Review: Gateshead Jazz Festival

Not all of the Gateshead International Jazz Festival is to Fred Grand's taste, but he admires its broad stylistic sweep and diversity

Positioned slightly later in the calendar this year at the behest of Easter, the Gateshead International Jazz Festival returned for another three days of top-flight music on the banks of the Tyne. If I tell you that the opening night line-up included Gregory Porter, Evan Parker, Lianne Carroll, World Service Project with Chris Sharkey and Arun Ghosh you'll have some idea of the broad stylistic sweep which promoters Serious and Sage Gateshead’s own performance programme director Ros Rigby bring to this annual event.

I opted for Arun Ghosh’s new sextet, having been quite a fan of the chirpy Mancunian clarinettist since first hearing him here in 2009. Fluent in both Western and Asian improvising traditions, his vibrant Indo-­jazz fusion circumvents the sometimes troublesome junctures which can often appear when two contrasting musical worlds collide. The current group with pianist John Ellis and alto saxophonist Chris Williams is a tad less salty than the fondly remembered Northern Namaste band with Idris Rahman, but Ghosh still channels late period Alice Coltrane in a very personal way. The funkier backline brought fresh immediacy to old favourites like Aurora and Lal Qil’ah and on the more impressionistic pieces such as After The Monsoon and Mountain Song Ghosh’s growing maturity as a soloist was readily apparent.

Saturday is always a marathon stretch, with the music starting just after lunch and finishing in the early hours of Sunday. I was nevertheless pleased to see the return of the matinee showcases of contemporary talent from around Europe. Billed as Europe Makes Music, the first instalment was a double­-bill of two pianists at very different stages in their careers. Seasoned talent John Law (pictured above right) is an immensely inventive player and his New Congregation took his fiendishly complex music in some unexpected new directions. Working almost exclusively with melodies and grooves, his approach might come as a surprise to listeners recalling his muscular and free­flowing quartet with Jon Lloyd in the 90s. Law’s use of samples and loops may not have been the most organic, but his multi­-layered music was certainly packed with incident and saxophonist Sam Crockatt gave an authoritative performance.

One seemingly inescapable fact about festivals is that with so many acts squeezed into such a tight window, quick comparisons are inevitable. The second set proved to be the high point of the entire weekend, as the young Luxembourger pianist Michel Reis presented an inspirational new quartet with saxophonist Stefan Karl Schmid, bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Jonas Burgwinkel. Best known for their work with Pablo Held, Reis had possibly the most exciting new bass­ and drums team in Europe at his disposal. The pair were in constant motion as they thoroughly probed and interrogated the music’s boundaries and the pulsating title­ track to new album Capturing This Moment seemed to be held together by centrifugal forces alone. On the explosive What Comes Later, I Can Think About It Later Schmid cleverly toyed with controlled multi­phonics, before Reis took a leaf out of Joachim Kühn’s book with a driving solo of his own. Although Landfermann and Burgwinkel were often the focal points, Reis more than held his own and his performance was marred only by the audience exodus which occurred shortly before John Surman’s performance was due to begin in Sage Two. Concert­goers had been placed in an invidious and wholly avoidable position by some ill­-judged scheduling. Sticking with Reis until the the very last note had subsided, I only managed to catch the back­end of Surman’s performance with the Alexander Hawkins Trio. It was clear that the saxophonist was in fine voice, riffing over some familiar material from the back ­catalogue. Hawkins pulled Surman’s music in a markedly more extrovert direction and had it not been for the unfortunate scheduling clash I’d have loved to have heard more.

Sadly the same couldn’t be said of Courtney Pine’s duo with Zoe Rahman: ­ for all of their abundant musicality, this was a stilted and formulaic set with few if any surprises. Pine monopolised the stage, allowing Rahman precious little space to breathe. I wasn’t alone in lamenting its unfulfilled potential, but thankfully the evening was saved by Terence Blanchard’s E-­Collective who delivered a powerful set on the second half of the bill. Cleverly re­framing his hard-­bop heritage within heavy grooves and moody electric soundscapes, the music was far freer and harder hitting than the band’s recent air­play-savvy Blue Note release. Blanchard (pictured left) seemed to be using more pedals and processing kit than his guitarist Charles Altura, but he was completely at ease within this exciting new milieu and I hope he carries the approach further.

The late late show featured the winner of the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, Kris Bowers, whose recent album, Heroes + Misfits, was slightly sub-­Glasper. I wasn’t really expecting such a refreshingly left­-field set, but guitarist Nick Croes tipped the balance towards instrumental indie­-rock and it worked a treat. A brief but ingenious acoustic mash-­up of Monk tunes served as a brief reminder of the leader’s straight jazz credentials, whilst his spacey rendition of Blush Response from the film Blade Runner suggested a Sun Ra for the next century.

Sunday afternoon brought the second instalment of Europe Makes Music, though the late withdrawal of French duo Arielle Besson and Nelson Veras made it a decidedly less pan­-European affair. ­ Could this be the shape of things to come if the great British public succumbs to the temptations of Brexit? They were replaced by the impromptu duo of pianist Liam Noble and bassist/trumpeter Percy Pursglove, whose coruscating set up interleaved selected pieces by Wheeler, Monk and Motian with exciting passages of free improvisation. Using a bewildering array of extended techniques, Pursglove is a trumpeter of huge originality. Noble did well to follow the pace as he comprehensively deconstructed Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark, but was in slightly more comfortable terrain in the second half of the show as part of the trio Malija with Mark Lockheart and Jasper Høiby. Playing material from their recent Edition release The Day I Had Everything, the trio were very much on the same wave-length. Almost A Tango flirted with that sensuous form before branching out into quick­fire cat and mouse interplay and on the Ellington dedication The Pianist Høiby held the stage with a Mingus­-like presence. It was nice to hear the Dane finding so much space in this decidedly open­-textured music, allowing his fleet articulation and deep woody tone to be appreciated in their full splendour.

It is now something of a convention that the festival winds down with a party. While the R&B of Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires paid the house rent in Hall One, Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf (pictured right) seemed more like my idea of fun. Using a four­-valve trumpet which allows him to smoothly articulate the quarter tones of Arabic music, he has a sound that is remarkably close to the heavily processed voices of Jon Hassell, Nils Petter Molvær and Erik Truffaz. This show focused on Maalouf’s beat­laden new release Red & Black Light and with strobe lights, dry ice and cheesy synth­pop washes the charismatic trumpeter declared his admittedly improbable intention to turn jazz into the new stadium rock. While many aspects of the show weren't entirely to my taste, Maalouf has an utterly distinctive voice which cuts through whatever the context. An experience that will linger long in the mind, and an unapologetically sunny end to a marvellously diverse weekend.

Photos by John Watson

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