Review: Gateshead Jazz Festival 2013

Fred Grand finds evidence of jazz's "changing geographical centre of gravity" at this year's northern-themed Gateshead International Jazz Festival

Day 1:
When the line-up for Gateshead's ninth annual festival was announced last November, it seemed to somehow lack its usual gloss. A relatively threadbare roster of big names led some within the local jazz community to speculate whether or not this was evidence of an 'austerity' festival for straitened times. Perhaps it was the complete absence of American artists that raised the most eyebrows, but a closer inspection of the programme revealed a highly imaginative series of programming choices based loosely on the theme of jazz from northern Europe. Publicly funded bodies are undoubtedly feeling the pinch, though The Sage predominantly draws commercial sponsorship. To that extent the venue is relatively shielded from the cuts, and I'd like to think that this festival was instead evidence of contemporary jazz's changing geographical centre of gravity.

Friday's curtain-raiser brought together NYJO (now under the direction of Geordie ex-pat Mark Armstrong) with special guests Jason Yarde, Mark Nightingale and Jacqui Dankworth. It was the first of many inevitable programming clashes, so I didn't get an opportunity to hear whether or not Armstrong's influence is taking this venerable institution in any new directions. The lure of Soweto Kinch in Hall Two proved too difficult to resist, and his new trio with Nick Jurd and Shaney Forbes opened out the saxophonist's music in some exciting new ways. Other than the now customary free-style rap, the material was drawn from Kinch's brand new Legend Of Mike Smith album. An ambitious concept-driven work touching on Dante and the Seven Deadly Sins, it will receive a lavish multi-medium production in Birmingham later this year. Kinch alternated between alto, tenor and streetwise MC with equal alacrity, but I particularly enjoyed his smouldering Branford-esque tenor on several instrumental burn-outs. Kinch's sharp social commentary was all the more biting due to his clever use of satire, and the sheer intellectual creativity of his verbal gymnastics is fast becoming equally as impressive as his instrumental prowess. By the time we arrived at the encore, a reconciliation of jazz blowing and hip-hop beats entitled The Healing, the audience were eating out of this highly charismatic artist's hands.

Kinch's set slightly over-ran, not that many were complaining, but this did mean that a significant number of ticket-holders were faced with the choice of either leaving early or arriving late for Larry Stabbins's late shift in the pop-up 'Jazz Lounge'. 'Stonephace Stabbins' is the saxophonist's homage to Mr & Mrs Coltrane, but for the most part it reminded me of a by-the-numbers Impulse-era Pharoah Sanders tribute band. Perennial festival darling Zoe Rahman was in the piano seat, and her pianistic use of overtones lifted the music to similar cosmic realms to the pair's 2010 Gateshead appearance with Jerry Dammers' Spatial Aka juggernaut. Some long transcendental grooves certainly made great late-night head balm, and the crowds dispersed into the midnight air suitably uplifted.

Day 2:
Saturday brought a whole bunch of contrasting styles and formats, with another on-location recording of Jazz Record Requests with festival regular Alyn Shipton made for "the Beeb". It was, however, the first of two multi-group "Jazz From The North" showcases, to my mind the real kernel of this year's event, which got my vote. Using the venue's smaller Foundation Hall, both events proved to be box-office smashes. Offering a rare opportunity to hear several contrasting styles back-to-back, the GIJF really comes into its own with this irresistible and now regular format. Book-ending Saturday's show were Paul Baxter's E.S.T.-like Eyes Shut Tight, and local heroes ACV. Led by bassist Andy Champion who was recently selected for patronage by the Take 5 professional development programme, ACV's new Babel Label disc was recently launched at London's Vortex, and the group’'s sometimes spiky material runs the post-modern gamut.

By rights Verneri Pohjola's sensational quartet should have been headlining an event of their own, and I was absolutely thrilled to get my first chance to hear this exciting young trumpeter from Finland in person. With great maturity, confidence and poise, his tight working-band took a Janus-like perspective on the tradition. Their spellbinding set opened with the hymnal Deism from the recent Ancient History (ACT). Its sombre and stately progress offered the perfect vehicle for Pohjola's post-Milesian balladry. Making every note breathe, rather like Tomasz Stanko he has evolved an authentic musical persona with some uniquely monogrammed burnishes. Björk’s Hyperballad, Dave Holland's Four Winds, Tom Waits's Take It With Me and But This One Goes In Four (another original) flew past in the blink of an eye, and this was a tantalisingly short 45-minute set.

The other big draw of the afternoon was Tom Bancroft's Trio Red, with pianist Tom Cawley and Norwegian bass colossus Per Zanussi, whose sonic presence on the many studio sessions I've heard simply has to be experienced to be believed. A modest and unassuming looking man, he looks more like a geeky coffee-house barista than the owner of one of the biggest bass sounds in contemporary jazz. With an imperious Haden-like gravity, he certainly didn't disappoint. It's always good to drop in on Bancroft's world, and with this superbly flexible trio there's no doubt that the affable drummer is on to a winner.

A rare provincial appearance by guitarist Biréli Lagrène felt slightly anomalous given the festival's northern theme, though it was no less welcome for that. He's famous for his fearless and occasionally controversial guardianship of the Reinhardt legacy, so it probably came as a surprise for many to see him leading a B-3 soul-jazz combo. His wildly exciting and unpredictable playing was chock full of Django-istic flourishes, making light work of some seemingly impossible leaps and stretches. Frontline sparring partner saxophonist Franck Wolf was himself something of a showman, and their easy rapport tied ornate ribbons around the classic simplicity of the group's predominantly blues-based material. Towards the end of the set Lagrène revealed that he'd travelled with the wrong guitar, a baby blue solid-body complete with whammy bar and lone bridge pick-up. Some unexpected "surf" tones made this set all the more interesting, and the near-capacity crowd loved every minute.

At the same time as Lagrène, the main auditorium was hosting the event's annual excursion into "big jazz" hubris. The event, simply titled "Northern Spirits", was probably the most ambitious programming of the weekend. An hors d'oeuvre of Tim Garland's Lighthouse trio was to be followed by the resident Northern Sinfonia presenting a rare performance of Ian Carr's fondly remembered Northumbrian Sketches (featuring Henry Lowther) and then a premiere of Tim Whitehead's Songs To The North Sky. Those who'd been there seemed genuinely impressed, and a performance on this scale is surely destined to become a genuine festival one-off.

Closing a day of many contrasts was singer/pianist Jens Thomas's chamber-jazz tribute to metal gods AC/DC, which featured another appearance by Verneri Pohjola. Thomas has what can be described as a Marmite voice. Drenched in pathos, he uses his vast range to mine seemingly fathomless depths of occasionally uncomfortable anguish. Dark and disturbing, though frequently very funny, a cleverly subversive cabaret approach was brought to the performance. Pohjola's trumpet often merged with Thomas's extraordinary voice across several octaves, and this show made a far deeper impression than the recent CD (Speed Of Grace, ACT, 2012). Full marks to Thomas for spotting the unlikely potential of this material, and I'm sure that AC/DC front-man Brian Johnson, who grew up a mere stone's throw from The Sage, would have been quite tickled!

Day 3:
After Thomas's masterclass in performance art, Sunday's "Jazz Words" double bill seemed a far more prosaic proposition. Another coming together of music and words, Alyn Shipton's Philip Larkin project and Christine Tobin's (pictured left) homage to W.B. Yeats happened to clash with the second installment of "Jazz From The North". I decided to stick with the northern theme, largely because I was keen to check out Finnish post-rock prog-jazzers Oddarang. Neil Yates's Five Countries trio opened the set, skilfully crafting some quite beautiful tone poems that were the perfect fare for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Local tenor legend Lewis Watson was next, making a rare appearance with his new improvising trio (which includes up-and-coming pianist Paul Edis, also of ACV). I found their set a little dour and episodic, though it is certainly heartening to witness such a resurgence of creativity in the region.

Olavi Louhivuori's Oddarang had wowed the London Jazz Festival last November, and despite the many labels applied to their music in the media - from "ambient" to "post-rock", "sound-scape artists", and even the occasional reference to "jazz" - they reminded me of Terje Rypdal's epic adventures of the early 70s. Verneri Pohjola's brother Ilmari plays trombone in the ensemble, and if I'd closed my eyes his brassy rasps and plaintive lines could easily have been coming from the great Torbjørn Sunde. Regardless of labels, the talented Louhivuori clearly has lots to offer. Edition Records plan to release the group's third album in September, virtually guaranteeing further UK exposure, and I for one will be happy to hear more.

Down on the main concourse Andy Sheppard and Chris Sharkey (of trioVD infamy) led a 50-strong "Saxophone Massive" project (pictured above right). Rehearsed with local musicians in a series of workshops over the preceding days, it was quite a sound and also another feather in the cap of a festival that prides itself on strong educational and participative strands. Marquee billing for the festival's climax was given to the cross-over soul and funk pairing of Ruby Turner and The Brand New Heavies, so it was perhaps inevitably the two events running simultaneously elsewhere in the building which drew the discerning jazz aficionados.

The more adventurously inclined will have headed into the Foundation Hall to hear Alex Hawkins and the great Louis Moholo-Moholo, but I simply couldn't resist the double bill of Iain Ballamy with Stian Carstensen and Phronesis. Known as "Little Radio", Ballamy on tenor and Carstensen on accordion fittingly evoked the sound of a crackly wireless from a bygone era. Mashing up tangos, with waltzes, classic jazz and some Brecht & Weill, their musicianship was impeccable as they toyed with the material. With more than a touch of Dutch absurdism, "Teddy Bear’s Picnic" drew howls from the audience. Carstensen seemed to have a whole orchestra in his hands, and as the pair left the stage while playing the theme from Tales Of The Unexpected, they really had dished out some genuine sounds of surprise.

Phronesis were themselves part of a multi-act Loop Collective showcase at the festival a mere three years ago. Since then their arc has risen exponentially, and they've now deservedly earned a headline slot of their own. Familiar pieces from the back catalogue mingled with new pieces during an intense and largely high octane and maximalist set. Tricky asymmetrical grooves were attacked with the trio's customary gusto, and the unorthodox but devastatingly effective drummer Anton Eger was coiled throughout like a jack-in-the-box. Høiby's powerful presence gave even Per Zanussi a run for his money, though perhaps a few more moments of introspection (such as the sublime Passing Clouds) would have given the set a more rounded feel. Phronesis continue to go from strength to strength, and as Høiby's trio left the stage my 2013 festival experience had been drawn to a close with contemporary jazz close to its very best.

Proving that you don't always need to look west for inspiration, our friends from the north gave as varied and interesting an edition of the GIJF as I can recall. Verneri Pohjola was this year's undisputed revelation, but I'll look back on so much of what I heard with great relish. Performance director Ros Rigby and Serious are already working on next year's line-up for the first weekend in April, and it'll be interesting to see in which direction the needle of their compass will be pointed.

Photos by Mark Savage

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