Swanage Jazz Festival, 7-9 July 2023
Review by Jon Turney
Coming up to six o’clock on Friday evening, there’s a pleasant sea breeze offsetting hot sunshine outside the main marquee, Alan Barnes’ alto is tearing into Art Pepper’s Straight Life to close his festival opening set, and all’s right with the world.
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For its 32nd edition, Swanage’s organisers have put recent ups and downs behind them and the festival seems stable again as a volunteer-run event – with limited resources, cleverly deployed. You won’t hear any international stars, or anything too left-field, but there’ll be a slew of home-based ensembles of quality, most of them based near enough to the Dorset coast to motor back to base after the gig.
The programme has grown a bit since last year, with more music on Friday afternoon, and finding the cash to reinstate the festival marquee overlooking the seafront means there are now four venues in use simultaneously. So like any decent festival, a reviewer can only report on a sample of what went down.
For me, that meant Friday was alto sax day. Barnes played baritone and clarinet too, but sounds most himself on alto. The excellent Dorset-resident pianist Philip Clouts, indoors at the other main venue the Mowlem Theatre a little later, featured Sam Eagles on alto to good effect. Clouts is a resourceful composer of frequently African-inflected tunes and Eagles even conjured the spirit of Abdullah Ibrahim’s one-time duo partner Carlos Ward on one number. Then the Mowlem evening closed with a rousing soul-jazz party courtesy of Tony Kofi’s Inside Straight. The leader’s alto was again the most incisive solo voice, as befits a band who play tunes from Cannonball Adderley’s repertoire, but there were additional front-line fireworks from Hugh Pascall on trumpet and Dennis Rollins’ trombone.
Early (11.00am!) Saturday saw an agreeable early palate cleanser from another band of Africophiles, guitarist Dan Somogyi’s Thokozile Collective in the festival’s club venue – Swanage Conservative club hosting jazz again, though sadly without a real piano on the premises. Then pianist Rebecca Nash’s quintet took the Mowlem stage. Very satisfying to hear how her well-conceived Redefining Element 78 suite is developing with some changes in personnel – notably new recruit Nick Walters on luminous trumpet. This is music with plenty of room to grow in performance, and it shows.
That meant missing rising piano trio Yetii in the Conservative club, a set quite a few people were praising afterwards, but plenty of time to head back there for saxophonist John Lloyd’s “European” quartet. Not so many people did, as they were programmed against both Arun Gosh’s band and the formidable guitar pairing of Nigel Price and Alessio Menconi, but they delivered a beautifully European set in the sense Lloyd is using the term. His tunes are steeped in the ECM aesthetic, and he and long-time collaborator John Law on piano make it sound like the only music you ever want to hear. In a typical Swanage move, brilliant young drummer Alex Goodyear powered Yetii’s set, then moved seamlessly into the flow of Lloyd’s quartet. This was a memorable set that left one eager to hear the quartet’s yet to be released recording.
Goodyear proved he was a man of taste by sticking around to hear the next offering in the club, the reunited Perfect Houseplants. This Brit-jazz supergroup from the ‘90s played two storming sets to a packed house. Original members Huw Warren on keys, Mark Lockheart on sax, and Dudley Philips on bass were joined by drummer Tim Giles in place of Martin France, and rolled out a couple of old tunes before unveiling a collection of new music that continued their sprightly explorations of all manner of influences: folk, world and classical. Philips and Lockheart have both continued to play with Warren in other contexts and the three are perfectly at home together. Now they’ve revived this band, they surely need to record again too.
That was an appearance to sleep on, so your reviewer passed on both harpist Alina Bzhezhinska and Claire Martin’s late sets in the two main venues. That helped get going in time for bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado’s sextet just after midday on Sunday. It’s a great band, all bristling with competence as jazz graduates do these days. Some fine soloists, notably Alex Hitchcock on sax, enhanced the leader’s compositions. Still, the set left a faint impression that while the leader is hugely talented, everything comes so easily the music lacks emotional heft. Not enough grit in this oyster, for my taste.
Sunday lunch cut across Dave O’Higgins and Rob Luft’s quintet, but happily Luft remained on the Mowlem stage to illuminate Corrie Dick’s compositions in the drummer’s sextet. Luft’s guitar really is a colossal asset to any band he is in, rather like the drummer/leader. Then it was time to appreciate the enduring quality of Bristol stars Get the Blessing, still purveying their signature blend of drum’n’bass and jazz with as much discipline as exuberance, before a contrast probably only Swanage could provide. By Sunday night audiences were thinning out but over in the festival’s fourth venue, the Children’s Centre, there was still a faithful full house for the traditional jazz stream. That finished with a ten-piece band led by Chris Hodgkins, revisiting his tribute to Humphrey Lyttelton. And it was quite a band, graced by Henry Lowther on trumpet alongside Hodgkins, and contributing new arrangements of a couple of Lyttelton/Buck Clayton pieces that indicated a devotion to the style Lowther fans may not have been aware of. A great way to finish an eclectic, engaging festival.