Jazz at Buxton Festival (Opening Weekend Round-up)

Buxton International Festival is now in its 43rd year. Traditionally a platform for opera and literature, this year saw the premier of its first ever official jazz series. Most of the performances took place at the Palace Hotel, as well as the occasional evening show at Buxton Opera House or Pavilion Arts Centre, featuring performances by a wide array of artists; from Clare Teal to Jay Phelps. Charles Rees attended the opening weekend and writes:

Ian Shaw & Guy Barker – City to City / Friday, 8 July at Palace Hotel Buxton

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Ian Shaw. Phone snap by Neil Hughes

City to City, according to Ian Shaw, is a “show about place.. after so long with no place to go”. It thus featured a set of music about places, from Cole Porter’s “Get Out of Town” to The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset”, as well as songs that the performers relate to various locations they have toured or stayed over their years in the business. The show had been advertised as featuring ‘stunning songs and anecdotes’, and it certainly didn’t disappoint in the latter category either. Shaw is infamously witty on mic, sharing some tales which were almost farcical; the one about the lisping vicar from his childhood comes to mind (you had to be there…).

Guy Barker was equally as engaging on the mic, telling his own share of stories about his stuntman father, border-agent exchanges in Florida and much more. Though recent illness has somewhat limited his stamina on the trumpet, he gave a great performance of his own, especially his soulful rendition of Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell for You”. The show included much more than just laughs.. these two effortlessly pulled around emotions in the room. Shaw’s dedication to the late Tina May was especially moving, and that was certainly palpable in the room.

Personally, the absolute highlight of the performance came from Shaw’s rendition of “Wichita Lineman”. He has sung it with its composer, Jimmy Webb, in the past and obviously has great respect for the song (described by Bob Dylan as “the greatest ever written”).. it was certainly done justice here. Overall, Shaw and Barker’s chemistry, shared professional experience and sheer ability to make an audience feel relaxed – especially important for a festival such as this – made for an all-round enjoyable show.

Swingtime Big Band with Emma Holcroft & Special Guests / Friday, 8 July at Pavilion Arts Centre

Emma Holcroft with Swingtime Big Band.

This northern-based big band drew an audience of three-hundred plus to Pavilion Arts Centre, taking the venue to its full capacity. There was obviously an appetite for large-ensemble jazz at Buxton Festival, particularly one such as Swingtime, who’s performances are a throw-back to the golden-age of big band jazz.

Their set did not disappoint, with charts from the pads of orchestras including Woody Herman, Buddy Rich and even the lesser-known Buddy Bregman Band, among others. There were some especially iconic numbers in the mix: Billy Byers’ arrangement of “All of Me”, originally written for Count Basie’s band, was probably the most memorable – anyone familiar with it can imagine how that tune was just the right thing to engage the audience after the interval…

Vocalist Emma Holcroft did a spectacular job and was an absolute hit with the audience. Her obvious love of the tradition informed what was a very mature and professional act. And she wasn’t the only guest: observant members of the audience will have spotted that the trumpet section gained a fifth player in the second set: Guy Barker. His addition helped the band to swing just that bit more. The final guest was Ian Shaw, who sang several numbers but absolutely stole the show with his rendition of “You Don’t Know Me”.

Graham Clark Quartet / Friday, 8 July at Palace Hotel Buxton

Graham Clark and his quartet are local to the Buxton area, and don’t have the same national reputation that many of the other acts at the festival enjoy. Clark is himself a violinist, but stylistically miles away from the Grappelli stereotype. This was a late concert, kicking off at 10:30, but that didn’t prevent the quartet from drawing a very respectable crowd. Listeners were able to enjoy a set of music that payed homage to songs by the more unsung composers of modern jazz, including Ralph Towner’s “Icarus”, Kenny Wheeler’s “Everybody’s Song But My Own”, Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino” and even a Phil Lee number! Clark also presented an original of his own, in much the same vein as the other tunes, plus an appealing interpretation of the spiritual “Deep River”.

Clark was joined by Richard Wetherall on piano, Paul Baxter on bass, and Johnny Hunter on drums. All players were obviously well-listened when it comes to this style of jazz, demonstrating great respect and love for it. They continued uninterrupted until midnight, ending with a room impressively still at about half capacity. Those who stayed to the end got to enjoy a more familiar finale in the form of “Bye Bye Blackbird”, but performed in a style seemingly inspired by the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio. Not knowing what to expext, this gig was chock-full of nice surprises.

The Impossible Gentlemen / Saturday, 9 July at Palace Hotel Buxton

LINK: Full review here.

Dave Hassell’s Hydra / Saturday, 9 July at Palace Hotel Buxton

L-R: Nik Svarc, Dave Hassell & Andy Scott

This time-slot was originally billed as the Fabled Trio featuring Laura Jurd, but, following that gig’s cancellation, drummer Dave Hassell and his trio stepped in. Joining him was Andy Scott on tenor sax, and Nik Svarc on guitar; the trio go by the name Hydra. A lineup such as this immediately draws parallels with the Paul Motian/Joe Lovano/Bill Frisell trio, and there were a few similarities: Svarc’s guitar playing had a Frisellian quality, particularly in slower numbers but also in the freer interpretations of tunes like “All Blues”. A Frisell tune by the name of “In Deep” actually made it into the set, though – somewhat ironically – Svarc’s playing here was more akin to John Scofield.

Dave Hassell’s drumming philosophy was very free and not as wedded to time-keeping as a Max Roach or Kenny Clarke, thus it also drew further parallels with Paul Motian. He periodically brought out some fairly unusual percussion pieces as well, at one point playing a broken beat on two squeaking pig toys (the audience found this most amusing). Andy Scott’s finest moment came on the ballad “My One and Only Love”, which the trio interpreted very freely and approached more as a song than as an opportunity for long-form improvisation.

A gig such as this, with a set comprised almost entirely of standards might have sounded like a jam session. These, however, were free, open interpretations of the songs which were fare more interesting and engaging than that. The 10:30 jazz time slot at Buxton Festival – perhaps incidentally – consistently featured some quite innovative, non-conventional music, helping to broaden the variety of styles.

Buxton Festival jazz director Neil Hughes

Other jazz performances over the weekend came from Clare Teal, Xhosa Cole, Jay Phelps and the AMC Gospel Choir. Though the weekend has now drawn to a close, Buxton festival will continue over the course of next week, with further performances still to come from NYJO, Jeremy Sassoon, Nigel Price and others

The venues were consistently packed-out, showing that there is demand here for these kinds of music, and the apparent cross-over appeal to opera fans was encouraging. This first-ever jazz programme at Buxton International Festival was something of a try-out; it was a resounding success. Surely jazz will be back in Buxton next year…

Booking link for remaining shows

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