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FESTIVAL REPORT: 2018 Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf) – 26 July

Clouds Harp Quartet – Esther Swift’s festival commission, Light Gatherer

2018 Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf) 
(Thursday 26 July 2018. Report and photographs by Adrian Pallant)

Manchester Jazz Festival’s imaginative programming has continued apace through this sunny summer’s week, including Jazz North’s sold-out northern line showcase on Monday, Tuesday’s Jazz Migration touring scheme for French artists; and Wednesday’s focus was on young and emerging talent from England’s north west. Many of these performances were either free or on a “pay what you can” basis – a great opportunity to experience new and often original sounds.

On the hottest day of the year so far, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were especially represented in Thursday’s home nations-themed day, alongside musicians from England and “Mancunia” (as described by the festival’s tireless, ever-enthusiastic artistic director and compère Steve Mead).

KIM Trio: Calum Gourlay, Helena Kay, David Ingamells
KIM Trio

A lunchtime slot for this year’s Peter Whittingham Jazz Award winner, Helena Kay, saw the Scottish tenorist’s original music illuminated in a trio with double bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer David Ingamells. What shone out so well, alongside Kay’s obvious improvisational prowess and balmy tone/vibrato, was the strength of her compositions. With Charlie Parker named as her hero, and a clear leaning towards Sonny Rollins, there was a restrained feel-good about these performances – yet the picturesque writing held the attention, its richness and interest never waning.

Strawberry Terrace had a bouncy, almost Caribbean flavour, whilst lazy swingin’ Double Seven (a darts reference) possessed a nonchalant, Monkish Well, You Needn’t charm. The rapid descending motif of KIM, a sax and drums miniature, was actually a clever transcription of a Charlie Parker solo; and the falling phrases of a romantic, as yet unnamed piece fused folksong with a redolence of ‘60s Paul Desmond. Kay’s closing boisterous swinger, L&D (after two cockapoos she would take for walks in Muswell Hill), was filled with fluent tenor improvisations. With lots of positive feedback heard after the gig, Helena Kay is surely a name to watch.

Huw Warren
Huw Warren

The calm oasis of St Ann’s Church, amidst the commercial bustle of the city centre, has again keenly hosted a number of the festival’s more intimate, chamber concerts; and North Wales’ celebrated pianist Huw Warren was welcomed for a solo piano performance featuring numbers from recent album release Nocturnes and Visions. Commenting on the venue’s pleasing natural light, Warren opened with Hermeto Pascoal’s O Farol Que Nois Guia, whose dark, Debussyian resonances and washes contrasted with crystalline water-drop twinklings and lush harmonies which echoed around the church’s high ceilings and pillars. Animated Against the Odds, still with a Brazilian cacuriá flavour, combined boisterous chattering with an ostinato groove in fifths; and EE, from Warren’s Perfect Houseplants days, cleverly portrayed both the salon/solo piano works and symphonic grandeur of Sir Edward Elgar through chromatic “falling leaf” phrases and door-slamming Enigma Variations ebullience!

Alongside Huw Warren’s expressive subtlety and dense, thunderous rhythms, it’s his ability to break the divide between left and right which is particularly captivating, often crossing hands to the outer reaches of the keyboard (as well as inside, to the strings) so that the entire range of the instrument – and the music – becomes one. The emotive melodies of Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell’s Samba em Preludio (which the pianist intends recording) was followed by the carnival atmospheres of Pixinguinha’s Um a Zero – a breathtaking, jovial, even comedic dance celebrating a famous Brazilian World Cup win over Uruguay (“I often wonder what kind of piece he’d have written if they’d lost”, added Warren). Guinga’s Noturna closed the set in twilight rubato; and the beautiful encore of Ambleside by, appropriately, Manchester’s late, great John Taylor, concluded an exquisite hour-plus enjoyed by a rapt audience.

Sue Rynhart Trio: Francesco Turrisi, Sue Rynhart, Dan Bodwell

Sue Rynhart Trio

Dublin-based singer/songwriter Sue Rynhart is rising to prominence through her distinctive, theatrical and sometimes quirky, personal music which straddles jazz and folk, as delivered in 2014 album Crossings and 2017’s stand-out, Signals. With her trio of double bassist Dan Bodwell and pianist/percussionist Francesco Turrisi, the Salon Perdu Spiegeltent’s ornamented surroundings of coloured glass and mirrors reflected a performance of light, hope, tenderness and humour.

Rynhart’s passion and invention connected instantly, from buoyant bass-swirling Be Content to the dark mystery of Foxed. The Coldest Journey sent a chill through an otherwise sweltering room with frozen vocal effects and a pleasing harmonic bass solo; and there were always surprises, such as fervent, improvisatory “Irish konnakol” vocalisations. The Gaelic and almost Simon & Garfunkel-like lilt of Silliest Game (“I’ll say goodbye to my old friend”) was sweetly embellished by Turrisi’s pianistic delicacy; and a ballad which broached the singer’s personal witness of dementia, and the importance of maintaining happiness, was expressed through fluctuations of equilibrium and troubled, bass-thrummed momentum. Delicate lullaby folksong Penny for Your Thoughts focused on the youngest of Rynhart’s three children (including sampled giggles), contrasted sharply by the dark, pliant, double bass ground of Black as the Crow Flies (with combed zither effects); and to close, the impetuous lyric of newer song, Viper, teased with a wry, mocking take on the competitive spirit which we might not admit to!

Sue Rynhart’s poetic creativity seemingly knows no bounds, blending her cultural roots with an oblique, contemporary vision. An absolute joy to be present.



Scottish quartet Sugarwork – led by keyboardist Paul Harrison, with tenor saxophonist Phil Bancroft, electric guitarist Graeme Stephen and drummer Stu Brown – shape powerful jazz soundscapes and urban resonances from their particularly close-knit interaction. For their first performance south of the border, arrival in Manchester was almost halted by motorway congestion woes – but their determination brought the sound of their eponymous debut album, along with some new and improvised episodes, to the festival with aplomb.

When introduced their signature waves of guitar and shifting keys with rhythm and tenor sax, leading to After the Forest, the Sky’s crunchy, looped guitar, hard-hitting dance-groove drumming and deeply-plumbed Nord bass notes – haunting and “a bit schizoid”. The band’s strength is in creating and building layers (imagine creating complex iPad imagery with differing textures and colours), and an improvised piece christened Prestige Towel Promotion, after their delay around the Garstang area, produced atmospheric knocks, bleeps, fizzes and crackles which somehow keyed into the intense heat of the arena. Spiral Confection’s reverberant bass and snappy electronic drum patterns were the basis of a heavy, relentless and even funky groove; Forlorn suggested Weather Report, as Bancroft’s full tenor glided over its landscape; and the maelstrom of Astralgia closed the set with programmed, chasing, throbbing bass – a wall of sound reminiscent of Nik Bärtsch.

Sugarwork’s performance style is focused, not showy; and the artistic vistas they fashion might suggest an opening for greater compositional diversity. Yet they have an acute sense of musicality and drive which is sure to spur them on to still higher levels.

Chris Engel, Barry Donohue and Chris Guilfoyle of Umbra

Once again, the free stage played host to emerging bands, with Dublin’s Umbra a great draw for crowds taking advantage of the glorious if humid weather. Saxophonists Chris Engel and Sam Cornerford, electric guitarist Chris Guilfoyle, five-string bassist Barry Donohue and drummer Matthew Jacobson sizzled the early-evening air with their crisp, often intricate funk/punk/soul grooves.

Esther Swift

Esther Swift: Light Gatherer (festival commission)

The usual throng of expectation for an mjf commission was sensed as an eager audience filled the circular Salon Perdu venue, met by a full stage featuring four statuesque, closely-grouped harps. Composer, harpist and vocalist Esther Swift’s Light Gatherer suite is based around the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy. Clouds Harp Quartet – Swift, with Elfair Dyer, Rebecca Mills and Angelina Warburton – was joined by violinist Jonathan Martindale, violist Lucy Nolan, cellist Peggy Nolan, trombonist Rich McVeigh, tenor saxophonist Geff Guntren, pianist Richard Jones and drummer/percussionist/accordionist Jim Molyneux. The seven-part suite was announced to be continuous, with no applause until the end. Yet it soon became apparent that the composer/leader had created something singularly compelling, as well as accessible, and that such requested restraint would be difficult to honour.

Child’s Sleep (the dream of the little girl – Carol Ann Duffy’s daughter) was heralded by simulations of deep-sleep breathing through sax, trombone and accordion, its “light gatherer” vocal then introduced by Swift’s pellucid vocal. A gentle, sustained ebb and flow, followed by fuller episodes, blossomed into the most elegant, unison, Gaelic folk melody across four harps – and the spell had been cast. Text – a vibrant observation on the inanity of texting, rather than direct conversation – flew into busy, telecommunicative propulsion, the repeated harp choreography of muting, sliding and releasing the strings creating visual interest (and joy) as the full ensemble increasingly saturated this memorable number. Mrs Icarus – abrasively dedicated to one Melania Trump – was subversive, with hard-plucked and syncopated harp motifs, angular piano, manic strings, jabbing horns (delight expressed in the harpists’ expressions); and the mesmeric ostinati of Education for Leisure (mindset of a murderer) were preceded by a group reading of Carol Ann Duffy’s disturbing spoken verse – “Today I am going to kill something …”.

The Love Poem, exploring the humour of floral Shakespearean language, again used the percussive qualities of the harp quartet as upward glissandi and slams introduced a drum-grooving dance beat with improvisatory jazz tenor and trombone. A particularly moving movement of the suite arrived with Art (celebrating the end of a relationship), as Esther Swift’s soft, pure vocal and beautiful Scottish inflection/portamento magically integrated with strings to produce a choral effect. Concluding movement Light Gatherer’s gentle breaths and subtle instrumentation, like an Aeolian harp transforming the breeze of an open window into music, interpreted Duffy’s gentle words about her daughter with a coruscating glow – “And as you grew, light gathered in you, two clear raindrops in your eyes …”.

The audience response was immediate, garnering a standing ovation of warmth and gratitude – along with an encore of Text – for an imaginative work which touched hearts on so many levels, and one which I would dearly love to hear again.

2018’s Manchester Jazz Festival culminates in its final day, tomorrow, Saturday 28 July. Full programme at

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