PREVIEW: Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival (22-24 March)

John Etheridge and Theo Travis of Soft Machine
Photo taken at Capstone Theatre Liverpool in 2017 by Robyn Goh
The band played Bristol Uni Students Union in November 1974 and will play there again....

Adoptive Bristolian Jon Turney is looking forward to the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival (22-24 March). This year's event takes place in a year when the festival's normal venue Colston Hall is closed for a major refurbishment... but is it really closed? Jon finds out:  

Bristol festival time again, eh?

Yes, and it’s a great line-up this year. They’ve got jazz acts from Richard Galliano to Keith Tippett and Matthew Bourne’s duo, China Moses revisiting Billie Holiday to the Gypsy Kings. And a ton of blues too.

Pretty much the first big one of the year, then?

Yup, especially this time, with Gateshead taking a break.

Wait, though, isn’t that nice Colston Hall off limits?

Indeed. The main building has been ripped apart inside.

So where will they put on all this music?

Well, Colston’s closure, plus a blizzard-induced dent in the takings last year, gave the organisers a lot to think about. Happily, Bristol has many mansions, and this year’s programme will run in a different set of venues that combines good facilities with a flexibility the old Hall lacked.

Do they work together well?

Yes: There’s space for big draws in the O2 Academy and the marvellous St George's on Brandon Hill. And the new Festival hub is a few minutes walk away in the Bristol University Students’ Union. Happily, they completed their big refurb a few years ago, and the Anson Rooms, as the performance spaces are known, boast a main hall, two smaller theatres and a bar.

Result!

A good one. In fact, although the programmers have upped the blues quotient this time (with stars including Lucky Peterson, Kirk Fletcher, and Aynsley Lister), there’s probably a wider range of jazz this time, too.

So how should I plan a weekend?

Well, you could just hang out in the Anson Rooms. There’s a good selection of interesting stuff in the Winston Theatre there (200 seats) – Ant Law, Julian Siegel’s quartet, Yazz Ahmed, Johnny Mansfield’s Elftet, Dennis Rollins, Soweto Kinch and Bristol trumpeter and leader Andy Hague playing a tribute to Kind of Blue. The larger main room sees sets from Soft Machine and lots of blues. The festival workshops find a new home in the smaller Pegg Studio Theatre. And the regular freestage programming runs all weekend (Friday-Sunday) in the adjoining Balloon Bar, with 20 bands programmed.

Sounds simple.

Still, then you’d miss all the goodies round the corner and down the hill at St George’s, where you have to go to catch Moscow Drug Club, Galliano, Tippett and Bourne, China Moses, Liane Carroll, Huw Warren’s Dylan Thomas Project, or festival patron Pee Wee Ellis realising a lifetime ambition to perform with strings.

One of those Bristol festival specials?

Yes, and there’s a new commission for pianist Rebecca Nash’s Atlas, featuring altoist John O’Gallagher and Sara Colman on vocals, back in the Winston Theatre, which looks intriguing.

All good. I’ll miss the Colston vibe, though.

Well, latest news: you can spend Sunday afternoon there, at least, when Colston’s vast foyer (the new bit) hosts a just-announced six act showcase for Jazz South. That’s another enticing collection of sets you can hear for free, including We are Leif, Iain Ballamy’s stellar quartet with Jason Rebello and Percy Pursglove, Hexagonal, featuring Jason Yarde and John Donaldson, and Kate Westbrook’s new Granite Band.

Looks like another mini-festival in itself.

The festival begins on Friday evening, March 22, and runs from noon on Saturday and Sunday. Full programme details and booking

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