ROUND-UP REVIEW: Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival 2017

Local heroes Dakhla Brass
Photo copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival
(March 17-19th 2017, Round-Up Review by Jon Turney)

300 or more singers on stage, led by the London Community Gospel Choir, and the Colston Hall audience joining in on Sunday lunchtime, the night after a triple-bill swing dance session in the same space: the Bristol festival’s trademark audience involvement was well up to the mark this year.

Now in its fifth edition, the Festival is too large to review in its entirely - I didn’t witness either of the above: I rely on video evidence of the singers and a daughter who danced. But I can affirm that Bristol’s long weekend continues to combine the genuinely international with a distinctive homebrew flavour as it grows.

Bobby Shew
Photo copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

The homebrew is quality stuff, with special projects like Andy Sheppard’s new score for Metropolis (reviewed separately) and Bobby Shew’s centenary tribute to Dizzy Gillespie. The latter featured the regular big-band co-led by festival artistic director Denny Ilett and trumpeter Johnny Bruce. Less expectedly, most of the arrangements were not from Shew’s ample book, but were based on new transcriptions by Ilett. Manteca, Groovin’ High, Emanon, Tin Tin Deo and Good Bait were brought to sparkling life, with Shew on fine form and band soloists like Jake “Get the Blessing” McMurchie showing their command of the tradition.

Macy Gray
Photo copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Other shows in the main hall that packed them in included Mud Morganfield on Saturday , delivering powerful, authentic Chicago blues in a voice that really gets the attention. Macy Gray, late on Sunday, was less compelling, trying the patience of a full house in party mood by keeping them waiting 40 minutes. The jazz leanings of her latest CD have made little impression on her stage show, but her efficient band kept her raucous, declamatory vocals in some semblance of order.

Alec Dankworth's Spanish Accents
Photo copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

The big ticket shows were backed up by an adventurous programme in the smaller of Colston Hall’s two venues, the Lantern. Alec Dankworth’s Spanish Accents felt a little tentative on Friday evening, on the first outing for a new line-up, with Josephine Davies replacing Mark Lockheart on sax and John Crawford on piano substituting for Phil Robson’s much-missed guitar. Chris Garrick’s violin dazzled with equal facility on jazzy excursions, dancing folk themes and even a bagpipe drone part.

There was more dazzle from Jason Rebello on Saturday, offering solo piano with virtuosity, and real depth: sly Monkish touches on Garner’s Play, Piano, Play were a beautiful reminder how musical modernism connects with tradition.The day’s closer in the Lantern from the acclaimed Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur offered a different look back. Leader Jurd is bursting with talent, but her current preoccupation with the electric keyboard sounds of the 1970s does create a flattening of textures compared with her previous bands. The trumpet is very welcome when it comes, but horn contributions were a little sparse here for some.


Pee Wee Ellis
Photo copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk


Sunday in the Lantern saw sets from Bristol patron and tireless performer Pee Wee Ellis, supported by the excellent French drummer Roger Biwandu’s trio. Ellis retains a magisterial sound on tenor, and can bring off playing a succession of numbers that evoke Sonny Rollins (St Thomas, Sonnymoon for Two, Isn’t She Lovely), without breaking sweat. Yazz Ahmed’s beautifully balanced seven-piece band, deliciously combining George Crowley’s bass clarinet with Ralph Wyld’s vibes, was a fine vehicle for exploring Middle Eastern rhythms and melodies’ affinity with jazz. Best of all, Jasper Hoiby’s Fellow Creatures, with plenty of trumpet from Laura Jurd this time, presented a joyful 80-minutes of musical exuberance that allowed all five players room to shine. Mark Lockheart and Jurd spent much of the set in counterpoint, pianist Will Barry and drummer Corrie Dick raised the trio portions to near Phronesis-like intensity at times, and leader and composer Hoiby’s memorably sonorous bass figures were a marvel throughout.

Jasper Hoiby's Fellow Creatures
Photo copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk


Fellow Creatures made a superb debut CD, but live the music has an even stronger feeling of organisation-as-liberating. The recipe for success in making something fresh of jazz has to be: compose carefully, then play with abandon. Jurd and Ahmed’s bands are aiming for that, I think, and it comes off some of the time. Hoiby’s new crew did it from first second to last.

Jasper Hoiby
Photo copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

All that left little time to sample the packed schedule in the foyer, but Jim Blomfield’s fine piano trio, with a set of new music soon to be recorded, caught the ear of the enthusiastic crowd who listen for free.

Special mention, too, for the Bristol players who keep so many varied ensembles going that the free programme hardly ever repeats. It’s a collaborative spirit epitomised this year by hearing the always mood-brightening Dakhla Brass, playing new tunes in the Lantern early on Friday evening. By the time the second half of that gig - by guitar wizard Remi Harris - was over, Dakhla’s baritone sax anchor and principal composer Charlotte Ostafew was already set up on the foyer stage with another of her bands, the swing trio Bartoune. Tight scheduling, but rewarding for all concerned.

LINK: Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival

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