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
The performance area at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester is like a small Roman amphitheatre. Many people would be intimidated by this intimate arena but Julia Biel's signature big boots seemed to be the grounding influence that allowed her to open up to vulnerability and not cave in.
Gladiator style, they took her from the grand piano to the electric guitar and back several times. She was joined by clarinettist, saxophonist and co- producer of her newest album Love Letters and Other Missiles, Idris Rahman on bass. Patrick Illingworth (who also plays in the jazz and roots band Soothsayers, founded by Idris and whose lead vocalist is also Biel) was on the drums. Their already established rapport was evident during the instrumental section of 'We Watch the Stars', where they relaxed and played off one another. Her lyrics were elevated by a voice that could make DIY shelf assembly instructions sound emotional. There was a Nina Simone flavour to the lower registers, which had a breathy reed-like quality. This could be heard in ballads like 'When the Sun Goes In' and 'Nobody Loves You Like I Do', whose melodies had surprising and beautiful twists.
When playing a funked-up version of Nina Simone's 'Feeling Good', however, her voice was distinctly hers. Her upper register was more focused and trumpet-like with textures in between. A former Perrier Jazz Vocalist of the Year winner, she is versatile enough to incorporate other styles of music into her songs like the happy-go-poppy 'Emily'. The repetition of a good phrase like in 'Wasting Breath' worked really well. As a stripped back trio, the harmonies for this song had to come from somewhere, and as a charming surprise, Illingworth made his debut as a backing singer, with bassist Idris joining in too.
– Tina Blower (story and photo)
Manhattan's New School Of Jazz was set up to nurture the well of the jazz tradition as it springs straight from the source; in an age where jazz has increasingly sought the security of an existence on campus, New School remains one of the first and best, and the number of applicants far exceeds the available places. Brighton homeboy Dave Drake has made the journey from local jam sessions, to NYJO alumnus, to New School student, and now returns to his hometown to present a concert of solo pieces.
Sir Basil Spence's dramatic modernist architecture provides a suitably elevating backdrop; a chequerboard of rough concrete and gently glowing stained glass. The concert is entitled 'A Common Ground" and all profits are to go to the Jo Cox Memorial fund. Without waiting for the applause of the crowd of friends and supporters to die down, Dave strides across to the piano, sits and starts playing in a single motion. A tocsin of plangent chords announce a pastoral melody, like Vaughan Williams as filtered through Keith Jarrett. Dave isn't afraid of a simple, appealing tune, but also delights in unexpected shifts of rhythm and register – jagged handfuls of notes drift like petals tossed over deep still pools of bass. The next piece is more overtly rooted in the language of 20th century jazz, with a swaggering left-hand motif somewhere between art house and barrel house. Any lingering idea that the event might capsize under the weight of it's own importance is dispelled as Dave recites an affectingly artless poetic tribute to his little bro, to whom 'The Little Warrior' is dedicated. Again the minor key melody is simple and direct, but there's an angularity or awkwardness, embraced to form an essential part of his artistic character, that's extremely compelling and extirpates any trace of the saccharine. He hits the keys with a tremendous force, especially high up in the right-hand register, drawing a strident, chiming tone from the piano that's all his own. 'Guns in the Hands of Men' references the Black Lives Matter movement; a rising tide of sonorous chords against a right-hand tremolo create a dramatic effect reminiscent of Meldhau. 'Devotion' has a powerfully plaintive theme that takes flight into thrilling cascades of 16th notes, with the feeling of a spontaneous improvisation.
There's further stylistic explorations in the second set – 'Daisaku' is lyrical and swinging. 'Bucharest' has traces of Chopin and Debussy, alternating calm and dissonance to wildly romantic effect, and 'Turning Poison Into Medicine' presents garlands of melody, beautifully executed and controlled. A true internationalist, Dave presents an incongruously wide range of influences, from Soka Gakkai Buddhism to Rudyard Kipling via a recitation of 'If', to a tribute to the late Doudou N'Diaye Rose that attempts to capture some of the rolling polyrhythms of West Africa, before finishing with a rollicking stride piece for an encore, yet the strength of his personal vision ties them together into a compelling whole. There's a powerful sense of his need to communicate and share his musical vision in the most positive way possible, set against a backdrop of awareness of the rapidly increasing stresses and strains at work in the wider world as the 45th US President takes office. The gig is being recorded; an album should be forthcoming before long so watch out for it.
– Eddie Myer
– Photo by Lisa Womsley
Dave Morecroft patrolled the Vortex in a military tunic and a scary clown mask, complete with fluorescent spiky hair, dishing out mince pies baked freshly that afternoon by bassist Arthur O'Hara. Raphael Clarkson brewed discordant trombone textures lathered in effects, duelling Harry Pope's break-neck drumming. The second evening of the WorldService Project's two-night Christmas residency was in full flow.
Performing tracks from For King & Country, released earlier this year, the quintet opened with 'Flick the Beanstalk', in which anthemic choruses were interrupted by twee skipping horn lines. But it wasn't just bluster and circus tricks: metric hocus-pocus came as standard and razor-sharp unison stabs punctuated what would have otherwise seemed like unbridled mayhem. Morecroft was chief architect of this organised chaos, providing chromatic hooks and cluster chords on his keyboard, and breaking into high-tenor melody vocalisations.
Tim Ower was unstoppable on sax – roasting through some astonishing solo work – but the heart of the action came from Pope's incandescent drumming and the bass playing of O'Hara. WSP were playing stadium-sized punk-jazz, barely contained within the walls of the venue. In 'Small Town Girl' from 2013's Fire in a Pet Shop, Morecroft donned a keytar and strode into the centre of the stage; a cross between Herbie Hancock and a tormented jazz incarnation of Slash.
Elsewhere, 'Go Down Ho'ses' had a carnival melody which clung desperately to its cavorting drum and bass accompaniment, and 'Fuming Duck' employed all the punch of heavy metal, but with joyously complex harmony and meter. Appropriately, for a group dressed in various forms of service uniform, the set ended with 'Barmy Army' – an unhinged electro-swing number, which began with marching band snare drum, before lolloping into an incendiary polka.
– Jonathan Carvell
"It's the end of a long, emotional journey," pianist and bandleader Maria Chiara Argirò tells the Vortex crowd at the launch of her debut album. But at this journey's end there's real reason to celebrate; The Fall Dance is an astonishing achievement. Her beautiful collection of original compositions ranges from the touchingly simple to the boldly cinematic and has been realised with help of a perfectly formed crew of five other talented young musicians – guitarist Tal Janes, drummer Gaspar Sena (both Middlesex graduates, like the bandleader), plus Sam Rapley on saxes and Andrea Di Biase on double bass. These London jazzers, with a notable Italian connection, make up the more familiar Maria Chiara Argiro Quintet. For this album and its release party, however, we are also treated to the singular voice of Paris-based Leïla Martial.
Diving into the thick of it, Argiro opens the evening with 'Dream R', an intoxicating scream at the world and the frustrating reality of politics in her home city of Rome. Its wonky lyrical rhythms and tolling bells provide fertile ground for some fine opening solos from Raply and Janes. Sadly, technical hitches in the opening minutes throw the team off balance. But their flow returns with a soulful free rhythm medley – a meditation on the question 'what is family?', which earned some almighty applause.
Later highlights included some feverishly cool soloing from Martial on 'Every Now & Then', a new piece overlaid with (occasionally hard to hear) Hungarian poetry and a climactic performance of the album's title-track that displayed just how successfully the group have managed to balance composition, orchestration and individual voice. Indeed, Di Biase explained these arrangements were reworked over the course of several years.
The group has impressive sonic range, from noisy warmongering to asymmetric rhythms to seductive folksy melody. Furthermore it feels natural and unshowy, especially in this live setting. The appeal is immediate and perhaps explains why some have been quick to state how their music has true crossover appeal. In terms of virtuosity there were very few moments of extravagance, but their strength is that such flamboyance often seems unnecessary.
The journey complete and, after a brief moment of concern, Maria Chiara relocates her glasses atop the Steinway. The packed upstairs room of the Vortex swims back into view, reality reasserted. Her smile and the crowd's standing ovation acknowledge the dreamy distance we've covered tonight.
– Tommie Black-Roff