Round-up review: Guildhall School Jazz Festival



Guildhall Jazz Festival (24th and 26th March, Guildhall School, fourth and sixth days of festival)

The Guildhall Jazz Festival 2011 contained one event which I can already see in contention for a place in my gigs of the year. The festival has expanded this year. It encompassed twelve events over six days, and for the first time included an Improvisation Fringe, co-ordinated by Gail Brand. The whole festival was led by Head of Jazz studies Martin Hathaway.

Thursday

I caught the second half, but wow. It consisted of Malcolm Edmonstone directing a complete, fresh re-creation of the 1982 album "The Nightfly" by Donald Fagen from the keyboard, and based on transcriptions by Edmonstone himself with the students support.

Until about a week before the concert it had not been clear whether the ambition to have all eight tracks of the album performance-ready was realistic, so the advance publicity had been limited. In the event it was a complete triumph.

The visual layout and the circumstances of the performance reminded me of what it must have been like for Bach to get his St. John Passion ready for Good Friday in Cothen. Indeed, "The Nightfly" in live performance has something of the feel and the visuals of Mark Padmore’s recent attempt to re-create the original performance feel of the St. John Passion.

Like the Passion, it captures fervour, but the object here is not religious, rather a deliciously palpable venal mood of eighties naivety and optimism. Not just the Zeitgeist, but also perhaps Fagen branching out from Steely Dan. To hear such words as: "What a beautiful world this will be / What a glorious time to be free" "We'll be eternally free yes and eternally young" sung with such indomitable conviction and energy by a group of nineteen- and twenty-year olds was very moving, and will stay in the mind for a very long time. Cynicism, world-weariness get quickly forgotten in these circumstances.

The two-way traffic of mutual inspiration and affection between a musical director and the musically directed sometimes just works alchemically. All the performers on Thursday were absolutely giving of their all, caught in the elation of a moment which, even after one of the tracks had been encored, was over all too quickly.

What will I remember? Sleeve-rolling-up remarks from Edmonstone like “now I have to do some work” before one number, the warm alto saxophone sound of young Scot Ru Pattison in the transcribed Brecker solos; then there was the sight of one of the top drummers in Europe in the audience in the row in front of me, moving with the rhythms, not missing a split-second; and the Guildhall Singers (including fine soloists) swaying in rhythm, responding, being asked to nail things and hitting them every time; a pair of bright pink shoes - it was all a part of just being completely transfixed.

This performance deserves to be seen again, recorded, filmed, immortalized.

Saturday.



The culmination of the festival was a concert featuring ten pieces by Stan Sulzmann for big band. "The thing about writing." said Sulzmann, "is that you need the opportunity, and a band to write it for."

The earliest work was his remarkable and richly fulfilling, growing, powerful arrangement of the standard "The Thrill is Gone," the first arrangement Sulzmann did for big band. (That is as hard to believe as it is to write). It appears on that memorable, treasurable album from 2000, now quite hard to obtain, Birthdays Birthdays (Village Life - above).

The most recent works were new commissions from the Guildhalll School receiving their first performances at this concert. An idea which Sulzmann had taken to heart is to arrange compositions by other British musicians for big band. Sulzmann is such a huge and respected presence on the British jazz scene, that these other writers tend to be people who at some point have benefited from being nurtured, encouraged, "brought on." This is part of his unique contribution to British music. Just one example: he told the story of a fourteen year old alto saxophonist from Guildford who had been invited to play with him at the Bulls Head. The young Iain Ballamy was doubtless daunted by the prospect of playing with Sulzmann, but will have left that gig emboldened for a life, and for a career and a profile in music which is still strengthening.

But the main deal was Sulzmann’s writing for band. Sulzmann takes good tunes and then as writer and as improviser goes through a process of doubly out-thinking them. On Nikki Iles' “Westerly,” there was sumptuous writing to state the theme for eight part brass chorus – superbly balanced by the players and directed by Martin Hathaway. But then the magic of a sax section countermelody, leaving the mood of solace and repose intact, and encouraging tenor soloist Alec Harper to solo in the spirit of the tune and float free. And then the unexpected interruption of the mood with stab chords, reinforcing what has gone before.

Another moment to savour was alto Ru Pattison dialoguing over a beautifully-played tuba (Theon Cross) countermelody on “Meaning of the Blues.” Sulzmann had introduced this tune by saying: “When I found out Gil Evans had arranged this tune, I thought: “Oh my Gawd, maybe I shouldn’t have.” The joyous full band ending to that chart gave its own answer. The chart deserves – and I would venture probably will - be played for generations.

The forward motion in these charts is irresistible, elements, cross-rhythms balance and converse. There's a sense of completeness. It’s a whole world apart from a contemporary classical composer whose work I heard later on the same evening on the radio. This man's method was to take a few so-so ideas and evidently stretch them out bby copy-pasting them with Sibelius software. I’m told it’s called minimalism. In that case, Stan Sulzmann is a maximalist. I know which I would rather hear.

Declaration of interest: I am a trustee of the Foundation for Young Musicans, supporting CYM, a division of Guildhall School

UPDATE: Trevor Bannister's review of Michael Garrick has appeared identically in

Jazzwise

The Jazz Mann

Jazz Journal

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