REVIEW: NewGen Jazz at the 2017 Cambridge Jazz Festival

Local hero Tom O'Grady of Resolution 88
Photo credit: Trevor Lee

NewGen Jazz (Cambridge Jazz Festival)
(Cambridge Corn Exchange, 26 November 2017. Review by Matt Pannell)

If jazz musicians are meant to be ambitious and daring, it’s only fair that festival organisers take some risks of their own. The closing day of the 2017 Cambridge Jazz Festival is quite a big one: the city’s largest music venue hired for an entire day, with lashings of lighting and dry ice, two stages, and no fewer than 11 bands programmed in 11 hours. NewGen Jazz features some big names, but how will this format work out? With a programme stretching late into the night, numbers are thin when the doors open at midday. Locals Mode 9 take on the heavy lifting, pushing through production glitches to get the programme into the air. There are pretty lyrics and melodies, punchy horns and sleek guitar solos. Nightlife and Mood Swings stand out as we’re urged to “feel the love in the local city… life’s not as hard as it could be”.

Shirley Tetteh of Nerija
Phot credit: Trevor Lee

To speed the turnaround between bands, the main stage is in use, as well as the more intimate ‘introducing’ stage that we’ve just been facing. It’s Nerija that face the next test of the day: what happens to a trumpet solo when it’s delivered from a stage the size of a skating rink, under a 50-ft vaulted roof? The answer is that it just gets bigger. This London seven-piece draws from pop, hip-hop and afrobeat. Rising over a vast, rolling, languid ensemble sound that permeates every inch of this space like a hot day, Sheila Maurice-Grey’s trumpet lines feel perfectly-formed. The end of this set comes too quickly.

The Gravy Train’s grooves seep up through the floor, oozing into a soundcheck that blurs into performance within a minute or two of foot-tapping. The Cambridge Drum Company has lent some exotic products for this event, and Ian Griffith’s shuffle groove makes for a great demonstration through the bustling One in Seven.

Back on the main stage, Flying MachinesMoon Dust flicks from rhythmic tension into a blissed, feather-pillow of sound. The gentle eddies of piano and ethereal guitar float over an impeccable rhythm section.

The Phil Stevenson Trio draws a crowd to the introducing stage. Guitar-led, we hear Celtic folk music one moment and The Doors the next. It’s strangely engaging, especially to un-tethered toddlers who are slowly converging at the foot of the stage. Perhaps it’s the surgical drum solo of clicks, taps, licks and stops that’s drawing them in.

Resolution 88 might be the nearest thing Cambridge has to a house band. By 7pm the floor of the hall - properly busy at last – is alive with speculation about whether this funky Fender Rhodes-driven outfit has something special in store for the occasion. They do. It’s cosmic, space-travel mystery. Dark pauses and eerie organ notes linger in the void. The trademark bass-driven grooves and searing saxophone burn all the brighter against their new, darker background. It’s loud, too. The production team and line-array loudspeakers are well up to the task, so we get every muted bass string and sizzling cymbal. Teens in the audience have been waiting for beats they can feel in their lung cavities. Finally, they’re happy.

Laurence Wilkins of Zeñel
Photo credit: Trevor Lee

Zeñel are expected to follow this. They’re smaller people on a smaller stage; three students (trumpet, drums, organ) looking a bit vulnerable in their tracksuits. They deliver, though, in the finest traditions of jazz: memorable tunes that are a cloak for complex, challenging and thrilling improvisations. Process Z is a bared-teeth cavalry charge that might have been cooked up by Jimi Hendrix with advisory input from Darth Vader. Laurence Wilkins’ electronically-modified trumpet carries the crushing energy of a lightning strike. After this, we’re relieved to find our limbs still intact.

The challenge to ‘follow that!’ is casually batted back to the main stage, then, where Moses Boyd (drums), Elliot Galvin (Piano), Binker Golding (tenor saxophone) and Tori Handsley (harp) deliver exactly what the festival organizers have been hoping for. We’re 47 minutes into a one-hour set when the first tune comes to an end. "It’s easy to lose track of time," says Binker Golding, with a grin. In that time, we’ve had bass-lines from the bottom end of a harp, kaleidoscopic saxophone runs and spectacular, spontaneous, snatches of ensemble playing. The grand piano had looked solid and sturdy in the middle of the stage, but Elliot Galvin’s been looming over it, plucking at the innards, crashing forearms and elbows into the keyboard, hammering out rhythms by slamming back the lid. 

Things are still escalating when the instrument is saved in the nick of time: it’s 10pm and the Brass Funkeys are waiting to take the stage for closing celebrations. The challenge to ‘follow that’ is kicked forward to November 2018 and Cambridge’s next jazz festival. To the musicians who choose to accept it: good luck.

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