The latest edition of the exciting, musician-led Kennington mini-fest, which includes tributes to two jazz greats, features some top international players. Martin Chilton previews the festival for LondonJazz News:
The now annual BopFest, which runs alongside the EFG London Jazz Festival in November from 18th – 24th, boasts a dynamic line-up in 2019, with appearances by visiting guest New York pianist Michael Weiss, the UK debut of guitarist Pasquale Grasso and celebrations of the work of jazz greats Dave Brubeck and Shelly Manne. Organisers Nat Steele and Allison Neale also both perform at a festival that focuses exclusively on bebop, with concerts at the atmospheric Toulouse Lautrec Jazz Club in Kennington.
Among the highlights is the tribute concert (21 November) marking the 60th anniversary of the recording of Brubeck’s Time Out album. The gig will be hosted by pianist Nick Tomalin and feature Neale on alto saxophone. Seattle born Neale says she can vividly remember the impact pianist Brubeck’s album had on her. “I was lucky enough to grow up listening to jazz from an early age, particularly many players associated with the West Coast style,” Neale tells LondonJazz. “My father, an avid jazz fan, had many of Dave Brubeck’s Quartet recordings in his collection and I remember being quite young when I first listened to this particular record. Jazz has been in my life as long as I can remember.”
Time Out sold a million copies and Neale believes his appeal for young listeners was a key factor in its popularity. “Brubeck was one of the first jazz musicians to capture a wider audience for the music, touring the world extensively with his quartet featuring Paul Desmond on alto,” Neale adds. “Brubeck’s focus on the US college concert circuit gained a younger following and helped secure his reputation in the wider cultural scene in America and beyond. I’m sure this was a big factor.”
As an accomplished saxophonist herself, Neale will be a key part of the night. “I wouldn’t say that I was preparing to play like Paul in a particular way. I have always been naturally influenced by Paul and other West Coast altoists such as Art Pepper and Bud Shank… and also Stan Getz,” Neale explains. “My own personal sound is really a natural combination of the influences and the musicians I have listened to all of my life, so I will play the music as myself, with hopefully my influences shining through my playing. I think this is so important and the way that jazz is carried forward by players throughout the history of our music. Paul wrote only one composition for Time Out, which was Take Five, originally intended to be a drum feature for Joe Morello. While this is of course an iconic tune, I also have a great love of the 1964 album Bossa Antigua, which Desmond recorded with Jim Hall on guitar. The music he composed for this record is beautiful.”
Another highlight for jazz fans is the UK debut of Luigi and Pasquale Grasso Quartet on the opening night of BopFest (18 November). Alto saxophonist Luigi and guitarist Pasquale, who are based in Paris and New York respectively, are heavily influenced by bebop masters Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Pasquale, 30, is a former winner of the 2015 Wes Montgomery International Jazz Guitar Competition in New York. In a real coup for the festival, he will also hold a two-hour interactive guitar masterclass on the following afternoon (19 November).
Guitar master Pat Metheny has sung Pasquale Grasso’s praises. “The best guitar player I’ve heard in maybe my entire life is floating around now, Pasquale Grasso,” said Metheny. “This guy is doing something so amazingly musical and so difficult… His model – which is an incredible model to have – is Bud Powell. He has somehow captured the essence of that language from piano on to guitar in a way that almost nobody has ever addressed.”
Neale is excited by Grasso’s appearance. “This is a rare opportunity for fans to hear this jazz guitar virtuoso in a solo performance as well as quartet and trio,” she says. “He is unique in that he has translated the language of Bud Powell to the guitar and has been hailed by Pat Metheny as a world class artist in this respect. It’s a first for BopFest and we are delighted to be hosting him this year, in partnership with David Benyahia of the London Jazz Guitar Society.”
In another coup for Neale and Steele, the festival will also have a concert and piano/improvisation masterclass from visiting NYC pianist Michael Weiss (22 November), a musician who has performed with jazz legends Joe Henderson, Art Farmer, Gerry Mulligan and Wynton Marsalis. “Michael is one of the foremost jazz pianists in the world today having played for many years with the great tenorist Johnny Griffin,” says Neale. “We are very excited to have him as our special guest from New York this year and have him share his wealth of experience with young musicians and more experienced jazz artists alike. In a rare opportunity, musicians will also be able to have direct access to Michael and receive tuition and guidance at the highest level, here in London.”
Weiss will also make a special guest appearance at the Saturday afternoon concert by the Nat Steele Quintet (23 November). Vibraphonist Steele will celebrate music from some iconic guitar/vibraphone albums, including The Big Three (Milt Jackson) and The Kicker (Bobby Hutcherson), along with playing compositions by Wes Montgomery, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. The concert will also include some special arrangements by Weiss.
Among the other musicians appearing at BopFest this year are the Mátyás Gayer Piano Trio (20 November), featuring the talented young Hungarian pianist Gayer. There is a concert by the Steve Fishwick Nonet (23 November) featuring music inspired by the classic 1967 McCoy Tyner Blue Note album Tender Moments, on which Lee Morgan played trumpet. Fishwick, whose trumpet style has been praised by Marsalis, was specially commissioned by BopFest to create his own interpretations of Tyner’s original album.
Rising piano player Alex Bryson will perform with his trio (24 November) before BopFest is brought to a close on that final Sunday evening by a tribute to the brilliant drummer and actor Shelly Manne. In Introducing Matt Skelton’s Manne Date, British drummer Matt Skelton‘s ensemble brings together a dynamic quintet of leading London jazz instrumentalists who will honour the music of Manne’s wonderful quintet recordings from the 1950s and 60s. In particular, Skelton’s project celebrates Live at The Blackhawk, another iconic jazz album celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
BopFest 2019 concerts are at Toulouse Lautrec Jazz Bar in London’s Kennington (140 Newington Butts, London SE11 4RN) from 18-24 November.