Review: Gibraltar Jazz Festival

Sally Evans-Darby takes in a 3-day festival on the Rock that culminated in a high-powered performance from the Jools Holland orchestra with Mel C, Ruby Turner and the outstanding Louise Marshall

At the southern tip of Spain and marking the mouth of the Mediterranean, the bustling peninsula of Gibraltar makes an idyllic setting for a jazz festival. Taking place in balmy mid-October, the Gibraltar International Jazz Festival celebrates the wealth of musical talent native to the peninsula as well as jazz artists from far and wide, with this year’s billing including headliner Jools Holland, Gibraltarian guitarist Elie Massias and Valencian vibraphonist Arturo Serra.

After a manifesto commitment in Gibraltar’s 2011 general election for an annual jazz event, and the success of last year’s inaugural programme which featured Avishai Cohen, the fledgling festival returned this October for its second year. Nightly concerts over three days took place at the Queen’s Cinema near the centre of the town, heralded as the sun went down by the New Orleans Jump Band. These five musicians (pictured above, left to right: Mike Izatt - banjo, Andy Peacock - trombone, Mitch Jansen - trumpet and vocals, Jonas Molbeck - sousaphone, Leonardo La Peruta - clarinet) marched through the Gibraltar streets on each of the three evenings, performing their unique blend of jump jazz and Dixie and entertaining the crowds in the town square.

The festival was then officially opened on the night of 17 October by its driving organiser, local jazz bassist George Posso. Posso has been putting on regular jazz nights in the town for the last 13 years and promoting the music in local schools and societies. He kicked off the first concert at the Queen’s Cinema with some of his regular bandmates, including three local vocalists.

Next up was Gibraltar-native but New York-resident Elie Massias, whose renown on the Rock was clear; though the first night’s audience were a little thin on the ground, their loud applause belied their numbers. Performing all original compositions with his quintet, Massias started quiet and slow with a Latin beat and a colourful guitar solo before segueing into an abstract soundscape, featuring Jewish-influenced vocalese and soprano sax; a dark, syncopated piece with a plaintive refrain. The well-received set ended with guest Dan Moretti (pictured left) on saxophone in an upbeat performance of Sonny Rollins’ Tenor Madness.

Closing the first night was Seville-born pianist Juan Galiardo with his quartet, which included special guest Arturo Serra on vibes. They played to a hushed and reverent audience, the florid, lavish sound of the vibraphone filling the dark cinema as Serra played variously with a  furious, full-bodied attack and soft, lullaby-like harmonics. The last song was dedicated to a student of Galiardo’s, before the final flourish of notes was struck to mark the end of the first night of festivities.

Kirsty Almeida (pictured below right) opened the second night with her band The Troubadours (Tom Davies - guitar, John Ellis - piano, Matt Owens - bass, Bryan Hargreaves - drums). Born in Gibraltar but currently living in Manchester, Kirsty swept onto the stage in a billowing white dress and performed an entertaining set of ska, country and jazz.

A dressmaker and guitarist as well as a vocalist, Kirsty and her band interacted warmly with the audience, leading a good-humoured call and response piece. “That guy wasn’t singing, let’s try that again” said Davies after the first attempt. Slide guitar and honky-tonk piano rubbed shoulders with calypso and the nursery rhyme-like Lucy The Ladybird (“gentle jazz for children”, as Kirsty described it). Those looking for a little more jazz content may have been left wanting if it wasn’t for a rather moving version of the Mercer standard When A Woman Loves A Man, sung by Kirsty alone on stage accompanying herself on guitar.

Kirsty and her Troubadours were applauded back on stage for an encore by the clearly appreciative audience, and after a short interval the Dan Moretti Band were up next to perform a late-night set of funk-flavoured jazz. Saxophonist Moretti, a Professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, has been playing tenor sax since he was 12. A highlight of his thoughtful and varied set was one of his own compositions, Monk’s Walk, played with plenty of conviction on soprano sax.

The third day of the festival saw soaring temperatures in Gibraltar and one of the standout performances of the programme, which took place on a small crowded street thronging with Saturday shoppers: a free open-air two-hour concert by jump blues and groove outfit Soul Mates, led by the charismatic and highly entertaining Mitch Jansen from Holland on trumpet and vocals (pictured left) (who also featured daily in the New Orleans Jump Band).

The band, comprising an explosive brass section, funky bass and plenty of boogie-woogie attitude from UK-based Craig Philbin on piano, whipped up a festival atmosphere with passers-by stopping to dance, clap and otherwise join in the fun. As well as Jansen’s outstanding performances (Flip, Flop And Fly and other Blues Brothers perennials in particular) and crowd-pleasing antics (throwing his trumpet high in the air and only just catching it at the end of one song), the set also featured local schoolgirl Chloe Martinez, whose bold, brassy rendition of At Last gave Etta James a run for her money.

This spirit of uninhibited, democratic fun is a key element of a successful jazz festival, serving to create an atmosphere over the course of the programme that supplements the ticketed events. As this particular festival is planned to become an annual event, it’s hoped that essential fringe music such as this will be featured more widely in the coming years.

The sold-out headline event closing the festival on Saturday night was Jools Holland (pictured right) and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, who were joined by two of Holland’s regular vocalists Ruby Turner and Louise Marshall, and, rather incongruously, ex-Spice Girl Melanie C (pictured right). The concert saw the Queen’s Cinema packed to capacity with revellers needing little encouragement to get up and dance in the aisles. It was a swaggering, raucous affair with Holland leading the band with his characteristic piano boogie-woogie, a riotous brass section and plenty of call and response pieces to get the lively audience involved.

Though Melanie C was clearly billed as the principal vocalist of the night (and indeed was announced to the stage to elaborate fanfare), Louise Marshall stole the show for me. She performed a sultry, swinging reading of the Holland/Brown-penned ballad Valentine Moon, and a driving gospel version of Accentuate The Positive, her voice flecked with flavours of Aretha Franklin. I could have listened to her much longer but others were soon vying for the spotlight; not least Melanie C, whose over-ambitious handling of songs such as Nina Simone’s I Got Life only accentuated her pop-star rather than jazz-star credentials. Nevertheless, her presence at the festival went down a treat with the audience.

Former Squeeze drummer and long-time Jools Holland bandmate Gilson Lavis backed the orchestra throughout the night, and was in fine form; at one point all the musicians left the stage as he threw himself into a particularly epic and energetic solo. Another Jools Holland regular, vocalist Ruby Turner (pictured left), then took the stage to animated applause, and with her commanding voice performed an entertaining melée of gospel, blues and spirituals. At the close of the show the feverish audience demanded an encore, which they were duly given; the entire house sang along to a Sigman/Magidson number enjoying a recent renaissance, Enjoy Yourself.

For an event only in its second year, the jazz festival in Gibraltar is clearly already gathering pace and attracting the attention of a spectrum of musicians and audiences. The trend for jazz festivals, European ones at least, seems to be heading towards popular acts as much as hard-core jazz, and this appears to apply to Gibraltar too judging from the emphasis given to pop over the jazzier elements of the programme (viz. first-night performer Arturo Serra and the Soul Mates’ fringe event). Nevertheless, this year’s festival certainly went off with a bang and had a good number of locals and internationals enthusiastically engaged with the music on offer, which can only be a good thing. Here’s to another dynamic festival on the Rock in 2014.

Photos of Dan Moretti, Kirsty Almeida, Jools Holland:
Mark Galliano Photography

Photos of New Orleans Jump Band, Mitch Jansen:
Sally Evans-Darby

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Your Comments:

Posted by Mitchy J.L.Jansen, 27 October 2013, 9:37 (1 of 5)

My Thanxxx goes out to Sally-Ann for your Brillant write up and fabulous pictures. Is there a possibility to get copies of the pics? Again...Thanx a million, Best regards...Mitch

Posted by Cress, 29 October 2013, 19:20 (2 of 5)

Nice piece, which I'd been there, although after reading this I almost feel I was!

Posted by emma, 1 November 2013, 13:04 (3 of 5)

New Orleans Jump Band was incredible! Can't wait to see them again next year. The concert was amazing too but I still liked the jump band best of all, felt like I was back in New Orleans on the natchez River Boat :)

Posted by Tony, 3 November 2013, 13:06 (4 of 5)

I feel some kind of prejudice when you talk about Melanie C. I think she was great. It is good to see that a pop-voice can do well trying other music genres.

Posted by Sally Evans-Darby, 3 November 2013, 15:33 (5 of 5)

Thanks Mitchy, Cress, Emma and Tony for your comments! Tony, you're right, it's always good for vocalists to try their hand at new genres, and Mel C certainly went down a storm. Whether she can sing jazz as well as she sings pop, though, is debatable.

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