Review: Scarborough Jazz Festival 2023

The 20th jazz bash at Scarborough Spa included Alan Barnes, Jamil Sheriff, Tori Freestone, Jim Mullen, Adam Glasser and Randy Brecker

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Scarborough 2023 - clockwise from top left: Alex Clarke, Brandon Allen, festival organisers Mark and Mike Gordon, and Emma Rawicz. Photos © Brian Payne

Scarborough cut it with another varied and entertaining programme such as we’ve come to expect from this top UK jazz festival. Taking place over the weekend of 22 to 24 September, this year’s was the 20th to be held in the splendid coastal setting of Scarborough Spa. As usual it was compered by the inimitable Alan Barnes.

Jamil Sheriff’s Five Gold Rings opened Friday morning in the Grand Hall with Sheriff on piano, Jim Corry alto sax, Richard Iles flugelhorn, Sam Quintana double bass and Caroline Boaden drums. They played Sheriff’s original compositions which often recalled the classic jazz of the 1950s and 60s. These included Going To Church, named after the artwork by the African-American painter, William H Johnson; Red Kite after the breeding programme at Harewood House near Leeds and Bells Blues in memory of the times when the pianist used to pick bluebells in a wood with his grandma in Bolton. (Don’t call the police just yet – Sheriff recognises that they’re now a protected species.) Alan Barnes guested on alto in Love Someone. With first-rate soloing all round and impressive interplay, this band is certainly one to look out for.

The dexterous duo of Tori Freestone on tenor sax and flute and Alcyona Mick on piano followed with another set of original compositions. These included Freestone’s Birds Of Paradise – an engaging piece containing four strands of bird song she’d heard when staying with her mother in Tenerife during lockdown and Mrs PC referencing John Coltrane’s Mr P.C., Paul Chambers. Mick’s ornithological contribution to the set was The Crows, written in London’s Wood Green when crows were flying around her flat. Her composition Strange Behaviour was an engaging blues-tinctured number with Monk-style piano. The congenial chemistry flowing between the two musicians throughout the session was highly apparent to the appreciative audience.

Jonny Mansfield is one of a small and select group of jazz vibraphonists on the scene today. He’s played at Scarborough three times before, firstly with Jam Experiment then Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Orchestra and in 2019 with Bonsai. This year he brought his quintet with Dominic Ingham on violin, Ivo Neame piano, Will Sach bass and Jay Davis drums to play a selection of his own compositions. The band delivered a mix of ambient and contemporary jazz albeit with a pervasive air of chamber music floating throughout – probably due to the prominence of the violin and the way it was played. This was an interesting set with Emma Rawicz guesting on tenor sax in one of the numbers.

Ivo Neame’s Dodeka took Friday’s early evening slot. This 12-piece band entertained the audience with orchestral, polyrhythmic scores composed by Neame during the lockdown. The music has been likened by some to that of Mike Gibbs. With Neame on piano, the band comprised Noel Langley, Robbie Robson and Laura Jurd on trumpets; George Crowley, Mike Chillingworth, Emma Rawicz, Jon Shenoy saxophones; Kieran McLeod, Richard Foote trombones; Tom Farmer bass and Josh Blackmore, who came in at short notice although you couldn’t tell, on drums. Unusually bass and drums were sited at the front of stage with the rest of the band in a semi-circle behind.

“Foot-tapping jazz” had been largely absent for much of the day and it was left to Brandon Allen and his Groove Band to put this right. With Allen pounding on tenor sax, Mike Outram guitar, Jim Watson keyboards, Flo Moore electric bass and Jamie Murray on drums the Grand Hall erupted with their opening rendition of Allen’s Dirt In My Shoes. Other originals penned by Allen included Lost Worlds with Allen on soprano; Eddie’s Funky Chicken in homage to tenorist Eddie Harris and I Didn’t Mean To Hurt You reflecting the sound of Stanley Turrentine. The set went down a treat with the audience and proved to be one of the highlights of the festival.

Brandon Allen was a hard act to follow but Georgia Mancio did it with grace and panache. Many of her songs came from her two albums with pianist Alan Broadbent. They included When I Left My Love Behind sung in Italian and English with Mancio whistling tunefully at the end; the Latin-jazz styled Just Like A Child; the melancholic When The Time Has Come To Part and an arrangement of Bella Ciao, a 19th-century Italian protest folk song that was adopted by the partisans in the last war. Robin Aspland was on piano, Jeremy Brown double bass and Dave Ohm drums. Brown had stepped in at the last minute and though he’d never played any of the songs before he delivered a seamless performance.

Saturday opened with the Alex Clarke Quartet featuring the leader on alto and tenor sax, David Newton piano, Dave Green bass and Clark Tracey drums. The set list included Jimmy Heath’s Sound For Sore Ears; Richard Rodgers’ Where Or When (Clarke likes reworking songs from the Great American Songbook); Phil Woods’ Brazilian Affair; Strayhorn’s Ballad For Very Tired And Very Sad Lotus Eaters (in a duet with David Newton); Clarke’s own composition, Only A Year, signifying the amount of time she spent at music college before she dropped out; Alone Together; Luiz Eça’s The Dolphin (originally recorded by Stan Getz) and Bobby Wellins’s CUCB which he wrote in tribute to Clifford Brown. Clarke delivered a highly impressive performance alternating between alto and tenor for each song. The seasoned rhythm section didn’t put a foot wrong of course and the band received a well-earned ovation from the audience.

Mighty Like The Blues followed, with Jim Mullen on guitar, Mike Gorman organ, Pete Horsfall trumpet, Sam Braysher alto and Shaney Forbes on drums. As indicated by the band’s title they delivered a potent set of blues numbers including Wabash Blues; Jazz Me Blues; Ellington’s Creole Blues; Harold Arlen’s I’ve Got The Right To Sing The Blues; Blue Peter penned by Horsfall and Ellington’s I Got It Bad which had Horsfall and Braysher duetting sublimely with great soloing from Mullen.

Adam Glasser’s quartet were on next with Glasser on piano and harmonica, Ant Law guitar, Steve Watts double bass and Corrie Dick on drums. This was another absorbing set. Glasser provided interesting observations on South African jazz as he introduced each number. These included Hugh Masekela’s Part Of The Whole and Scullery Department (the latter refers to black musicians in South Africa having to enter the gig via the kitchen), Bill Evans’ Sno’ Peas (played in tribute to Toots Thielemans) and Glasser’s Mzansi (“down south” in Zulu).

Saturday evening began with Graham Costello’s Strata. The Scottish drummer composes music that could be called trance jazz. The hypnotic, dream-like piece delivered by his ensemble lasted the whole of the set and reminded me a little of the Third Ear Band. It was largely a series of repetitions that progressed with very slight incremental changes. There were no announcements. Some audience members told me how much they’d enjoyed it and some were lulled into sleep.

They were followed by Emma Rawicz and her quintet. The tenorist has been making waves in the jazz world and last year won the Parliamentary Jazz Award for “Jazz Newcomer of the Year”. Her band delivered a mix of modern jazz, jazz fusion and funk with self-penned compositions from her album Chroma amongst others. Ant Law was on guitar, Ivo Neame piano, Kevin Glasgow electric bass and Asaf Sirkis drums.

Randy Brecker with Tod Dickow & Charged Particles were the closing act on Saturday night. With Brecker on trumpet, Dickow tenor sax, Greg Sankovich piano, Aaron Germain double bass and Jon Krosnick on drums they played the music of saxophonist Michael Brecker, Randy’s brother. Dickow and Krosnick supplied interesting commentary as they introduced each of the late saxophonist’s compositions. These included Ark Of The Pendulum, Pilgrimage, Talking To Myself and When Can I Kiss You Again? – written by Michael Brecker while in hospital receiving a bone-marrow transplant shortly before he died. Dickow and the Charged Particles trio were clearly on top of their game. Randy Brecker seemed somewhat slow to get going but picked up considerably in the last number. He didn’t speak during the performance.

Sunday opened at midday with the Doncaster Jazz Alumni – an 18-piece band of former members of the Doncaster Jazz Orchestra which began life 50 years ago as a youth orchestra. Many of the alumni are among the finest jazz musicians in the UK. The band’s performance was designed as a tribute to Thad Jones and was conducted by John Ellis and Al Wood, who provided the audience with interesting commentaries about the music. The set list included The Summary from the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis album Suite For Pops, Over The Top by Al Wood, A Child Is Born and Big Dipper – both by Thad Jones – and an arrangement of Victor written by Alan Ganley in tribute to Victor Feldman. The performance was really well received by the capacity audience.

Art Themen & Dave Barry’s quartet had Themen on tenor and soprano saxophones, Gareth Williams on piano, Dave Green on bass and of course Barry on drums. This was another scintillating performance with numbers including The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, Joe Henderson’s Black Narcissus, Solid by Sonny Rollins, Vincent Youmans’ Without A Song, Autumn In New York, Dexter Gordon’s Hanky Panky and Monk’s I Mean You. Midway through the set, Gareth Williams gave a dry and witty speech about his colleagues in the band which had the audience laughing out loud.

Rory Ingham’s Trombone Assembly followed with Ingham, Mark Nightingale, Trevor Mires, Daniel Higham and Andy Wood on trombones, Graham Harvey piano, Sam Quintana bass and Ian Thomas drums. Among the numbers played were Dexter Gordon’s Cheese Cake, What Lies Beneath and Nightingale’s splendid arrangement of Sonny Stitt’s The Eternal Triangle. It was a another performance much appreciated by the audience. They were followed by Ian Shaw with Tony Kofi on alto sax, Barry Green piano and Dave Green on bass in a session entitled An Adventurous Dream celebrating the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Strangely, Shaw who is usually so outgoing, sang almost hidden behind a large music stand erected at head height throughout the set.

The Mark Nightingale & Alan Barnes Sextet closed the festival late on Sunday night. This was a powerhouse of a band which along with Nightingale on trombone and Alan Barnes on alto sax comprised James Davison on trumpet, Graham Harvey piano, Jeremy Brown double bass and Ian Thomas on drums. Classic numbers included splendid arrangements of ’Round Midnight, Take The ‘A’ Train and Take Five which generated first-rate soloing and interplay throughout the set.

This year’s festival was yet another success. It was founded by Mike Gordon 20 years ago and he’s been the festival director every year since. Now he’s decided to hang up his boots and he was presented on stage with bottles of wine from Scarborough Jazz Club and from his son Mark who addressed the audience with warm words about his father. We all wish Mike the very best for the future.