23rd February – 26th February 2017
Reviewed by Joe Coventry
It was Doris Day. No not that one, but the storm, that hit the 5th International Festival of Jazz the most. First night headliners Sons Of Kemet were derailed en route and had to cancel, but fortunately all was not lost. As Artistic Director Neil Campbell explained, support act, Liverpool’s own Blind Monk Trio would play a full set, and they did not disappoint.
Tongue in cheek leader Bob Whittaker’s “on behalf of Sons of Kemet, we are very sorry” played his tenor sax with verve, as bassist Hugo Harrison and guest drummer Luke Flowers ably conjoined in a set that occupied the space of expectation and conjunction that jazz is all about. After a red shift in the lights a monosyllabic sax on the fourth track grew from a fledgling Toot The Tiny Tug Boat parping to some gale force blasts worthy of Doris herself. Their own Three Blind Monks featured an extensive bass intro to extended free improvisations from all before it tailed away. A reedy breath controlled finale ended the evening.
Day Two started with Wandering Monster. The five musicians made a deep resonant start and it was good to see Calvin Travers on electric guitar vying for the floor with Ben Parling on tenor sax in Shark And Ride. The band play from the extremes, but out of the confused melee came a crescendo of sax to finish. Hot Rod and The Rush Begins, followed the full on throttle ‘no space left’ formula before the pace dropped for Alex Pedroza’s soulful piano and Tom Higham’s baffled drums to express themselves. Innovate at will this collective surely can and they thrilled a full audience with Pedroza on tip toe playing inside his piano lid before collapsing a convulsed gothic left hand off the keys, before normality returned.
Could the night get any better? Mammal Hands from the Manchester-based Gondwana stable strode on stage and managed just that. The trio, Nick Smart piano, Jesse Barrett drums and tabla, are led by an undoubted talent, saxophonist Jordan Smart. The latter’s extrapolation and breath control on his instrument(s) was astonishing in a set that featured jazz, world and folk elements.
Hour Glass started it all off with what sounded like a gamelan threnody backed by eerie co-mingling from piano and drums. The sax lead was so prominent in most numbers that his side-kicks were almost redundant, until they got a chance to showcase while he resorted to yogic breathing exercises in the shadows off stage. Change the time signature though and he was back in with a vengeance. The Tabula Rasa encore blue skied it to a cacophonous Sufi-like dervish whirl on his instrument. Brilliant. Catch them where you can.
For something different on Saturday the MILAP concert saw a meeting of Indian Raga and Balkan Braggadocio as Jyotsna Srikanth(electric violin) teamed up with collaborationist, Daphna Sadeh (upright bass) and her troupe. In a Middle-Eastern tango the sax of Stewart Curtis was to the fore. Next Reconciliation had the same player on flute and echoing Ian Anderson, as the violin came plaintively to life with the strumming of Mike Vince and guitarist Mark Smulian finding his feet, in a coming together of cultures and ideas that was a smack in the face to an increasingly fractured world.
Sprint had the audience clapping along in Raga inspired metre as Srikanth doubled on voice. In Now Is The Time, a lugubrious vehicle for alto sax, Smulian played Philip Catherine style chords of his own. My Russian Heart had them all pulling out the stops in a Cossack camp fire free for all; Sadeh playing growly bear-like sounds with a bow on her bass as the rest joined in the revelry.
As an encore, a feast of textures and rhythms inspired by Jewish themes, Voyage saw the band cross continents from an inspired oud-like violin lead. Different and very well received by a full crowd.
Traditionally the mid afternoon slot is given over to some of the best of the North West’s jazz talent to perform in the foyer for free. This year Firebird Quartet and Johnny Hunter and his men bookended Pat McCarthy’s foursome, who were led from the front by caramel smooth ‘voice’ Shannon Reilly. Not bad for nothing.
Locally based Norwegian Viktor Nordburg brought his charisma and drumming skills to a less well attended early evening session. Playing tracks from his keenly awaited new CD, Proxima the Trio, Barry Dalman piano) and Grant Russell (double bass) started with First Things; a drone-like tintinnabulation on drums, calming keys, bass echoing both, before a power play of honest artisan follow up. There was a piece for his three-year-old son, Tiny Super Hero’s; not hard to find inspiration there, before Last Breath, one for the road, enhanced his Viking credentials, it’s striving longboat rhythm subsiding into a cathartic docking.
Top billing went to the Dave Helbock Trio, an eccentric amalgam of piano, drums and bass ukelele. The stripey hatted Austrian began with his version of the slow movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony for piano. The shocking pink trousered, Fellaini cropped, faun-like bass ukulele player(Raphael Preuschel) slumped in his seat, throughout. Helbock spent most of his time in the back of his souped up piano producing Keystone Cops stuff; expressive da! da! da! territory rather than La! La! Land !
Next Bacchus and Eros were evoked, a repost to too many monotheistic Gods on the planet, the faux bassist adding his own questioning dissonance. By now Rheinhold Smolzer was producing noises with the wrong end of his drumsticks and as the lights went Masque Of The Red Death red in a comatose intro to the next, the pianist stabbed away arthritically as the kitman overshadowed the gasping for life bass hybrid. It was tricky dicky, wacky and totally off the wall – but thoroughly watchable.
Contrast that with the following lunch time set from tenor saxophonist Ian Ballamy and pianist Hew Warren. Playing from an a la carte listing the pair held their sense of humour despite the middling turnout. Brazilian Hermeto Pascoal featured large in the selection, his The Light That Guides Us leading proceedings. Bizarrely Chopin’s Death March followed, pregnant with feeling. The plangency of The Lad’s In Their Hundreds by George Butterworth wiped the smile off the face of a bouncy vaudevillesque Pascoal number.
And so it went: Warren had his own remembered reverie, Christ Church, New York, Ballamy recalled writing Floater after a bender in Oslo. Only the Jacques Loussier inspired piece on a Bach fugue left everyone I spoke to guessing what it was. After a ‘bonzai beserk’ round of applause they graciously ended in a Brazilian rain forest encore.
Neil Cowley’s Trio completed the festival with the evening gig. On stage with him were Rex Horan (bass), Evan Jenkins (drums) and guest Dom Monks on keys and FX. There was hardly any room for the band to get on the claustrophobic set.
After a crescendo of noise the otherworldly bass hinted at Wagnerian mystique, as intermittent chords resounded in a cosmic miasma of sound. Keeping it Earth-Centric, Horan moved on to mini keyboard as timorously harmonic drums complemented a ‘city in the stars’ build-up of manic rock magnitude that showcased the new album Spacebound Apes.
Cowley, on piano, now moves in hallowed territory having backed pop diva Adele to chart topping success. In this new ‘half man half ape’ concept album the beating rhythm of the music to and fro-ed well within his comfort zone. A multi-layered platform for all to show off their talents satisfying expectations but not necessarily bringing all the audience along on the trip before a rousing finale.