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Ambleside Days 2023

Ambleside Days Contemporary Music Festival
(31 August to 3 September 2023, Zeffirelli’s, Ambleside. Round-up review by Mike Collins)

L-R: Gwilym Simcock, Frank Harrison, Jason Rebello, Martin France, Zsófia Boros, Jim Hart, Derek Hook, Mike Walker, Steve Watts, Tim Garland, Emilia Mårtensson, Conor Chaplin, Asaf Sirkis, Mark Lockheart. Photo courtesy of Ambleside Days

The fifth edition of the Ambleside Days Contemporary Music Festival confirmed the staying power of the event and alchemical properties of the approach to programming, orchestrated by director and animateur of the festival, Derek Hook

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Each year, a shifting cast of musicians assembles, staying for most if not the whole of the long weekend of gigs hosted by Zeffirelli’s in the centre of Ambleside.  Four double-bill evening gigs provide the set-piece core of the festival, but there’s an ambush of beauty around every corner.  

In a Friday afternoon trio set, Gwilym Simcock, a fixture at the festival, and Conor Chaplin on bass and Martin France on drums, both back for their second year, provided a time-stood-still moment. Everyone’s Song But My Own emerged from a viscerally grooving vamp to shape-shift and flow, the melody somehow there in it all its soaring beauty, but not there as it twisted into new shapes.

Frank Harrison with Steve Watts and Martin France. Photo by Mike Collins

Pianist Frank Harrison was busy. As well as afternoon and evening sets, he appeared at the piano in the restaurant. On Saturday, dinners started to cool and pins were heard to drop in the kitchen as Harrison floated over a  Steve Watts pedal note on bass, then Emilia Mårtensson’s vocal unfurled Ralph Towner’s  Celeste,it was a luminous moment.

The evening gig on Friday started with a contemplative solo set from classical guitarist Zsófia Boros. Delicate timbres and subtly layered harmonies and moving parts conjured bitter sweet moods, concluding with Perle de Rosée a gently lilting piece written for her by French composer Mathias Duplessy. It was a dramatic contrast to the second set, a celebration of Joni Mitchell songs put together for the evening with Mårtensson providing vocals and skilfully crafted arrangements from the band-for-the-evening now with Jason Rebello at the piano, Jim Hart’s vibes, Mark Lockheart’s saxes, and Mike Walker, Conor Chaplin and Asaf Sirkis  for good measure.

Tim Garland. Photo by Mike Collins

Saturday night was a Tim Garland mini-residency with the first half presenting the duo of Garland and Jason Rebello on piano and their Life to Life set, and the second the Lighthouse Trio with Gwilym Simcock at the keys and Asaf Sirkis on percussion and drums. Garland and Rebello created more than enough energy and filled enough space for full orchestra between them. Whether a flood of glittering, flowing patterns from the piano on Bright New Year, the warm envelope of an emotional reading of Moon River, or the pel-mell momentum of Sama’i for Peace, the fluency, exchanges and together-ness were riveting.  The quality of communication was sustained with the trio. The mood of the music shifted, and the rhythms became more global. They started with a new suite, Sail to Hope, Simcock providing colour and rhapsodic accompaniment as well irresistible drive, Sirkis shadowing and nurturing every pulsating pattern and groove. Garland’s voice emerges as much in his composition as his playing, but the breadth and passion of his playing was arresting all evening. Another startling, unexpected I’ve-never-heard-it-like-that moment concluded the night as an irresistible, wonky piano riff launched Nostalgia in Time Square and Jim Hart joined the trio to raise the roof.

Simcock, Walker, Chaplin, Lockheart, France, Garland, Hart. Photo by Mike Collins

All to soon it was Sunday evening and the Ambleside family, as Simcock referred to the evening’s rotating cast, gradually stoked the emotional temperature. Bill Frisell’s Strange Meeting  gave space for thoughtful and yearning solos from Lockheart, Walker and Watts. Dave Holland’s Pass It On revved the energy up with its shuffling groove. Jim Hart’s Maison Music  had the joint jumping with its clubby dance music edge. Boros duetted with Walker and Garland to start the second set  before Mark Time took off and saw Garland and Lockheart bouncing off each other.  Holding, a cycling, steadily evolving hymn-like theme from the pen of Simcock produced lyrical and soaring solos all around and a magical moment before the riotous finale on Barber’s Blues.

Alongside the quality of the music at Ambleside Days, an impossible to miss open-ness and enjoyment of being together has become a feature of the weekend, evident for example in the pleasure the musicians visibly take at listening to gigs in which they are not involved. It’s one of the reasons no doubt that future dates are already being circled in calendars.

Mike Collins is a pianist and writer based in Bristol, who runs the jazzyblogman site. Twitter: @jazzyblogman

LINK: Ambleside Days website

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