Live Review | The Spa, Scarborough | Review by Liam Wilkinson
From its beautiful setting to its diverse acts, there are so many reasons to return to Scarborough each September and savour one of this country’s finest jazz festivals. As I sat in the candle-lit Spa this weekend and scribbled eagerly in my notebook, the place filling with the sounds of duos, trios, quartets, quintets and big bands around me, a few choice sentences seemed to leak involuntarily from my biro. Hopefully these few paraphrases will help to articulate some of the most splendid moments from another superb few days on the South Bay…
SHIMMERING LANDSCAPES AND LONG SHADOWS
The sixteenth Scarborough Jazz Festival was launched with style and youthful vitality courtesy of Andchuck, a trio formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Their Jazz North-sponsored performance on Friday afternoon managed to tempt its audience from the glorious South Bay sunshine and into the cosy Spa, due to the band’s tight musicianship and intimate dynamic.
These three young musicians seem hard-wired to the rhythms they produce as well as the intricate melodies communicated so dramatically by the band’s electric guitarist Jack March. Whether conjuring the shimmering landscape of “House of Cards”, casting long shadows with the dark country feel of “Circa” or wailing like Hendrix during “Desert Sand”, March delivered a tirelessly inventive performance that may have brought a thin film of sweat to the palms of other, more renowned guitarists on this weekend’s bill, namely John Etheridge who performed twice at this year’s festival and Nigel Price, who performed with his trio on Sunday afternoon.
The opening show reached a stirring crescendo during “The Space of a Cluttered Mind”, giving bassist Tom Chapman and drummer Gabriel Alexander an opportunity to spread their own mighty wings as Jack March soared like David Gilmour over this dreamlike original composition.
This month sees the release of Emanon, Wayne Shorter’s twenty-sixth LP as leader, and a timely tribute to the legendary musician and composer was delivered on Friday evening by the Terry Seabrook Quintet. With stunning arrangements of such classic Shorter cuts as “One By One”, “Prince of Darkness” and “Speak No Evil”, this muscular five-piece benefited greatly from the inventive sax of Andy Panayi and glowing trumpet of Graeme Flowers, especially on Seabrook’s own composition, “The Shorter Suite”.
SMOKEY VOCALS AND SERPENTINE IMPROVISATIONS
Despite naming her set after Peggy Lee’s biggest and most widely recognised song, Jo Harrop revisited a diverse selection of the legendary singer’s repertoire during her Friday night performance. Each cherry-picked number served as a welcome reminder of Peggy’s careful ear and fine voice whilst showcasing the stunning vocals of Durham-born Harrop. Complementing Jo’s smoky vocals was the light and airy alto sax of none other than Tony Kofi, whose serpentine improvisations curled gleefully beneath Jo’s voice on respectful interpretations of songs such as “Confessin’”, “Just one of Those Things” and “He’s a Tramp”. There was, naturally, a show-stopping rendition of “Fever”, featuring the brilliant Neville Malcolm and his beloved double bass ‘Bessie’.
Captivating vocals were on Saturday evening’s menu, too, courtesy of Vimala Rowe who managed to tempt the ghost of Billie Holiday onto the Spa stage. Along with the esteemed guitarist John Etheridge and bassist Andy Clynedert, who opened the concert with a delectable duet performance, Rowe effortlessly breathed new life into such classic Holiday songs as “God Bless the Child”, “Them There Eyes” and the divine “Detour Ahead”. But it was, as expected, her awe-inspiring reading of “Strange Fruit” that had jaws dropping throughout the theatre.
The third in this year’s impressive trinity of fine vocalists was Leila Martial, the French singer who not only pushes the boundaries of vocal jazz but shatters them, too. With Eric Perez on percussion and guitarist Pierre Tereygeol, Martial weaved her heavily textured sound patterns before an equally stunned and intrigued audience. The backward vocals and extensive use of samplers may have been a little too much for some of the Sunday morning jazzers, but there was something unequivocally alluring about Leila’s performance that kept all our eyes and ears fixed to the stage.
TAUT AND SPRIGHTLY RENDITIONS
Saturday afternoon was ushered in by the powerhouse that is Atlantic Crossover, a seven-piece super group assembled by saxophonists Jim Connor and James Russell. Performing a tribute to Atlantic jazz, including meaty renditions of George Coleman’s “Amsterdam After Dark”, the Dizzy Gillespie classic “Tin Tin Deo” and the taut and sprightly Woods, a tribute to the late Phil Woods, the band delighted the crowd with brawny solos from baritone sax man Rod Mason and pristine improvs from trumpeter Mark Chandler.
DEFT FLICKS OF THE WRIST
There was a palpable sense of joy and warm respect as festival stalwarts Dave Newton and Alan Barnes took to the stage on Saturday afternoon. Their intimate duet set, peppered with Alan’s reliable wit and wisdom, provided a masterclass in improvised piano, sax and clarinet. In Alan’s words, Dave managed to conjure up the mood of Harlem’s Cotton Club with ‘a few deft flicks of the wrist’ as the two gave an outstanding performance of Duke Ellington’s “The Mooch”. And Alan’s own dexterity was wonderfully flaunted during interpretations of Hank Jones’ “Angel Face” and an infectiously limber “I’m Old Fashioned”.
The afternoon set provided a wonderfully cosy preface to that evening’s Alan Barnes Octet concert in which the pianist and reedsman returned to the stage for an even more energetic performance.
CULTIVATION AND WILD GROWTH
Draped with long dark hair and beard over his double bass, Matt Ridley looks almost fused to his instrument. And, along with Jason Yarde on sax, John Turville on piano and George Hart on drums, it’s clear that Ridley is, indeed, deeply connected to his music. The Quartet’s concert at this year’s festival proved how exciting it can be to watch the cultivation and wild growth of jazz in front of your very eyes. As Alan Barnes noted in his introduction, it’s always a joy to encounter a quartet led by an outstanding bass player. That said, it could be argued that the graceful curlicues of Yarde’s soprano sax, especially on “The Labyrinth”, were where this set reached its most breath taking peaks.
Another chance to see the vitality at work in contemporary jazz came on Sunday evening when the all-female septet Nerija blew the crowd away with their exciting and original style. Scarborough has always been a festival that prides itself on staying ahead of the game when it comes to modern jazz, and this award winning collective’s visit only further cements the event’s proud reputation.
MILKY MELODIES AND JAGGED RHYTHMS
The sound of four clarinets is always going to be a quirky and infectious one, but in the hands of four incredibly adroit European musicians, anything’s possible. The Woody Black 4 created something of a spectacle on Saturday evening with a performance that was innovative, beautifully controlled and somehow soothing to the ears. Using a selection of bass and standard clarinets, and without a music stand in sight, the quartet explored their milky melodies and jagged rhythms with what seemed like every part of their respective instruments. And underneath that creamy clarinet sound, no one dared to drop a pin.
Other acts on this year’s bill included the Ben Crosland Quartet who gave a jazz-over to the songs of Ray Davies, Phil Hopkins and his Toots Thielemans project, the acclaimed Henry Lowther and two mighty big bands under the respective leadership of Stan Sulzmann and Gareth Lockrane. All in all, this year’s impeccable roster demonstrated that, with sixteen years behind it, the Scarborough Jazz Festival shows no signs of flagging and we look forward to 2019 and beyond with excitement and eagerness.