Live review

Swanage Jazz Festival 2019

Swanage Jazz Festival 2019
(13-14 July 2019. Report by Peter Jones)

“We WILL be here next year,” vowed Paul Kelly, director of the 2019 Swanage Jazz Festival as he spoke to the audience from the stage of the Mowlem Theatre on Sunday evening. And the next day he still sounded buoyant as he explained that excellent attendances this year had given the festival’s committee solid grounds for optimism that it can continue to be both popular and financially viable for the future. “We only started organizing it last January,” he told me, “but everyone we spoke to over the weekend was so positive about it that I feel sure we can do even better next year.” Previous director Fred Lindop was on hand to offer support, as was Nigel Price, who rescued the event in 2018 when it looked likely not to happen at all.

Hexagonal at Swanage (Photo: Peter Jones)

Over the Festival as a whole, if some of the music was a tad over-familiar, if some of the performances were a little lacking in imagination, and if at the Mowlem the constant shuffling in and out of audience members proved distracting (my companion dubbed it a “revolving door policy”), the sea air was bracing, the level of engagement and enthusiasm were palpable, and above all it was a highly enjoyable and successful weekend of jazz.

Most of this year’s music was supplied by musicians from the local area, with a sprinkling of names from further afield. One of these was Hexagonal, a band I had wanted to see live since the release of their astonishing McCoy & Mseleku album at the end of last year. The chance came on Sunday evening when the band took to the stage to close out the proceedings at the Mowlem, just as the England cricket team were performing their miracle at Lord’s cricket ground.

Hexagonal’s music is mostly the work of McCoy Tyner and Bheki Mseleku, and arranged by the band’s pianist, John Donaldson. It’s richly melodic, but also fast, and often complex enough to chill the blood of anyone called upon to play it. Sid Gault replaced both Graeme Flowers and Quentin Collins, who shared the trumpet slot on the album, and Chris Biscoe depped for Jason Yarde on baritone and alto. Their achievement was therefore impressive, especially on rhythmically demanding tunes like Mseleku’s Angola. As on the album, no individual in the band really stood out – partly because they are all supreme musicians, and partly because this was ensemble playing of the highest order.

They covered pretty much every tune on McCoy & Mseleku, beginning with the opener, McCoy Tyner’s Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit, and continuing with highlights like Joy and Ballad for the Saints, both by Bheki Mseleku. I urge you to catch this exciting band live if you possibly can.

Andy Chapman and Terry Quinney (Photo: Peter Jones)

Elsewhere Canadian saxophonist Terry Quinney, now resident here in the south-west, offered his tribute to Stan Getz with ubiquitous local sidemen Phil Doyle (piano), Joe Limburn (bass) and Andy Chapman (drums). At the start Quinney rightly pointed out that he was not putting himself forward as a Getz soundalike, but simply giving the audience a flavor of the Getz repertoire. And so we had selections from the bebop years (Pennies from Heaven and Ornithology), the work with Bill Evans (Grandfather’s Waltz, But Beautiful) and of course the Brazilian songbook (Desafinado). There was also a tune of Quinney’s own, written in the style of Getz’s early role model Lester Young, entitled Not Dis, a contrafact on Almost Like Being In Love. For me, the best tune was Kenny Barron’s Sunshower from the 1989 album Bossas and Ballads – The Lost Sessions recorded with the saxophonist.

On the Saturday, a full house at Swanage’s Methodist Church was treated to an amiable afternoon of standards from American altoist Greg Abate, with Exeter’s own Craig Milverton on piano. Abate is a regular visitor to these shores, and enlivened his set with many an anecdote, the best of which involved him being pulled over by the cops one night on his way home from a gig, and having to prove that he was a musician by playing Charlie Parker’s Confirmation at the side of the road.

The set-list was strongly rooted in the bebop era: Yardbird Suite and Dizzy Gillespie’s Bebop being the prime examples, plus a breakneck rendition of Secret Love, mixed in with a bit of latin (Recordame, You Don’t Know What Love Is) and ballads (Moonlight in Vermont). Milverton provided excellent support, as did Simon Thorpe (introduced as “Jeremy Thorpe”) on bass and Nick Millward on drums.

Perhaps the most pleasant venue for the festival was the Mowlem’s Show Bar, a good-sized room with huge picture windows overlooking the sea. One of the acts featured here was Subb Zero, a nine-piece off-shoot of the Bournemouth Swing Unlimited Big Band. Heavily influenced by Jazz Jamaica, Subb Zero served up reggae and ska versions of some well-known tunes, including Moondance, Don’t Know Why and Song for My Father. The stand-out numbers were Jazz Jamaica’s 4/4 version of Take Five, and the lovely Harlem Nocturne, a complex arrangement of the Duke Ellington standard that they carried off with panache.

Earlier, back in the main theatre, the Wayne Shorter-influenced tenor player Ian Ellis played an idiosyncratic gig with Messrs Doyle and Chapman, along with Ben Taylor on bass. Ellis’s deadpan, self-effacing introductions were highly entertaining, and the tune selection was refreshing. Two of the best were his own compositions, Solus and Fulhamite – the latter dedicated to West London 4×4 drivers who do whatever they like, according to Ellis, because they are too rich to care about parking fines. And it was great to hear Shorter’s delicate Infant Eyes played so beautifully.

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