Review: Bristol jazz festival days 1 & 2
Bob Weir reports on a strong start for the first Bristol International Jazz & Blues Festival, led by "organisers who are obviously jazz enthusiasts" and topped on Saturday by a standing ovation for John Scofield's Organic Trio
Photography © John Watson See many more of John's Bristol JF pictures here and here
Bristol has long needed and deserved a regular big-time jazz festival to mark its status as one of the UK's most dynamic and creative centres. A promising start has been made at the opening of this three-day event with nearly-packed concerts by the stylistically contrasted Big Chris Barber Band and Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion.
Chris reminded us that he first appeared with his band in the city 60 years ago. The remarkable thing is that his enthusiasm and playing ability are undiminished - nor has the kind of jazz he prefers to play changed all that much. It is still based on the classic New Orleans music of Armstrong, Morton, Bechet etc and 1920s Harlem big band jazz, especially that of Cotton Club era Duke Ellington, all of which he first heard on scarce 78s as a wartime schoolboy.
Barber does have greater presentational flexibility now that he has expanded to a 10-piece. He gets a full big band sound for the Ellington numbers, he can pare down to his earlier sextet to revisit the old band's favourites and even feature a clarinet trio for a full-toned opening to Petite Fleur.
What trad generally lacks in rhythmic complexity, Ginger Baker (pictured above) makes up for in spades. His partnership with percussionist Abass Dodoo produces a constant dialogue of masterly drumming in a great variety of styles. Alec Dankworth, on electric as often as acoustic bass, underpins the quartet with brilliantly executed lines and Pee Wee Ellis fronts the band with big-toned authority.
Their eclectic musical backgrounds (rock, Africa, bop & funk/soul) are reflected in the group's repertoire - classic compositions by Monk, Shorter and Rollins, originals by Baker and Ellis and exotic pieces evoking African rhythmic traditions.
The festival organisers are obviously jazz enthusiasts who have the experience to ensure that everything runs smoothly. All the music - the major concerts and sideshows by quality local abnds - is presented in the various spaces of the city's renowned Colston hall. There are record, book, craft and refreshment stalls - all helping to create a lively, festive atmosphere.
The festival's busiest day kicked off at 12.45pm with an enthralling concert by Alyn Shipton's Buck Clayton Legacy Band. They played a selection from the many Buck charts that were passed on to Alyn after the famous former Basieite died. Some were written for Buck's all-star Swing Orchestra in the last years of his life, others were done for the various bands he brought to Europe earlier and at least one was composed for Humphrey Lyttelton.
Reedsman and co-leader Matthias Seuffert had skilfully adapted the material to suit the nine-piece Legacy Band. There was a high, all-round standard of interpreting Buck's music in just the right style of relaxed swing. The soloing by everyone was spot-on and quite exceptional in the cases of Alan Barnes, Seuffert and Martin Litton. Lillian Boutté guested with Dinah Washington like gusto on Old Fashioned Love (originally arranged for Jimmy Rushing's Jazz Odyssey album) and a rocking generic blues.
I wish I could be as consistently complimentary about the Duke Ellington Sacred Concert performance which followed because it was obviously prepared with great care and enthusiasm. It was certainly visually impressive with a big band, gospel singer, tap dancer and combined choirs of about 150 singers.
The Buzzard Big Band of top regional talent set things up with spirited readings of Perdido and In A Mellotone. But the 'Sacred' material seemed to me to be both repetitive and lacking in substance. I must add, albeit as a non-believer, that it was a bit pretentious and overblown, although I do not doubt Duke's sincerity.
The whole thing was redeemed to an extent by a bravura trumpet feature for Jonny Bruce, running the full gamut of Ducal trumpet styles, and an extensive tap dancing sequence by Annette Walker. Zoe Rahman played beautifully in the Ellington keyboard role.
Lillian Boutté's own concert was great fun. This exhuberant lady from New Orleans applied her powerful vocal talent and her wicked sense of humour to good songs ranging from Crescent City R&B to older jazz standards and blues. She was backed by a talented quartet in which pianist Dan Moore and guitarist Denny Ilett were outstanding. Pee Wee Ellis guested with breathy Websterisms on a couple of slow ballads and more typically funky on a strutting Something's Got A Hold On Me.
I've always believed in saving the best till last and so it was with John Scofield's climactic concert. Bristol had a considerable coup by presenting the debut of his new Organic Trio with Larry Goldings on hammond organ and Greg Hutchinson (pictured, left) on drums. Supergroups can often disappoint but this one achieved its full potential.
The trio seemed genuinely inspired by the occasion, bouncing ideas off each other and responding in kind to each triumphant contribution. They had the first standing ovation of the festival and encored with an outstanding account of The Tennessee Waltz. This made for a satisfying arc back to the opening concert because Buck Clayton had soloed on the late Patti Page's multi-million selling recording of this tune.
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