Oxford Jazz Festival Round-up

This is Alyn Shipton’s round-up of the Oxford Jazz Festival.

The organisers of Oxford’s second jazz festival put on concerts in 21 venues, spread over the entire city and environs, for a period of five days. There were clubs, restaurants and pubs hosting jazz, some as part of regular music programmes, and others persuaded by the triumvirate of Max Mason, Alissa Robinson and Paul Jefferies into trying something new. A big coup was to transform the restaurant of the recently revamped Ashmolean Museum into a basement jazz club, and to present a concert in the 17th century splendour of the Bodleian library. As Adam Waldmann said, opening his gig there with the Kairos 4tet (photo above), when he’d been a teenager in Oxford, he hadn’t spent much time in libraries, so this was quite a novel experience for him.

The band’s recent album Kairos Moment has deservedly garnered praise from many quarters. Waldmann’s compositions, nattily crafted out of the slenderest melodic fragments, and worked on in a predominantly modal framework, offer plenty to reward a listener prepared to spend time on the disc. Cleverly worked out contrasts of volume and density are a hallmark of the group’s style. But in the lively, resonant acoustic of the Convocation House at the Bodleian, the soprano sax echoing from the fan vaulting of the ceiling and the clatter of Jon Scott ‘s drums ricocheting from the panelled woodwork below, that sense of contrast was missing. Everything settled into a similar texture, except when Jesper Høiby stepped forward for some bass solos and the rhythm section dropped back to give him some space.

The quartet was at its best on “Calling” a new piece by Waldmann, where after an attractive little opening melody the bass and tenor sax began a duet, the pulse behind them being felt rather than explicitly stated, and the drums reacting to events rather than dictating them. When this gave way to a long modal piano solo from Ivo Neame, any amount of technique couldn’t replace the charming interplay of two musicians interacting spontaneously. This apart, the set seemed rather cold and distant, and it took the harmonic variety of the encore to bring back a little warmth and human contact.

By contrast Dave O’Higgins ‘ set with Flight of Hand, a new band put together by local guitarist Pete Oxley, with the rhythm section from the city’s Spin jazz club, plus organist Mike Gorman, had plenty of heat. The band’s strong suit was vintage 80s fusion, and Bob Berg’s “Friday Night at the Cadillac”, Pat Metheny’s “Farmer’s Trust” and Mike Brecker’s “Inside Out” got the full treatment, with slick riffs and whipcrack rhythm backing. O’Higgins took brisk, well-crafted solos on soprano and tenor, and he knew when to step back from the limelight. Playing in the North Wall arts centre, a pocket sized theatre built out of an old Victorian swimming bath, his fellow band members were not so well disciplined. As Al Grey reminded listeners on last week’s Radio 3 “Jazz Library” Basie used to put up a finger if a soloist went on longer than two choruses, on the grounds that if you had anything to say, it ought to be said in that amount of time. This was a lesson that Gorman in particular would do well to heed, his one handed solos taking several choruses to say very little indeed. That said, the band played well as a unit, and gave O’Higgins just the right amount of support for him to shine, especially when Oxley’s guitar stepped up the heat behind him.

Alyn Shipton presents Jazz Library. This Saturday the subject is Gil Evans, with guest John L Walters

Categories: miscellaneous

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