JJ 09/79: Bracknell festival 1979 reviewed

Barry McRae saw James Newton, Anthony Davis, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim Hall, Yosuke Yamashita, Tony Oxley and more at the Berkshire fest of legend. First published in Jazz Journal September 1979

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This was not one of the strongest Bracknell Festivals. There was plenty of overseas interest but, at the end of the day, much of the success was due to local players. Not that the two American duos were not outstanding in their own ways, but rather that several important players were below their best. James Newton and Anthony Davis, with the star spot on Saturday, gave a quite beautiful performance. Newton does not bother with other horns and explores the full potential of the flute with impressive dedication. He moves through softly angled and breathy lines or strikes out with almost metallic power as suits the occasion. All of the pieces played were originals by either himself or Davis and they were treated with respect if not harmonic servility. Davis is a melodist in the Jarrett vein, rhythmically secure and with a gift for understatement that enhanced both the material in hand and the coherence of a demanding duet situation.

‘Brookmeyer’s technical facility took him to the brink of glibness, but his powers of invention and his gruff emotionalism gave the added dimension’

Just as subtle was the Bob Brookmeyer/Jim Hall duo. Their music belonged to the ‘cool’ era, yet both men plundered the idiom for every piece of musical ore. Hall’s mastery of chordal playing made him the perfect man for this bass-less group, and the two musicians dovetailed superbly. Brookmeyer’s technical facility took him to the brink of glibness, but his powers of invention and his gruff emotionalism gave the added dimension and saved him from sounding superficial.

The festival had opened with the uncompromising Yosuke Yamashita Trio, a Japanese unit more distinguished by its creativity than by its relaxation. Akira Sakata proved to be an animated alto man with a highly ‘vocalized’ tone and a wildly free approach to soloing. Drummer Shoto Koyama’s urgency was nullified by a certain rigidity of phrasing but the leader played excellent piano. He is a player with a prodigious technique, and he projected tremendous energy, with flashing clusters taking him on a varied and chromatic, free excursion through each number.

Mike Westbrook’s Orchestra presented The Cortege, especially commissioned to be premiered at Bracknell. It turned out to be quite a departure for the pianist, unlike earlier extended works and with a distinctly international flavour. Vocal elements jostled with more typical slices of Westbrook scoring to produce what at this stage is still a rather uneven performance. The sparkling playing of men like altoist Chris Hunter and trombonist Malcolm Griffiths is extremely important, as is the fine drumming of Dave Barry. This band is not quite as powerful as Westbrook aggregations of the past, however, and there were odd flaccid moments.

Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia proved to be the top crowd pleaser, with the leader playing her special brand of authoritative tenor, soprano and flute in front of a strong rhythm section including her husband Jon Hiseman. Similarly well received was Louis Moholo’s Spirits Rejoice which ended the programme on Saturday night. Despite the presence of Keith Tippett, fast becoming the band pianist, the superb rhythm section of Harry Miller and the leader, and with soloists as impressive as Evan Parker, Dudu Pukwana, Nick Evans and Radu Malfatti, it was a surprisingly less than satisfying set, almost more concerned with getting the audience behind it, than settling down to play as they can.

‘…the Tony Oxley Quartet … was an esoteric leap into really free improvisation, mostly exciting, often disorganised and with a distinctly ‘two finger’ attitude in places. Above all else it was perpetually creative’

Veering perhaps too much in the other direction was the Tony Oxley Quartet. This was an esoteric leap into really free improvisation, mostly exciting, often disorganised and with a distinctly ‘two finger’ attitude in places. Above all else it was perpetually creative, a fact strengthened by the originality of violinist Philip Wachsmann, the assertiveness of reed man Larry Stabbins and the leader’s percussion mastery. Hugh Metcalfe almost raped the guitar, but it all seemed appropriate to the spirit of the music.

Disappointingly early in the programme was a superb interlude by the Paul Rutherford Quartet. Here was the perfect formula; musical fecundity, finely balanced dynamics and rhythmically unpredictable group interplay. Bassist Peter Kowald and drummer Paul Lovens complemented each other perfectly, reacting to the horns and sharing genuine mutual awareness. Tenor saxophonist Peter Brotzmann played with greater subtlety than his earlier work has led us to expect and he included musette and beautifully realised bass clarinet parts in his programme. The leader was outstanding on both trombone and euphonium. The latter gave greater definition in the contrapuntal parts, but on the trombone he gave an object lesson in free extemporisation.

The highlight of events in the Recital Room was an exhilarating set by Stevens/Watts/Guy/Riley. The presence of pianist Howard Riley set the unit tight limits, in terms of harmony, and this discipline encouraged bassist Barry Guy and saxophonist Trevor Watts to pitch their flights of invention more toward the group’s collective requirement. Stevens was inevitably at the heart of the quartet’s powerfully rhythmic thrust, although Watts’ ability to match his lyricism with an impelling urgency gave them all an unforced feeling of excitement.

Apart from the Brookmeyer/Hall set much of the Sunday programme was comfortable rather than inspired. The Lennie Best/Tony Lee Trio played their articulate and swinging brand of chamber jazz with skill, but like the well drilled London Jazz Big Band they were predictable. Despite its impressive array of soloists the LJBB had really nothing new to say. It was almost as if one was listening to an encore of their last appearance at the festival. At least their jazz was well played, something that could never be said of the Boogie Woogie Big Band. Bob Hall and George Green began their part of the proceedings with some pleasing boogie for two pianos, but from there on the band was lightweight in the blues department and a shambles as a playing unit.

‘…the Jan Garbarek Group might have been expected to find it difficult to reproduce their unique sound in a festival marquee. In fact, the saxophonist, aided by the immaculate bass of Eberhard Weber, played a quite beautiful set’

Canadian Ed Bickert played neat Tal Farlowish guitar in a well drilled trio context, although one suspected that it would have sounded more effective in a club environment. In contrast, the Jan Garbarek Group might have been expected to find it difficult to reproduce their unique sound in a festival marquee. In fact, the saxophonist, aided by the immaculate bass of Eberhard Weber, played a quite beautiful set, more concerned with pure sound qualities than emotional projection but a fine effort nevertheless. Johnny Dyani’s Witchdoctor’s Son brought the weekend to a close with a stirring finale. Fine trumpet by Butch Morris and characteristically buoyant alto by Dude Pukwana stood out, but their jazz had a genuine festival feeling.

Lol Coxhill acted as MC throughout: he amused with his patter and played some fine soprano, both solo and with the aid of his ‘Associates’. He even included a set in the cellar bar with a quirky version of Royal Garden Blues, and this perhaps typified the whole spirit of Bracknell. Like most of the events it sent off the sizeable crowd determined to return next year.
Barry McRae