Review: Norfolk and Norwich Festival

The multi-arts festival presented an excellent musical line-up across stunning venues and gave Bruce Lindsay the chance to compose and race camels

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival is a multi-arts and multi-venue festival which takes place for a couple of weeks each May. Musical content is always strong; the jazz content is less predictable. The 2016 festival delivered one of the strongest and most varied jazz programmes of recent years: solo acoustic performance in a 900-year-old-venue, outdoor improvisation and genuinely innovative interactive gigs sat happily side-by-side.

The 2016 festival opened on Friday 13 May with a visit from Saturn's finest, the Sun Ra Arkestra. Herman Blount (a.k.a. Sun Ra) would have been 102 this year. He returned to Saturn over 20 years ago, but his Arkestra stayed on Planet Earth and now celebrates its 60th year of existence. This concert, at OPEN in the centre of Norwich, was part of the celebration as well as the opening event of the festival. The Arkestra presented a striking visual spectacle, members sporting sparkles and sequins in abundance - with 92-year-old leader Marshall Allen looking particularly resplendent in red and gold. Strip away the outfits and the science-fantasy of some of the lyrics and what remained was a pretty straight-ahead band, mixing American Songbook selections with originals.

The Arkestra took a couple of numbers to get into its stride: after that it delivered a powerful, though inconsistent, performance. Space Is The Place is a great song, a cool groove matched with lyrics that feel refreshingly naive in the 21st century. Interplanetary Music swung, plenty of forward motion to get the set under way. However there was a certain sameness to the band’s own tunes and it was standards such as Sometimes I’m Happy that made the biggest impact. When You Wish Upon A Star was possibly the best number of the night, although the sweet melody and optimism of the lyric were somewhat marred by Allen’s alto squeals.

The Theatre Royal played host to Lisa Fischer (pictured above right) and her band, Grand Baton. For me, this was the festival’s musical highlight. Canadian singer/songwriter David Ward opened the show with a short set, backed by three members of the Engines Orchestra and focusing on his Transitioning EP. He was an impressive singer, with a wide range and a command of dynamics as well as a voice that resembled Jeff Buckley and even, in its upper register, Michael Jackson.

Lisa Fischer has been a backing singer to the stars for some time - Grover Washington Jr, Luther Vandross, Chris Botti and Nine Inch Nails have all benefited from her vocal talents and for over 25 years she’s been a vocalist with the Rolling Stones. She’s now developing a reputation as a star in her own right, kick-started by her appearance in the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom. Her Norfolk and Norwich Festival appearance followed her London debut at the Barbican on the previous night and showed emphatically that this reputation is well-deserved. She was a charismatic and engaging performer, with a self-effacing stage presence that had the audience on-side from the off. She sang using two microphones, sometimes simultaneously, which enabled her to layer her voice, to harmonise with herself and, of course, to provide her own backing vocals.

Her repertoire was wide - as well as a couple of Stones numbers there was blues (Eric Bibb’s Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down), 80s pop (Addicted To Love), full-on hard rock (a high-energy version of Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll), jazz (Fever, with a Latin mid-section kicked off by drummer Thierry Arpino’s clave rhythm and cajon). There was a bit of showbiz audience participation, too. As for soul, well, that permeated every note from Fischer and her band.

Walking through Chapelfield Gardens late on Sunday night, on the way to see Kneedelus, there was time to stop and listen to a kit drummer and percussionist improvising to a montage of movie chase sequences which were being projected onto a brick wall in the middle of the gardens. Power for the movie projection was supplied by six members of the audience furiously pedalling fixed bicycles. Just one of the little surprises that make this festival such a delight.

Kneedelus - a collaboration between jazz-funk quintet Kneebody and techno/electro artist Daedelus - took to the stage of the Spiegeltent for their late-night Sunday gig. The venue, a travelling nightclub-cum-circus built in the early 1900s, is worth a visit whatever might be going on inside and it suited the gritty, punchy, music delivered by the band. The set consisted of tunes from the collaboration’s debut album, also called Kneedelus. Rhythm was to the fore, with drummer Nate Wood in terrific form.

Kneebody’s members dressed casually but Daedelus sported a rather jolly red tailcoat, giving him something of the appearance of Father Ted’s Spinmaster. His electronic beats and interjections fitted well with Kneebody’s more organic sounds, creating a strong set of tunes that had the bulk of the predominantly young audience exiting the Spiegeltent’s booths to stand and dance in front of the stage.

The trend for variation in venue and musical style continued with Branford Marsalis’s solo concert in the 900-year-old Norwich Cathedral. It’s another venue worth visiting on its own merits, the spiritual atmosphere and stunning architecture a contrast with the Spiegeltent’s earthier delights. The sharply dressed Marsalis (pictured left) played to a full house, each of his two sets encompassing classical and jazz pieces. He moved between soprano, tenor and alto saxes with ease and made full use of the cathedral’s unique acoustics, leaving plenty of space for his notes to reverberate across the ancient hall. Most of the time he performed on soprano, using alto on just one or two numbers. He used the tenor for two of the first set’s highlights - a lyrical Stardust (with snatches of Stormy Weather) and a rich, often humorous Doxy. Two soprano performances proved to be the second set’s highlights. The first was a flowing, romantic version of Jimmy Rowles' The Peacocks: the second was his encore, probably the most suitable jazz standard for the setting, When The Saints Go Marching In. Marsalis spoke hardly at all, just a few words at the end of each set, but his facial expressions and hand gestures were readily understood forms of communication.

Another day, another venue. This time it was the Playhouse, with drummer Thomas Strønen’s Time Is A Blind Guide playing its final gig of a four-date tour. Piano trio Tell Tale played a short opening set of originals that occupied the space between modern jazz and contemporary classical music, joined for the final tune by Lucy Railton on cello. The band impressed with their musicianship although playing unamplified there were a few occasions when the drums swamped some of the subtler piano lines.

Time Is A Blind Guide played music of great subtlety and often of great beauty, the interplay between the five musicians - including Railton and Norwich’s own Kit Downes - an object lesson in mutual understanding and appreciation. The band also played unamplified, with the exception of the violin which was powered by a Fender amp. The quintet’s sound was superb, the five instruments balanced so well that even the subtlest of touches from Downes on piano or Strønen’s drums was clearly audible. Some of the most beautiful moments came when the string section played pizzicato. The folkish closing melody of As We Wait For Time was exquisite.

And now for something completely different... Take your smartphone into the venue, keep it switched on, keep the volume high - anathema to most jazz fans, but crucial to the success of a Tin Men And The Telephone gig. Download the band’s Tinmendo app, then open it once you’re sitting comfortably. Of course, such technological activity isn't compulsory, but it adds to the general jollity of the evening. This Dutch piano trio (pictured right by Bruce Lindsay, responding to a rhythm created by an audience member) proved that "interaction" at a jazz gig needn't be limited to mild applause and occasional shouts for I Got Rhythm.

The Tinmendo app, the latest version of which was being debuted at this performance, enables band and audience to interact and gives budding composers and control freaks the chance to direct the performance almost bar-by-bar. I must admit to some trepidation in advance: would the technology prove to be a distraction or, even worse, would it mask the fact that the musicians couldn’t actually play? I needn’t have worried. The app is so simple even a 60-year-old jazz fan can use it. The trio (nominated for a 2016 Jazz FM Award in the digital initiative category) proved, with Jaki Byard’s Garnerin’ A Bit, that they have the requisite jazz chops.

Pianist Tony Roe controlled the app, sending various instructions, messages and options to our phone screens throughout the evening. We could vote on tempo, for example, with our votes appearing on screen and the band responding to the winning option immediately. We could text messages to the band, or we could decide if they played on or stopped. There was also a camel race, controlled by vigorous shaking of our smartphones. One set of options included a vote for “I hate jazz” - this is not a band that takes things too seriously. Most enjoyably, we were offered the chance to create grooves, melodies and chord progressions via the app, some of which were then used as the basis for improvisation. Some day all jazz concerts will be like this? No, of course not. But it’s a fun way to spend an evening - even if my carefully constructed grooves and chords were given short shrift by the trio. 

post a comment