FESTIVAL ROUND-UP: Swanage Jazz Festival 2018

Jazz Jamaica
Photo credit and ©: Bill Shakespeare

Swanage Jazz Festival 2018 
(Swanage, Dorset. 13-15 July 2018. Round-Up by Brian Blain)

After doubts and vicissitudes following guitarist Nigel Price's bold step of leading a bid to save it, the 29th Swanage Jazz Festival duly took place in the midst of a glorious summer, and because of the exit of England from the World Cup – which resulted in a very late surge in ticket sales – did much to suggest that a new policy of upping the artist budget and raising ticket prices slightly had paid off. Nigel, who was treated like the new Messiah every time he made an appearance as either MC or player, was extremely confident that the whole show was "in the black".

With over 50 events to catch between Friday and Sunday evening what follows is inevitably a snapshot of a hugely varied programme – this is the only festival that continues to present a traditional programme, in one of the two main venues, as well as fringe shows in town centre pubs. So how many little gems like the brilliant barrelhouse and blues piano player Dom Pipkin that I stumbled on first thing Saturday morning did I miss? That's the great thing about Swanage; it's almost all there right onsite.

Kicking off with the big boys on Friday, Toni Kofi's Portrait of Cannonball , with the absurdly undervalued trumpet of Andy Davies depping for Byron Wallen, double-booked on a festival in Copenhagen, and those familiar themes by the likes of Sam Jones, Miles, and Victor Feldman with the rhythm section of Alex Webb, Andy Cleyndert and Alfonso Vitale really kicking in. Yes, folks, we are at a real jazz festival and a quick trip next door to catch Ian Bateman's Louis Armstrong show just emphasized it all the more.

Back in the Lindop tent, as the "modern" venue is now known in tribute to Fred, the man who has masterminded the Festival since it began 28 years ago, a couple of songs by Delee Dube, sounding like a very young Sarah Vaughn, softened the edge of Kofi's hard blowing set just a little and we were into an Alan Barnes Octet programme, which saw the reunion with his old compadre, trumpet giant Bruce Adams. A beautifully played set of truly delightful Barnes arrangements and originals with Robert Fowler and Mark Nightingale absolutely immaculate as well as gutsy and warm. Would the fest keep up this opening night's standard was not an unreasonable ponder.

Champian Fulton
Photo credit and ©: Bill Shakespeare

It's inevitable that there are a fair number of nods to the past at a festival like this and drummer Richard Pite's re-creations of mid-period Ellington and the legendary Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert from 1938, fronted by the exuberant Pete Long on clarinet, were well attended and very popular. But for me, apart from the incredible trumpet of Ryan Quigley in both bands – his Cat Anderson "screamer" persona in the Ellington set was astonishing – most of my pleasure came from Claire Martin singing some of Duke's songs and Joan Viskant's Bei Mir Bist du Schoen in the Goodman slot. Viskant was, as ever, statuesque and period lovely with Keith Nichols Blue Devils' re-creations of '20s/'30s dance music meets jazz history which he curates so well. Can't see any of this stuff going down so well at the Love Supreme fest so let's hear it for Nigel Price for sticking to the major appeal of the Swanage gathering. But there has always been a strong element of risk and daring in presenting what might seem non-mainstream bands in the festival mix and this year was no exception.

A Community youth centre had been discovered, with a nice acoustic, and from drummer Gary Wilcox's early Saturday slot on some of the best music of the weekend could be heard there. Like Georgia Mancio's new band celebrating the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Mancio's voice is quite unique; calm and understated, the essence of cool yet posessed of an inner warmth which draws an audience in by its pure musicality. The tonal frameworks for this magic, from guitarist Colin Oxley and saxophomist Mark Crooks, were simply perfect: of all her many facets this  I think, is her most effective.

Much harder-edged was a set from ByronWallen, forced to drop his planned Monk-inspired programme due to a no-show from one of his group. It made no difference. Drummer Rod Youngs was on fire and bass guitarist Paul Michael did a great job in reminding us that in the right hands the electric bass can be a subtle and flexible basis for the rhythm section. Wallen was simply majestic and the packed venue loved him. Next day, the early Sunday slot was filled by Andrew McCormack and JasonYarde, a freeish piano/sop. sax duo not exactly promising a barrel of laughs. But you know what? The room was absolutely packed and they loved it Yarde has a brilliant rappport with his audience and what could have been a tad solemn affair was pure delight.

Next up, Julian Siegel's 'other' Quartet with Ivo Neame, Conor Chaplin and the great and oh-so-busy drummer James Maddren served an absolutely blistering set of contemporary jazz. All of which proves that patronising references to the older jazz lovers who make it down to the Dorset coast every year are totally misplaced.

In a different way Scott Hamilton, THE mainstream tenor player of our era, dominated Saturday evening in the Lindop tent with his tasty sound, warm and Zootish, a fine UK rhythm team of Arnie Somogyi and Stephen Keogh and a real find in a strong Peterson-like Canadian pianist Champian Fulton. She sang, too, with a quirky edge that kept the show at some distance from the cosy that Hamilton can easily suggest. They were the first major import that Swanage has had, so it was a bit of a mystery that Phronesis, one of the biggest European bands extant, were presented in the small youth centre rather than on the big stage in the Lindop. The small venue was packed and people had to catch the sounds from outside which – given the decibel level of this trio, which, it has to be said, reached an incredible level of group interplay – meant that the real audience, of obvious fans, was considerably bigger than the venue's 200 capacity.

Sara Dowling
Photo credit and ©: Bill Shakespeare

Another great little venue in the festival, with a magnificent view in the sunshine of the bobbing boats in Swanage Bay, is the small room at the top of the Mowlem Centre and there I caught three gems. First, bassist Alison Rayner's Quintet with its subtle grooves and gentle folkish elements. From a slow post-lunch start the room filled to capacity and it was easy to see why this band has established itself as one of England's most successful touring units. The still-evident enjoyment that old friends Rayner and guitarist Deirdre Cartwright get from playing together is one of the most infectious vibes on the British scene. Typical of the things you can stumble on away from the prestige spots was a modest and thoroughly enjoyable set from Andy Davies with two guitarists and accordion, and a fascinating set from Anthony Kerr with Dave Newton, Conor Chaplin and Matt Home just talking about the great vibes players from Hampton to Burton. If you caught this in a local club it would be an all-star occasion: here, a delightful optional extra.

A little earlier, in the Lindop I encountered two genuine surprises:

If England had made it to the final it would have been a disaster for Sara Dowling with the four o' clock slot. As it was, in the main venue, cool but depressingly dark, a reasonably sized crowd gave this largely unknown singer a very warm reception. I had heard good things about her from a couple of reliable sources and they weren't wrong. Confident, easy manner on the big stage, good connection with the audience without a cloying personality, and total command of her material.

The other was a great set from the brassy, ska-heavy Jazz Jamaica. Not jazz you say? Who cares? This was joyous uplifting music, with a fine singer in Cherise Adams Burnett. Never seen loads of people dancing at a jazz festival before: just one more example of the unpredictability of the lovely people who get down there.

Only one more show to go before bedtime and farewells – the salute to Jazz at the Philharmonic jam session. Normally I hate this string of aimless solos formula but the head arrangements that Alan Barnes led the players through – all absolute masters of their craft – was actually quite remarkable.

Thanks to Nigel Price again and stacks of wonderful helpers for preserving this great jazz institution.


The Festival site looking across Swanage Bay (picture from a previous year)
Photo credit and ©: Bill Shakespeare

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