Festival Report: 2014 Norwich Jazz Party

Dan Barrett. Norwich Jazz Party.
Photo credit: Bruce Lindsay

Norwich Jazz Party
(Dunston Hall Hotel, Norwich. May 3rd-5th 2014. Festival Report by Alison Kerr)

In recent years, the Norwich Jazz Party has emerged as the only event that’s effectively a three-line whip for fans of swinging mainstream and classic jazz. Thirty of the best jazz musicians on the international scene – many of whom are only to be heard in Britain at this event every year – descend on a Norwich hotel – this year, for the first time, it was Dunston Hall – for three days of almost continuous music-making.

The jazz party format is not ideal – jazz fatigue can set in pretty quickly for the punter who doesn’t leave his or her allocated seat for more than two consecutive sets – but given how few opportunities there are these days to hear the likes of Bob Wilber, Jon-Erik Kellso and Ken Peplowski anywhere in Britain, it’s little wonder that folk stay glued to their chairs for hours on end, desperately trying to absorb as many potential highlights as possible – so they can drip-feed themselves the memories over the months to come.

Many of the most easily absorbable highlights of the 2014 party came in the form of relaxed quintet, sextet and septet line-ups which were a joy to listen to – and represent precisely what you can get in Norwich, and nowhere else these days: world-class, laid-back, swinging small group jazz where every number was like a musical conversation among equals – rather than one headliner and a rhythm section.

It worked beautifully on a Sunday lunchtime set led by Bob Wilber (which just meant that he chose the tunes and made the announcements) who may have forgotten the names of all of his band members but who has – incredibly, given that he is now 86 – lost none of his style or majesty on the soprano sax or clarinet. His playing was as commanding as ever, and was perfectly complemented by Duke Heitger’s trumpet whose stillness and stateliness offset Wilber’s apparently boundless musical energy.

Swing That Music, their closing number, was a masterclass in joyful, swinging, lyrical small group jazz: Wilber solo’d while pianist Ehud Asherie, guitarist Jacob Fischer and Heitger spontaneously riffed in unison behind him; Fischer played a dynamic solo that brought to mind absent Norwich favourite Marty Grosz and the whole thing culminated in an exhilarating climax.

The same spirit was evident in a gorgeous septet set headed, later on Sunday, by trombonist Dan Barrett in the company of – among others – Enrico Tomasso (trumpet), Aurelie Tropez (clarinet), Scott Robinson (assorted saxes). Highlights included ‘Deed I Do, slowed-down to “a more meaningful” tempo, which featured an exquisite opening – just Barrett and Robinson (on tenor) harmonising softly on the melody. Barrett’s duet with the elegant pianist Rossano Sportiello on the tender ballad Love Lies was a thing of such poignant beauty that Robinson moved to end the night there and then, and audience members were still enthusing about it well into the wee hours.

Jon-Erik Kellso. Norwich Jazz Party.
Photo credit: Bruce Lindsay

Among Monday’s small group stand-outs were a quintet set led by Jon-Erik Kellso (above). It may have included some of the oldest tunes in the jazz repertoire but they were brought thrillingly to life by the classy line-up of Kellso (one of the most lyrical of trumpeters), Scott Robinson, Jacob Fischer, Ehud Asherie and bassist Alec Dankworth. A Basie-themed set towards the close of party play found a similar small group line-up but with tenor titan Scott Hamilton adding muscle to the mix.

  At the other end of the musical spectrum, in terms of how it was put together and the size of the line-up, was a terrific Sunday evening gig by an all-star cast billed as “The International Concert Jazz Band”, and led by saxophonist Robert Fowler who had already made an impressive Norwich debut earlier in the day on a Zoot’n’Al themed set alongside formidably eloquent tenor and baritone star Karen Sharp.

Fowler was on baritone and in Mulligan mode for the Concert Jazz Band which dished up a series of cracking performances of numbers penned by the great Gerry Mulligan, or associated with him. The musicians may have only got together that day to go through the material, but it worked a treat: just the right balance of preparation and spontaneity. And the ensemble playing was taut and thrilling.

Jacob Fischer. Norwich Jazz Party.
Photo credit: Bruce Lindsay

While that set was exceptional in that it ran 75 minutes, the norm was for performances to last between 25 and 50 minutes. This didn’t suit everyone. A fabulous duo set by guitarists Jacob Fischer (above) and Howard Alden lasted just three tunes and came to an abrupt end just as it seemed the musical relationship was taking flight, on the Django Reinhardt number Douce Ambience.

The laid-back Scott Hamilton only really got going on the last number of his Sunday afternoon trio set: a rip-roaring Running Wild seemed to ignite him and he exploded out of second gear, with drummer Chuck Riggs and Rossano Sportiello – whose fingerbusting stride solo prompted the first audience whoops of the day – also in the driving seat.

However, for Rossano Sportiello, playing solo, 25 minutes is perfect. Stepping onstage later on Sunday, he informed the audience that he doesn’t plan what he’ll play when he’s playing alone; he just goes where the mood takes him. And, he added charmingly, don’t ask him afterwards what he played; he will not necessarily remember. His musical meanderings led him into a slow and gorgeous Don’t Blame Me, through an electrifying, high-speed Handful of Keys on which his nimble fingers were a cartoon blur. A Chopin piece segued naturally into Bernstein’s Lucky to Be Me, played for an audience bedazzled into silence.

Houston Person. Norwich Jazz Party.
Photo credit: Bruce Lindsay

Veteran tenor saxophonist Houston Person (above), undoubtedly one of the most popular musicians with the Norwich audience, stands out at the party not only for his sartorial prowess, but also because he is the only soloist who doesn’t play musical chairs with the other musicians. He played a daily set with his ace British trio (pianist John Pearce, either Dave Green or Andy Cleyndert on bass, and drummer Steve Brown), saving the best for last with a Monday night outing that included a ravishing take on Fools Rush In and a raunchy blues. 

He also proved to be a useful comedy foil for clarinetist, saxophonist and compulsive wisecracker Ken Peplowski who shouted to the purple-suited Person: “We have a request from the audience. Can you turn the suit down to ‘stunned’?!”   The spirit of camaraderie, the banter and the familiarity with the personalities of the musicians who regularly attend are all part of the Norwich appeal. It’s like a family reunion – albeit of family that’s a bit top-heavy in the geriatric department. The family feel was summed up by a delightful set thoughtfully prepared and led by Ken Peplowski and dedicated to Tony Bracegirdle, a Derby-based trombonist whose band accompanied many American jazz stars over the years and who was celebrating his 90th birthday.

That said, if it weren’t for some of the more senior musicians on the Norwich bill, there might not be the same sense of history and tradition. It’s not often, these days, you hear someone playing I Want a Little Girl in a Basie-style band and know that he (Scott Hamilton) recorded it with one of the saxophonists from the original Basie recording .. Or that you hear someone say “God bless him” about Louis Armstrong, and know that the person saying it – in this case Bob Wilber – actually knew him. And that is worth a bout of jazz fatigue in any fan’s book….

Alison Kerr covered the 2012 Norwich Jazz Party on her Jazz Matters blog

Categories: miscellaneous

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