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Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music 2021

Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music

(October 1-3 2021 – Festival Round-Up by Peter Slavid)

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A weekend – and more – of top quality music with an attentive listening audience is a joy at the best of times. In these circumstances, for most people the first jazz festival for almost two years, it was a special pleasure

The Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music (NFJIM) is now in its fourth year – ignoring the one last year that should have been the fourth.

After some warm-up events the previous weekend, and the Thursday Night double bill of Shiver (launching their new album) and Run Logan Run, the festival for me started on the Friday lunchtime. Throughout the weekend there were a selection of solo piano events and the first of these came from Robert Mitchell.

Robert Mitchell at the Lit + Phil – Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music- 1-Oct-2021 © Ken Drew

Robert started with a Geri Allen tune and included improvisations of his own in tribute to Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard as well as a Federico Mompou composition. Comparing the various different piano improvisations over the weekend is almost impossible, but Robert’s improvisation is characterised by the crispness of his playing. His ability to let every note be heard however fast he plays may be a matter of technique but it allows the quality of his improvisation to be heard clearly.

The next gig was a triple bill. First up was local cellist and singer Ceitidh Mac who, accompanied by percussionist Will Hammond, delivered a charming set that was perhaps more folk music than jazz. Then came the second solo piano set, this time from Kit Downes. Kit’s playing is much more dramatic than we heard from Robert, with slow brooding bass lines and thunderous rumbling. There are lots of melodic fragments thrown in and the occasional funky and bluesy sections. Totally different to what we heard earlier, but equally compelling.

Kit was then joined by Tom Herbert (bass) and Chris Montague (guitar) which comprises Chris’s band Warmer Than Blood. The music was mostly taken from last year’s eponymous album. Because of lockdown few of us had seen the band live, and with Tom seamlessly replacing their regular bass player Ruth Goller they played Chris’s complex tunes with some brilliant improvisation.

Zoë Gilby at Newcastle arts Centre – Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, Oct 2021 © Ken Drew

The early part of Saturday focussed on some of the best local musicians. It started with some more solo piano from Paul Edis, which I missed, and then the fine duo of Zoe Gilby and Andy Champion. Both use electronics to good effect’ with looping and distortion enhancing the music rather than masking it, as can so often happen. After them came the John Pope Quintet a group of fine improvisers led (and often manipulated) by John Pope on bass with Jamie Stockbridge (alto), Faye Maccalman (tenor & clarinet), Graham Hardy (trumpet) and Johnny Hunter on drums . One of the tunes was dedicated to Pope’s composing heroes Misha Mengelberg and Graham Collier, which gives a fair indication of the stylistic orientation of this band.

Pat Thomas at the Lit + Phil – Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, Oct 2021 © Ken Drew

The evening concert was without doubt the outstanding event of the weekend for me and for most of the audience. Pat Thomas started out in conversation with Andy Hamilton and talked interestingly of his time with Derek Bailey and others at the beginnings of the free jazz movement as well as about some of his experiences as a young black man in Oxford. His hour-long performance took a selection of well known Duke Ellington pieces which he seemed to pick from a book on the piano. Then he dismantled them, shook them up and put them back together in a very different shape. At times the sheer power of his playing left everyone in awe, with thunderous percussive chords. Then he would have the audience smiling with the witty way he twisted from the dramatic into a fragment of the melody. This was undoubtedly a gig to remember for a long time.

It was a bit unfair to make anyone follow Pat Thomas, and it certainly needed something very different. Alina Bzhezhinska’s HipHarp quartet made a valiant effort, putting out some powerful grooves and some stunning sounds from the harp.

And so to Sunday and more solo piano, this time from Zoe Rahman. She was probably the most melodic of the pianists, but still with plenty of fierce improvisation. She cleverly brought in snippets of various influences including some latin rhythms, some raunchy blues and some big dramatic classical sounds.

Fergus McCreadie – Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, Oct 2021 © Ken Drew

The final concert for me (but not quite for the NJAIMF which still had Huw Williams to come). This was the Fergus McCreadie trio. Another fine pianist whose recent album Cairn received high praise. As is so often the case, this band of young musicians from the increasingly influential Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow put on a live show that was even stronger than the album. McCreadie’s tunes often have a strong hint of Scottish folk music, and some lilting melodies that he develops into a powerful wall of sound with some thunderous chords.

A weekend of this sort of improvised music may not have mass appeal, but for those who enjoy it, this was a rare event – a festival that was exactly what it said – a festival of jazz and improvised music.

The event was put together by Wesley Stephenson, who also runs the New Jazz and Improvised Music record label. Let’s hope both the label and the festival thrive and that the festival is back next year with more great music.

Peter Slavid broadcasts a programme of European Jazz on and various internet stations

LINKS: For the most comprehensive review coverage of this festival, go to Bebop Spoken Here

Jazz North East website

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