Live reviews

REVIEW: Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival

Yazz Ahmed at Bristol
Photo: Mick Destino
Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival
(Various venues, 22-24 March 2019. Overview by Jon Turney and Peter Slavid)

Jon Turney writes: Bristol’s festival, reconfigured for 2019 around building works at its usual home Colston Hall, has now grown to the point where a healthy jazz appetite leads to wanting to be in two, or even three places at once.

That kind of agility was a little harder this year as venues were a decent walk apart, but hopping back and forth between the acoustically distinguished St George’s on Brandon Hill and the well-appointed students’ union higher up in Clifton covered a good selection of jazz highlights from the excellently eclectic programme.

Mine began on Friday evening at St George’s with Richard Galliano’s New Jazz Musette. The man who re-established the accordion in jazz remains a towering presence on the instrument. While more recent European exponents like Vincent Peirani or Luciano Biondini build on his achievements, he still showcases the instrument in a band that is very much leader and three accompanists. If one occasionally wishes for something a little more collaborative, a little more of the time, it’s an impressive display of fast-fingered flair from him, and of disciplined support from his cohorts.

Saturday brought more interactive music from three bands in the comfort of the medium-sized Winston Theatre. A festival commission for pianist Rebecca Nash’s Atlas produced a satisfying six-part suite, coloured by sparing use of electronics and percussion. Guest John O’Gallagher glowed on alto in the front line alongside Nick Malcolm’s eloquent trumpet.

Two sets in the same venue later in the afternoon presented state of the art UK jazz quartets, led by Ant Law and Julian Siegel. Guitarist Law works beautifully with his long-time altoist Mike Chillingworth and although he is still presenting pieces from a recent CD release he appears to have almost enough new music to fill another. The pastoral flavoured Harvest stood out among the new songs, infusing Law’s remarkable technique with real feeling.

Siegel’s brilliant quartet also share the benefit of long acquaintance. “There is an eagerness and appetite about this band”, I wrote here after a live show in 2014. There still is. Every item in their repertoire is a gem, and the four players – Siegel on saxes and bass clarinet, Liam Noble on piano, Oli Hayhurst on bass and the exhilarating Gene Calderazzo on drums – all play at the highest level, separately and – more strikingly – together.

The Julian Siegel Quartet
Photo: Mick Destino
In between these, it was just possible to catch a decent slice of Liane Carroll at St George’s, belting out great songs with rare abandon. Later in the same space, China Moses offered a more restrained study in the art of vocalising, as befitted a recreation of Billie Holliday’s Lady in Satin, a classic studio session captured at almost the end of her career.

This set, introduced as a festival centrepiece, featured a jazz orchestra, 13-piece string section and a trio of backing singers, all following scores lovingly transcribed from the originals by Ian Bateman. They provided a sumptuous backdrop to Moses’ nicely poised delivery – honouring Billie without imitating her – although the actual arrangements, originally by Ray Ellis, are largely devoid of jazz interest or influence. They are superb songs, though, and Moses’ ovation was well-earned.

And back to St George’s on Sunday afternoon to hear Huw Warren’s suite inspired by Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle. Premiered at Brecon five years ago, in Thomas’ centenary year, it remains unrecorded (shame) but is still a lovely live show, with verse intoned expressively by Mark Williams and rich contributions from Iain Ballamy on tenor.

The Warren-Ballamy connection, displayed well on the calypsoid Organ Morgan is so strong it prompted a longer walk, down to the Colston Hall. The still-functioning foyer space hosted a Jazz South band showcase including Ballamy’s quartet, with Warren standing in for regular pianist Jason Rebello. Their short set confirmed impressions from earlier shows in Bristol and Bath that this foursome – with Percy Pursglove on bass and sought after Bristol drummer Mark Whitlam – is an exciting new unit that deserves a long life.

A different style of saxophone rounded off the day, with Soweto Kinch delivering a characteristically high-energy show in the Winston Theatre. His combination of post Coleman (Ornette and Steve) alto, rap vocal, and rapport with the audience evokes huge enthusiasm for some pretty wild music. His easy charm is allied with an ambition that is still driving musical development that is challenging as well as engaging.

Peter Slavid writes: A good indication of the breadth of the festival can be gauged by the fact that I had an equally rewarding time over the weekend attending an entirely different set of concerts.

My personal highlight on Saturday was the outstanding improvised duet between Matthew Bourne and Kit Downes (standing in for the indisposed Keith Tippett). The concert started with the intricate acoustic improvising trio of Isotach with Bourne on both cello and piano alongside the violin and cello of Aby Vulliamy and Michael Bardon.

The two pianos of Bourne and Downes then gave us a mesmerising display of improvising. Sometimes delicate, sometimes ferocious, sometimes playing inside the piano to extract unusual sounds. The style may have been a bit different to the more mainstream programming at the festival,  but the music was outstanding and will hopefully have won over some new converts to this more experimental style of jazz.

Saturday concluded with an enjoyable concert from Yazz Ahmed and her very fine quartet. I particularly like the way she uses electronics to enhance the music rather than to batter the audience. It’s much more subtle than many bands, and she shifts the sound electronically as part of the improvisation, and in particular she knows when to turn it off! The bent notes and rhythms she uses to support the tunes from her Bahraini heritage are comfortably embraced by the other musicians, with Martin France’s drumming quite outstanding in the way it plays around the beat shifting from delicate brushes to strident march rhythms. This is a band of bandleaders, and it’s a reflection of Ahmed’s standing that she can attract this quality of partner.

On Sunday I was agreeably impressed with the Jonny Mansfield Elftet. This is a very young band, recent winners of various awards including the Kenny Wheeler prize, and with a debut album due shortly from Edition. As well as Mansfield’s excellent work on vibes, I was particularly taken with the arranging, which had more depth and colour than is normal from musicians of this age. As is often the case with young bands there was probably not quite enough room left for soloing – but the solos that we heard were all really good – so I’m sure that will develop over time.
Johnny Mansfield
Photo: Mick Destino

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