Live reviews

FESTIVAL REPORT: 2018 Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf) – 21 July

Manchester Jazz Festival’s Salon Perdu Speigeltent – Ashley Henry Trio

2018 Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf) 

(Saturday 21 July. Report and photographs by Adrian Pallant)

The first full day of Manchester’s annual summer celebration of jazz in all its eclecticism, now in its 23rd year, opened with customary excitement for the week ahead. Centred around the Festival Square hub (with ticketed shows hosted in the elegant, circular, oak-panelled Salon Perdu Spiegeltent) plus other city-centre locations, around 90 afternoon and evening performances have been scheduled. And, as ever, its prominent location is a huge draw – obviously for dedicated fans, but notably for curious passers-by who enquire what this busy event is, and are then promptly handed a programme. With noonday soundcheck anticipation bouncing off the majestic 19th-century Town Hall backdrop, the stage was set.

Brigitte Beraha – Babelfish

It was always going to be a delight to catch Babelfish in a live setting – and the dream line-up of Brigitte Beraha (vocals), Barry Green (piano), Chris Laurence (double bass) and Paul Clarvis (drums) excelled in presenting material mostly from their eponymous debut album and 2015’s follow-up, Chasing Rainbows. Renowned individually, this quartet collaboration is therefore very special – and the overarching impression was of consummate ease and satisfaction in what they produced together.

Beraha’s You, Me & The Rest of the World opened the set, and the band’s lucid charm was instantly evident, characterised by exquisite vocal shaping and bubbling, high piano lines; and Caetano Veloso’s smooth Brazilian bossa, Michalangelo Antonioni, began to reveal the importance of Chris Laurence’s lyrically resonant bass – a joy to observe his precise, songlike beauty alongside Paul Clarvis’s incisive, detailed percussion. Wordless Sushi Hero (Beraha’s and Green’s homage to a past favourite Japanese restaurant) found the quartet fully in their stride, its metre prompting deliciously impertinent piano chords/motifs, vocal experimentation and a crisp bass-and-shaker interlude – all with knowing glances and smiles shared between the players. Aaron Copland’s Heart, We Will Forget Him, for piano and voice (with effective pedal tremor from the bass) segued into I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, a sunny and intuitive arrangement emphasising just how readily this music falls to these outstanding musicians; and Krk Bats’ heavy piano ostinato and flamboyant shrieks contrasted well with Tom Jobim’s tender Falando de Amor (referencing a topical ‘I love you almost as much as football’ lyric).

Babelfish will be touring extensively this year, followed by a new album recording based on the quartet’s literary favourites; and here, Beraha presented the première of Hobie (inspired by Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’) – musical storytelling with an emphasis on word rhythms, full of twists and turns – before an encore of Barry Green’s sublime, spacial It May Not Always Be So.

An eloquent and heartwarming experience.

Jan Bures and Phoebe Pope – Sound of Thieves
Sound of Thieves

Between main-stage events, the festival’s expanded, canopied free stage provides an excellent arena for emerging talent. Particularly magnetic were Manchester-based duo Sound of Thieves – Phoebe Pope (voice, loops) and Jan Bures (electric bass) – who created hypnotic, ethereal and pulsating layers of electro-vocal sound, rightly attracting a large audience who crammed into and around the space.

Trish Clowes and Chris Montague – My Iris
Trish Clowes’ My Iris

The upward trajectory of Trish Clowes’ mastery, both as tenor saxophonist and composer, has been a privilege to follow. Having appeared previously with her Tangent project at 2013’s festival, it is this current quartet, My Iris, which is now shedding even greater light on her creativity – as revealed in last year’s album release of the same name with colleagues Chris Montague (electric guitar), Ross Stanley (piano, organ) and James Maddren (for this mjf appearance, it was drummer Dave Hamblett who depped superbly).

It was great to hear this sequence of new material being played-in, the band beginning with Lightning Les – a mysterious, searching number based on a seemingly infinite, rising bass motif, with Montague’s carefully-crafted guitar chords intertwining with Stanley’s sustained Viscount organ vibrato. Clowes is amongst a select group of tenorists who endlessly explore the tonal and multiphonic reaches of their instrument – and her focus here, as the sound built in strength to almost prog-rock saturation, was engaging. The Zawinulesque tints in Eric’s Tune (for Weather Report drummer Eric Gravatt) were immediately evident in vibrant fast-flowing runs and Hamblett’s percussively heavy groove. Like Clowes, Montague’s improvisational prowess is clearly summoned from some other place – and underpinned by Stanley’s earthy organ bass, it added to the band’s empathy and energy. Arise quirkily seemed to trip between country inflection, comedy chromatics, anthemic melodies and period song ballads before leaving in its wake a beautiful floating trail; and Sister Bernadette (in honour of a Dublin nun who made a lasting impression on the band) created a celebratory, gracious feel through its singable tune, with Clowes often colorist to the imaginative guitar and keys melodies. Softly undulating Abbott and Costello was followed by Free to Fall, in which Clowes emotively sang verse (“Humility, honesty, vulnerability”) before its rhythmic tension heightened through a crescendo of tumbling tenor and guitar, sustained organ and rocky improvisation.

The sonic diversity available in this quartet makes it particularly fresh and interesting, and suggests there is much yet to come.

Ashley Henry and Jordan Hatfield – Ashley Henry Trio
Ashley Henry Trio

Rising London-based pianist Ashley Henry returned to mjf (previously appearing at a BBC Introducing showcase in 2015) with bassist Fergus Ireland and drummer Jordan Hatfield, thrilled to boast the first fully sold-out show of the festival. His piano trio style is defined by strong drum‘n’bass-like grooves and bright piano improv – a jazz soundscape which keys into contemporary dance-club beats. Following an unannounced opener, they tore into Ahmad Jahmal’s The World is Yours, Ireland’s rasping, amplified double bass combining with Hatfield’s thunderous rhythms to create the ground for Henry’s high-flying improvisations.

This drummer, at the age of 20, is already an extraordinary talent (Henry shouting across to him, “Some of my socks are older than you!”), spotlighted in an early solo showcase. Rocking the venue through Moving Forward (one of a number played from his six-track Easter EP), Henry explained, before a pulsating version of The Enemy’s Pressure (arranged when previously in Manchester, though minus vocal here), how he had toured with Terence Blanchard. Seeking advice for a young up-and-coming musician, the pianist said he’ll never forget Blanchard’s reply: “Don’t be too hip, because two hips make an ass”.

Henry’s hard grooving is the keystone to his sound, though concluding number Easter displayed an attractive Latinesque facet, offering different colours and textures. A new album in January may unveil where he is next headed.

Zakir Hussain, Dave Holland and Chris Potter – Crosscurrents

Crosscurrents: Dave Holland, Zakir Hussain, Chris Potter

A hotly anticipated evening performance at the Royal Northern College of Music from the stellar personnel of the Crosscurrents trio saw a keen audience almost reverentially filing into the relative intimacy of the beautiful new lower hall to arc around its performance space. In subdued coloured light, floor percussion (several tabla/small drums and cymbal), recumbent Czech Eaze double bass and saxophone stands awaited David Holland, Zakir Hussain and Chris Potter. Their arrival was met with huge enthusiasm and warmth – a ‘pinch me’ moment of realisation that these giants of jazz and world music were together in one place to perform a single set of what was to become 105 minutes of sheer, focused pleasure.

Crosscurrents evolved from an original, larger project of Zakir Hussain’s featuring musicians from India, but with a trio spot for those assembled; and, as Holland put it, “We wanted more of that”.

Smiling admiration for each others’ contribution was soon apparent as they delved into Dave Holland’s Lucky Seven (from his ‘Critical Mass’ quintet album), Hussain’s delicate, tuneful percussion inviting bass and soprano to join its joyful bossa nova. Waistcoated and standing centrally, Holland’s demeanour radiated equilibrium throughout the animated conversations, with Potter blazing through the ‘ritual fire dance’ feel with relentless improvisatory flair; and the bassist’s incredible humility shone through when challenged by Hussain’s teasing percussive hiatuses – a smile, a shake of the head, and applause for each other at the close. A new tune from Potter – Z and D (“Zee and Dee”) – was full of cascading tenor motifs; and with his gaze fixed to one spot, it became mesmerizingly intense, with breathing space for a bass-and-percussion dialogue (and extraordinary fluttering rapidity across two tabla). Hussain described his joy of learning with this trio (“A blessing to sit under the shadow of royalty – Mr D Holland”); and acknowledging another of his mentors of some 40 years, “elder brother” John McLaughlin, he introduced J Baha’i – a lilting dance which progressed to teasing exchanges including Potter’s ‘Take Five’ quotations and Hussain simulating face-scratching with his drum skins.

The aural and almost aromatic colours offered by this acoustic trio were astonishing. Dave Holland’s chordal introduction to an aubade opened into a bright, Shaker-like soprano melody with ostinato bass and light percussion, as if greeting a new day; and its Indian aura was further embellished with Hussain’s thirds on smaller drums and Holland’s pliant melodies. Suvarna – with themes of gratitude and homage – was portayed through sitar-like bass undercurrents, richly improvised saxophone and percussion. And Potter’s ebullient Good Hope concluded the set with yelping tenor, a rock-like bass groove and more entertainment from Hussain – the ‘William Tell Overture’ on his cheekbones and awesome konnakol over thunderous rhythms. Rapturous applause brought the trio back for a sultry late-night promenade encore – delicately brooding, made bluesy by Potter’s tenor.

We had been in the presence of greatness.

Zakir Hussain, Dave Holland and Chris Potter – Crosscurrents

Manchester Jazz Festival continues all week until Saturday 28th July. Full programme at

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