FESTIVAL REPORT: 4th Rye International Jazz & Blues Festival

Herbie Flowers

4th Rye International Jazz & Blues Festival
(Rye, East Sussex, 27th-31st August, 2015. Report by Peter Jones)

Festivals of all kinds are springing up like mushrooms these days. Rye, its fourth year just completed, looks like it’s here to stay. To begin with, the setting could not be more pleasant – ancient buildings, cobbled streets, plenty of tea shops, restaurants and pubs. The festival is well organized, and has enough variety to satisfy most tastes, including its own fringe, and a musical and educational programme called Chapter and Lyric. Setting up shop over the August Bank Holiday weekend, it also conveniently marks the dying days of Summer (this year the weather stayed warm and dry until the penultimate evening, which was enlivened by some spectacular downpours).

The venues are all small – at 337 maximum capacity, the Milligan Theatre is the largest space. This means the audience is never too far from the performers, and the gigs thus retain a pleasing level of intimacy. Churches play an important role: jazz films provided part of the entertainment at the town’s Kino Cinema, a converted church; the busiest venue for the festival as a whole was Rye Community Centre, another converted church, temporarily designated the Spectrum Jazz Lounge; and there were three gigs in St Mary’s Church – miraculously still functioning as a church.

On the Friday night the Spectrum hosted Hard Lines, a smooth jazz standards outfit led by pianist Iain Rae and featuring Gary Plumley on tenor. They were followed by Gwyneth Herbert, billed as ‘relaxed and chilled out’. But as anyone who has seen her knows, this description does not prepare you for an edgy performance of breathtaking eccentricity, more cabaret or stand-up comedy than jazz. Ukelele, kazoo, french horn, bass drum, wine glass and frying pan were all part of Herbert’s armoury, as was her silent, bashful fiancé Ned Cartwright on piano.

There was a great deal of audience participation – at one point she had everyone popping imaginary balloons. Standout tunes were Jane Into a Beauty Queen and Annie’s Yellow Bag, both from her All The Ghosts album; Promises, a kind of sea shanty, with Herbert switching to piano while Cartwright tootled mournfully on melodica; and the beautiful, haunting Lorelei, both of these from her most recent album The Sea Cabinet.

Fat Tuesday Second Line Band

At any time on the Saturday afternoon, you could easily bump into the raucous Fat Tuesday Second-Line Band weaving through the narrow streets, led by a flamboyant character with a megaphone and a silver-topped cane, as if this was hot, humid New Orleans rather than hot, humid Rye.

Back at the Spectrum that evening, bathed in yellow light, and with a couple of hours of crowd-pleasing soul perfectly tailored for the sweating middle-aged audience, Avery Sunshine (née Denise Nicole White) was the hot ticket. Another (almost) silent male accompanist to an extravert female singer, Dana Johnson played acoustic guitar and ‘stomp box’ while Avery sat at the piano and poured out familiar tunes like Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground and Anita Baker’s Sweet Love and her own Al Green-styled Won’t You Try. It was slick, feel-good American entertainment, as relentlessly positive as a church revival meeting, and as close as you can get to an Aretha Franklin gig without it actually being an Aretha Franklin gig.

This was a hard act for the Shez Raja Collective to follow. Where Ms Sunshine’s generic soul is pigeonhole-perfect for national radio, the Collective defies easy categorization – it’s a high-energy fusion of jazz, funk, prog and ‘eastern’ (for lack of a better term), and more about groove than melody. As well as Shez Raja himself on electric bass, the band consists of the ubiquitous Vasilis Xenopoulos on saxophones, Chris Nickolls on drums, Pascal Roggen (who had flown in from New Zealand especially for the gig) on violin and Alex Stanford on keys. They were briefly joined by the Polish singer Monica Lidke.

Alex Munk

The next day, half-hidden in an alcove outside Rye Town Hall, the Alex Munk Quartet provided one of the highlights of the festival. Guitarist Munk impressed earlier this year with his work as a member of Matt Anderson’s Wild Flower Sextet. Here, he and his young, studious-looking band featured material from their forthcoming album, some of which is so new as to be yet untitled.

Inevitably, Munk’s playing draws comparisons with Pat Metheny, in both his electric and acoustic incarnations: sweet, lyrical passages blend with impossible prog-like time signatures to create a fresh, modern sound with its own distinctive character. At times Matt Robinson on keys is tonally so close to Munk’s guitar as to create the impression of two guitars. The sweet, meandering A Long Walk Home, dedicated to his mum, was a particular favourite, accompanied (and enhanced) on this occasion by Rye’s church bells and seagulls. This quiet, unshowy band is completed by the excellent Conor Chaplin on bass and Dave Hamblett on drums.

Dom Pipkin

Once the keyboard player for Morcheeba, pianist Dom Pipkin (as in Dom Pipkin and the Ikos) roused a potentially comatose audience in the ballroom of The George hotel with a stomping selection of New Orleans jazz. It was a gig that might have been better suited to the open air rather than this pristine environment, all chandeliers, Japanese-print wallpaper and ruched curtains. Before bringing on the band, Pipkin delivered a fascinating lecture about the current state of affairs in that Katrina-battered city and about the musicians who have influenced him, including Dr John, Professor Longhair, James Booker and Jon Cleary. Pipkin’s cheery, full-on enthusiasm swept all before him with tunes like If You’re Lonesome Pick Up The Phone, Skinny Man Skank and the solo piano piece Pixie.

No jazz festival is complete these days without young Manchester trio Gogo Penguin, recently signed to Blue Note, who performed their distinctive brand of trance-like minimalism to a rapturous capacity audience in the 900-year-old St Mary’s Church. Unless you were lucky enough to find a seat in the first few rows, you were unlikely to catch more than a glimpse of the band, rows of magnificent pillars and the lack of a raised platform rendering them invisible to ticket-holders who had paid £24 for the privilege.

The Spectrum later hosted three musician’s musicians – the Neil Angilley Trio with a Brazilian-influenced set penned by Angilley (dubbed ‘the best pianist I have ever played with’ by none other than Herbie Flowers). Drummer Davide Giovannini and bassist Davide Mantovani have developed an extraordinary telepathy with the band’s leader and with each other. As well as tunes from their most recent album Chango they wowed the audience with three lyrical pieces inspired by the Lake District, plus a beautiful arrangement of Black Magic Woman.

Next morning, as the rain thundered down outside, the George was treated to a ‘jazz breakfast’ hosted by the aforementioned Herbie Flowers, and accompanied by the aforementioned Neil Angilley, along with drummer Malcolm Mortimore and Finnish violin supremo Mikko-Ville. It was a sort of standards masterclass: I’ll Remember April, Autumn Leaves, Body and Soul, Summertime, My Funny Valentine and a tune Flowers introduced as Days of Swine and Roses. But no one minded the familiarity of the material – Herbie’s inspired clowning provided a rich source of entertainment, mostly based on the gag that at the age of 77 he’s become somewhat senile. In fact his humour is as dry as that of the late Humphrey Lyttelton. He pretended to mistake the microphone for an electric razor. Later he said: ‘I bought this bass in 1959… and I still ain’t got the hang of it.’ This assertion was instantly disproved by a version of Caravan that roared along like an express train, almost drowning out the rain.

LINK: Festival website

Categories: miscellaneous

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