REVIEW: Love Supreme Festival 2017 (2nd of 4)

The Jacksons at Love Supreme
Photo credit: Andy Sheppard lowlightphoto.co.uk

Dan Bergsagel assesses the development of the five-year-old festival.

By the age of five an average child is a creative problem solver, hands-on experiences help them to form theories to explain how and why things happen, and they can manage social situations with greater independence. Love Supreme is a festival not a child - and indeed not an average one - but much of this seems applicable to the UK’s only greenfield jazz festival in its fifth year.

Having seen Love Supreme grow year by year and being rather excited (here’s my Preview), I’d have to admit that in the past there were aspects of the festival that could be finessed. But with four years of practice to form theories on how to address them, this year’s changes in festival urban planning and the addition of a new stage providing live jazz late into the night have added real texture to the showcase.

At its core, Love Supreme aims to showcase crossover artists, and soul legends, the cream of serious international and UK jazz, as well as new acts, those out there or harder to pigeonhole. Did it meet its remit?

Love Supreme has never been short on Soul acts, and has been unapologetic that they are part of the broader jazz landscape. So did this year have soul?

Plenty. The mainstage hosted Corinne Bailey Rae, Lee Fields and the Expressions, as well as Birmingham, Alabama’s answer to Lee Fields, St Paul and the Broken Bones, led by the disarmingly regular looking Paul Janeway and his sky high vocal range with his professional backing band in tow.

Paul Janeway
Photo credit: Andy Sheppard lowlightphoto.co.uk 

Regular looking is not an accusation to be used for The Jacksons, who were intent on dressing as MJ and having more costume changes than hot dinners. Between slightly bizarre screenings of documentary interviews and footage of the family and close friends like Berry Gordy, they performed Jacksons classics like Can you feel it and Blame it on the Boogie mixed in with Michael’s solo material of the same era like Rock with you.

Laura Mvula
Photo credit: Andy Sheppard lowlightphoto.co.uk

With appearance to one side, Laura Mvula presented a refreshingly charming down-to-earth honesty in her set, talking about tinder dates and recent record label troubles. Her voice will always shine through, but much of the set saw her revisiting songs from her first album Sing to the Moon in almost Bob Dylan levels of musical rearrangement, so presenting entirely new tracks. Near the end of the set came her big releases She, Green Garden and Phenomenal Women, interspersed with Nina Simone renditions, but it may have been too little too late. Special mention must be made to keys player Oli Rockberger (a bandleader in his own right from Love Supremes gone by) who is the most enthusiastic and supportive keys player you could wish for.

Instead of removing the soul royalty from the line-ups, Love Supreme has balanced the genres by bringing in serious jazz legends to match the soul names. Herbie Hancock, George Benson and Christian Scott are all prominent on the line-up, with continually rising stars Kamasi Washington and Gregory Porter returning to the festival again to share the main stage with the soul icons.

Kamasi Washington
Photo credit: Andy Sheppard lowlightphoto.co.uk

Washington captivated a main stage audience with his spiritual live experience, blowing with a dead ahead cool stare as his sax lines tumble and build to other-worldly climaxes, his keys player Brandon Coleman shaking half off the stage with his playing intensity as keyboard stands looked to be defying gravity. Much of the set was understandably pulled from his 2015 magnum opus The Epic (CD review) with operatic singing on The Rhythm Changes or Leroy and Lanisha but with enough flexibility to get some other pals from the rest of the West Coast Get Down on stage with him. Miles Mosley give a cameo of the wah-wah overdrive double bass experience, with Papa Washington on soprano and flute, giving Kamasi encouraging pats throughout the set.

Gregory Porter
Photo credit: Andy Sheppard lowlightphoto.co.uk

Gregory Porter continues to cement his place as a first rate performer and gentleman, bringing serious songs and instant classics like On My Way to Harlem, Take me to the Alley (dedicated in a low key way to the victims of Grenfell), and the searching Civil Rights movement ballad 1960 What? It is worth noting that while this all certainly meets the serious jazz remit, it is international only in a very narrow United States sort of way.

But how about the up-and-coming and unexpected, the third branch of the Love Supreme Manifesto? There was perhaps less in the way of new and leftfield choices in the big tents.

Badbadnotgood gamely engage the crowd with a James Bond theme tune opener, but that was perhaps the liveliest moment as their delicate compositions like Confessions and Kaleidoscope sounded more isolated on stage then on record. Blue Lab Beats were fairly comfortable keeping records involved in the process, with their Heroes and Inspiration mashup letting the bass/keys and decks/laptops duo sample their favourite artists, like Common and Roy Ayers. Mammal Hands filled the void in the past occupied by the introspective intensity of Modern Jazz Ensemble bands like Gogo Penguin and Portico Quartet, verging on the boundaries of the Coldplay of jazz.

This year, instead of leaving the up-and-coming acts to sink or swim in The Arena, we had the introduction of a new stage, the intimate ‘In the Round’ tucked in beside one of the bars in an unassuming marquee. Curated by Jazz FM’s Jez Nelson and Chris Phillips, the stage provided a more intimate setting for new and unusual acts to perform in an environment more akin to the familiar upstairs/downstairs pub format than the rockstar settings of the cavernous festival tents. In the capable hands of the radio DJs, it was a real revelation - providing the perfect setting for falling in love with new artists for the first time, and plugging a gap in late night line-ups. With the first band of three starting at 22h00 at the earliest, now those with an appetite for live music post-headliner could hole up and hear something new.

On the Friday night in particular - which is often light on content for the camping crowd - In the Round in itself justified turning up early. Justin Thurgur Afro Jazztet blended an excellent Afrobeat backline with post-bop horns, playing an engaging mix of genre-jumping tunes from new album No Confusion. Matthew Bourne’s nervous energy, thick beard and wild eyes saw him twiddling knobs like he was bleeding the memory moog, producing the most entrancing, frenetic beats while sitting cross legged and barefoot, occasionally turning and gesturing to the entranced crowd in acknowledgement that this might be unusual, but was worth persevering with. Randolph Matthews showed the other side of the solo performer armed with electronic trickery, recording and looping his own voice, a natural showman with the audience in the palm of his hand, feeling he owed us a performance and providing one three times over.

While introducing at In the Round, Chris Phillips referenced the old saying - that with 50 musicians you end up 500 bands, the jazz version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. This year more than any other, it seemed to stick, with the West Coast Get Down not the only crew representing at the festival. Jazz:Refreshed had Ashley Henry and friends, as well as the young Triforce group with their ridiculously talented guitarist Mansur Brown, who after ripping up the In the Round stage on Saturday night reappeared to do the same with Yussef Kamaal (who, following their split in May, were represented by Yussef here. Yussef Dayes was an irrepressible force at the kit, leading the funky songs and showboating unpredictable inter-song pauses and bands snaps. Also spawning from the main stage was the Theon Cross branch. After taking on frontman tuba duty on Friday night he reappeared with Sons of Kemet on Saturday, and Kansas Smitty’s House Band on Sunday (the Broadway Market regulars also performed a feelgood final spontaneous set on Sunday night In The Round).

Shabaka Hutchings
Photo credit: Andy Sheppard lowlightphoto.co.uk

The prize for Hardest Gigging musician of the festival has to go to the ever-amiable Shabaka Hutchings, who as well as well as forming half the front line up for Sons of Kemet also led the South African steeped Shabaka and the Ancestors - one of the stand-out bands of the festival - armed with overwhelming double percussion and double saxophone intensity, and the mesmerising singing and dancing Siyabonga Mthembu. They are a band of friends, with constantly visible shared looks and camaraderie, but with serious undertones, and stirring political discourse delivered as a heartfelt jazz sermon. The Comet is Coming, Shabaka’s third and final show of a nine hour run saw him team up with hyperactive electronica and dance duo Soccer96 to provide the 'third way' to The Jacksons and Herbie Hancock’s headline sets on the other two main stages. All pumping bass and house drums, this is jazz with drops.

In conclusion: This year Love Supreme is five. It’s bigger than it was before, and getting better at doing normal festival-ly things. It’s started making friends - young friends, too. If I were organising the festival I would take anecdotal stories of local teens spending five hours in the undergrowth in order to sneak in as very encouraging indeed. On the popular Monday morning 11:22 train from Glynde to Brighton, rumour was rife amongst the early twenties crowd about how many years it has been since Snarky Puppy last played in Glynde. After Gregory Porter’s triumphant return this year as a headliner, could it be them next year on late on the main stage? Whether they do or not is irrelevant, but somehow Love Supreme has become a crucial part of the young jazz zeitgeist of musical collectives and jazz fusion in a very different and more universal sense. And frankly it’s all rather exciting indeed.

LINKS: John L Walters review of Saturday (including Lee Fields, Michael Wollny and Herbie Hancock)

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