Southport: “Jazz on a Winter’s Weekend”

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A bitterly cold and blustery Southport provided an appropriate backdrop for this year’s “Jazz on a Winter’s Weekend”, 31 January-3 February 2019.  In its traditional spot in the first weekend in February, the 15th Southport jazz festival assembled a varied line up of home-grown and international jazz talent to entertain record numbers of fans looking for a convivial way of escaping the cold.

Now under festival director Neil Hughes, who took over from founder Geoff Matthews three years ago, the festival flourishes with around 3,000 tickets sold this year.  Joe Stilgoe packed in the festival’s biggest ever audience on the Friday evening, eclipsing even festival favourite Alan Barnes, who this year brought an octet to present “A short and Incomplete History of Jazz” for his regular slot on the last evening.

After a mellow start on Thursday evening by Neil Yates celebrating Chet Baker’s songs and playing, Nigel Price’s Organ Trio kicked off Saturday with the addition of former Yates collaborator Dean Masser on reeds. With his bebop-inspired knack of making something new out of the chord changes of standards, Price led a mainly uptempo session which featuring his compositions “Wet and Dry” (based on the changes of “Come Rain, Come Shine”), “Stealing Time” (Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low”) and “Al In” (“Body and Soul”).

There’s no denying Wes Montgomery’s influence in Price’s superb playing. Introducing Wes’s “Full House”, he told the audience that he always featured Montgomery tunes so we “might as well get it out of the way”. But fluent bebop lines and extraordinary facility for chord choices and changes explain why Price has been one of our leading jazz guitar exponents for over 25 years. Dean Masser is a talented front man and his authoritative saxophone provided a contrast with Ross Stanley’s tasteful but always innovative organ and the rhythms of Manchester drummer Eryl Roberts. The first half’s only ballad – a meditation on the changes of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” – was a real treat.

The big event on Friday night was Joe Stilgoe’s appearance with Jez Murphy’s Swingtime big band. Formed in 2013, Murphy’s outfit took on some demanding charts to back Stilgoe’s high-energy tour through songbook classics and original tunes. Stilgoe (pictured above by Alan John Ainsworth) is a dynamic entertainer and powerful singer who knows how to engage the audience. Popular stuff, sure, but the mutterings of a few hard-core jazz fans were drowned out by the enthusiastic response of a packed house.

Jeremy Sassoon closed Friday with a late-night set from a quartet including Iain Davidson on reeds. Sassoon fills an unusual niche in the current scene as an interpreter of songs who draws on soul, blues, R&B and classic songbook and piano jazz and has successfully presented his distinctive approach in London at Ronnie’s, at the North Sea Jazz Festival and in Berlin and New York. Bringing something of his own to even the most familiar, he kicked off with “Bye Bye Blackbird” – a soulful account of a perennial which Iain Dixon, up to this point standing nonchalantly to one side, added an amazingly powerful solo – the mark of his playing throughout. Sassoon complements accomplishing piano playing with accompanied scat singing and really comes into his own when he draws on his love of Ray Charles and singers like Roberta Flack, Gregory Porter, and even Jon Cleary (“a new discovery”).

Saturday saw two artists present tributes to jazz greats, launched in style by Tony Kofi’s homage to Cannonball Adderley.  With music from various stages of Cannonball’s long career interspersed with background and anecdotes about his life, Kofi took on the task of interpreting the Florida hurricane in a spirit which matched the Southport weather. From the roaring opening number, “Café Bohemia”, Kofi’s arrangements stuck closely to the head charts but opened up to explore the compositions in extended improvisations, capturing the spirit rather than emulating Adderley’s soul and blues influenced lines.

Kofi took us through a range of Adderley classics from the post-bop era such as “Minority”, “Nardis” and “Things Are Getting Better”. The last featured some polished blues piano from Alex Webb paving the way for Kofi to unleash a storm as bracing as any his mentor might have experienced in his home city Tampa. Victor Feldman’s “Azule Serape” was followed by “Stack of Woe”, another one of Cannonball’s 12-bar tunes with strong beat and memorable figures. A bleary-eyed audience at this 11am set were quickly re-energised by superb playing from Kofi and his outstanding band – Andy Cleyndert on bass, the dynamic and animated Andy Davies on trumpet, Alex Webb and Alfonso Vitale on drums.

Deelee Dube joined the band to round out the exploration of Adderley’s work by taking Cannon’s 1961 collaboration with Nancy Wilson as her starting point. The first British winner of the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Composition, Deelee’s rich vocals captured the spirit Kofi was looking to create. Her rendition of “A Sleepin’ Bee” accompanied only by Cleyndert and Vitale captivated the audience, who flatly refused to leave until Kofi’s men with Deelee encored with “Worksong” – a rousing end to a superb set. 

At the other end of the day, Zoe Gilby’s late-night explorations of Monk’s compositions through Carmen McRae’s 1988 vocal interpretations might have been a homage twice removed but was no less impressive for that. With lyrics mostly written by Jon Hendricks (and a couple by Mike Ferro and Abbey Lincoln) McRae had presented the arrangements under different titles from Monk’s originals for copyright reasons – an interesting slice of jazz history which Zoe (pictured above by Alan John Ainsworth) brought to life with her rich vocal interpretations of classics like “In Walked Bud”, “Panonnica” and “Ask Me Now”.

Zoe’s innovative improvisations and scat interjections were quirky and matched the spirit of Monk’s originals. I would not have believed a vocal interpretation of “Brilliant Corners” – “not Monk’s catchiest tune”, she said – was possible but Zoe’s ambitious interpretation paid off brilliantly. Andy Champion provided a some inventive and busy bass lines and Paul Edis was a sensitive accompanist on piano. The project, which grew out of jazz nights in Zoe’s home Newcastle, is a tribute to this artist’s interest and immersion in a slice a of jazz history. Another cracking set.

An afternoon of quiet reflective jazz from Norway’s Kjetil Mulelid Trio was marmite between Tony Kofi and Zoe Gilby’s bread slices, confirming again the ability of jazz to transplant itself and adopt form from other cultural traditions (unlike marmite). Poverty precluded your reviewer’s attendance at the ritzy gala dinner with Joe Stilgoe and the opportunity for a little light elbow exercise deflected his attention from the Walter Becker recreations of Nearly Dan, but good things were overheard in the corridors.

Southport proved to be a haven of European élan in Brexit-benighted Britain as another musician with continental connections took the early morning Sunday stage. Dan Whieldon studied in Brussels after graduating from the Birmingham conservatoire, absorbed the cadences of “European” jazz and brought Belgians Jean-Paul Estievenart (trumpet) and Sam Gertmans (bass) to make up his quartet with the ever-reliable Dave Walsh on drums.

But what is “European” jazz? Everything Jacob Rees Mogg is not, according to Whieldon: a “concept of sound”, a willingness to adapt the tradition to local culture in a forward-looking way, not so much a mix as a synthesis of old and new; light horn and piano figures assembled with style in recognisable song form; a sophisticated yet relaxed classicism worn lightly (no need for Latin aperćues here, BJ). A few standards were interspersed among Whieldon’s own compositions, including a tribute to Belgian pianist Michel Herr. 

Neil Hughes was brimming with enthusiasm when he announced the Champian Fulton Trio in the afternoon, making light of travel problems which forced a delayed start; guest soloist Scott Hamilton was still in a last-minute taxi dash from Liverpool airport but “would be here in 10 minutes”. I don’t know whether it was the stress of a last-minute arrival, but Champian, Arnie Somogyi and Steven Keogh seemed determined to relax and enjoy the set, which they kicked off without Scott.

And what a delight it was too. Champian (pictured above by Alan John Ainsworth) drew on her love of the American songbook and Tin Pan Alley  to take us through songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and classics like “Darn That Dream” and “Black Velvet”. Twenty minutes into the set Scott arrived, walked on stage and segued seamlessly into “Just Friends”. With no time to prepare, Champian’s relaxed stage presence and the banter between the musicians about which tunes to play in which key (we now all know the song was in G) engaged the audience and made clear the sheer craftsmanship on display.

For those who, like me, might not be aware of Champian, she is a superb pianist in the classic jazz piano style. Born into a musical family with strong jazz associations, she was mentored by some of the jazz greats and is a central figure in today’s New York scene. As a vocalist she wrings real emotion out of the classics she clearly loves: whether slow and languorous, such as her version of “The Very Thought of You”, or a mid-tempo ballad, in her hands these songs become something new and fresh. Scott Hamilton’s mellow sax playing, inventive solos and sensitive accompaniment were as accomplished as ever. Arnie Somogyi and Steven Keogh were simply superb and their solos well-received. Long queues formed to buy copies of Champion’s latest CD – understandably.

And so to the end game. Alan Barnes’ Octet provided a rumbustious and entertaining gallop through early jazz, swing, bebop and much more besides with Southport stalwarts Bruce Adams, Mark Nightingale, Robert Fowler, Karen Sharp, David Newton, Simon Thorpe and Clark Tracey doing what they do best and having a great time into the bargain. A late session fronted by Mark Crooks with Nigel Price, Arnie Somogyi and Steve Brown closed proceeding with a smooth and elegant mixture of jazz and jazz samba – sending the still numerous audience home happy and warmed to the cockles. Even the weather had improved by the end of the weekend.

Congratulations to Neil Hughes and his team for an impressive achievement in Southport.

See Alan John Ainsworth’s gallery of photographs from 2019 Southport Jazz Festival