Review: JQ Jazz Legends, Birmingham

John Watson celebrates a feast of jazz in the Midlands, with Spanish Accents and Partisans in Birmingham and Julian Arguelles in Wolverhampton

The West Midlands became the jazz corner of the world for one extraordinary weekend, with a modestly scaled but high-quality festival in Birmingham plus concerts by celebrated international musicians.

Among the artists in the region from 19-21 May were US drummer Terri Lyne Carrington with her Mosaic Project, saxophonist Julian Arguelles’s Tetra, Alec Dankworth’s vibrant band Spanish Accents, the group Partisans, saxophonist Tony Kofi, harp virtuoso Alina Bzhezhinska (pictured right), and pianist Kate Williams with her Four Plus Three strings-and-rhythm group.

The JQ Jazz Legends Festival, held at various venues in the city’s Jewellery Quarter, is organised by Birmingham Jazz, a group of enthusiasts who stage weekly concerts by visiting stars and local bands throughout the year. The organisation always seems to offer sounds of surprise, and this year the festival’s opening night featured a marvellous performance by harpist Bzhezhinska in a tribute to the work of Alice Coltrane. With forthright saxophonist Kofi, bassist Larry Bartley and drummer Joel Prime the harpist brilliantly interpreted works that have been largely forgotten by much of the jazz world, including pieces from Alice’s 1970 album Journey In Satchidananda, and her collaboration with Joe Henderson, The Elements. The track Fire from this last album brought Bzhezhinska’s concert to an inspired conclusion – great sweeps of sound and melodic intricacy from the harp and eloquent playing from Kofi on tenor.

Dankworth’s Spanish Accents group gave a much more dynamic performance than the one I heard by them recently at the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival, though with a somewhat different line-up. The Birmingham show was much enhanced by gorgeous flute playing from Rowland Sutherland, and Emily Dankworth’s singing was once again a delight. Among the local bands in the JQ Jazz Legends Festival, the very accomplished trumpeter Bryan Corbett led several different line-ups as “curator” of this year’s programme, including a fine performance with a group including Birmingham saxophonist Chris Bowden and Derbyshire bassist Fred Thelonious Baker.

Meanwhile, down the road in Wolverhampton Julian Arguelles (pictured left) showed that his playing on tenor and soprano grows ever more imaginative. His concert at the Arena Theatre – with bassist Sam Lasserson, drummer James Maddren, and pianist Ivo Neame depping brilliantly for the indisposed Kit Downes – was high quality from the first note to the last. Much of Julian’s music is inspired by South African jazz, including Mr Mac (his tribute to Brotherhood of Breath leader Chris McGregor) and by flamenco, including his composition Bulerias.

Back in Birmingham on Sunday evening the organisation Jazzlines presented Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project (Carrington pictured right) at the Town Hall. Having heard the drummer give a disappointingly dull performance with her Money Jungle band at the Skopje Jazz Festival three years ago – but also being aware of impressive playing on disc with other line-ups – I was hoping to renew my enthusiasm for her work. The Town Hall concert, with Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma, bassist Josh Hari and pianist Helen Sung, opened with some very fine playing by the whole group, on pieces including Geri Allen’s tune Unconditional Love and Kenny Barron’s The Voyage. But when singer China Moses came on and the repertoire switched abruptly from jazz to soul inspiration seemed to desert the band. I enjoy good soul music, but on this occasion the performance took on a plodding character and the magic evaporated.

Photos by John Watson 

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