BBC Young Musician 2016 Jazz Award
The finalists all impress Dave Jones, who's charmed by the winner's sweet, subtle tone and reminded that it's not just about the improvised notes
Following 36 years of the biennial BBC Young Musician competition, jazz finally acquired its own biennial BBC Young Musician award in 2014, so I was very pleased to be at the 2016 jazz award final on Saturday 12 March, held at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s Dora Stoutzker Hall in Cardiff - a nice, medium-sized concert hall, particularly suitable for chamber music, and on this occasion perfectly suitable as a TV studio.
What we witnessed that evening were five pretty evenly matched and high-performing finalists in jazz-playing terms, judged by a panel (pictured right) chaired by Julian Joseph, joined by Tim Garland, Zoe Rahman, Bryon Wallen and Gwyneth Herbert (who deputised for the indisposed Clare Teal). The eventual winner proved to have the edge over her peers partly because of musical performance factors other than jazz improvisation, and I’ll explain this in more detail later.
First up, Tom Ridout on tenor and soprano sax and recorder, playing material by Wayne Shorter and Victor Young alongside two of his own compositions, all performed (like the other finalists) with the house trio of pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Yuri Goloubev and drummer James Maddren. Tom opened with his own No Excuses on soprano with a nice big sound, good intonation and melodic and fluent lines, albeit with a pretty short improvised solo, which to me brought forth the question of whether it’s necessary in this context for the house trio to solo, albeit briefly, as well as the contestants. We know that the professionals can solo, and apart from instances where it might be necessary to hear the contestant accompany a solo by a member of the house trio, e.g. a pianist accompanying bass, this practice seemed unnecessary given the time constraints. Yes, I suppose the jury want to see that the finalists know when to come back in when someone else is soloing, but given the high level that these youngsters are playing at, it seems superfluous. Anyway, more on time management later.
Next in Ridout’s set, Wayne Shorter’s Infant Eyes, this time on tenor, where he cut loose into a freer, more animated solo, segue to Stella By Starlight with another melodic, fluent, but brief solo. The closer was Ridout’s own Chain, where he swapped to recorder (with the occasional use of foot-pedal effects), which in some ways was less successful, because his intonation on this was less reliable.
Enter 21-year-old Elliott Sansom, the first of the evening’s pianists. The piano seemed a little quiet at times during this set, and it would have benefited from a slight lift in the PA, as Sansom appeared to play with a little less attack than Simcock. The material consisted of his own Prelude, alongside Miles Davis’ Solar and Ralph Towner’s Tramonto. There was more than a little of the Mehldau about Sansom’s playing, particularly on the more animated Tramonto, where he employed some counterpoint during his solo, and there was more effective interaction here between the contestant and the house trio. Elsewhere, the pianist accompanied the bass nicely on its themes and solos, and there was some very tasteful voicing.
Third in order of performance, but certainly not of pecking order, was Alexandra Ridout (pictured left) who had either thought out her set extremely well for the purpose, or had some very savvy advice during her preparations, or possibly both.
Her greatest asset as a trumpeter seems to be her incredibly sweet, subtle and well-controlled tone. She maximised the effect of this by starting her set with an unaccompanied introduction to Kern’s Yesterdays, where for arguably the first time during the evening the room was virtually transported to the jazz club with her blue and swung notes. At the same time she looked the part of a participant in a serious competition, in evening attire rather than something more casual, and absolutely owning the stage and the room – a jazz musician in western classical concert guise, which again was perhaps more by intention than coincidence and seemed perfect for the nature of the competition.
She followed this melodic, fluent and engaging opener with her own more contemporary Buttons (with counter melodies on piano), which had a few small rough edges including some intonation that was very occasionally not up to the extremely high standard set by the opener. But by this stage it didn’t seem to matter – the room had already been enchanted by the first minute or so of the set, and the effect of that seemed to last. Hancock’s Sonrisa again highlighted Ridout’s great sound, and an emotional content to her playing, but again with superb control even in very high register. The closer, Stevie Wonder’s Golden Lady, showed that she has similar expertise on flugelhorn and it made for a nice conclusion to a very well planned and prepared programme. It was perhaps as well that this set was the last before the half-hour interval, as it was to prove a very hard act to follow.
Next, another pianist and the youngest finalist at 15 years of age, Noah Stoneman, who provided a set of the most delicate, accurate, fluent piano playing with intricate phrasing, but with less dynamism than some of the other finalists. He interpreted Earl Zindars’ Elsa, Irving Berlin’s How Deep Is The Ocean, his own Behind The Sky and Edward Redding’s The End Of A Love Affair, which made for an interesting programme of less well-trodden material. Unexpectedly, Stoneman left the stage temporarily after the penultimate tune, Behind The Sky, followed by the somewhat bizarre mid-set setting-up of a Nord organ at the front of the stage in readiness for the set-closer The End Of A Love Affair. Quite why this couldn’t have been done during the reasonably long interval I don’t know, and it didn’t aid the perception of this particular set. However, perhaps Stoneman should have used the organ on more than one number, as he seemed more swinging, more dynamic and more engaging on that instrument.
He too chose to start his set unaccompanied (on Elsa), but not with the same impact as Ridout in the previous set, which brings to mind the lot of the pianists in the context of that night. Perhaps the best way a pianist can deliver a show-stopping statement is to deliver an unaccompanied solo, perhaps mid-song, that is particularly dynamic and virtuosic rather than low-key and more subtle. But this is not often the way of the 21st century jazz pianist; rather, they're often more readily associated with the western classical world.
It’s worth noting that the open side of the piano lid was directed diagonally across the stage (deliberately I assume, so that the acoustic piano sound reached the bassist and drummer very directly), which meant that the pianists more or less had to play with their backs to the audience, which doesn’t help in terms of making direct communication with the audience and, perhaps more importantly, with the judges. I’m not saying that this disadvantages the pianists in the competition, because this is generally an issue for pianists in other contexts anyway, but is it best to perform side-on, classical concert-style at 90 degrees to the audience (for more direct visual and sound communication with them), or is it better to position according to the needs of the other musicians and on-stage sight lines? There’s no easy answer, and certainly no good compromise that can be made – it’s one or the other it seems, but given that the musicians could hear each other via on-stage monitors if used effectively, perhaps for the concert hall and competition it should be communication with the audience and judges that’s the priority.
So, to the suited saxophonist Tom Smith (also a finalist in 2014), who, with his swinging and melodic solo lines took us more overtly back to the jazz club frequented earlier by Alexandra Ridout. His programme comprised a hard-swinging interpretation of Cedar Walton’s Fantasy In D, a slightly less fluent The Groove Merchant (by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis) and his own excellent pair of compositions, Blackout and Atlas. Blackout memorably alternated straight and swing sections and on Atlas Smith switched from tenor to alto and looked far more comfortable and sounded more dynamic, even wailing at times, a little Garrett-like. If there was an award for composition in this competition, Smith would have won it hands down and in terms of his performance he seemed to be the finalist who pushed Alexandra Ridout the closest. Perhaps a whole set with the intensity of his alto playing would have won him the award.
The last of the finalists was followed by a very short set by 2014 jazz-award winner Alexander Bone, presumably to fill time while the judges left the room to deliberate. His relaxed delivery and banter were welcome and his alto playing and composition were far more impressive than the ineffective looping technology that he repeatedly tried to use.
There then followed an unexpectedly lengthy wait for the final decision, by which time most of the sizeable and enthusiastic audience had voted with their feet, leading to a disappointingly small number of people in the room for the announcement of the winner, Alexandra Ridout (pictured right with her award). The lack of audience at the close must have been something of an anti-climax for the finalists, but you have to sympathise with the jury because it couldn’t have been an easy decision, particularly as there’s only one prize.
In conclusion, it’s perhaps worth noting that the finalists were from London, or the wider London area, apart from Elliott Sansom who hails from the Birmingham area. I suppose this is almost inevitable, given that there are likely to be more opportunities for jazz-making at an earlier age in London and its surroundings, and perhaps to a lesser extent Birmingham, than elsewhere, but perhaps the most important thing that this competition tells us is that jazz in the BBC Young Musician Jazz Award, the conservatoire, and indeed anywhere else, is about far more than just the improvised notes.
BBC Four will broadcast the BBC Young Musician Jazz Award final on Friday 13 May, presented by Josie D’Arby and Joe Stilgoe. BBC Radio 3's Jazz Line-Up will broadcast a special programme dedicated to the jazz award on Saturday 26 March, and Jazz Now, the new Radio 3 Monday night jazz programme, will showcase the award in its 18 and 25 April shows.
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