ROUND-UP REVIEW: 2016 Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival

Colston Hall: the crowd at the Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival
Photo credit: Ruth Butler

2016 Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival
Colston Hall. March 18-20th. Round-up review by Jon Turney)

This was year 4, so Bristol’s March gathering now seems an established part of the scene. It’s a crowd-pleasing mix of funk, soul, blues and jazz that sees the city’s Colston Hall become festival central, bursting with enthusiastic punters who expect a good time.

The cheery crowd gets some more unexpected sounds too. On the shrewdly programmed free stage in the foyer, local heroes Get the Blessing were a massive draw on Saturday evening. Earlier, there were plenty of attentive listeners for altoist Kevin Figes’ quartet - growing to an octet – whose new work included pianist Jim Blomfield extracting Gamelan sounds from his electric keyboard and a charming birdsong inspired piece with a doubled wordless vocal from Emily Wright and Cathy Jones. Get The Blessing’s trumpeter Pete Judge joined drummer Paul Wigens in their hypnotic duo Eyebrow, creating mini soundscapes for Sunday teatime, and Senegalese pianist Ibou Tall played a strong fusion set earlier in the day, with altoist Julien Alenda on fine, fizzing form .

Colston Hall’s mid-size venue The Lantern opened the festival on Friday with a blistering set from Partisans. This is their twentieth anniversary year, but they remain as urgently creative as ever. Fascinating to hear how their music opens out from the compact arrangements on CD, with several pieces from their latest, including title track Swamp, opening out into mini-epics on stage. In contrast to their high-temperature interaction, Martin Taylor’s solo guitar held the Lantern audience spellbound with an hour of his sumptuous chord melodies on Saturday, while Denis Rollins’ trio raised the heat again on Sunday afternoon in the same venue.

With all that going on, catching the big ticket gigs in the main hall needed careful planning. I heard Melody Gardot, with a show very much along the lines of her Festival Hall gig in November – reviewed here – with a slightly slimmed down horn section. The voice has real star quality, and the cleverly varied settings are linked by droll, if well-rehearsed chat. There was infectious gumbo-steeped Americana, where she comes across these days like the love-child of Joni Mitchell and Dr John, a Parisian interlude, even a tribute to Charles Mingus. That one needs work, but the show overall slips down easy.

Lisa Simone the following evening was charismatically soulful, wry and got more relaxed, and more animated, as her set unfolded. The work has little to do with her mother, aside from that fact that quite a few of the songs appear to be about her, but apart from a misjudged up-tempo arrangement of Suzanne it was an excellent set that bodes well for her forthcoming album.

One more visit to the main hall on Sunday saw a fine big band assembled to play tunes that harked back to the musical youth of another (now) local hero, Pee Wee Ellis, and his long-time bandmate Fred Wesley. This was a charming idea, a return to hard bop – Moanin’, first up, was the only tune on both horn-players’ lists – offset by well-crafted arrangements from festival artistic director Denny Ilett. Pee Wee appeared on stage with fellow funk legend Maceo Parker the night before, but freed of the funk he relished stretching out as the superb big-booted tenor player he still is. By the time they had worked through Song for My Father, Doodlin’, and Con Alma to Night Train, he was positively magisterial. Ben Waghorn on alto sax and Johnny Bruce on trumpet matched him for solo fire, and a good time was had by all.

Time then for a stroll round the corner to Bristol’s other favourite spot, St George’s, to marvel at the inspired virtuosity of Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer. Their work on standards is a wonder, two unamplified double basses creating a world of music, but it was two original compositions – both by Meyer – that hinted at new places this duo could go if it is allowed to develop. That’s a tantalising prospect, but for now, concert and venue suited each other to perfection.

That one will stay in the mind, but those who made it to the Lantern at the inauspicious hour of 12.45 on Sunday are also savouring the memory of Gary Crosby’s Groundation. It’s great to hear the bassist, so often heard with a big band, in a small group. And what a group. Nathaniel Facey on alto, Moses Boyd on drums and the beautifully subtle young guitarist Shirley Tetteh make this a quartet with notable drive and spontaneity, reaching a peak here on Facey’s extended Ode to O.C. The saxophonist conveyed touches of Steve Coleman as well as successfully evoking the spirit of Ornette, while Tetteh’s contribution was pure jazz but as bluesy as James Blood Ulmer. Add an all too brief song from Cherise Adams Burnett, and this set was a creative highlight of a satisfyingly varied weekend.

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