2013 Herts Jazz Festival Round-Up

Reuben James at Herts Jazz Festival 2013
Photo credit: Melody McLaren . All Rights reserved

Herts Jazz Festival 2013
(Hawthorne Theatre, Welwyn Garden City - September 20-22. Review by Peter Vacher)

Herts Jazz Festival is everything a weekend jazz festival should be. The venue is excellent and it’s customer-friendly, with decent food and plenty of relaxed chatting space, the musical programme (courtesy Sylvia and Clark Tracey) is first-rate, topped this year by marquee favourite Georgie Fame, branding and publicity are spot-on, and the enthusiasm of its organisers is both engaging and business-like. Just to sample the buzz as audience members and musicians mingled between sets was enough to know that this year’s event was a success. And yes, numbers were up and the portents good enough to ensure that next year’s festival, the fourth in this rewarding series, will run from September 12-14.

Alyn Shipton has already written eloquently about the opening night‘s Stan Tracey Octet concert (minus the ailing Stan, unfortunately), Tracey’s invigorating pieces cast like miniature big band scores, call-and-response personified. Late on, it was the turn of the energetic pianist Tim Lapthorn to hold the attention of the last-minute stragglers in a foyer trio set, this setting in train an emerging festival strand as star pianists queued up and delivered performances of startling intensity.

Other priorities kept me away from the Festival’s middle day but reports suggested that the Ronnie Rae and Kenny Wheeler Quintets excelled, even as Django Bates puzzled some of the jazz diehards. (Melody McLaren's highlights are HERE).

Sunday‘s programme quickly settled any questions of jazz overload as the Reuben James trio kicked off the day. This hip young man came on blowing a melodica, looking sharp in a vividly patterned jacket and wearing a tasty snap-brim hat. His melodica excursion segued into a rumbustious version of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ that seemed to embrace a history of jazz piano, Garner-like delays contrasting with tumultuous chords and the kind of flashing keyboard runs that suggested he might even have sneaked a look at Liberace. James is a star in the making with confidence and technique to spare, whose keyboard dash enables him to move from crash-bang blues figures to light-touch boppish passages in a twinkle of the eye, never more than on his own tribute to the late Abram Wilson, ‘Gumbo’s Lullaby’. Drummer Moses Boyd stayed watchful, alert to James’s every unpredictable move and soloing with admirable panache, bassist Fergus Ireland on message, too.

Winston Clifford in the Tony Kofi Quartet
Herts Jazz 2013. Photo credit: Melody McLaren . All Rights Reserved

Tony Kofi
’ s follow-on was more sober but no less joyous, his quartet concentrating on the Monk canon, with Tony citing Thelonious as a giant of 20-th century composition and then underlining the point with a concert performance that married access to Monk’s varied themes with brilliant variations of his own. Kofi has the on-stage bearing and profile of one of sculptor of Elizabeth Frink’s warrior figures and a similarly heroic approach to improvisation. His alto, always impassioned, soared here over the exemplary rhythm patterns laid down by bassist Ben Hazleton and that most resourceful of drummers, Winston Clifford. Still, it was the compact form of Jonathan Gee at the piano that also drew the eye, no Monkian replications for him, rather wonderfully subtle variations, spacious and harmonically acute. Just to hear this foursome skewer ‘Misterioso’ was a kick .

Don Weller
Herts Jazz 2013. Photo credit: Melody McLaren . All Rights Reserved

Once Alan Barnes and trio had beguiled us in the lunch break, it was the newly invigorated Don Weller’s turn in the theatre. Looking good and in excellent shape musically, Don emphasised the sheer embarrassment of riches with which this festival was endowed, taking some familiar standards through a series of searching examinations, each marked by those characteristic tenor phrases of his, slipping and sliding around the beat. Don’s pianist, the on-form Dave Newton cut loose on his blues, ‘Old Blues Eyes’, his level of invention and drive as hugely pleasing as ever, with bassist Andy Cleyndert and drummer Dave Barry making this quartet sound like the tightest group on show. Bravo, Don. 

Mark Nightingale, Alastair White (with Alec Dankworth)
Herts Jazz 2013. Photo credit: Melody McLaren . All Rights Reserved

Mark Nightingale and Alistair White titled their two-trombone quintet session ‘Tribute to JJ & Kai.' Maybe so, but in reality it was a whole-hearted tribute to the skills of these two local bone-men, their blend and assertive soloing, like the best of tonics. Nightingale, a relaxed front-man, had beavered away, contributing originals, arranging others, while allowing enough room for yet another piano great, John Horler to create his own flow of clever ideas and interludes, the rhythm team of Dankworth and Tracey good for swing. As one observer said, speaking of this set, “That’s what I came for.” Me, too.


  1. Mark Farmer writes by Email

    "As an addition to Peter Vacher's excellent round up of the Sunday performances at Herts Jazz 2013 festival the Brandon Allen Sextet B Allen (ts) Nigel Hitchcock,(as) Mark Nightingale (trb) Ian Thomas(dr) Sam Burgess (b) and Tim Lapthorn (p) were one of the festivals undoubted highlights. A set list that mixed standards and new compositions notably on a Black and Tan fantasy that was taken to new heights by Hitchcock's soaring alto and a rousing finale of Mingus' Boogie Stop Shuffle.

    Given the breadth and depth of the festival's programme and its uncompromising commitment to the Best British jazz available (as well as top drawer international guests at its weekly club sessions ) you shouldn't really pick favorites, but it can't be any surprise that the two tunes that showed just how good live jazz can be and got probably the loudest response were these two by this excellent band who seemed to enjoy it as much as the audience."

  2. Peter Vacher writes by Email

    I’d like to endorse Mr Farmer’s comments except that I was unable to attend the Brandon Allen & Georgie Fame concerts which climaxed the weekend as they were fully sold out and Stephen couldn’t find me a single spare seat without breeching H&S regulations. Otherwise I would have stayed and doubtless, enjoyed Brandon’s set as much as he did!