In the Covid year of the snowy diary, Jazz South, which supports musicians across the southeast and southwest of England, has been busy commissioning showcases for musicians online. As well as new faces, established artists including Mike and Kate Westbrook, Iain Ballamy and Robert Mitchell have seized the chance to unveil striking and wildly diverse work. John Bungey discovers what’s on offer
It’s safe to say that in its 500-year history little St Winifred’s Church, deep in Dartmoor, has never heard anything like this. In the nave the saxophonist and bassist of Run Logan Run, clad in matching black and white, are busy raising the barrel roof. Beyond the ancient rood screen in the chancel – a little closer to God – their drummer whips up the energy in a blur of mallets.
The Bristol trio are filming here because their new commission, Boundaries, was inspired by the local legend of Kitty Jay. Born an orphan, Kitty was eventually driven to suicide and, as was the custom of the day, barred from consecrated ground and buried at a crossroads..
It’s an emotional tale that inspires a full-on performance, travelling from funky free-for-all to brooding meditation by musicians who have strayed from their usual interest in electronica for this unplugged show. You can see the set on the Jazz South website HERE along with a piece by pianist Rebecca Nash and Nick Walters on trumpet and electronics, recorded in the more conventional surroundings of St George’s, Bristol. Sanctuary is an involving work that builds from austere mystery to urgent and beautiful beats-driven improvisation. It was inspired by the ancient marvels of Avebury – the neolithic henge, sanctuary and long barrow – with the beats sampled from tapping the 5,000-year-old stones.
They are among ten performances chosen for Jazz South’s Radar Sessions after a regional call-out (across the south, excluding London) for jazz composers to create works involving up to three performers with no limitations on instruments or concept. Launched in November, the weekly livestream double bills are filmed at music venues and less conventional locations. The series opened at Turner Sims Southampton with pianist Robert Mitchell‘s trio performing a potent mixture of poetry and music, Good Trouble, Necessary Trouble, dedicated to the late civil rights activist John Lewis. After each show, performers talk to the broadcaster and journalist Kevin Le Gendre.
Le Gendre is host too of Jazz South Spotlight, a podcast series launched in tandem in November, featuring six bands selected to write an original piece that in any other year would have premiered to live audiences. The podcasts direct listeners to the artists’ chosen platforms to hear the full works. Each was a small victory over lockdown, recorded sometimes remotely, sometimes in socially distanced studios. The first episode features saxophonist Iain Ballamy‘s new quartet which reunites him with another wunderkind of the ’80s, the pianist Jason Rebello. They deliver a sunny and sensual work called Ivan that’s a tribute to the great Brazilian singer and composer Ivan Lins. Brazilian music is open, inviting and right for these tricky times, Ballamy tells Le Gendre. “It’s music that’s got everything in it … it’s dancey, it’s sad, it’s sexy, it’s sophisticated … With no disrespect to ‘jazzy’ jazz, it can be very nerdy sometimes and very uninviting to a lot of people who haven’t found a way to understand it or haven’t grown up with it.”
You could call The Signs were High by the free improvisers Fourth Page in podcast two challenging. But stick with it, as a wonderfully ethereal soundworld slowly builds to moments of intense drama. If you had to pummel this 20-minute piece into a pigeon-hole it is perhaps more post-rock than jazz – and is available to buy for a puny £2. Charlie Beresford, guitar/voice, called coming together to record after lockdown an intense moment, “almost like the release of caged birds”.
Pushed into next year, bass player Olie Brice will unveil a new trio for his free compositions and four early-career composers, including Asha Parkinson and Roella Oloro, reveal their Breakthrough Commissions, taking to 20 the total of new Jazz South commissions up to spring.
Kate Westbrook, grande dame of forward-looking British jazz, calls the Jazz South commission a lifeline. With composer husband Mike and the Granite Band she has recorded Says the Duke, a tribute to Duke Ellington. She adds that “at our age” there were times earlier this year when she and Mike wondered whether they had played their last gig. But with the vaccine arriving they’re making plans for next year, including a Ronnie Scotts date. “We have a few ideas bubbling away,” she says.
So, defying lockdown, virus, and locked halls, the bands play on.
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LINKS: Jazz South Radar Sessions
Jazz South is a three-year jazz development programme, led and hosted by Turner Sims Southampton, with funding from Arts Council England