Review: Ipswich Jazz Festival

The first edition of the Ipswich Jazz Festival impressed John Watson with its "shrewd programming", mixing established talent, rising stars and regional players

“A new jazz festival - how great is that? Let’s keep making it happen,” Clare Teal (pictured right) told her sold-out audience on the opening night of the first Ipswich Jazz Festival. Her sentiment drew resounding applause.

The singer - who never fails to delight with her voice and her good humour - appeared at the Suffolk town’s New Wolsey Theatre, headlining a festival programme which offered some exceptionally fine national artists, a good collection of Suffolk-based bands, plus masterclasses, film screenings and art and photography exhibitions.

With performers also including singers Zoe Francis and Noemi Nuti, pianists Jason Rebello and Andrew McCormack, trumpeter Quentin Collins, bassist Mick Hutton and guitar master Jim Mullen, the festival’s debut showed shrewd programming - a strong mix of established talent, rising stars and regional players.

Declaring an interest, my photography exhibition Jazz Camera, featuring many of my pictures published in Jazz Journal, was staged as part of the festival at the town’s Subterranean Boulevard Gallery.

The festival, from June 19th-28th, and promoted in partnership with the town’s Arts Festival, builds on the foundation of an already strong local jazz scene. Festival co-ordinator Neil Bateman told me: “This is very much a partnership between many organisations on the Ipswich scene - it’s a very musical town, with many fine players and an active jazz scene. We certainly hope that the festival will be a permanent feature.”

Clare Teal’s show was a fine way to launch the festival. With 14 albums to her credit, including her latest release At Your Request, plus her BBC Radio 2 and Sky Arts broadcasts, she has deservedly established a strong popular following. Having heard her perform in concert many times with the BBC Big Band, I look forward to hearing her in the future with her own recently established big band - but concerts with her trio are always to be relished, and her appearance at Ipswich, presented by the organisation Fleece Jazz, was no exception.

With pianist Jason Rebello (pictured left), bassist Simon Little and drummer Matt Skelton, Clare’s warm voice combined expressive artistry and immaculate timing in repertoire from the classic songs associated with Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Doris Day, as well as hits from the contemporary pop repertoire. Her timing in up-tempo swingers - including That Old Black Magic and Just One Of Those Things, is immaculate, and I feel that she has developed a greater depth of expression in her subtle handling of ballads, with The Folks Who Live On the Hill a highlight. Rebello’s fluent soloing was an additional delight, and he had some witty exchanges with Clare as she encouraged him to work Lionel Richie themes into his piano introductions. How good it is to see musicians having fun, while playing superbly.

Before Clare’s show, her trio gave a masterclass for local musicians on the New Wolsey Theatre stage, with Jason Rebello directing the players and - with bassist Little and drummer Skelton (pictured right) - passing on some vital tips on the use of space and timing in improvising. The following day local singer Andi Hopgood - a member of the London Vocal Project - led a workshop at the Town Hall for would-be vocalists, and in the evening local group the Jazz Arrivals entertained fans at The Woolpack pub with jazz standards.

More regional bands - Phoenix Jazz (featuring lovely vocals by Vicky Platt), Last Orders, Haunted Kitchen and Steam On My Clothes - performed at a Father’s Day lunch at the Old Rep, followed by a late-afternoon session of standards with the Body And Soul Jazz Band at Isaacs On The Quay.

Guitar master Jim Mullen - one of my favourite UK jazz musicians - and singer Zoe Francis gave a superb Sunday evening show at the California Club, hosted by Ipswich Jazz Club. They were backed by the solidly swinging trio of pianist Chris Ingham, bassist Mick Hutton (a significant player on the UK scene for many years) and drummer George Double.

Glasgow-born Mullen (pictured left) is surely a UK national treasure. His Wes Montgomery-inspired thumb-picking style has been a constant joy on the scene for decades, for it was in the early 1970s that he caught the attention of fans and fellow musicians with his inspired playing in various crossover bands, notably Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express and the powerhouse Morrissey-Mullen group, co-led with the late tenorist Dick Morrissey. With Zoe Francis, his subtle complements to the vocal line were masterly, and his phrases full of drive, gorgeous bluesy twists, and witty quotes from other songs (for example, snippets of If I Were A Bell and I’m Beginning To See the Light during his solo on Down With Love).

West Country-born Zoe’s subtle way with the Great American Songbook repertoire is gaining her many fans and enthusiastic reviews. Her studies and gigging work in New York, where she performed at many clubs including Smalls and Harlem’s St Nicholas Pub, have helped her to become a confident performer, well demonstrated by her smooth versions of songs including Ray Noble’s The Very Thought Of You, and Harold Arlen’s A Sleepin’ Bee. A rare treat was the tune Social Call, written by Gigi Gryce for the Art Farmer Quintet, and with lyrics added later by Jon Hendricks for a big band album by Betty Carter. Billie Holiday’s style has been a strong influence on Zoe, and one of the highlights of the evening was an impassioned duet with Mullen on My Man, one of the songs transformed by Lady Day into a jazz classic.

Previous commitments meant I missed the final weekend of the festival. On Friday June 26, Cool School-inspired local band Morphology were performing for diners at Arlington’s Brasserie, and the following night singer Noemi Nuti was due to appear with her band - including trumpeter Quentin Collins and pianist Andrew McCormack - at the Town Hall.

Overall, the Ipswich Jazz Festival has made an excellent start - not breaking the budget by being over-ambitious, but with enough top talent to satisfy the fans. If the organisers can boost the programme with more sponsorship next year, and book major stars while continuing to encourage local talent, Ipswich could develop into a significant player on the UK festival scene.

Text and photos by John Watson

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