Kinch and Siegel lead the collective storm at seventh Bristol International Jazz & Blues fest


Ousted from its Colston Hall home by the builders, the seventh Bristol International Jazz & Blues Festival relocated to the welcoming bars and venues of the Bristol University Students Union, as well as St George’s Hall. Thankfully fine spring weather meant wandering between was largely pleasant and, buoyed by some great crowd-pleasing performances, the general verdict was positive.

This year’s jazz trends would seem to be bass clarinets, vibraphones and suites, with vibraphonist Jonny Mansfield’s Elftet scoring on all three in their reprise of his ‘Armitage’ suite, setting five pieces by popular Yorkshire poet Simon. The composition fully exploited the diversity of an 11-piece line-up with adroit shifts in texture and style and George Millard’s bass clarinet and Ella Hohnen Ford’s remarkable vocals especially striking. They were preceded by Huw Warren’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ celebration of Dylan Thomas, a performance of extraordinary beauty in the suitably restrained atmosphere of St George’s. Warren’s elegant and emotional compositions ranged from the intensity of the title-piece to the jaunty calypso of ‘Organ Morgan’, with Iain Ballamy’s tenor a fine second voice to actor/singer Mark Williams.

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Prior to that Kate Westbrook (above) had opened a special programme organised by Jazz South with her Dartmoor-themed ‘Granite’ suite, scored by Mike Westbrook for jazz-rock sextet. Kate’s vocal trademarks were there – growling and howling one moment, stately declamations the next, while the jazz-rock music battled with sound issues to jump through Hendrix-flavoured metal to Weillian cabaret and free-jazz blowing. It was a blast from the past, as was Soft Machine’s much anticipated appearance, which clearly did not disappoint a largely veteran audience happily reliving the days of ponderous prog riffs, thunderous drum fills and bedazzling guitar fretwork.

Arguably the contemporary blending of modern dance music technology with jazz has parallels with that 1970s urge to fusion and the current style was exemplified by Bristol-based project Phantom Ensemble. Wrapping threads of electronic beats and samples in layers of acoustic flute, sax and vibraphone the quartet created ear-catching looping ambient jazz. Elements of a similar approach ran through ‘Redefining Element 78’, an electro-acoustic suite commissioned by the festival from pianist Rebecca Nash and performed by her group Atlas. This ambitious project relied on a balance between carefully written passages and inspired solo contributions, including those of guest saxophonist John O’Gallagher and Rebecca herself, elaborating the themes and variations that gave the piece its impressive unity.

But the doyen of contemporary fusion jazz has to be Soweto Kinch (above top), whose alto sax stormed through a set of laptop-enhanced tunes on hip-hop inspired beats from Nick Jurd on bass and Will Glaser’s drums. Despite the torrential approach there was a clear melodic logic to his playing, which was as imaginative as it was flamboyant, and the audience quickly bought into his subsequent call-and-response rapping thanks to the man’s amiable persuasion. His was an upbeat finale to a satisfying weekend, but the abiding memory would prove to be that of Julian Siegel’s quartet with Liam Noble’s piano, Oli Hayhurst on bass and Gene Calderazzo drumming. In their tenth year this is a collective of equals and from full-tilt opener ‘The Opener’ to the percussive snap of closing favourite ‘Room 518’ they played their individual socks off without ever getting in each others’ way. The bandleader, however, was exactly that and his authoritative tenor glided definitively through each number with, sadly, only one excursion for his bass clarinet: a treat that deserved second helpings.

Tony Benjamin