FESTIVAL REPORT: 2017 Manchester Jazz Festival – 29th July


2017 Manchester Jazz Festival – Saturday 29th July
(Report and photographs by Adrian Pallant)


Celebrating its 22nd year, Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf) is now under way, with artistic director Steve Mead and his team presenting a ten-day procession of increasingly diverse music from international big names and local musicians. Adrian Pallant reports on some of the first day's performances.

Manchester Jazz Festival is a cosmopolitan melting pot of shows from both new and returning artists, exciting debut appearances, the popular Northern Line showcase of 11 free gigs in 11 hours, and mjf’s all-important new commission. As ever, the festival is well served by excellent city-centre venues such as the RNCM, Stoller Hall, Band on the Wall, Matt & Phreds, St Ann’s Church; and this year, the hub’s main venue comes in the form of an elegant 1920s spiegeltent (mirror tent) – the Salon Perdu – an empathetic, oak-panelled space resplendent with drapes and encircled by cosy booths, coloured glass window lights and mirrored panels.

And so to the live music… which, year on year, is engineered so successfully on so many levels. From the eclecticism of the performances to the continuity and punctuality of the schedule; from the commitment to high-quality sound production to an obvious enthusiasm from staff and volunteers; and then the sheer thrill of original, new music from artists associated with this ever-widening genre of contemporary jazz.


Nikki Iles Quintet

A welcome return for one of jazz’s most eloquent pianists, Nikki Iles took the Salon Perdu stage with the familiar faces of bassist Steve Watts and drummer James Maddren, plus a young frontline duo of trumpeter (BBC New Generation Artist) Laura Jurd and tenor saxophonist Josh Arcoleo. In an hour’s set which included the shuffling groove of Christine Jensen’s Upper Fargo and Stan Sulzmann’s crackling tenor-and-trumpet tune You’ve Read the Book, here was a quintet who noticeably enjoyed their sparky, new-found camaraderie.

Nikki Iles’ aqueous, romantic Moontide – written to reflect the special atmospheres created by Norma Winstone and the late John Taylor – featured wistful tenor and restrained trumpet solos supported by an undulating piano figure, with Iles’ more oblique glints escaping from the pervading swell, as well as offering long, melodic lines which might easily have represented Norma Winstone’s inimitable, emotional tones. Meditation – a heartfelt tribute to Geri Allen, who recently passed away at the age of 60 – was sensitively introduced by a plaintive, folk-song melody shared between piano, trumpet and sax, before Watts and Maddren shaped it into a rhythmically ebullient celebration (perhaps echoing Allen’s work with luminaries such as Paul Motian, Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman).

Iles commented that it was Steve Mead’s suggestion to her to put together this band especially for 2017’s mjf – as he had done, back in 2002, when that particular ensemble went on to become The Printmakers (which includes Watts and Maddren, alongside Mike Walker, Mark Lockheart and Norma Winstone). So the success of this festival clearly reached far beyond its annual ten days; and, in that vein, we may have the pleasure of seeing this new, ‘one-off’ quintet again.

Josh Arcoleo (tenor), Steve Fishwick (bass), Laura Jurd (trumpet)

Atlas

Rebecca Nash’s prominence as a particularly inventive keyboardist and pianist has grown through such bands as Dee Byrne’s Entropi (who featured in 2016’s mjf). Still in its infancy, Atlas’s distinct electro-groove – courtesy of Nash’s angular, chordal voicings in tandem with the electric bass and effects of Chris Mapp, as well as Matt Fisher’s incredible drum intricacy and energy – channelled propulsive, resonant soundscapes from which popular trumpeter Nick Malcolm and band newcomer, electric guitarist Thomas Seminar Ford, took flight. In Grace, oscillating electronics, and looped guitar created a magical aura out of Chris Mapp’s Soft Machine-styled five-string-bass riff, Nash colouring it with sustained, ambient tones and Fisher as intuitive as ever at the kit in responding to Seminar Ford’s rhythms. Breezy Little Light preceded Peaceful King (written by Rebecca Nash, in memory of her father), full of harmonic textures with a rocky edge; and Dreamer introduced acoustic piano, along with dazzling, rapid-fire solo guitar. But perhaps Atlas’s most effective episode came in their closing number, Trip to Inishbofin, characterising a visit to the small Irish island (“not a smooth boat ride”) with an impressively overdriven groove featuring scratchy guitar fretwork, boiling bass and the magnificent drumming intensity of Fisher.

Rebecca Nash (keyboards, piano)

Nerija

Taking to stage two years ago for an mjf ‘BBC Introducing’ session, young London-based collective Nerija won many hearts with their fresh, Afrobeat showcase. Returning for a full hour at mjf 2017, this septet – fronted by two saxes, trumpet and trombone – it was clear that they have become an incredibly assured unit, supported energetically by a rhythm section with the guitar exuberance of Shirley Tetteh at its heart. Naturally instilled with a superb sense of rhythm, and visibly feeling each others’ solos, Nerija’s original numbers were brought to life through a beautifully-phrased horn synergy whose crescendos/diminuendos, tricks and flicks made their on-stage presence so absorbing.

Including numbers from their debut EP, such as Pinkham V and Redemancy, they displayed such a sense of equilibrium that improvisational threads constantly bubbled up to the surface, seemingly without replaying ideas. In Nascence, Rose Turton’s lithe trombone also tugged at the leash, such was her searching spirit; and the band’s interpretation of Jackie McLean’s Hipnosis included a mysterious alto/trombone groove, guitar crackles, and trumpet and tenor snorts. Saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Cassie Kinoshi are already outstanding exponents of their respective tenor and alto, dazzling with their imaginative, fiery extemporisations. The Salon Perdu audience especially loved Where It Ends and Begins – drummer Lizy Exell’s direct, intuitive and clangy delivery a feast for the eyes – whilst the infectious, summery, township vibe of The Fisherman might easily have prompted an encore.

Nubya Garcia (tenor sax)


Dave Maric, Phronesis and Engines Orchestra

Commissioned jointly by Cheltenham, Manchester and London jazz festivals, this was only the second outing for Decade Zero – a fascinating concept which brings together Phronesis (Jasper Høiby, Ivo Neame, Anton Eger) with eight string and woodwind members of Engines Orchestra. Introducing the concept which came to him of expanding, in a different direction, the now world-renowned trio’s music, composer Dave Maric said, simply: “Imagine writing a piece for Phronesis x 3!”; and describing the Engines Orchestra’s suitability for such a project, conductor Phil Meadows (London-based saxophonist and alumnus of Manchester’s Chetham’s School of Music) explained his vision of setting up a community of young players who might play music outside of more traditional orchestral parameters.

Preceding Maric’s five-movement work of approximately 35 minutes, a white-clad Phronesis lit up the Stoller Hall with a handful of trio numbers from their catalogue, including propulsive 67000 MPH. Even after ten years together, they still have a breathtaking ability to own the stage; and now, despite its unfathomable complexity, the music appears to fall so easily to them as they share knowing glances and smiles – yet the acoustic electricity and immediacy is as amped-up as ever.

Without any sense of preconception, the initial response to Decade Zero was that it felt unfamiliar, more ‘contemporary classical’, even intangible. But as it proceeded, the cohesivity of Dave Maric’s thoughts were revealed; and the connection between piano, bass, drums, string quartet and woodwind was made as vivace, pizzicato orchestral sounds merged with Eger’s ‘cutlery’ percussiveness and the characteristic, resonant pliancy of Høiby’s bass. Under Meadows’ strong direction, the young ‘Engines’ were extraordinarily accomplished (in such an arena, any difficulty would surely have been tangible) – and the cinematic landscapes they lifted from Maric’s score suggested Ravel, Britten, perhaps even Milhaud. Piano joined with woodwind and strings, in the fourth movement, to create morse code effects, whilst Ivo Neame’s sustained, piano-concerto romanticism, in the fifth, segued into minimalist repetitive figures before a tumultuous, Phronesis-style closing crescendo.

The immediate response at the conclusion, having begun to understood its concept, was that a second hearing would be keenly anticipated. That opportunity will be available at this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival.

Jasper Høiby (double bass)
Phronesis, Phil Meadows, Engines Orchestra

Manchester Jazz Festival continues, daily, until Sunday 6th August.
Full programme at manchesterjazz.com


Adrian Pallant is a proofreader, musician and jazz writer who also reviews at his own site ap-reviews.com

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