Jazz at the Norfolk and Norwich festival 2019

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I made it to just three of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival’s jazz events this year: a combination of prior commitments and a lack of the motivation required to haul myself away from home and drive to Norwich at 10.00pm to catch a late-night show meant that I missed one or two performances while a brief illness unfortunately clashed with Beverley Knight’s date at the Theatre Royal. By luck or judgement, the three concerts I did attend proved to be excellent entertainments in their own, very distinct, ways.

The Tord Gustavsen Trio – pianist Gustavsen, bassist Sigurd Hole and drummer Jarle Vespestad – appeared at the venerable St Andrew’s Hall. Although the venue’s bar was firmly closed and the band’s gear didn’t all make it to the UK from Oslo airport, the atmosphere on and off stage was relaxed and this was a triumphant performance of lyrical and melodic music.

The concert centred on the trio’s 2018 ECM album, The Other Side (awarded four stars in JJ) and included the title track and two interpretations of music by JS Bach – Jesu Meine Freud and a dynamic Schlafes Bruder (Brother Of Sleep – “We woke him up”, said Gustavsen). Gustavsen displayed some attacking, percussive, playing at times but for the most part the trio was restrained – Vespestad rarely if ever broke sweat, preferring instead to contribute hypnotic, tonally varied, percussion which was both beautiful to hear and mesmerising to watch. For me, two of the evening’s (and possibly the festival’s) finest moments came courtesy of Hole’s superb arco bass playing: a lengthy introduction inspired by the music of his homeland and a duet with Gustavsen on a new and as yet untitled lullaby.

John Martyn came to the Norwich Playhouse on Sunday evening, courtesy of Sarah Jane Morris and Tony Remy’s Sweet Little Mystery Project, a concert devoted to Martyn’s songs. Vocalist Morris and guitarist and arranger Remy – plus guitarist Tim Cansfield, bassist Henry Thomas and drummer Martyn Barker – performed a dozen or so numbers from Martyn’s catalogue. Morris’s powerful, dynamic, vocals and commanding stage presence kept the attention of the capacity audience. Her delivery gave many of the songs a harder edge than Martyn’s own performances – notably on Head And Heart and Solid Air (Martyn’s song to his friend Nick Drake) – and the scream with which she opened May You Never was a real surprise.

Interspersed between songs were short film clips of Martyn’s friends, including Eddi Reader and Linda Thompson, and his younger sister, each telling anecdotes about the singer. After the band left the stage Martyn put in an appearance on film, performing Big Muff in front of a small and not especially engaged audience on Hastings beach in 1991 – hardly his finest moment and not one I’d choose to remember him by.

My final visit to this year’s festival brought me to St Peter Mancroft church in the centre of the city, to hear Kit Downes take the church’s organ to musical destinations that it has rarely, if ever, visited before. Seated in pews with our backs to the organ loft, we faced a large projection screen. Downes appeared in front of the screen at the opening of the evening, to give a brief introduction before dashing off to take his place and begin his performance (which was introduced as a “recital”).

I came expecting to hear Downes playing pieces from his 2018 ECM album, Obsidian. Many of the audience members looked like they were expecting selections from the classical church organ repertoire. None of us got exactly what we expected, but we didn’t go home disappointed. Downes gave us a varied programme, making full use of the organ’s capabilities from hushed, delicate whispers to booming, doomy wails. A fixed camera placed to his right enabled us to watch him at work, which added to the evening’s fascination: with his shoes off he played the pedals and occasionally operated a few stops with his feet.

Downes opened with what he termed “semi-improvisations”, moved on to an Appalachian folk song and a Bulgarian folk tune, then played Obsidian’s Flying Foxes. He closed with The Gift, a hymn composed by his father. Downes’s command of the St Peter Mancroft instrument was impressive. He had played it some years ago, when he was an organ scholar in Norwich, but this was his first opportunity in 15 years to return to the instrument and he had just an hour or two to reacquaint himself with it before the concert.