Review: Swanage Jazz Festival 2023

The Dorset fest included Nigel Price, Alina Bzhezhinska and Tony Kofi as well as tributes to the Miles Davis nonet and Humphrey Lyttelton

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At Swanage, July 2023. Clockwise from top left: Alina Bzhezhinska, Chris Hodgkins, Vimala Rowe and Leo Richardson. Photos © Brian Payne

Apart from Saturday’s sudden downpour the sun shone brightly over this year’s Swanage Jazz Festival, which took place 7 to 9 July. The Mowlem Theatre on the sea front and the capacious Marquee at Sandpit Field housed the bulk of the programme. Other locations included the Swanage & Purbeck Centre in Chapel Lane, the premises of the local Conservative party club and various fringe venues in pubs and hotels across town.

Friday at the Mowlem opened with the Damian Cook Quintet. I’d heard they were pretty good and went to see for myself. I’m glad I did. With Damian Cook on alto sax, Dave Boraston trumpet, Graeme Taylor piano, Joe Limburn bass and Ted Carrasco on drums, their vibrant, hard bop and soul-jazz influenced set was superb. Cook’s dry sense of humour when opening the show and introducing the music went down well with the audience. Numbers included Cook’s self-penned Rope Garden Golf from the band’s first album, Paquito D’Rivera’s Samba For Carmen, Dizzy Gillespie’s And Then She Stopped (played unrehearsed though you wouldn’t know it) and Dry Roasted – a Cook original based on Salt Peanuts. Boraston’s Satchmo rendition of Just A Closer Walk With Thee was particularly well received.

The UK-based South African pianist and composer Philip Clouts brought his quartet to the Mowlem on Friday evening and delivered a punchy potpourri of township jazz, Middle Eastern melody and Cuban rumba rhythm. This was absorbing stuff from highly accomplished musicians. Up and coming Samuel Eagles was on alto, Tim Fairhall on double bass and Andy Chapman on drums. Songs included On West Hill, composed by Clouts after reading Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the Jarrett-inspired Solitude. Later on, Tony Kofi’s Inside Straight celebrated the music of Cannonball Adderley, featuring arrangements of compositions by Cannonball’s brother Nat and Joe Zawinul. Country Preacher, Jive Samba and Inside Straight (from which the band’s title derives) were some of the numbers. Kofi was on alto and his powerhouse band comprised Hugh Pascall on trumpet, Dennis Rollins trombone, Matthew Ratcliffe keys and piano, Martyn Spencer bass and Andrew Wood drums.

Pianist and composer Rebecca Nash, fresh from her appearance the week before at Love Supreme, presented “Redefining Element 78” at the theatre on Saturday. The title of the session (and that of her recent album) was based on platinum and related metals in the periodic table. In delivering this eight-part suite, which incorporated jazz, rock and classical themes, her sextet combined electronica with melodic interludes and blended composed sections with passages of free improvisation.

The often ethereal nature of this performance was contrasted by the mainstream set over at the Marquee from Martin Dale’s quartet. Versatile tenor saxist Dale used to tour with the Jack Bruce Blues Band and plays in the style of Tubby Hayes and Dick Morrissey. His abilty to deliver great gags was prominent throughout the session in which we heard an array of swinging standards, Latin jazz, ballads and blues. The band had the jam-packed, highly appreciative audience shouting for more.

Later on, the Barbadian and south-London bassist and singer Isobella Burnham (Steam Down, Sampa the Great, Tomorrow’s Warriors) and her quartet took to the Marquee stage with a contemporary programme of catchy Caribbean rhythms, duets with co-singer Naiyah and jamming with Lorenz Okello-Osengor on keys and Benjamin Appiah on drums. The twin voices melded well and the band’s infectious enthusiasm for the music clearly connected with the receptive audience.

Alessio Menconi and Nigel Price’s quartet followed this with a stunning display of guitar-playing prowess. Seated side by side, Price introduced Menconi to the audience as the finest guitarist he’d ever worked with and currently probably the world’s best. This was high praise indeed and the Italian maestro was suitably modest in his response. The two guitarists spurred each other on to increasingly greater heights as they delivered numbers such as Days Of Wine And Roses, Wes Montgomery’s Road Song, Stomping At The Savoy (rearranged by Price with a reggae feel) and Love For Sale in the style of Stanley Turrentine. The virtuosos were ably backed by Mikele Montolli on double bass and Joel Barford on drums.

A high spot of the festival was Alina Bzhezhinska’s HipHarp Collective with special guest Vimala Rowe on Saturday night at the Mowlem. Bzhezhinska’s blend of jazz and classical harp with layered electronics encompassed spiritual jazz, free jazz, hip-hop, Afrobeat and rap. Her adroit and impressive performance included songs from the album Inspirations and reflected the styles and arrangements of Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane along with her own compositions. Mikele Montolli on electric bass, Joel Prime on percussion and Matt Holmes on drums were magnificent. Vimala Rowe made several entrances through the set, entrancing the audience each time with her assured and powerful deliveries. These included Summer Walker’s Throw it Away and the Swahili love song, Malaika. Rowe’s recital of Sans End (from FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) to music composed by Montolli was electrifying.

Sunday afternoon at the Mowlem opened with the London-based Misha Mullov-Abbado Sextet. The band, formed by the double bassist 10 years ago, delivered a varied and creative set of contemporary jazz, swing and elements of classical music with influences from eastern Europe, the Middle East and South America. All songs were penned by Mullov-Abbado and included Lock, Stock & Barrel from his first album and Waves from the second. This talented band had James Davison on trumpet and flugelhorn, Tom Smith alto, Alex Hitchcock tenor, Liam Dunachie piano and Scott Chapman on drums. It’s a band to look out for.

Another band to chase down if you get the chance is the Leo Richardson Quartet, who were on next over at the Marquee. They delivered a pulsating hard-bop set with a contemporary edge that had the audience cheering in appreciation. All numbers, bar one by pianist Rick Simpson, were written by tenorist Richardson with influences from the likes of Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane. Along with Richardson on tenor and Simpson on piano were bassist Adam King and drummer Darren Beckett. The performance of all four musicians was top notch.

Later at the Marquee, the Re-Birth Octet played the music of Miles Davis from the period in the late 40s after he’d left Charlie Parker’s quintet. These included Gerry Mulligan’s Jeru, Israel and Move. Bandleader Chris Coull informed us that the octet had expanded their repertoire beyond the 40s in order to accommodate more lengthy gigs. Thus we were able to hear their tiptop arrangement of So What. In almost all instances, the band expanded the Davis trumpet solos to other instruments as well. This vibrant performance was delivered by Coull on trumpet, Andy Panayi alto sax, Bob McKay baritone sax, Jim Rattigan French horn, Mark Bassey trombone, Gabriel Garrick sousaphone, George Trebar bass and Joe Edwards on drums.

A salute to another musician was made at the Chapel Lane Centre on Sunday night – this time by a dectet to Humphrey Lyttleton. The same band toured the UK in 2021 to celebrate what would have been Humph’s 100th birthday. Led by Chris Hodgkins on trumpet, the lineup comprised fellow trumpeter Henry Lowther, a reed section of Diane McLoughlin on alto and soprano sax, Alex Clarke tenor & clarinet and Charlotte Glasson baritone, clarinet & penny whistle, Mark Bassey trombone, Andrea Vicari piano, Max Brittain guitar, Alison Rayner double bass and Buster Birch drums. Interspersing interesting anecdotes about Lyttleton, Hodgkins led the band through 15 numbers including Bad Penny Blues, three compositions of his own – Renaissance Man, Cecil Beaton Strides Again and Susan – Cross a Busy Street, Tribal Dance, Fat Tuesday, Mezzrow, Kath Meets Humph, In Swinger, Late Night Final, Wrestler’s Tricks, One For Buck and to finish off Let’s Get Out. With sparkling arrangements by several members of the band, this was a splendid performance of the highest order.

There were many other sessions I would like to have seen but as always you can’t be in two places at once. Hopefully I’ll catch up with some of these at Swanage next year!