(Here is Patrick Hadfield’s Gateshead Festival Round-up. Photo by Mark Savage)
Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA is an orchestra that crosses boundaries and fuses musical genres . Featuring a cohortof top British jazz musicians – Zoe Rahman (piano), Roger Beaujolais (vibes), Denys Baptiste (alto sax), Jason Yarde (soprano sax), Larry Stabbins (tenor sax) and Nathaniel Facey (alto) among others – Dammers has created a strange but powerful creature to celebrate the music he loves: a combination of free jazz from Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane, bass-heavy reggae and Dammers’ own tunes. These date back to his time with the Specials.
There was a somewhat apocalyptic quality to the visuals. The band wears Egyptian and African masks and regalia and arrives on stage to singer-rapper Anthony Joseph ’s rhythmic chant of “It’s after the end of the world!. The band were largely anonymous and unrecognisable behind dark glasses. They turned “Ghost Town” into a powerful rallying call against environmental catastrophe – “this world is turning to a ghost world…”
Someone shouted out, “Can we dance?”, and Dammers replied, “If you can dance, you can dance… But it’s in 5/4, so you’ll need two and a half feet!” Unfortunately it was a fully seated auditorium – packed, so there wasn’t much space for dancing. There was a lot of humour – they played the theme from the Batman tv series (apparently a regular of Sun Ra’s set) – and compassion: there was a moving song written by Dammers about the death of one of his parents.
The band played exceptionally – they were tight when they needed to be (no mean feat with 18 or so musicians) – but they stretched on the free sections, roaming the outer reaches of the musical solar system.The band finished with Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place”, a long work out ending with the band leaving the stage as they had come on, walking out through the audience into the atrium – where they continued playing for another fifteen minutes.
Apocalyptic, maverick, perhaps. But also a joyous, life-affirming celebration.
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Saturday afternoon saw a set by Dan Berglund’s new band, Tonbruket. Bassist Berglund has bravely – and wisely – moved in a very different direction for his first band after EST. But it has not settled on one cohesive vision yet. It will be interesting to see how they develop.( See also Philip Gowman’s review for LondonJazz)
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I spent Saturday evening in the company of Jason Yarde and the Voice of the North Jazz Orchestra. Hearing him playing his own music was a real treat. The set started with a series of arrangements by Yarde, featuring his soprano and alto playing. Yarde coaxed great performances from the band, occasionally conducting the band using his soprano as a baton.
His music contains dynamic contrasts and doesn’t spare the orchestra. His suite “Four Letter Words For Four Letters Heard” was given a premiere. Yarde didn’t play on this, but his direction had a superb improvisatory feel- he appeared to be changing the format, bringing in players in response to what he was hearing.Yarde brings fascinating textures to the writing, and also incorporates asymmetric hiphop rhythms, ably supplied by the rhythm section – notably by the imposing bass player.
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Sunday was Scottish day at the Sage. First up was a multi-media event featuring the Stu Brown Sextet playing the music of Raymond Scott. I was very glad I went. Scott (1908-1994) was a composer whose work spanned much of the 20th century. Not strictly jazz – he clearly believed that musicians should play what was written rather improvise – his music incorporated various jazz themes and techniques.
His music had a cinematic quality to it, and many of his tunes were picked up by Hollywood. For many years, his tunes were used as the incidental music behind Warner Brothers cartoons. His titles have a cartoon, surreal quality – “War Dance for Wooden Indians”, “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House”, “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals”, “Square Dance for Eight Egyptian Mummies” – but whilst they have a narrative drive, they weren’t written for movies, only later being picked up by Warner Bros.
This concert featured excerpts from a new documentary about Scott (which will premier in full at the Sensoria Festival Sheffield in April) and new animation set to his music.
The sextet played these complicated tunes vigorously; there is humour in the music, and plenty of tempo changes and curious sound effects. The first part of the concert featured Scott’s tunes in their original, strict arrangements, the second a suite of new arrangements, including improvisation, by members of the band. I thought the first part worked better: Scott clearly knew how to communicate through music. The new material was getting its first airing, so perhaps the band will ease into it.
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The weekend’s finale was the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. SNJO was established by Tommy Smith fifteen years ago to play pieces taken from throughout the jazz reparatory; in the past they have tackled Ellington, Mingus, Miles Davis and Gil Evans, amongst others.
The first half of the gig featured Smith’s new orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue. Smith has extended the piece, keeping the main themes but emphasising the jazz – and blue – nature of Gershwin’s writing. The piece lasted over an hour, but after the surprise of hearing the new structure overlaid on a piece so familiar, the excitement of hearing the band took over. Featuring Brian Kellock on piano, Rhapsody in Blue took off and flew: Smith and Kellock’s reinvention for jazz orchestra of Gershwin’s concept was superb.
SNJO’s second set featured the music of Buddy Rich, and so the spotlight fell on Alyn Cosker, who showed himself to be a powerhouse drummer. The horns were great, the trumpets – notably Ryan Quigley and Tom McNiven – finding the high notes and the saxes roaring along with some great solos by Smith and Konrad Wizsniewski on tenor and Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow on altos. Cosker took several short solos, and it fell to him to have the last solo of the set with an extended workout during a suite from West Side Story.
The band came back on for an encore, a segment of Torah, a suite written by Smith for Joe Lovano, in which Smith took the lead. The full house at the start of the concert had dwindled, but those stayed were richly rewarded.
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The Gateshead International Jazz Festival at the Sage makes an excellent weekend and the Sage does a great job at accommodating the large numbers of people there. The imaginative programming spans lots of different interests There were many free performances by lesser known and youth performers in the large atrium space. With the Sage as the focal point, the festival has a sense of unity and community. They, and I, crammed a lot into three days.