Jazz Central Festival
(1000 Trades, Birmingham. 8 -10 September 2023. Round-up by Tony Dudley-Evans)
- Shiv Singh – ‘Loophole’ – with Soweto Kinch
- Lucy Mellenfield – ‘Songs of the Understory’ – with Neil Yates
- James Owston – ‘Songs from An Imaginary Childhood’ – with Trish Clowes
- Liam Brennan’s – ‘Collidescope’ with Laura Jurd
- Dan Lockheart – ‘Roots to Leaves’ with Alex Hitchcock
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Jazz Midlands, the consortium of jazz promoters in the West Midlands established by Birmingham Jazz, has set up a Mentoring Scheme with the name Jazz Central in which young Birmingham-based musicians, selected through an open call, are commissioned to write a set of music, and are mentored by an established musician during the writing and rehearsal process.
This scheme addresses the issue of how recent graduates from tertiary level jazz courses begin to make a name for themselves after graduation. For the three or four years of their courses, jazz students are in a comfortable bubble, able to play regularly and to be part of a close-knit community. On graduation, life becomes much more difficult, gigs can be few and far between, and many become dependent on teaching work which allows little time for creative music.
The Jazz Central Mentoring Scheme has responded to the need for support for these young graduates. Interestingly, The Vortex is also planning a programme of gigs for recent graduates from the London colleges. We could also mention the B:Music commission programme from which has emerged projects such as Piera Onacko’s un.procedure,Alicia Gardener-Trejo’s Home and Steve Saunders’ Arche.
The five commissions were premiered in Birmingham over the weekend of 8 to 10 September, and each one will also take place in one of the clubs across the region in the Jazz Midlands scheme.
First up was the group led by bass player Shivraj Singh who worked with Soweto Kinch on his project. Soweto joined the group for the set, as was the case with all the mentors.
This was a set that moved between some very interesting angular compositions that featured excellent interaction between Soweto and guitarist Steve Saunders, and gentler pieces on which Soweto’s use of the EWI (electronic wind instrument) was prominent. There was always a strong pulse provided by Shivraj himself and Luke D’Aurelio on drums.
Vocalist Lucy Mellenfield worked with trumpeter Neil Yates on her Songs of the Understory. Neil Yates was an inspired choice as mentor as his own work bringing together elements of jazz and folk clearly fitted extremely well with Lucy Mellenfield’s approach. She presented a series of original songs accompanied by herself, initially on piano and then on guitar. These songs had a beautifully gentle and occasionally melancholy atmosphere greatly aided by Yates’ contributions, alternating between trumpet and flugelhorn, and occasionally with the rhythms of the bodhran, and also by the attractive guitar lines from Tom Henry.
Bass player James Owston worked with saxophonist/composer Trish Clowes, creating some very strong compositions, based largely on childhood memories. Owston is an extremely flexible performer, and is equally at home in a free jazz context with Paul Dunmall as in a straightahead context with Clark Tracey. So it was no surprise that there was a good deal of variety in the writing for the group. They had played in Stourbridge the previous evening, and the soloists were clearly at ease with the compositions. Both Clowes and pianist Nick Manz both impressed in their solos, and both Owston and drummer Matt Holmes provided strong rhythmic support.
Saxophonist Liam Brennan was mentored by Laura Jurd with whom he developed new compositions for his Collidoscope group. This is a group that has been together for some time and features James Borland on trumpet who also contributed a couple of the compositions. Tommy Fuller, back for the gig from his studies in Basel, was on bass and Kai Chareunsy was on drums. The front line with two trumpets and alto saxophone created some very interesting and unique textures in the compositions, and the set impressed by the way it moved seamlessly between the writing and the improvised solos.
The final set featured saxophonist Dan Lockheart who was mentored by fellow saxophonist Alex Hitchcock and who was leading a group with Torin Davies on guitar, Josh Vadiveloo on double bass and Jim Bashford on drums. They played a straight through set based on the theme of trees with the title Roots to Leaves, featuring poems related to the theme. These poems formed the inspiration for the compositions and were woven into the music as each piece evolved. The success of the set was built on the strength of the solos from Lockheart and Hitchcock and the interaction between the spoken word and the instrumental music.
Jazz Central is an important project overseen by Arnie Somogyi, bass player and tutor on the jazz course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. The good news is that Birmingham Jazz has been successful in obtaining a second grant to enable the project to be repeated next year.
Tony Dudley-Evans was Chair and programmer for Birmingham Jazz until 2012 when he and Mary Wakelam Sloan integrated with Town Hall Symphony Hall (now B:Music) as Jazzlines.