Review: Bristol Jazz & Blues Festival

Bob Weir delights in the profusion of talent on offer at the second Bristol international jazz & blues festival, ranging  from choral Gershwin to local boy Andy Sheppard

The nautical expression "Shipshape and Bristol fashion" seems an apt way to describe this enjoyable and efficiently organised festival. Three days of continuous music from midday to the early hours in three venues at the centrally located Colston Hall avoided any risk of overkill by skilled programming of diverse jazz and jazz-related music.

The "sound of surprise" was ubiquitous. It came in the juxtaposition of David Newton's exquisitely tasteful piano solos and Jacqui Dankworth singing Gershwin backed by a big band, string quartet and 200-voices choir. Lillian Boutté (pictured right) followed a stirring gospel set (Chris Barber guesting) with a session of foot-stomping blues. Local hero Andy Sheppard started the serious jazz element of the festival in hypnotic duets with John Parricelli and closed it with a very different but equally enthralling series of sonic adventures with master percussionist Michele Rabbia. These are just a few examples of the mission of artistic director Denny Ilett to challenge, entertain and offer something for all tastes. His father Denny Ilett (pictured below left), a talented Satchmo-style trumpet player, helped fulfil that mission.

The three world premiere commissions reflected this ambition. The aforementioned Gershwin spectacular might have been a bit under-rehearsed and ragged at the edges but it delighted a capacity crowd. There were no such misgivings over the impeccable performance by the Bristol Ensemble and Kate Williams Trio of new orchestral arrangements of Bill Evans compositions contrasted with some works by Ravel, Debussy and Satie that had influenced him. Bristol is blessed with a profusion of talented instrumentalist-composers. Andy Hague gathered 10 of them to form the Festival Composers Ensemble. They performed a suite of six new pieces by group members for one of the event's most original and satisfying concerts.

There was an abundance of straightahead jazz. The Alan Barnes-Howard Alden pick-up quintet gelled immediately for some delightful mainstream, helped along considerably by the tasteful swing of David Newton and Parisian drummer Julie Saury. Django À La Creole featuring Evan Christopher's melodious clarinet arrived late but made up for it with an outstanding blend of Reinhardt and traditional New Orleans. The Jim Mullen Organ Trio was as exciting and inventive as we have come to expect of this world-class guitarist. A Swing Dance with the Jonny Bruce-Denny Ilett Big Band and hundreds of local dancers rigged out in 1930s/1940s style brought a flavour of the Savoy Ballroom to Bristol.

More contemporary sounds, in addition to the two Andy Sheppard sessions, came from a shared concert by Get The Blessing and Indigo Kid. The former launched their new album Lope And Antelope with the assistance of Portishead guitarist, Adrian Utley. They are still one of the most original bands on the UK scene. Indigo Kid can match them in that regard with the advantage of two of our most creative musicians, Iain Ballamy and Martin France, in their ranks. Perhaps because he is still little known over here, Georgian pianist Beka Gochiashvili was the revelation of the festival with the jazz cognoscenti. This prodigiously gifted protégé of Chick Corea played with relentless invention, drawing on the jazz piano masters for a wholly integrated and individual style which must take him to the very top. Catch him wherever you can.

There was plenty of funky fun from the Pee Wee Ellis & Fred Wesley (ex-James Brown) All Stars backed by an outstanding UK rhythm section and by Zigaboo Modeliste & The Big Chiefs from New Orleans. Afrobeat pioneers Osibisa rocked the house in similar vein, as did rockabilly queen Imelda May, helping to keep alive the Irish showband tradition. Steely Dan guitarist Elliott Randall (pictured right) brought over a first-rate band to showcase his special blend of blues, jazz and rock. A couple of local groups, Moscow Drug Club and Gypsy Fire, were similar only in drawing on an eclectic variety of influences (QHCF, Chanson, Brel & Piaf), Weimar-era cabaret, Balkan folk, Tango and hip singer-songwriters (Cohen, Waits, Beatles)) for an engrossing double bill.

In addition to the ticketed concerts, there were non-stop, free-of-charge sessions in the foyer by a wide range of local talent, concluding each night with a jam session. They were well attended by a wider age group and must have introduced many Bristolians to the wealth of fine music created in their city. The UK's top jazz photographer, David Redfern, was in attendance off the foyer with a superb display of his iconic and famous pictures.

Amid the growing number of quality spring jazz festivals (Gateshead, Cheltenham, Porthcawl, Guildhall, Southport and Bath come to mind), Bristol stands out for its innovative musician-led approach and genuine welcome for visitors. Next year's event is on 5-8 March 2015 and the website to watch is

Photography by Rita Pinkse

Your Comments:

Posted by Paul Thomson, 10 April 2014, 17:00 (1 of 1)

An excellent review of this years event, thanks for taking the time out to write it. I'll try arrange to have a link added to it from the listing on Festival Archive -
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