Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music
(The Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle. 6 and 7 October 2023. Report by Peter Slavid)
Peter Slavid writes: This year’s 7th Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music had already been running for two weeks; I caught just two days.
Friday 6 October.
I arrived on the Friday evening in the beautiful Members Library. Improvised music isn’t often described as charming, but this early evening gig was exactly that. The duo Balo is comprised of Manon McCoy on a full scale pedal harp with added electronics, and Will Shaw on percussion. McCoy mainly played the harp conventionally and often lyrically, but also scraped and muted the strings and finished the set using a bow inserted between the strings. Meanwhile Shaw used brushes mallets and lots of rim-shots to provide a constant rhythmic backdrop. While McCoy bowed the harp, Shaw rattled seed shells and bowed his cymbals bring this set to an atmospheric close.
Next in the larger room was Miman, the Scandinavian trio of Hans Kjorstad (Fiddle) / Andreas Røysum (Clarinet) / Egil Kalman (Bass and Synths). There were periods when this sounded rather harsh and random, particularly after the first gig, but as is often the way with this sort of music there were then periods when everything came together perfectly.
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The next gig was performed by Semay Wu (Cello and Electronics) seated on the floor using lots of objects as well as the cello. This raised the interesting debate for those audience members who couldn’t see how the sounds were being created. Does the visual element matter, or is it better just to listen to the sounds?. The sounds created were intricate and unusual. There was also a section where she used (and abused) the cello to create even more ferocious sounds.
There was definitely a theatrical element to the final Friday gig by Sebastian Lexer (Piano and Electronics) / Martin Mayes (Orchestral Horn / Alphorn) / Steve Noble (Drums and Percussion). Instruments don’t come more visually arresting than the Alpenhorn which has been used in jazz before, but not often. To add to this Mayes played a conch shell at one point as well. Noble is a dramatic and powerful drummer dropping bombs into the music while constantly prodding and probing. Lexer’s keyboard performance was by comparison relatively undramatic, but the sounds created were fascinating and atmospheric, and were a key part of the overall sound.
Saturday 7 October.
I unexpectedly managed to catch an afternoon performance by the delightful folksy duo of Olivia Moore (violin) / Adam Fairhall (accordions) playing folk music from UK, India, Balkans and Appalachia as well as some of Fairhall’s Cornwall infused compositions.
The evening started with an amazing performance by Rie Nakajima (Objects and Toys) described as “an improvising sound sculpture performance”. The floor was scattered with an apparently random selection of objects. In fact many were tiny battery operated devices that rotated or rattled. Nakajima started them up in turn and placed them next to some other random object to create a sound – a rattle or a scrape. As more of these were added the sound built up. I don’t think you could call it music, but watching the performance made it an engrossing and fascinating piece of improvising and performance art..
This was followed by another solo cello performance – It should have been a duo, but the percussionist was prevented from travelling by the floods in Scotland. It was an absorbing solo performance mixing harsh scrapings with that beautiful poignant sound that only the cello can achieve.
Next up was the truly outstanding Danish duo of Laura Toxværd (Saxophone) and Jeppe Zeeberg (Piano). Toxværd is capable of sounding lyrical or with harsh overblowing and she switches easily between them. She often wandered the room playing from the back or the sides. Meanwhile Zeeberg played the piano with fingers, hands, arms and elbows – as well as occasional thumps on the pedals, hand claps and finger clicks. His playing had every sort of style in it. You could hear stride piano, bebop, classical influences and more, and plenty of wit. This was a hugely percussive performance, reminding me a little of Pat Thomas. Percussive and yet musical and definitely a conversation with Toxværd. At one point she stood at the back of the room issuing a plaintive cry and walking slowly down the aisle until Zeeberg responded with a torrent of chords.
The final set featured three of Europe’s improvising royalty. Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser, French Guitarist Marc Ducret and Danish drummer Peter Bruun. All bandleaders themselves, but playing here in a trio that has been thrilling European audiences for over 10 years.
Blaser uses the full range of the trombone’s sounds and timbres, matched by Ducret’s plinking and thumping which is usually discordant but somehow seems to fit perfectly. Meanwhile Bruun plays in odd rhythms that sometimes contrast and sometime match the others.
This was complex, powerful and totally engrossing music from three masters of their instruments bringing my visit to a splendid close.
Peter Slavid broadcasts a programme of European Jazz on mixcloud.com/ukjazz and various internet stations