Review: Swansea Jazz Festival

The 2016 Swansea International Jazz Festival covered the bases from funk to flamenco, giving Brian Payne a great weekend of music

The third Swansea International Jazz Festival exploded in the city’s maritime quarter from 17 to 19 June. Main concerts were at the quayside’s Dylan Thomas Theatre with its tiered seating and state-of-the-art lighting and sound facilities. Local hotels, café bars and assorted venues around the waterfront provided a diverse fringe programme of up to 50 other jazz and blues gigs. Late jam sessions, jazz river cruises on the Tawe and jazz workshops in the National Waterfront Museum and Dylan Thomas Centre complemented the mix.

Friday’s theatre programme was opened by the Alan Barnes Octet with Karen Sharp, Robert Fowler and Barnes on sax and clarinet, Bruce Adams on trumpet, Mark Nightingale on trombone, Dave Cottle on piano, Alun Vaughan bass and Paul Smith on drums. The set actually began as a septet due to Karen Sharp (pictured right) being delayed but on her arrival during the second number she seamlessly settled into the swing of things. The array of talent in this octet produced a barnstorming performance with excerpts from Alan’s jazz suites and his arrangements of standards including Mingus’s Fables Of Faubus and Jimmy Forrest’s Night Train. Homecoming from his Grimsby Fish Tale was particularly well received.

Pee Wee Ellis’s Funk Assembly followed. The American saxophonist was in James Brown’s band for several years and has also worked with Van Morrison. The varied set included originals written by Ellis for James Brown and a reworking of numbers such as Etta James’s At Last and Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely. Gripping performances from Tony Remy on guitar, Gareth Williams on piano, Laurence Cottle on bass (pictured left) and Mark Mondesir on drums had the audience shouting for more. Cottle's soloing on a Jaco Pastorious number was a cracker. At one point Ellis had the packed audience singing in separate male and female harmonies. At the end the audience was dancing in the aisles with some joining Ellis on stage.

Saturday began with the Jeff Hooper Big Band. Hooper was lead singer with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra. He delivered a variety of modern arrangements with standards by Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Tony Bennett and others. The performance of Pure Imagination from Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory was a great hit with the audience. Alec Dankworth’s Spanish Accents introduced a nice contrast in style with their set of Andalusian folk and flamenco rhythms. It comprised Paco de Lucia and Vicente Amigo compositions together with arrangements displaying the influence of Spanish music on jazz composers such as Chick Corea and Dizzy Gillespie. With Chris Allard on guitar, Tori Freestone on sax, Roland Sutherland on flute, Alec Dankworth on bass and Demi Garcia on percussion the band were on fire. Emily Dankworth had a crystal clear vocal quality. The quick-fire dancing of Jesus Olmedo was riveting.

Keith Ball and his Jazzmen came on in the evening. Not having seen him before I was expecting the bandleader to play trumpet as his father did. However, Keith didn’t play any instrument. He sang Kenny’s well-known numbers such as Samantha, Hello Dolly and So Do I but seemed much of the time to be offstage whilst the band delivered the majority of the repertoire. It’s a great band. Ben Cummings was on trumpet. Kenny Ball’s trombonist, John Bennet was unfortunately unwell and was replaced by Ray Wordsworth. Ray had played with Humphrey Lyttelton for 10 years and also worked with Syd Lawrence, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. Hugh Ledigo, another of Kenny’s originals, was on piano, Zoltan Sagi was on reeds, John Day on bass and the irrepressible Nick Millward on drums. The band had the audience clapping for more. Somewhat bizarrely they finished their set of trad jazz and Kenny Ball numbers with Keith leading the audience in an arm-waving rendition of All You Need is Love. The crowd loved it.

The headline act on Saturday night was the Darius Brubeck Quartet. As Brubeck remarked to his sell-out audience, the day had become something of a “dynasty day” with three bands led by sons who had followed in their fathers’ footsteps. The quartet then opened with his father’s Blue Rondo A La Turk. It continued with a mix of South African jazz and originals such as Flippin The Bird, Cathy’s Summer and Ravely Street. As expected the band’s performance was flawless throughout with Dave O’Higgins (pictured right) on sax, Matt Ridley on double bass, Wesley Gibbens on drums and of course Brubeck on piano. They closed with the song that in Brubeck’s words “Everyone had come to hear” - Take Five. They left the stage to a massive standing ovation.

Janet Seidel was described in the Penguin Guide To Jazz as “Australia’s first lady of jazz singing”. Her band on Sunday comprised Chuck Morgan on guitar, brother David Seidel on bass and Cyril Bevan on drums. Bevan was Winifred Attwell's drummer for many years and he also played with Oscar Peterson. The band played a relaxing set with Janet singing Irvine Berlin’s Always, Peggy Lee’s Them Their Eyes and others by Rodgers & Hart and Blossom Dearie. Chuck Morgan is clearly accomplished on guitar. The performance closed with him on ukulele and Louis Prima’s In A Little Gypsy Tea Room.

The Moscow Drug Club delivered their typically exuberant cocktail of gypsy cabaret, burlesque and dark but uplifting humour. Katya Gorrie on vocals (pictured left) theatrically fronted a band comprising Andy Bowen on guitar, Mirek Salmon on accordion, Jonny Bruce on trumpet and Andy Crowdy on double bass. It was a tight outfit and they clearly enjoyed playing together. Numbers included Peggy Lee’s The Gypsy With Fire In His Shoes, Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me To The End Of Love and Johnny Mercer’s Strip Polka. This is a great band and if you get the chance go and have a look. All are superb musicians and Jonny Bruce is absolutely spectacular on trumpet.

I’m afraid I had to miss the National Youth Jazz Orchestra’s performance on Sunday but turned up for the closing gig of the festival by the 10-piece jazz-funk band 360. It featured two original members of the Average White Band - Hamish Stuart on vocals and guitar and Malcolm Duncan on sax. It looked like the two had brought their travelling audience with them as the place was packed with enthusiastic and cheering fans.

This was a great festival covering a wide range of musical tastes and Dave Cottle and his team of volunteers are to be especially congratulated for making it happen. I’m looking forward to next year.

Photos by Brian Payne

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