Southport Jazz Festival 2019

Live Review | Royal Clifton Hotel, Southport | Review and Photos by Liam Wilkinson

There’s something genuinely bewitching about the Southport Jazz Festival. An enigmatic charm seems to rest over the winter event without the need for the glistening ice and snow that covered the rest of the country this weekend. Now in its fifteenth year and, for the third time, nestled safely in the hands of Mr Neil Hughes, this fine Merseyside festival once again boasted a brimful of impressive jazz performances and more than its fair share of magic moments. 

If you weren’t lucky enough to have made it over to Southport’s Royal Clifton Hotel this weekend, I’m afraid to report that you missed a quietly majestic reading of “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise”, one of the highlights of a heartfelt tribute to Chet Baker by Neil Yates’ Chetrio. With Richard Wetherall trickling over the piano and Dave Green’s gently commanding bass lines, this seductive and textural rendition of the Romberg/Hammerstein classic demonstrated the lasting beauty of Baker’s frayed-edged playing courtesy of Yates’ delicately sincere trumpet and vocals. And, talking of tributes, I’m sorry to say that you also missed Nearly Dan, a powerhouse of a band that showed the chilly weather the true meaning of cool with their spirited homage to Steely Dan.

You also missed a brawny performance of “Stealing Time”, a tune composed over Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low”, by the Nigel Price Organ Trio. With Dave Masser on sax, the contrafactum piece dazzled with its wild melody scribbled over a cheeky bossa backing, complete with a breathtaking drum solo from Errol Roberts as organist Ross Stanley and guitarist Price stirred the soul with their anticipatory chords.

By not being in Southport, you were also very unfortunate to have not caught any of the, frankly, embarrassing number of exceptional vocal performances this weekend. One of which was delivered by Joe Stilgoe – son of renowned songwriter and That’s Life pianist Richard Stilgoe – who, along with the mighty Swingtime Big Band and following a lovely yet all too brief appearance from singer Emma Holcroft, expertly melded “Top Hat, White Tie And Tails” and “Puttin’ On The Ritz” with utterly impressive command and flair before reinventing Warren/Mercer’s “Jeepers Creepers” in front of our very peepers. Then there was Zoe Gilby who revitalised Thelonious Monk’s uniquely familiar compositions via her frenetic, acrobatic and altogether magnetic scat vocals. And whilst Jeremy Sassoon shared the shimmering tranquility of his voice, along with the sublime sax of Iain Dixon, jawbones were heard to clatter to the floor as Champian Fulton took to the stage. The thirty-three year old Oklahoma singer and pianist breathed new life into “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” as legendary saxophonist Scott Hamilton – only minutes off the plane – trundled onto the stage and blew effortlessly and beautifully into the gaps.

I’m afraid your absence meant that you didn’t get to see the other fine saxophonists at this year’s event, including festival stalwart Alan Barnes whose octet offered another reliably warm and jovial set, and Mark Crooks who, along with Nigel Price, closed the festival with their superb Jazz Samba project. But it was agreed by the vast majority of this year’s festival-goers that Tony Kofi’s deferential celebration of Cannonball Adderley featured the most breathtaking sax lines of the weekend. Kofi’s reading of the Miles Davis composition “Nardis”, one of the highlights from Adderley’s 1958 LP Portrait of Cannonball, demonstrated the reedsman’s pure delivery of complex lines. The ninety minute show also benefited from the masterful trumpet and flugelhorn of Welsh musician Andy Davies and surprise vocals from London-based singer and recipient of the 2016 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Prize, Deelee Dubé.

You also missed out on a few flashes of the more sublime end of the jazz spectrum courtesy of pianist Dan Whieldon, whose European Quartet reminded the audience just how soothing and life-affirming this music can be. And it’s probably best if I don’t gush too much over Norwegian outfit the Kjetil Mulelid Trio whose stunningly introspective and pensive “From Someone Else’s Point of View” was so sonically inventive, teasingly abstract and wholly entrancing that it really had to be seen to be believed.

I can’t be sure what kept you from joining us at the Royal Clifton this weekend, but let’s hope that absence has made the heart grow fonder of this superlative jazz festival. And, hey, there’s always next year!