. It was beautiful and absorbing music and all the more impressive for being played at lunchtime.

A similarly early start had bedevilled Dakhla Brass on Friday, but again this didn't hamper their performance which showcased new music from a forthcoming recording. This included 'Insomnia Sonia', a programmatic piece driven by a ticking clock, the four brass voices pulsing through the chorus and then derailing throughout the verse until a final becalming resolution. Their music was driven by contrasts – staccato/legato, tight harmony/chaotic anarchy, single time/double time – and a smart use of polyrhythmic overlay that made it a satisfyingly complex listen. After a year that took them to Montreal Jazz and the Albert Hall they have deservedly become local heroes.

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Fans of classic bebop were well rewarded by Gilad Atzmon and Alan Barnes (above) whose Lowest Common Denominator's entertaining combination of drily antagonistic banter and briskly flamboyant playing drew a capacity audience. Moving easily between a choice of reed instruments this odd couple proved highly compatible in evoking a vintage sound with fresh energy on original numbers like the appropriately titled 'Alone Together' with Gilad's torrential alto well-matched to Alan's elegiac baritone sax thanks to Frank Harrison's no-nonsense piano. More bebop treats came from former Gillespie sideman Bobby Shew's evocation of 'My Friend Dizzy' with the veteran trumpeter supported by the festival's house big band in a set of favourites that included 'Manteca' and 'Groovin' High' with the Afro-Cuban groove of 'Tin Tin Deo' providing the set's real high-point.

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There was no doubting a shift in this year's festival attendance that, gratifyingly, packed out The Lantern's programme of contemporary jazz acts as never before. This included Yazz Ahmed's (above) septet performance, atmospheric Arabian-influenced music picked out through well-judged effected trumpet and Ralph Wyld's vibes, and complex compositions like 'La Saboteuse' and 'Her Light' unfolded with spellbinding assurance. Though there was no question that it was her compositional vision that defined the music there was also a strong sense of the individual musical personalities involved, notably Dudley Philips' expressive bass and Martin France's drumming that rode effortlessly over the often-complex time signatures and rhythms.

They were followed on Sunday evening by the much-anticipated Jasper Høiby's Fellow Creatures (below), whose interestingly eclectic set had only the slightest echoes of the bassist's long-standing trio, Phronesis, and its whirlwind pyrotechnics. Instead there was a conscious deliberation about their playing, suggesting the musicians were still exploring the ideas underpinning this coming together of three generations of British jazz in Loose Tubes alumnus Mark Lockheart, Jasper himself, and the trio of young players alongside them. Numbers like 'Spirit of the Bees' subverted what could have been a carnivalesque dance with little glitches, Will Barry's suppressed piano coalescing with tinkling bells, scattered rimshots and a laughing trumpet riposte.

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The self-consciousness of the set was possibly emphasised by having seen drummer Corrie Dick and trumpeter Laura Jurd (pictured top of page) on the same stage the night before in Laura's band Dinosaur. The fluid energy and assertiveness of Dinosaur's Miles-leaning music – a fresh take on the electric jazz-rock of the 1970s – gave it a confident momentum that was exhilarating to hear. On 'Living, Breathing' the trumpet needled at the writhing Elliot Galvin's fearlessly vintage electronica until Conor Chaplin's rigorous bass suddenly locked into the unobtrusively creative drumming like an idea suddenly making sense. It was moments like that (and there were many such) that made them appreciably the highlight of a pleasingly satisfying weekend.

– Tony Benjamin
– Photos by Tim Dickeson

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