Plus ça change, plus c'ést la même chose. That's just a fancy way of saying that the new regime running this popular festival [formerly known as 'Jazz On A Winter's Weekend'] stayed close to the template established over its previous dozen outings by organiser Geoff Mathews. His successor, Neil Hughes runs the Cinnamon Club in leafy Altrincham and clearly knows his way around the music scene, jazz included.
His first programme added an extra concert by The Weave on the night before the festival proper got underway, a gala dinner [with Liane Carroll to entertain] midway through and introduced a generally sharper, brighter look to the programme brochure, website and booking arrangements And it must be said, a marginally less challenging line-up of attractions: twelve in all. The result? A number of SRO concerts and a well-populated hotel throughout the weekend, the music mix apparently suiting both hard-core fans and casual weekenders alike.
The young trombonist Rory Ingham's Jam Experiment were Friday's opener, their set hampered by sound distortion [the only time this happened], reed and EWI man Alexander Bone assertive, the lines complex and at times, difficult to distinguish. Bad luck on them. No such caveats for vocalists Emma Holcroft and headliner Clare Teal (top), accompanied by the Swingtime Big Band. Teal offered us her inner Ella and how well she did it, swooping in and out of the melodic line with aplomb, the band nailing these Nelson Riddle and Billy May charts. Tight section playing: decent solos. Good for them. And Clare. The Australian trio Trichotomy invoked the lamented EST in their mesmeric, minimalist patterns and clever interplay. They also divided opinion.
When Seamus Blake (above) took the stand at 11.00am on Saturday, he confessed the last time he'd played at such an ungodly hour it had been after staying up all night. That said, his tenor work here was simply magnificent, thoughtful, ordered and muscular. His UK compatriots Ross Stanley on organ and drummer James Maddren can have hardly ever played better. The trio's version of 'God Only Knows' was elegiac, ecclesiastical almost, and wholly memorable. A stunning set. Less so for me, The Train & The River with trombonist Jeremy Price, reedman Andy Panayi and guitarist Jez Franks recreating Giuffre's music, which seemed merely pallid by comparison. Derek Nash, he of all the saxophones, will have never contemplated 'pallidity' for he's a bundle of creative energy, his acoustic quartet in almost delirious form, pianist Dave Newton finding every quirky response you [or he] could imagine, with bassist Geoff Gascoyne and drummer Clark Tracey like blood brothers in swing.
Southport usually offers a discovery or two: this time it was French trumpeter Fabien Mary with his quartet. The dapper-looking Mary plays pristine bebop trumpet, his long lines and unhurried phrasing doubtless influenced by Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell but carried off with a kind of calm assurance that allows the full measure of each song to be explored and recast. His guitarist Hugo Lippi was similarly impressive.
Young singer Ben Cox kicked off Sunday's sessions, his cheerful persona and engaging vocal stance somewhere between Harry Connick and Curtis Stigers, is utterly engaging. Great band too, with pianist Jamie Safir the standout. The afore-mentioned Price, the Birmingham Conservatoire's head of jazz, fronted their new Ellington Orchestra, concentrating first on 1940s material before tackling the 1966 Far East Suite in its entirety, with star pianist John Turville invited to handle Duke's piano passages. Daunting perhaps but here accomplished with élan and authenticity. Names to watch: clarinetist Samantha Wright, trombonist Josh Tagg, and stalwart bassist Josh Taylor among others. Festival favourite Alan Barnes (above) is a Southport regular, this time appearing with a classy octet plundering selections from his many suites. For my money, the latest, written for the Grimsby Fishing industry, produced some of the most memorable melodic twists and turns. Late on, the North's finest, guitarist Mike Walker and tenorist Iain Dixon produced a bustling set, bassist Steve Watts and drummer Steve Brown business-like in support, they deserved an earlier slot. Next year's dates: 1-4 February 2018. Note them now.
– Peter Vacher
– Photos by Robert Burns