Herts Jazz Festival (15-17 October 2021)

The Herts Jazz Festival returns in October, running from Friday 15 to Sunday 17. Preview by Peter Vacher:

Simon Spillett Big Band in 2015. Photo credit: Melody McLaren

Oh, to be in Bishops Stortford at festival time. Well, that’s what it feels like writing this preview piece some months ahead of the restored Herts Jazz Festival’s (HJF) actual kick-off on 15 October. After a year like no other, with major festivals crashing and burning as organisers accepted the inevitable, the re-instatement of a live music event like this one is not only a blessing to the jazz musicians involved, but a potential joy for audiences so long deprived of the real thing. YouTube and Facebook may have filled the void to some degree but hey, they’re not the same as a festival, are they?

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When it comes to organising festivals, tours and bands, HJF supremo Clark Tracey is a doer, a make-things-happen-person. Where some jazz musicians wait for the phone to ping or the e-mail to flash, well, Clark is the reverse. He’s out there, talent-spotting and putting bands together, finding them work, running recording sessions, setting up clubs, hustling gigs, playing drums, teaching, and, yes, creating and running the Herts Jazz Festival. Now here he is launching HJF the tenth, up and running again in a tribute to his tenacity and wide-ranging awareness of all that is best on the British jazz scene.   

“The Herts Jazz team are excited with the prospect of going ahead with our festival, especially since most of the other festivities in the UK have had to either postpone or cancel. We will be one of the few jazz festivals to present a full programme this year,” Clark told me proudly.

Speaking about this year’s line-up, he stressed, “We always like to focus on the evening concerts of the weekend as our highlights – this year we’ve booked the Darius Brubeck Quartet on our opening night, Liane Carroll on the Saturday evening and the Simon Spillett Big Band on Sunday night, performing the music of Tubby Hayes. Our theme has been and always will be ‘quality first’. We avoid trends in favour of artistic ability and we attempt to provide jazz music of substance,” he added, gratifyingly.  

It’s that accent on quality and creative enterprise that characterises the bands and players chosen to play this year’s Herts Jazz Festival. It features a pleasing mix of headliners like those mentioned above alongside newer, younger players and a canny veteran or two. Take 81-year old tenorist Art Themen, HJF’s Patron since 2013 and a stalwart improviser with a jazz pedigree as long as your arm. Enterprisingly, his Festival Sextet includes such up-and-comers as saxophonist Alex Clarke and pianist Will Barry. Plus Clark Tracey himself, of course. 

Then there’s the intriguingly-titled Wakey Blakey (or, more prosaically, the Ingham-Davison Sextet) tackling the Art Blakey legacy, with trumpeter James Davison partnering trombonist Rory Ingham and reeds specialist Alex Hitchcock, the redoubtable Misha Mullov-Abbado on bass and Clark Tracey again on drums. Ex-NYJO star Ingham turns up a second time as the guest of the Herts Youth Jazz Ensemble later in the weekend.   

Add in sets by Dave Newton, Nikki Iles and Stan Sulzmann, John Etheridge with festival favourite Vasilis Xenopoulos, plus an intriguing Winston Clifford group and the always startling altoist Gilad Atzmon with Ross Stanley and Clark on drums, or Derek Nash’s popular Picante and you’ll get a sense that this festival offers something of a buyer’s guide to the very best in modern mainstream British jazz.

And let’s hear it for the onstage excitement occasioned by a festival special, a rare appearance by the mighty 17-piece Simon Spillett Big Band, with Tubby Hayes biographer and tenor-saxophonist Simon leading from the front. Interesting to note that the original Tubby Hayes big band performed this music (or some of it) on the very same stage way back in 1964. 

That’s the what and the how of the Herts Jazz Festival, now to the where. “We moved to South Mill Arts in Bishops Stortford two years ago after the Welwyn Garden City people decided we were not paying them enough at Campus West,” Clark recalled. “Fortunately for us a Herts-based jazz festival means we have a large area in which to find a decent alternative venue that suits our needs and South Mill Arts in Bishop Stortford proved ideal in every respect.”

Festival communications chief Stephen Hyde endorsed Clark’s views, when he told me, “Feedback from our audiences in 2019 [there was no festival in 2020, of course] was excellent. The acoustics are as good as anywhere and the  staff – both back of house and front – are the best we have ever  worked with. This all comes together to give a great festival atmosphere,” he affirmed.

Let’s leave the final word to festival director Clark Tracey: “We started our Festival in 2011 so, excluding last year, this will be our tenth year. Our aim is to continue to grow in numbers and popularity and hopefully become an annual alternative to our counterparts in other parts of the country.”

Stirring words indeed, but having noted the excellence of  this year’s artist roster, and knowing something of Clark’s exceptional determination and drive, not to say that of his team, I see no reason to doubt that these ambitious aims for the festival will be achieved, starting this October!

Tickets for individual gigs, day and weekend tickets for HJF are on sale now. See website link below.

LINK: Herts Jazz Festival website

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