ROUND-UP REPORT Gateshead International Jazz Festival 2016

World Service Project
Photo credit: John Watson/

Gateshead International Jazz Festival 2016
(The Sage, 15th-17th April 2016 Report by Peter Slavid. Photos by John Watson/

To some people in London the idea of Gateshead running an International Jazz Festival may sound a bit strange, but that will be because they haven't been to the area, or certainly haven't been recently. It's easy in London to get an entirely false impression about a place, and I have to confess that I shared that view before this first visit.

In fact the South bank of the Tyne is not only an attractive river-front but also now a brilliant cultural area. The Baltic Art Gallery and the Sage Gateshead are two triumphs of lottery funding. Both are elegant buildings inside and out.

The Jazz Festival takes place inside the Sage – giving it four different performance spaces under one roof including a free public area which offers a mix of local acts and headliners.

Arun Ghosh
Photo credit: John Watson/

My Friday started with Arun Ghosh. He had been resident at the Sage all week working with a local primary school, and although I didn't get to see the result it had clearly energised and inspired him, and the results were mightily impressive.

It started a bit shakily in terms of the sound balance, but once that was sorted it settled into a fine Asian jazz/rock programme. Ghosh puts his whole heart and soul into each performance and that communicates with the audience. Amusingly he introduced one song as being titled for the mountains of Nepal – then rather shyly admitted that he knew nothing about the music of Nepal, or about Nepal itself, and the tune was actually based on the Lake District. It all helped build a close relationship with the audience – something we see all too infrequently. Terrific soloing too from Ghosh and Chris Williams in particular.

So by then I'd missed seeing a solo set from Evan Parker, and dodged the crowds pouring in to see the ever-popular Gregory Porter.

World Service Project, at the end of the first evening, with their special guest Gateshead-born Chris Sharkey, Arrived on stage in full vintage military costume. They were promoting their new album “ironically titled” King and Country. As usual they delivered a ferocious set of post-punk jazz. But the heavy rock rhythms in their music can be misleading – this is complex music, tightly arranged with broken rhythms and fierce improvisation. A great finish to the first evening.

By accident rather than design I spent all Saturday watching pianists (apart from the fine array of bands put on the Jazz Line Up stage compèred by Kevin Le Gendre). The day started with John Law's quartet with Sam Crockatt on sax; Oli Hayhurst on bass and Lloyd Haines on drums. Their came over as just a bit too cool and controlled, but perhaps that had also something to do with the early hour.

Then Michel Reis with a similar quartet of bass, drums and sax delivered a much more powerful set propelled by the dynamic Pablo Held rhythm section of Robert Landfermann and Jonas Burgwinkel plus the impressive German/Icelandic sax player Stefan Karl Schmid.

John Surman
Photo credit: John Watson/

The third quartet of the day was the Alexander Hawkins trio, an outstanding band in its own right with Neil Charles on bass and Tom Skinner on drums. They were joined here by the great John Surman, and they just seemed to generate sparks off each other. Hawkins percussive piano playing seemed to bring out the best in Surman who showed off a lot of his old tricks – segueing from free improv into a delicate ballad without pausing for breath (literally). The fact that all the musicians were clearly having a great time came through in the music that was full of wit and invention.

And the final pianist of the day was the fine Cuban, Roberto Fonseca, playing with Ramses “Dynamite” Rodriguez on drums and Yandy Martinez on bass. These musicians also showed that it is possible to combine complex tight arrangements with a great sense of fun and enjoyment. Fonseca is probably better known for his work in bigger Latin Jazz bands but here with the trio he plays exciting, imaginative jazz.

Saturday saw yet more pianists, starting with Cafe Society Swing. It is not the sort of music I normally listen to – but this is a show rather than a concert. From the piano Alex Webb narrates the fascinating story of New York's Cafe Society and its influential role in jazz and in wider society from 1938 onwards. It's all supported by a fine band including Shaney Forbes, Denys Baptiste, Nathanial Facey, Sue Richardson and Winston Rollins plus singers Vimala Rowe and Ciyo Brown. They interspersed the narrative with a series of mainly short songs from the many famous artists brought to the fore at Cafe Society, culminating in a dramatic rendition of Billie Holiday's strange fruit. If I found the stories more interesting than the music, others are bound to see it the opposite way round – but this is a show that can appeal to everyone.

And then on to Liam Noble playing with Percy Pursglove – a last minute duo stepping in for the missing Airelle Besson. And excellent stuff it was too. Noble was in the sort of playful mood where you always feel that he's nearly playing the tune, and nearly on the rhythm, but he's having a lot of fun being not quite on it until he wants to be. Great fun. And he was back again in the second half with Malija - with Jasper Hoiby and Mark Lockheart. A bit more serious this time – elegant chamber jazz of the highest quality.

In between gigs I managed to catch a snippet from the foyer stage of Pericopes +1 – an Italian-American trio who are on a big European tour and due to appear at London's I'klectik Art Lab on April 21st.

Ibrahim Maalouf
Photo credit: John Watson/

And so to the final gig of the weekend – and in many ways the most “improbable”. Ibrahim Maalouf made it clear from the start that he wanted the improbable – he wanted a jazz gig to become a big stadium rock gig and he set about it with a combination of heavy beats, a full on light show, the volume turned up to 11, and the sheer force of his personality that managed to get the whole Sage 2 audience singing and clapping along. And although he played part of the time on keyboards, the outstanding memory he managed to leave was of the shining sound of his trumpet (with the extra quarter tone valve) which managed to cut through everything.

Maalouf is perfectly capable of playing in a more conventional jazz style but this was his Red and Black Light tour – the CD that came out last year with a definite clubby focus which on CD I found rather bland – but that's definitely not an accusation you could make about this dynamic show. Whether you want to call it jazz or rock or something in between – the audience, definitely younger than the typical festival crowd, loved every minute of it.

It was a storming end to a great weekend festival. Gateshead International Jazz Festival 2017 takes place on 31st March – 2nd April. Save the dates!

Peter Slavid broadcasts a weekly programme of European Jazz (LINK)

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