Review: Scarborough Jazz Festival




The 2017 Scarborough Jazz Festival presented Brian Payne with a top quality programme and a magnificent seafront backdrop

It’s hard to believe that Scarborough Jazz Festival turned 15 this year. From 22 to 24 September, the Spa’s Grand Hall on South Bay’s sea front once again supplied the magnificent backdrop for this premier jazz festival. Few UK festivals have come anywhere near the calibre of Scarborough in terms of variety of programming, professional organisation and quality of setting. I was keen to see how events unfolded this time around.

Friday opened with the New York Brass Band fresh from their adulatory gig at Glastonbury. Whilst this powerful eight-piece led by sousaphonist James Lancaster takes its inspiration from the modern-day musicians of New Orleans, its repertoire was wide ranging, with self-penned originals and foot-tapping versions of Mingus’s Better Git It In Your Soul, Corea’s Spain and Branford Marsallis’s Mo' Better Blues. The audience loved it. Bassist Sam Quintana’s band, Wandering Monster, followed with an eclectic mix of original material, hard-bop arrangements and contemporary jazz. With Ben Powling on tenor sax, Calvin Travers on guitar, Jamil Sheriff on piano and Tom Higham on drums this is a band to look out for.

Baritone saxophonist Issie Barratt’s dectet, Interchange, was unable to have a warm up on the day but her all-female band comprising 10 of the UK’s finest composing improvisers was none the worse for this. All numbers were original compositions by band members and all were premieres. Yazz Ahmed was on trumpet, Helena Kay on alto, Tori Freestone flute & violin, Maddie Dowdeswell trombone, Shirley Smart cello, Nikki Iles (pictured right with Stan Sulzmann) unusually on accordion (she retrieved it from her garage after 10 years gathering dust), the excellent Charlie Pyne on double bass and drummer extraordinaire Katie Patterson holding the beat. With Brigitte Beraha adding vocals to the mix this was a totally engaging performance.

As is their wont, Get The Blessing (the band’s name comes from Ornette Coleman’s The Blessing) blasted the Grand Hall’s audience with their hard-hitting, rock-based jazz. Clive Deamer, ex Hawkwind and Portishead, on drums was a veritable powerhouse. With Jim Barr’s urgent bass lines and Jake McMurchie’s and Pete Judge’s anthemic, climactic horns, the band’s heart-pounding performance brought the crowd in the hall to its feet.

I hadn’t seen the Danish musician Mads Mathias before and was surprised at the effortless ease with which he could alternate within a second between expertly playing tenor sax and then singing like Frank Sinatra. He was expertly backed by Peter Rosendal on piano, Morton Ankarfeldt on bass and Steve Hanley on drums. All his songs were about losing love or seeking love. I think he may have had a busy time in that department. Mathias’s delivery wasn’t showy in the slightest and he had a dry line in humour about the British. He certainly wooed the audience.

Friday night closed late with Hexagonal. Pianist John Donaldson and bassist Simon Thorpe toured with the South African composer Bheki Mseleku some years ago. Their band was formed to play his music. Original compositions by the band members and pieces by McCoy Tyner were added to the repertoire. With such accomplished musicians as Greg Heath on tenor sax, Jason Yarde on alto, Quentin Collins on trumpet and Tristan Banks on drums this promised to be a great set but somehow it didn’t quite hang together. Maybe I was jazzed out after a long day. Others I spoke to rated it highly.

Saturday afternoon opened with the piano/sax duet of Nikki Iles and Stan Sulzmann playing re-arrangements and improvisations of standards as well as their own compositions. This was a well crafted performance including numbers such as Arlen’s Come Rain or Come Shine, Gershwin’s My Man’s Gone Now, Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s Song But My Own and the last song that Jerome Kern wrote, Nobody Else But Me. Iles’s own composition, Under The Canopy, which she wrote after watching a wildlife television documentary with her daughter, was particularly well received.

Unfortunately I missed Gareth Lockrane’s Loire Funk All Stars but caught Janette Mason’s Red Alert which followed. Mason is a pianist, arranger and composer who toured with Oasis and Robert Wyatt in the 90s. She’s also arranged for many in the jazz world including Elaine Delmar and Claire Martin. Backed by Tom Mason on bass and Jack Pollitt on drums she did jazz covers of songs by Gary Numan and others as well as playing her own compositions.

The Lowest Common Denominator saw reedsmen Alan Barnes and Gilad Atzmon (pictured left) join forces supported by the latter’s rhythm section of Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on bass and Enzo Zirilli on drums. This was a great set, with the pair swapping banter as they took turns in introducing numbers. Barnes likened the putting together of the band to entering the lion’s den in Roman times by naming one of his compositions Giladiator. And according to Atzmon one of his originals, Blip Blop, was written for his Japanese wife of 63 years. Can we believe what these people say? Not always - but does it matter when the music is that good?

Virtuoso pianist Jason Rebello, who has played with Jeff Beck, Sting and Phil Collins, provided an absorbing solo session in the Grand Hall on Saturday evening. His combination of originals and standards included a splendid rendition of Erroll Garner’s stride piano number Play Piano Play that had the joint jumping.

The Stan Tracey Legacy Band rounded off the night in blistering style. Clark Tracey’s 15-piece band performed arrangements largely from Stan’s Genesis and Alice In Jazzland suites. With Steve Melling on piano, the array of talent included Art Themen, Alan Barnes, Sam Mayne, Nadim Teimoori and Jay Craig (reeds), Nathan Bray, Mark Armstrong, Martin Shaw and Louis Dowdeswell (trumpets), Mark Nightingale, Martin Gladdish and Pete North (trombones), Andrew Cleyndert bass and of course Clark Tracey on drums. The band’s performance closed Saturday with a bang!

Seven Pieces of Silver saw in Sunday with a smashing selection of Horace Silver re-arrangements by the band’s leader, bassist Paul Baxter. These included Sister Sadie, Song For My Father (unusually in 7/4 time) and Blowin’ The Blues Away. Pianist Andrzej Baranek out-Horaced Horace if that were at all possible. Moon Rays produced a superb tenor sax solo from Kieran Mathews and Alan Barnes added icing to the cake when he guested on alto.

Clarinet maestros Ken Peplowski and Julian Mark Stringle were on next. What pedigrees these two have: Peplowski played with Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Charlie Byrd, Scott Hamilton, Howard Alden, George Shearing and Mel Tormé. Stringle has played with Wild Bill Davison, Don Lusher, Kenny Ball, George Chisholm, Kenny Baker, John Dankworth & Cleo Laine, Jim Mullen, George Melly and more. He’s also the clarinettist with Digby Fairweather’s Half Dozen.

Before the set started, the lushly ringleted Stringle joked that as the weather was so warm in Scarborough he was tempted to go for a swim after breakfast but decided against this as it might spoil his hair. Expertly backed by Craig Milverton on piano, Sandy Suchodolski on bass and Nick Millward on drums the two clarinettists opened with Crazy Rhythm. They continued with a swinging mix of re-arranged standards by Rodgers and Hart, Noel Coward and Reid and Bernstein. Whilst it’s almost impossible to pick out any single number from such a flawless overall performance, the rendition of Buddy DeFranco’s Blues For Space Travellers was particularly exceptional. This was a formidable pairing of swing clarinettists at their very best. The audience couldn’t get enough.

Talking of maestros, Nick Meier is an acknowledged maestro of the fretless guitar. He and his quintet of Dan Oates on violin, Kevin Glasgow bass, Demi Garcia percussion and Laurence Lowe drums came on next. What followed was something of a musical round the world tour with songs from the Middle East, Europe and the Balkans. At one point Meier asked the audience whether the band was doing something wrong because we’d been so quiet. In fact nothing was wrong at all - the audience had actually been stunned into silence by the sheer wizardry of the musicianship.

Polly Gibbons (pictured above right) took to the stage later in the evening. Initially she presented as a rather average vocalist but this image was soon to be radically dispelled. How could we have been so misled? As the set progressed, mounting evidence of Gibbons’s considerable abilities grew so much that by the end it was somewhat akin to witnessing the performance of a mega star. Backed by James Pearson (Ronnie Scott’s resident pianist), Chris Dodd on double bass and Chris Draper on drums, she belted through some numbers like a blues diva. With others you could hear a pin drop such was the finesse of delivery. Her repertoire included Devil May Care, Wild Is The Wind and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. In Honeysuckle Rose her voice metamorphosed exactly into that of Cleo Laine’s. Gibbons’s soft rendition of Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain with solo piano and her closing number I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free brought massive applause. Keep an eye out for Polly Gibbons - she has a bright future.

Mike Gibbs conducted the Hans Koller Big Band for the close of the festival in the Grand Hall on Sunday night. He turned 80 next day. Gibbs is one of the UK’s leading composers and arrangers. He’s known for his use of rock elements in orchestral jazz and over the years has worked with Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Bill Frisell and John Scofield. It was interesting to see that another guitarist, this time Mike Walker (pictured left), played a central role in Gibbs’s arrangements. Other members of this stellar band hand-picked for Gibbs by Koller included Henry Lowther, Ryan Quigley and Percy Pursglove on trumpets, Mark Bassey and Rory Ingram on trombones, Jason Yarde and Julian Siegel on saxes, Michael Janisch on bass and Andrew Bain drums. There appeared to be no set order of play and Gibbs appeared unhurried in moving on to successive numbers, often requiring a few minutes to gather his thoughts. Despite this, each time the band finally got going the results were sublime. His arrangements included those for Bill Frisell’s Throughout, Eberhard Weber’s Maurizius, John Lewis’s Django, John Scofield’s Meant To Be and Gibbs’s own composition Tennis Anyone?. The concert’s finale produced a standing ovation from the audience.

Scarborough Jazz Festival was hugely enjoyable this year and as always was a great success. Early Bird tickets for the 2018 festival from 28 to 30 September are available now from the festival website.

Photos by Brian Payne


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