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"Bristol keeps on coming up with things I really want to hear": The Jazz Scene in Bristol

In anticipation of the first Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival, Jon Turney writes about who and what give the particular character and vibe to Bristol’s jazz scene:

Bristol’s first international Jazz and Blues Festival (March 1-3) is going to span an impressive range of music over two-and-a-bit days. Also impressive, I think, is the number of sets on offer from musicians based in and around the city. In various combinations, they make up more than a dozen different bands who will be fitting in sets in the Colston Hall’s splendid new landmark foyer as well as in the main concert spaces.

What makes for a thriving jazz scene like this? I’ve wondered since I fetched up in Bristol from London a bit over five years ago. OK, I knew that there was jazz outside the capital, in theory. But I was worried there wouldn’t be enough good stuff. Surely, just as US jazz players gravitate toward New York, the good ones in the UK make the trek to London?

I quickly learnt it ain’t so. Bristol keeps on coming up with things I really want to hear. I should have expected that in a city of nearly half a million. But perhaps there’s more to it than that. I’ve a strong impression there’s as much going on here as in much bigger conurbations like Birmingham or Manchester. Is it something in the water? No, growing a nicely working jazz scene seems to need something like this:

– A pool of good musicians. But not too many. When everyone knows everyone else, new combinations arise naturally. That’s always happened in jazz, and you can see it happening here all the time. So Dan Moore plays with Andy Sheppard’s trio for local pub gigs, The Pushy Doctors, with young alto sax star James Morton in Pork Chop, as well as joining singer Yolanda Quartey in country/soul fusion outfit Phantom Limb. The Festival’s artistic director Denny Illet also plays funk with Morton, pops up again in jazz/cabaret outfit Moscow Drug Club, and has his own trio. Trumpeter Pete Judge is half the horn section in avant rock/jazz favourites Get the Blessing, but can also be heard playing wistfully beautiful acoustic tunes (and lots of other instruments) in Three Cane Whale in the free-spirited duo with drummer Pete Wigens, Eyebrow,and weaving dancing lines into the horn tapestry of Dakhla.

– Reliable rhythm sections. Bassists, pianists, drummers get to play with more people on the whole, so a few key players make a huge contribution to keeping a scene ticking over. Many bands rely on the drum skills of Mark Whitlam, and the keys of the country’s best undiscovered piano player, Jim Blomfield. Bass player about town Will Harris is probably the busiest of all, playing in two or three bands alongside Emily Wright, appearing regularly with trumpeter Andy Hague’s quintet, and popping up with any number of bands at the weekly sessions at the bebop club down in Hotwells. Which brings us to…

– Organisers. Andy Hague, as well as leading a long-running, all-star boppish quintet has run the bebop club for many years, and frequently convenes ad hoc ensembles to play new arrangements he has worked up from the many jazz composers whose work he loves and knows inside out. Jim Barr, bassist with Get the Blessing and the (slightly more famous) Portishead has his own studio, which helps get recordings organised, too.

– Venues, and plenty of them. A few have gone on long enough to be heard of out of town, like the aforementioned bebop club at the Bear in Hotwells or the Old Duke in the city centre. But there is hardly a pub, bar or café that hasn’t tried the odd jazz night. I’ve seen good music in at least eight venues I can walk to from my house. There’s certainly no lack of places to try out your new band on a live audience.

– Regular new blood. Infusion in Bristol comes on occasion from Dartington in Devon, and from an excellent jazz course at the Royal Welsh College of Music across the Severn in Cardiff. Some Bristolians like up and coming vocalist Emily Wright (Moonlight Saving Time) finish their musical education there. Other players, like recent Cardiff graduate Dan Messore shift to Bristol because it means they can still keep links forged in Wales, play around the South West, but also make a date in London when they come up. Because…

– It’s not London, but not so far away. Plenty of Bristolians stay in close touch with the local scene while studying in London (young sax exponents James Gardiner-Bateman and Josh Arcoleo come to mind). Others, like the superbly gifted trumpeter Nick Malcolm take the London plunge but keep coming back here to play (in Moonlight Saving Time again).

– Mentors. As well as the newcomers, a healthy scene needs its inspiring elders. Bristol, of course, has one bona-fide international jazz star in Andy Sheppard, who plays regularly in the city when not on tour. He has taken a close interest in James Morton’s career. Josh Arcoleo got his early tips from Frome resident and sax legend Pee Wee Ellis. It’s another fine jazz tradition. You learn from more experienced players: you pass it on. Iain Ballamy, Jason Rebello, and the great Keith Tippett all live in the South West as well.

– Add all that up, and stir in a little Kevin Figes (saxes), guitarists Jerry Crozier-Cole and Adrian Utley, and keyboard player Mike Willox (a London refugee, plays with everyone),and you account for a very healthy proportion of the festival. That’s a pretty healthy scene.

– Oh, and it needs one more thing: someone to tell everyone what all these people are up to that’s good, and where to find them playing. That would be Tony Benjamin, Festival trustee, jazz reviewer for the former Venue magazine, and now for theVenue website and the Bristol Post. Tony had a fine 60th birthday party a couple of months back. Who turned out to play? Just Moonlight Saving Time. And Smith and Willox. And Sheelanagig. And Get the Blessing. And an 11-piece Afro-Jazz big band to finish. It was the best possible showcase for a city bursting with jazz talent. All it lacked was an after hours jam session. But the Festival is putting that right, with three of them running after the main evening gigs. I’ll be there, hoping to spot the our best local players discovering the germ of a new idea, or a new band, somewhere Round about midnight…

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