Review: Gateshead IJF

FRED GRAND reviews Robert Fonseca, Neil Cowley, Andy Sheppard, Courtney Pine, Zoe Rahman, Ambrose Akinmusire, Marius Neset, Tord Gustavsen and more at one of the north's leading annual jazz meetings

Now comfortably established as the first major UK festival in the calendar, the Gateshead International Jazz Festival becomes more of a bonsai London International Jazz Festival with each passing year. Unlike London however, this compact and highly accessible event offers fans the opportunity for a manageable long weekend break in the company of some of the hottest established and emerging artists. It continues to lean heavily on John Cummings' Serious for artist programming and there may have been an absence of big US blockbusters this year but the event nevertheless turned out to be one of the most interesting and varied GIJFs to date.

Robert FonsecaWith three state-of-the-art performance spaces allowing for synchronous programming, potentially vexatious choices between simultaneous events inevitably arise. On the opening night I could easily have plumped for British alto legend Peter King, or the funky soul jazz of Pee Wee Ellis instead of hot Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca's new "world jazz" jamboree and the fresh, youthful sounds of the Neil Cowley Trio. Having seen King in London recently opening for Roy Haynes I opted for Fonseca (pictured right), and with several people reporting that the altoist wasn't firing on all cylinders it was perhaps a wise choice. Once the musical director of the Buena Vista Social Club, Fonseca has largely slipped the yoke of his roots to branch out and build a solid reputation based on a very personal interpretation of the piano lexicon of Corea, Hancock and Jarrett. His current band, promoting their new disc Yo (Jazz Village), follows the example of Dhaffer Youssef in creating a fusion of world styles that subtly integrates electronic textures. Decidedly Afro-Cuban, Fonseca's versatile group featured among others Baba Sissoko on assorted African percussion, and the Cameroonian wonder Sekou Kouyate, who is perhaps best described as the Al Di Meola of the kora. In a performance of bravura eloquence, Fonseca gave the GIJF a perfect curtain raiser and left the enthusiastic crowd hungry for more.

On the back of my enthusiastic review for his new album, I was keen to hear the much hyped and debated Neil Cowley Trio in person. Many find the trio's tightly scored pieces a little fortissimo and a triumph of style over content, and whilst Cowley is unlikely to ever appeal to the purist I find his music is chock-full of easy grooves, memorable hooks and puckish wit. Cowley delivered a fairly literal rendition of the album, joined by string quartet the Mount Molehill Strings for most of the set. Save for a handful of selections from the trio's back catalogue, the music didn't really stretch to any degree in the crucible of live performance. With unmistakeable musicality matched by an energy that couldn't fail to bring a smile, the charismatic Cowley is exactly the type of artist who can ease a new generation of listeners into the sometimes forbidding world of jazz.

Saturday brought another array of tough choices. My Jazz Journal colleague Andy Hamilton amply covers the afternoon set by the Marcus Roberts trio elsewhere, but as in previous years the weekend slots offered a mix of big names and a platform for youth and local talents. In a conscious effort to avoid sensory overload, I stuck to the evening's double bill of Andy Sheppard's Trio Libero and Courtney Pine's Europa. Sheppard and Pine were two of the leading lights of the 80s British jazz boom and it was interesting to see how each saxophonist had changed (or not) with the passage of time. Sheppard's trio played a highly concentrated set of almost funereal improvisations drawn from their impressive ECM debut. Sheppard has consistently remained true to his European roots, and leaving aside high-profile sideman gigs with Carla Bley this trio is by some distance the best platform he has had for many years. Michel Benita's roaming LaFaroesque bass skilfully underpinned each of the trio's melodic improvisations, leaving drummer Seb Rochford free to add colour and texture. Anybody who has ever wished that Jan Garbarek would revive his StAR trio with Miroslav Vitous and Peter Erskine will find great solace in Trio Libero.

Whilst the pace of Sheppard's trio may have been a tad slow for some, Pine's Europa project brought enough showmanship to fill the London Palladium. With Pine still exclusively playing bass clarinet, this was a smaller ensemble than the one I saw in Glasgow last year (sadly there was no Omar Puente). Despite cutting out much of the chit-chat that usually precedes each piece, Pine still significantly over-ran and found space for some injudicious audience participation. Many left the hall before the performance had finished so that they could catch Beats & Pieces next door, and somewhat ironically most of the exodus took place just as Pine was mid-polemic on the need to support young musicians. Guitarist Cameron Pierre doubled with great virtuosity on mandolin for some off-kilter Gaelic barn dancing, but it was the magnificent Zoe Rahman who on her cameos drew most of the plaudits. Pine is a very charismatic personable leader, qualities that allow him to bring his challenging brand of improvisation to a wider audience in a vibrant package that is a festival organiser's dream.

GIJF ConcourseSunday brought a mouth-watering selection of contemporary voices, and very few problematic programming clashes. An astonishing triple-bill of Zoe Rahman's quartet, Robert Mitchell's 3io and Ambrose Akinmusire's US quintet created quite a buzz when the festival line-up was first announced. In the intimate setting of Hall Two, where there simply isn't a bad seat, the ever-impressive Mitchell was first on stage. In an absorbing hour his tight trio explored every nook and cranny of their largely original material, confirming that Mitchell is well on course to become a world-class performer. Rahman has so much in her locker that it came as quite a surprise to find her playing such a restrained set. Selections largely came from her new album Kindred Spirits (Manushi), exploring her rather unusual English-Irish-Bengali heritage. I'd have preferred more hard-driving Tyneresque flights, though her highly polished set was warmly received, all the more so as it emerged that she and brother Idris had earlier in the week been bereaved of their father. Closing the gig was hot property Ambrose Akinmusire, the latest in a long line stretching from Wallace Roney to be tipped as the new Miles Davis. His burning quintet, which included Walter Smith III's dark and serpentine tenor, locked into a groove which summoned that fascinating period of transition of the late 60s when the Blue Note sound was slowly morphing from hard bop to more turbulent post-Coltrane spiritual-jazz. With an impressive range, Akinmusire is fully at home with the harmonic jeopardy of Shaw and Tolliver but also has an expressionistic side that growls and purrs like Bill Dixon and sings naively like Don Cherry. His powerful set previewed new material as well as dipping into his current Blue Note album, and I'm looking forward to charting his development in the years ahead.

Every now and again something comes along that for a variety of reasons simply knocks you sideways. Hearing Evan Parker's solo saxophone for the first time and catching Tony Williams in full flight are but two such landmarks in my life, and Marius Neset's Golden Xplosion proved to be another. At just 27 years of age, he already has the precision technique to take Michael Brecker's legacy to previously unimagined levels. It's not just about the technique though – his technique simply allows him to go further into an initially disorienting world where Brecker collides with Garbarek, Zappa and Bartok. Backed by Jasper Høiby's Phronesis, hot property in themselves, Neset stunned the crowd with his jaw-dropping chromatic runs, complex but accessible compositions and tsunami-like energy. Forget those clichés about glaciers and fjords, Neset belongs to a new generation of players who are crossing many boundaries and creating a very personal summation from a diverse basket of musical influences.

Left both energised and exhausted by Neset, I could have wound down in the main hall with Curtis Stigers, or caught another of the leading lights of the 80s British jazz boom, Steve Williamson, with Pat Thomas and Orphy Robinson in the improv trio Black Top. Yet with Tord Gustavsen performing in Hall Two, the decision on how to finish my 2012 GIJF was never going to be difficult. Representing the qualitative polar opposite of Neset, fellow Norwegian Tord Gustavsen has refined his zen-like art to near perfection. Whereas with Neset we count the notes per second, Gustavsen's music breathes in open spaces and develops over far longer durations, shunning anything remotely superfluous. A set comprising old material as well as pieces from new album The Well (ECM) underlined how saxophonist Tore Brunborg is increasingly stepping out of Garbarek's long shadow and playing with great authority. Every note from bassist Mats Eilersen, and every gesture from drummer Jarle Vespestad, rang with bell-like clarity, hanging frozen in mid air before decaying into silence. Gustavsen, frequently hunched in deep concentration over his keyboard, was locked in deep communion with his music. Every bit as intense as anything heard all weekend, this set marked a brilliant end to the festival. With next year's GIJF already confirmed for 5-7 April, the organisers will have to be going some to match this vintage year.

Photography by Mark Savage/GIJF


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