FESTIVAL ROUND-UP: 2014 Manchester Jazz Festival

Manchester Jazz Festival
(Manchester, 18-27 July 2014. Round-up by Adrian Pallant)

Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf) Artistic Director Steve Mead seems to have the annual event off to a fine art. For 2014, not only did he and his team secure some eighty or so local, national and international acts – including new finds and a new Festival commission – but also arranged the perfect weather for this ten-day musical extravaganza in the heart of Manchester city centre. With virtually wall-to-wall sunshine and soaring summer temperatures, mjf served up a gloriously eclectic celebration of the current, vibrant, ever-widening jazz scene to devotees and newcomers alike.

The strength of this now well-established event is that its main hub – Albert Square, beneath the impressive Victorian architecture of the Town Hall – is ideally placed to tap into the fascination and curiosity of city dwellers, office workers and visitors. And sure enough, weather playing its part, music lovers converged expectantly on this and several other venues across the city including Band On The Wall, RNCM, Matt & Phred’s, St. Ann’s Church and (for the first time) Soup Kitchen.

The programming featured big-name artists such as The Bad Plus (one of only two UK tour dates) and Booker T Jones, whilst also substantially affording local and upcoming musicians to present their considerable talent to enthusiastic audiences, often for only a few pounds or for free. Illustrating just that point is the BBC Introducing evening. Four under-the-radar bands (selected by a BBC panel including and compered by BBC Radio 3 Jazz on 3 presenter Jez Nelson and BBC 6 Music’s Giles Peterson) were given the opportunity to shine in front of a supportive audience, chosen by ballot (and due to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 28 July). From the North East of England, young 10-piece Brassy B (with 16-year-old sousaphone player) took to the Band On The Wall stage with a bold and accomplished set of jazz/funk/disco tunes – surely a bright future for them. Following, Manchester’s own Moss Freed delivered a strong set from the Moss Project album What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?. This eloquent guitarist and composer wove complex jazz/rock rhythms and riffs, Alice Zawadzki glittering in her dual vocal/fiddle role, and drummer Marek Dorcik and electric bassist Ruth Goller generating the band’s retro-referenced energy (Tunnel of Love rocked the place in Mahavishnuesque spirit). Next, with his trio of Max Luthert on bass and popular drummer Moses Boyd, the melodic, driven style of pianist Peter Edwards proved to be a crowd pleaser, citing influences such as Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and Ahmad Jamal. And closing, local drummer Johnny Hunter’s quartet presented his strongest line-up yet (Aaron Diaz, trumpet; Kyran Matthews, tenor sax; Seth Bennett, bass), performing a set of sparky, accessible originals.

George Crowley and Mike Chillingworth of Klammer. mjf 2014

The first full day at the Thwaites Festival Pavilion, and Rick Simpson’s sextet Klammer captivated their audience with the pianist’s through-composed pieces characterised by rapid tempo changes, melodic interest and free improvisation (great contrapuntal tenor work from George Crowley and alto Mike Chillingworth). Bassist Ryan Trebilcock and drummer Dave Hamblett provided the set’s intrinsic buoyancy, the complexity of I Like Potato – You Like Potato, Too a particular standout, Ralph Wyld exquisite on vibes. The smooth, soulful vocals of Juliet Kelly were a Saturday afternoon hit, Ben Hazleton, Eddie Hick and stand-in pianist Liam Noble illuminating her collection of literary-inspired songs such as Magic and Mystery and Little Things. Noble features in the anarchic quartet Pigfoot which followed, his esteemed colleagues (Chris Batchelor, trumpet; Oren Marshall, tuba; Paul Clarvis, drums) at least as entertaining as on their album 21st Century Acid Trad which expertly deconstructs 1920s and ‘30s standards from the likes of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Sidney Bechet. Batchelor rasped, Marshall virtually wretched into his mouthpiece, and Clarvis sat back and beamed, clearly relishing the whole performance – as did the appreciative, amused (perhaps, in some cases, bemused) crowd. Manchester favourite, composer and clarinettist Arun Ghosh, attracts a dedicated following and the evening’s performance of his A South Asian Suite was enthusiastically received. With the six players glowing in white regalia, the music took on its trance-like, tabla-driven, Bangladeshi/folk-infused mystery. Ghosh always enjoys a good rapport with his followers, introducing After the Monsoon and quipping that, following the festival’s only day of thunderous downpours, perhaps this was a case of nature imitating art (or vice versa). Sufi Stomp, its heavily-thrummed bass suggested a deep-voiced chant and Ghosh animated in its devotional transcendence (during Ramadan), brought the house down, whilst the gently pulsating Mountain Song reflected the composer’s love of British landscape as well as that of the Indian subcontinent.

Richard Iles directing the GMJO. Soloist: Alexander Bone (alto). mjf 2014

Respected trumpet player and educator, Richard Iles, presented his Greater Manchester Jazz Orchestra to an eager Sunday afternoon audience, and what a marvellously talented group of young people! Established in 2013 as part of the Greater Manchester Music Hub, the school-age players had in their ranks this year’s inaugural BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year, Alexander Bone (alto/soprano). There is a perceptible, encouraging warmth to Mr Iles’ leadership, coaxing consistent phrasing and dynamics from the orchestra as a whole, as well as staggeringly mature improvised solos. In a varied programme, taking on Miles Davis as well as Iles’ own beautifully smooth Sunday Soul, Alex Bone displayed the reason for his recent achievement with blistering solos that belied his years.

Between staged performances, mjf ensured that relaxed, sunshine-loving onlookers were entertained by roaming performances from the boisterous brassiness of Young Pilgrims and Mr Wilson’s Second Liners, their quirky, New Orleans-style brashness catching the eyes and ears of passers-by as the music was taken onto the streets and into the city’s Northern Quarter. The ambient, free soundscape of collective Twelves (Mark Hanslip, Rob Updegraff, Riaan Vosloo and Tim Giles) showed their improvisatory mastery of folk tunes such as Your Love is Like a Red, Red Rose and She Moved Through the Fair, as well as the rhythmically infectious Pentangle number, Light Flight. Scottish saxophonist Matthew Herd’s compositions based on stories, images, books, films and folklore were sumptuously realised by his band Seafarers (Kieran McLeod, trombone; Sam Rapley, tenor/clarinet; Sam Watts, piano; Tom McCredie, double bass; Scott Chapman, drums). Often dissonant/experimental in feel, and then flowingly lyrical with lush harmonies, here was an example of the positive creativity to be found in the current jazz scene. The top billing of the day went, arguably, to Soft Machine Legacy – legendary guitarist John Etheridge, drummer John Marshall and bassist Roy Babbington offering new material with saxophonist Theo Travis, plus a second half appearance from revered pianist Keith Tippett. And, recalling their ‘70s heyday, the band didn’t disappoint with spine-tingling performances of seminal favourites such as Gesolreut, Chloe and the Pirates and The Tale of Taliesin. Closed eyes would doubt Marshall was now in his seventies, the depth and power of his drumming as strong as ever, Etheridge duelling with him in breathtaking rapidity (and, on a personal note, an enormous privilege to meet the ‘prog’ pioneers of my youth, as expressed by many others I spoke to).

Manchester Jazz Festival excels in showcasing young talent via its mjf introduces strand. Trumpet player Aaron Wood (an undergraduate at RNCM) and his quartet were amongst a number of acts who were provided the opportunity to show their creative mettle. Breezing through Ellington, Steve Kuhn and Cy Coleman, as well as a few funk and ballad originals, their confidence suggested that the future of jazz is in safe hands. Adam Fairhall’s The Imaginary Delta was a 2011 Manchester Jazz Festival commission, and this year’s programming paired the same work with original poetry from Jackie Kay. Interspersing the original music – it is an impressive album – with the author’s imaginings of boarding a train with blues singer Bessie Smith provided a poignancy which was appreciated by the RNCM audience. Fairhall’s bluesy piano is a joy and, coupling poetry with this octet’s brilliance (including Corey Mwamba, James Allsopp and Chris Bridges), here was yet another premiere, and a particularly successful collaboration.

mjf introduces brought us Twisted Tubes, another in the current crop of young brass’n’percussion jazz outfits. Already finding success as a ten-piece, the assembled, raucous, ‘lite’ quintet adaptation offered their energetic arrangements of mainly classic pop hits such as Tainted Love, Sweet Dreams, Don’t You Want Me, Baby and Come On, Eileen, much to the smiling delight of the RNCM Studio Theatre gathering. The Bad Plus, from the USA, are becoming something of a jazz phenomenon. Another democratic piano trio (à la Phronesis), their gigs appear to egender a cult following (which the RNCM audience confirmed). Ethan Iverson, piano, Reid Anderson, double bass and David King, drums, strolled out to perform a tight set of mostly existing pieces – although not the anticipated performance of their interpretations of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, due to an administrative restriction from the composer’s estate. Nevertheless (some audience disappointment palpable), they embarked on a truly enthralling programme which surprised at every turn. It seems almost futile to attempt to describe this trio’s prowess, but their every move demands attention, revealing new paths and painting vivid images. Gold Prisms Incorporated, written by drummer King, was taken from their new release due in September – and with sinister, pulsing semiquavers redolent of a dramatic B-movie, the mood was on-the-edge-of seat-exciting; in contrast, Reid Anderson’s People Like You created a spacious wash of Tord Gustavsen, J S Bach and Claude Debussy, building in strength, then ebbing away to intense quietude. As an encore, they precisely dissected Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, perhaps like no other trio could. Though recognisable, Iverson led his colleagues in a rock-heavy, almost piano concerto-like reworking, leaving one with the idea that Kurt Cobain, all along, had them in mind. A truly memorable evening.

Tori Freestone, Dave Manington. mjf 2014

Tori Freestone is quietly bubbling to the surface as a profoundly creative saxophonist and composer – and with bassist Dave Manington, and Tim Giles at the drums, the tenorist showcased material mostly from her recent release, In the Chop House, inspired by her favourite Manchester pub. Beautifully-phrased improvised melodies flow incessantly from Freestone, and her enjoyment of this chordless trio is there for all to see. As a contributor to Ivo Neame’s octet album Yatra, the saxophonist has recently been recording with him again for future release on the Whirlwind label. Later, Martin Archer’s Engine Room Favourites blasted the Thursday afternoon audience with a fascinating cacophony of free improvisation, underpinned by no less than four percussionists. Extemporising predominantly on a ground, Archer and his nine colleagues saturated the air with extended pieces which clearly pleased both audience and participants.

Article XI. mjf 2014

Manchester Jazz Festival’s 2014 commission took place in the new performance space of the city’s refurbished Central Library, local composer and guitarist Anton Hunter creating his Article XI in the weeks and months leading up to the event. Having provided each of his ten chosen musicians with a motif to explore, and then receiving back their reinterpretations, Hunter crafted his hour-long suite from these, allowing much freedom in improvisation. The result was intoxicating, with brass and reed sections appearing to communicate across the central rhythm section of guitar, bass and drums. Sam Andrae’s sputtering tenor embouchure and mute popping was unreal, as were the guitar effects of the composer, and the comedic old blues mayhem of baritone and three tenors contrasted well with Fripp/Eno-like soundworlds. A triumph for creative jazz, it enjoyed a second outing just a few days later (27 July) at The Vortex, London.

The straight-ahead charm and sincerity of the Brian Molley Quartet matched a sunny Friday in Albert Square, the reed player’s fellow Scotsmen (with entrancingly extemporised piano from Tom Gibbs) taking us through a varied programme including Chance on Chan from their current album, Clock. En route to Edinburgh Jazz Festival, French quintet Papanosh made their UK debut, matching circus-like antics with inventive musicality (trumpet, trombone, saxes, keyboards, double bass and drums). Manchester’s town hall clock marks the accurate scheduling of the pavilion’s acts, and its resonant three-quarter chimes during Papanosh’s set were subtly and mischievously mimicked by the Hammond soloing of Sebastian Palis (and that’s quite a beast of an instrument to travel with!). A highly recommended theatrical act, full of surprises.

Local favourites, Beats & Pieces Big Band, have been gathering huge interest over the past few years, recently voted ‘Ensemble of the Year’ at the 2014 Parliamentary Jazz Awards. Under the spirited direction of musician and composer Ben Cottrell, the band’s confidence has flourished, and their consummate, lively double set of existing and new material set the evening alight (Sam Healey’s alto soloing on Jazzwalk quite phenomenal). With a new album due in 2015, they previewed Cottrell’s magical Norway-inspired composition, as well as their splendidly slow-burning arrangement of Bowie’s Let’s Dance… and fervent demands for an encore were satisfied.

Away from the stage, mjf also hosted, over two days, the inaugural Jazz Promotion Network conference, featuring seminars and speakers, with discussions focusing on the recent issues arising from the Arts Council’s cessation of funding (from April 2015) to the invaluable and highly-regarded Jazz Services organisation – a decision which has caused consternation amongst artists, promoters and audiences.

Elsewhere, Tin Men and the Telephone were experimenting with audience participation via a specially-created app; Silence Blossoms explored textural improvisations through voice, poetry and AM radios; Space Flight utilised 3D mapping and sound, creating real-time improvisations and visuals; Mancheska transformed movie and TV themes into ska and reggae; and Hackney Colliery Band raised the pavilion canvas with appropriate ‘last night’ exuberance.

From the young girl whose parents allowed her to stand near the front, so transfixed was she at Arun Ghosh’s band, to the senior gentleman who each year travels by train from Somerset to enjoy the quality and variety of the acts, Manchester Jazz Festival is categorically a ‘people’s festival’. And my observations here are, of course, a mere snapshot of the ten days’ events (one would need to be a pretty well-qualified time traveller to take in the plethora of musical experiences on offer). 2015 marks the Festival’s 20th year and, with Steve Mead already hinting at an exciting new commission, it’s likely to be another unmissable jazz summer in the city.

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