FESTIVAL ROUND-UP: Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival

Cartoon Jazz at the 2015 Bristol International Jazz Festival

Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival
(Colston Hall March 6th-8th. Festival Round-Up by Jon Turney. All photos ©Ruth Butler)

Here’s a big band in the Colston Hall on a Sunday afternoon with Get the Blessing’s Jake McMurchie next to Pee Wee Ellis in the sax section, playing vintage arrangements for Louis Armstrong's band: it must be Jazz and Blues Festival time again.

It's the kind of thing that makes the new (this was the third edition) festival distinctive. Ellis, now happily resident in nearby Frome, plays the role of Bristol's favourite jazz uncle with great brio. Fellow festival patron Lillian Boutté has helped forge a New Orleans connection that continues to produce new ideas, and a regular cast of other players based in the city or thereabouts help realise them.

The Louis Armstrong Story at the 2015 Bristol International Jazz Festival

The Armstrong-oriented session was one of two feature concerts in that vein this year. The great man's big band arrangements have not been touched since 1947, but are archived at the Armstrong House museum in the US. Why not dust them down, and bring the archivist over to talk about them, and Armstrong? The gig let us hear them again, along with narration of the "Louis Armstrong Story" by the coolly poised Clarke Peters, and small group work too from a band enhanced by the brilliant clarinet of Evan Christopher. The big band arrangements, to be honest, are not that special, but the spirit of Satchmo was successfully evoked and whole set was a retro-treat.

So, by hearsay, was the other, family-friendly offering, cartoon jazz, with arrangements from the songs featured in everyone's favourite animated movies performed by performed by the Big Buzzard Boogie Band and the newly-formed Bristol Jazz Festival Chorus, directed by Andy Williamson. Like the Johnny Bruce/Denny Ilett big band, who played for a big crowd of swing dancers on Friday evening, this featured musicians who are festival regulars, and established good humour as the main mood the event projects to bring in the punters from a city which enjoys plentiful music all year round.

Along with this, there was a steady supply of first rate contemporary music. A trio of well-chosen gigs in the smaller ticketed venue, The Lantern, began with Manchester's Paradox Ensemble. Their arrangements for a nine-piece make good use of everything on hand, from sousaphone to electronics, and started the festival with a bang. Alice Zawadzki displayed her vocal and violin talents to good effect on Saturday, especially on songs from Sephardic sources.

Slowly Rolling Camera at the 2015 Bristol International Jazz Festival


The next day Dave Stapleton and co's Slowly Rolling Camera presented a brilliant live show of their more electronically textured pieces, with superb jazz saxophone playing from Ben Waghorn, that was the best realised of all. A seemingly endless parade of fine Bristol bands playing to large crowds enjoying the free show in the Colston Hall foyer included too many good things to take in - a simple test of a good festival - but Andy Novak's piano trio, the excellent vocal-instrumental blend of Moonlight Saving Time, the exuberant multi-horn danceability of Dakhla, Andy Sheppard's freewheeling Pushy Doctors trio with the irrepressible Tony Orrell on drums, and Katya Gorrie's set of Tom Waits favourites all caught the ear.

The contemporary highlight for most, though, was Andy Sheppard's other set, a mesmerising hour and a quarter from his international quartet in the big hall on Saturday. Sheppard, Michel Benita on bass, Eivind Aarset on guitar and effects and guest percussionist Michele Rabbia - making a return visit to Bristol after a much talked-about duo performance last year - delivered an intensely beautiful set, mainly of pieces from his imminent ECM release. It is fascinating to hear this in a city where we often hear other, more extrovert, sides of Sheppard’s immaculate musicianship. This is the vehicle for his most personal statements, and they fit the ECM aesthetic perfectly - lots of long tones and echo - while seeming utterly natural to these players. A wonderfully atmospheric outing: as the composer said: "It's a beautiful day out there, and a beautiful evening in here."

Pee Wee Elliss FunkAssembly
at the 2015 Bristol International Jazz Festival


After that immersion in the music of today at its finest, it was back to more familiar sounds for the remaining feature gigs . An impressive hour from Clarke Peters and friends delighted a capacity audience in the Lantern. He was an actor, he said, acting being a jazz singer: pretty good act.


Carleen Anderson at the 2015 Bristol International Jazz Festival

Taking a big voice into the big hall, Carleen Anderson wowed a Saturday night crowd after an uncertain start from a combination of a mysterious throat irritation and a band she had seemingly only just met. Pee Wee Ellis' s fine funk ensemble rocked the joint, as usual. The incandescent Tony Remy on guitar and late dep Jason Rebello on keys lit up the hall. Remy was consigned to rhythm duties for a spell when the less impressive guitar skills of Huey Morgan were featured, but I guess he sold some more tickets.

Dr John at the 2015 Bristol International Jazz Festival

And, saving the best, the main events finished with a sell-out crowd for Dr John, offering a generous selection of his greatest hits and a few songs from his own recent Louis Armstrong project. Ellis returned to the stage for yet more sax flourishes, and Herlin Riley on drums gave us New Orleans'  best. His shows at Ronnie Scott’s later this week will be a blast.

That was it for another year, athough someone did tweet a photo of the final jam session at 1 a.m. , well after I got home. Who was playing? Why, Pee Wee Ellis. And what makes a good jazz festival? There are lots of ways. But ambition, imaginative use of local musicians, and shrewd programming has allowed the instigators of Bristol's festival to fashion something with a flavour that appeals to people across the city and looks like it will go on getting bigger and better.

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