ROUND-UP REVIEW: Middlesbrough Jazz Weekender 2018

"The Mingus Big Band brought the weekend to an irresistibly energetic finale"
Photos courtesy of Ros Rigby

Middlesbrough Jazz Weekender
(Middlesbrough Town Hall. 19-21 October 2018. Round-up by AJ Dehany)

In July 1978, the visiting Newport Jazz Festival presented one of the greatest gatherings of jazz talent to have ever graced the UK. The bill included Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Bill Evans, Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, McCoy Tyner, and Bo Diddley. Astonishingly, all this took place over one weekend at Ayresome Park stadium in the northeastern shipbuilding town of Middlesbrough.

Forty years later you could say jazz came home with the inaugural Middlesbrough Jazz Weekender in the refurbished spaces of Middlesbrough Town Hall. An eclectic programme was headed up by the Mingus Big Band and the Big Chris Barber Band. Barber (interviewed here a few weeks ago) was there forty years ago, as were many of his audience, one of the most mature crowds I’ve ever seen at a jazz gig on a Saturday night. The concert clearly triggered powerful memories; I was captivated by a white-haired lady at a neighbouring table who seemed utterly enraptured by an invisible delight.

The eighty-eight year old bandleader Chris Barber’s fragile vocal performance on Take My Hand, Precious Lord was a highlight in a nostalgic concert which celebrated without concern for modernity the legacy of New Orleans and the blues-inspired jazz of big band tradition. Introducing Cornbread, Peas, Black Molasses he praised those old-timers: “They played jazz how it should be played: the blues!”

It’s a matter of opinion. The Barber Band’s performance of Miles Davis’s All Blues was truly lovely, but muso nerds will appreciate that the turnaround in that tune goes to a bVI chord rather than the usual V chord of the blues. Make of that what you will. Jazz has come a long way since the heyday of the blues.

Modal jazz of a slightly later vintage was evoked in the late concert, which couldn’t have been more different from Barber’s almost pastiche feelgood romp n’ vamp. Dinosaur’s first album seemed to owe a lot to the Miles of In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, but their new album Wandertrail trails some surprising directions.

Dinosaur. L-R: Elliot Galvin, Conor Chaplin,
Laura Jurd, Corrie Dick

Such is Dinosaur’s ferocious development it feels like a decade now, but it’s only three years since I first saw them in Warsaw as the Laura Jurd Quartet. Dinosaur have evolved into an English-Scottish supergroup, characterised by Jurd’s crisp melodic trumpet playing and compositional style, and the innovative intelligence of pianist Elliot Galvin, upheld by Conor Chaplin’s versatile bass playing and Corrie Dick’s sensitive command of the drums. Their creative inventiveness is sustained throughout their open textures but the real curveball was when they suddenly evoked Fairport Convention with sweet harmony vocals in Happy Sad Song, integrating their resolutely modern electronic style with timeless folk-inspired influences.

Northumbrian folk was allied to jazz on Sunday afternoon when the seven-piece Ushaw Ensemble performed their 45-minute St Cuthbert Suite. Led by pianist Paul Edis, the group features Northumbrian piper Andy May. The ambitious eleven-part programme of the commissioned suite follows the life of seventh-century hermetic monk St Cuthbert, who was raised in the Celtic tradition but whose evangelizing at Lindisfarne led the area’s conversion to Roman Christianity. By musical analogy, folk-like themes are introduced and developed with the rich harmonic colour of jazz and classical influences. It’s a thoughtful and intelligent work with a trenchant understated beauty.

Printmakers occupy a similar space but with different influences and intentions. As credible as they come, you might viably call this sextet a supergroup too. They veer on the tasteful side, but you can’t fault them. The signature bird-like vocalese of Norma Winstone has been a wonder of the jazz world since the early 1970s. Her unison moments with Mark Lockheart’s sax are thrilling. Winstone made her name doing this and it’s still devastatingly effective. Her secret is the perfect flute-like tone of her voice. She’s a diva and hits all the right jazz notes with ample creativity but she doesn’t sound like someone playing up to a jazz singer power stereotype. Her voice is closest to the immortal Ella, but has an understated local quality we can treasure.

Pianist of the weekend Nikki Iles introduced a song she wrote with Norma Winstone, inspired by watching Jobim videos at Winstone’s house Tideway. Dark piano reminiscent of Les Six was atmospherically accompanied by subtle bird and tide impressions from Mark Lockheart and guitarist Mike Walker, whose left-field tactility on the guitar added a frisson of experimentalism throughout the set. The song Tideway was spellbinding, with the wordless vocals giving way to a Brazilian samba feel with exemplary subtlety. It’s hard to think of a more ‘exemplary’ jazz group than Printmakers.

But yes, I have one. The Mingus Big Band brought the weekend to an irresistibly energetic finale. Fresh from a six-night residency at London’s Ronnie Scott’s, the first thing we noticed about the New York-based 14-piece jazz orchestra was its diversity. Compared to the rest of the festival, it says something when having two women and five black guys out of fourteen on stage seems like a rainbow moment. That’s an ongoing issue in culture and society, not just jazz… but still…

Developed from Mingus’s sketches, a never heard composition Invisible Lady asserted the musical diversity of Mingus that the band champions. Sue’s Changes is a third-stream jazz concerto for piano and saxophone. Trombone player Conrad Herwig introduced a piece that is familiar under different names and came out of Mingus’s conversations with Eric Dolphy about US internments. Relevant to today’s tide of racism and xenophobia, he said “Mingus is the Nostradamus of jazz.” Then he gave us the chilling title of the piece: “Meditations on a Pair of Wire Cutters”.

The Mingus Big Band has devoted itself to playing Charles Mingus’s music since 1991, twelve years after the great bass player and composer’s death at age 56. They style themselves as the band Mingus would have wanted to lead if he could have had the resources. The second thing you notice about the band is there is no conductor. Directions are conducted by band members where required. At the band’s heart, musical director and bass man Boris Kozlov is a distinctive personality with a crisp and punchy tone. He has that Mingus magic of being able to strike out a commanding solo in its own right that also happens to lead everyone back in.

Helen Sung’s exciting piano playing, fast intelligence and textural colorations make her a key linchpin of the band. The third thing you notice about the band after diversity and conducting is that they’re using sheet music, which is weird given Mingus’s distaste for that and preference for singing parts to players. Nonetheless, each soloist comes to the front mike to play. This simple touch is visually and attitudinally much better than staying put in the pit. Each player has a strongly individual style that is encouraged and contributes to the band’s virtuosic group identity.

Over a weekend of intense and pleasingly disorientingly varied music, it was interesting to consider the different approaches to group style. Dinosaur resembles a rock band with its intimacy and sense of trust. The Big Chris Barber Band are old-school session guys with passion and flair but a sense of place that harks back to an older era. The Mingus Big Band may be somewhere in between, with an exciting sense of drilled individuality.

Similarly, the Beats & Pieces Big Band, who opened the festival, have made a name for themselves over a decade for taking a fourteen-piece format into new textures sonically and in the writing of bandleader Ben Cottrell, with influences from rock, dance, contemporary classical and minimalism. Following an exhausting tenth anniversary tour, they brought an enlivened group boldness to their set, and it’s worth noting they famously play without sheet music. Another part of their appeal is they don’t worry too much about being jazz. Anton Hunter’s extensive guitar fx-rack sets them apart sonically for starters, but their selections include their aching death-disco take on Bowie’s Let’s Dance, and I cleave to their heartstopping paean to emotional devastation, Broken, which still makes me cry every time I hear it.

Nikki Iles directing NYJO in the world premiere of Wild Oak,
 NYJO commission with support from PRS Foundation’s Open Fund,
dedicated to Geri Allen

It was an emotional weekend. Personally speaking, it was crazy for me to be back in the same venue of the first gig I ever went to, some time ago. I was twelve. It was The Prodigy—intense countercultural dance music situated in the rave culture. My mam thought I was going to see a stage play. My mate had a bag of hemp seeds he tried to smoke in the bogs, and we had to get picked up by his dad half way through the gig cos we were twelve and it was a school night.

So when I think about the possible emotional impact of Middlesbrough Jazz Weekender for those who were there in Ayresome Park forty years ago for Dizzy and Ella, I get it. But I don’t feel falsely nostalgic. I’m pumped about the brilliant diversity of talent on display, especially among the Middlesbrough Jazz Weekender’s commitment to broadening local and youth participation with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and the Tees Valley Youth Jazz Collective, and those stunning young groups Jasmine, Tetes de Pois, and Chronotic Brass. And I’m warmed by the promise of initiatives like "Tots Play Jazz", Chris Sharkey’s session for 2-5 year olds, which really brought home the fact that jazz is for everyone, of any age.




AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk . All pictures courtesy of Ros Rigby

The Middlesbrough Jazz Weekender was produced by Ros Rigby and Heather Spencer working with the team at Middlesbrough Town Hall, an Arts Council England NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) run by Middlesbrough Council.

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