Dennis Rollins and Courtney Pine crown glorious Glasgow Jazz Fest

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Last year’s Glasgow Jazz Festival finished with a desolately sad Bobby Wellins filling the Sunday slot he was meant to headline with Stan Tracey, who had cancelled that morning, the cancer which would kill him, we now know, just beginning to bite. This year by contrast felt like a celebration of jazz’s bright variety, from Courtney Pine to Evan Parker.

The Neil Cowley Trio showcased their Touch and Flee album months in advance of their UK tour to a large crowd, amidst the Victorian ironwork of City Halls’ atmospheric Old Fruitmarket. Though Touch and Flee tunes allowed moments of reflection, the Trio remain a mighty rhythm section, with complexities left simmering on the edges of regular, nimbly thunderous riffs. Berserker-bearded bassist Rex Horan wrung his hands more than once, as Cowley drove his ring-rusty men to their limit. ‘She Flies’ Indian-style drumming began an especially slow build, settling into faint splashes of sound, before Cowley’s jarringly unbalanced solo, like someone limping awkwardly on one gammy leg, levitated him from his seat with its blistering energy, Evan Jenkins responding with a silvery blur of drums.

A frustratingly packed Thursday bill required running from Cowley to catch Sons of Kemet’s finish in the underground, pop-up Rio club, where Shabaka Hutchings’ clarinet and Theon Cross’ tuba conducted a softly intimate dialogue. The night’s late-night Rio jam saw straight hard bop of increasing quality from pianist Steve Hamilton, trumpeter Tom MacNiven and trombonists Phil O’Malley and Kevin Garrity, which Kemet drummer Seb Rochford sat in on with surprising pleasure. Never breaking the straight-ahead mould, he added whiplash force and facility. The wry smile, which often seems about to cross his sombrely introspective face, did so broadly, on this busman’s holiday from the cutting edge.

Thursday also saw Christine Tobin’s take on Leonard Cohen songbook, catching ‘Take This Waltz’’s Old European sadness and rapture, though the mood was handicapped by the Scottish sun surprisingly blazing through the windows. Friday also saw Glaswegian Leo Condie’s thrilling embodiment of the songs of (mostly) Brel and Brecht, his voice vaulting from a body clenched in hapless fury at extravagant injustice. Jacqui Dankworth and Todd Gordon were meanwhile singing Sinatra and Fitzgerald tunes in The Frank and Ella Show, in City Halls’ Grand Hall. Scotland’s National Swing Orchestra were equally adept at a small-group Sinatra medley as at ‘New York, New York’, while Dankworth nailed Ella’s famous scat on ‘How High the Moon’. The pensionable crowd’s deep satisfaction and the songs’ timeless verity justified the nostalgic concept.

Saturday night’s theme was Jamaica’s influence on jazz. The Dennis Rollins Velocity Trio, perhaps taken for granted on the London circuit, connected hard with a Mod-minded crowd at the Rio. ‘Symbiosis’, from their next album, was blaring soul-jazz, building excitement from an exploration of the band’s working parts, while a cover of ‘Money’ introduced Pink Floyd to the notion of the groove. Rollins’ personable style was multiplied by Courtney Pine, who noted that he’d “never been asked to represent the country of my parents’ birth before.” He played a cricketer’s forward-defensive stroke with his soprano sax, but there was no blocking here. His regular ‘Smile/Take Five’ solo exploded into steaming reggae-jazz fusion, and if shape and detail were sometimes lost in his band’s speeding streams of notes, Pine’s equally ceaseless energy and massive heart conquered the crowd. Zara McFarlane was meanwhile triumphing back at the Rio, her voice’s charismatic high cresting and low purr riding a great band. Sweaty, shaven-headed tenor sax Binker Golding’s impetuously intense, bulleting modal bursts ramped up the energy. As McFarlane was roared back for an encore, Golding had already switched gigs to Jazz Jamaica, who got a disappointingly small post-Pine, late-night crowd dancing hard.

The Tom MacNiven/Phil O’Malley Quintet, a new hard bop line-up partly glimpsed jamming earlier, were a warmly comforting way to ease into Sunday at the Tron Theatre’s dark-wooded back bar. The packed tables told of Glasgow’s taste for familiar jazz pleasures, which the festival fully caters for. But in a city poised for profound change in September, Evan Parker’s enduring radicalism also drew a crowd. In an interview preceding a solo gig and one with the Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra in his 70th year, he suggested Scotland had been independent since the Poll Tax riots. “People are more politically aware,” he said of Glaswegians in comparison to England, “and have resisted the stupidities of the current regime.” Free jazz’s values stood in stark contrast: “Mutual respect. Egalitarianism. A desire to be a social being.” There would, he wryly noted, “be an opportunity to vote for me later”.

The solo set included moments of slowed suspense, developing into car-horn attack. Sitting on the floor, something shifted in my ears as the sound-waves hit harder, while the folk feeling behind much classical music was hinted at by these rapidly improvised, sometimes indistinct solo symphonies. Parker was still going when I ran for the train. The sun was still out, and I was sated.    

– Nick Hasted