FEATURE: BopFest 2018, 19 - 25 November

Grant Stewart
Photo Credit: John Abbott

One of the many delights of the London Jazz Festival is the event-within-an-event called BopFest, which this year comprises nine concerts and features top-class musicians paying tribute to some of the greatest jazz players of the 1950s and 1960s. Martin Chilton writes:

Organisers Nat Steele and Allison Neale – who have been plotting the logistics of the festival for the past 10 months – are both also playing at a festival that focuses exclusively on bebop and straight ahead jazz. “It is very broadly the jazz that was happening in America between about 1940 and 1965,” Steele tells LondonJazz News, “small group jazz where the focus is on improvising. It is quite a wide variety of music.”

The venue is the award-winning Toulouse Lautrec Jazz Club & Brasserie in Kennington, London. “There is an intimate stage with a grand piano at one end and it is the perfect room for jazz,” says vibraphonist and drummer Steele.

Among the attractions is Steele’s own concert with visiting American tenor saxophone player Grant Stewart, who has performed with a host of stars including Clark Terry, Jimmy Cobb and Louis Hayes. Steele and Neale used Arts Council England funding to bring over the talented Stewart, along with sponsorship from Rubix Cube manufacturer Seven Towns and a significant private donation from a jazz fan.

“Grant is doing his own Saturday night concert with his quartet, including Rob Barron on piano, and the following day he is performing a gig with us that is an homage to the 1950s Prestige Records album Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet,” explains Steele. “We’ll be playing that whole album. Grant has always been a fan of the huge tenor sound of Rollins and he has been able take an influence that was so important to him and turn it into his own special thing.”

Toronto-born Stewart moved to New York as a teenager and studied with masters such as Donald Byrd and Barry Harris. In a real coup, BopFest is also getting him to run a saxophone and improvisation workshop. “He has played with absolutely everyone all over the world,” says Steele, “and has got so much knowledge to transmit to jazz players, both professional and amateur.”

Steele has been cited by Clark Tracey as one of the “best vibes players this country has ever produced” and he jokes that his training started early. “Both my parents are musicians. My dad is a jazz saxophone player and I was rooted in it,” says Steele. “From a very early age I was listening to Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker and Charlie Parker. That was all fed to me even before birth; my mum used to go to jazz concerts when she was pregnant with me so I didn’t have much choice in being a jazz fan.”

The original Prestige album being celebrated includes Milt Jackson, whom Steele calls “my favourite vibraphone player.” He adds: “When I first started out, I liked Gary Burton and I’ve ended up doing the exact opposite of that, playing two mallets instead of four. Cal Tjader is another big influence on my playing. Not long after I started playing the vibes, I got into his album from 1958, Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet. It’s a brilliant album and Tjader is in incredibly heavyweight company, including Billy Higgins on drums. Another vibes favourite is Victor Feldman. He was born in London and moved to America and played with Cannonball Adderley. Feldman is such a good player and very under-rated.”

Co-organiser Allison Neale, an excellent alto saxophonist and flute player, will also feature prominently in a line-up that includes 16 bands in all. Seattle-born Neale, who has released four albums as a bandleader, is featured with her fine quartet celebrating the music of Art Pepper and Bud Shank alongside compositions from tenorists Bob Cooper and Richie Kamuca, known for their work with drummer Shelly Manne.

One of the striking features about BopFest is the range of music celebrated. The cosmopolitan nine-day festival opens on Monday 19 November with German pianist Claus Raible and Austrian tenor saxophonist Herwig Gradischnig exploring the music of great bop pianist Elmo Hope, a prodigious composer who worked with Clifford Brown. Talented young guitarist Artie Zaitz leads a Hammond organ-based combo paying homage to the Blue Note recordings of Grant Green, featuring a real Hammond C3, while the festival closes with pianist Leon Greening’s tribute to some of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger's lesser known tunes from 1958 to 1964.

Because of the vivid programme, audiences tend to be enthusiastic and diverse. “We are part of the umbrella of the EFG London Jazz Festival, so we get diverse audiences at BopFest,” says Steele. “Some of them are the die-hard jazz fans and a significant minority are people we have established as our own audience. But because the LJF is such a big festival, and so well publicised, they are incredibly good at drawing in people who aren’t necessarily jazz fans but attracted by the idea of hearing high-quality music that is new to them. There are also locals who just love the venue. One of the nice things is that age-wise BopFest gets a mixed audience, with people in their teens and early twenties, as well as an older crowd. It makes for a great atmosphere.”

When Steele and Neale first came up with the idea of BopFest in 2015, it was in a mood of adventure, to “make something happen”. Now they are an established part of the London Jazz Festival, bringing wonderful musicians from all over the world to play great bebop in London. “It’s been an amazing experience and it all grew from some small gigs in Ladbroke Grove,” adds Steele.

BopFest 2018 concerts are at Toulouse Lautrec Jazz Bar in London’s Kennington (140 Newington Butts, London SE11 4RN) from 19-25 November. For the full line-up and ticket details go to BopFest

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