Review: Gateshead jazz festival 2014, Day 1

On the first day of this year's Geordie jazz weekender, Fred Grand finds the Gateshead International Jazz Festival heeding pleas to look west. Photography by John Watson

Last year’s edition of Gateshead's annual jazz extravaganza drew some rather unfair criticism which bemoaned the complete absence of artists from across the Atlantic. Isn't jazz an American art form? For my part it proved to be one of the most interesting and varied GIJFs to date, and I even went as far in my review to suggest it reflected jazz's changing geographical creative centre of gravity.

Perhaps out of a sense of obligation to mark the festival's 10th anniversary with something unequivocally special, performance programme director Ros Rigby and John Cumming (Serious) appear to have heeded the calls to go west and have pulled together a truly global cast of marquee names. A concentrated ristretto-strength shot of jazz in its many guises, there must surely be something for almost everybody at this year’s event.

Stateside interests are well represented by the Americana of Bill Frisell, the up-to-the-minute "urban" jazz of Robert Glasper, Jack DeJohnette's all-star Spring Quartet and ex-pat Jazz Messenger Jean Toussaint, whilst European balance is provided by Joakim Milder's Norbotten Big Band, Django Bates, Courtney Pine, Polar Bear, up-and-coming post-E.S.T. trio GoGo Penguin and the free improvisation of Luxembourg-based saxophonist Roby Glod. Add to this the the customary "fringe" of educational and participatory events, pre-concert talks hosted by Alyn Shipton, the quite stunning exhibition of images by David Redfern and Edu Hawkins (the "Unclosed Eye") and one of Europe’s best and most state-of-the-art performance spaces, and what’s not to like?

Last year Jens Thomas's and Verneri Pohjola's brilliantly off-the-wall interpretations of the music of AC/DC, whose lead singer Brian Johnson grew up within guttural screaming distance of the venue, may have started something of a trend. For the festival’s 2014 curtain-raiser Joakim Milder and the Norbotten Big Band presented their own re-imagining of the music of local 80s pop icons Prefab Sprout. Milder (pictured right) has been a long-time fan of the Sprouts, covering Paddy McAloon’s inimitable music for almost 20 years (culminating in the 2013 album Quoted Out Of Context). When I spoke to Milder before the concert, the performance was somewhat hanging in the balance as the orchestra’s instruments were filed under "lost luggage" in Copenhagen. Fortunately Julian Argüelles was amongst those coming to the rescue, driving down from Scotland with a vehicle full of instruments to save the day.

In an unexpected but fitting touch, ex-Prefab Sprout singer Wendy Smith (who now works at Sage Gateshead) introduced the band. Milder, recently appointed as artistic director of Europe’s most northerly salaried big band, led the colourful and decidedly wistful set from the front. Exclusively playing tenor his statements were elegant but robust, really shining on the haunting Nightingales. The programme may have circumnavigated the hits, but it was nevertheless clear that McAloon is a highly original composer with all the flair of Bacharach. Guitarist Andreas Hourdakis (currently a member of Magnus Östrom’s band) was making his debut with Norbotten, taking several fluid solos and providing the crucial depth and texture that brought McAloon’s music to life. After Wendy Smith it was percussionist Lisbeth Diers who drew the largest ovations of the set; her solo during the closing Jesse James (Milder’s arrangement retaining all of the epic grandeur) was a masterclass of sustained invention. No hot dogs or jumping frogs, but the festival was nevertheless off to a flying start.

After the interval it was Django Bates’s turn to re-imagine a slightly more distant past. His Belovéd Bird trio, dedicated to reinterpreting the music of Charlie Parker, has been to this venue before. This was only the second time it had joined forces with Norbotten however (the first being at last year’s Proms), and with a slight change of personnel in came Martin France, Petter Eldh and the remarkable tubist Daniel Herskedal. Radically deconstructing some of Parker’s best most emblematic works (including Confirmation, Aleucha, Donna Lee and Star Eyes), Bates (pictured left) also casually threw in a couple of his own idiosyncratic compositions (including the enigmatic We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way). A riot of colour, the leader’s theatricality occasionally followed in the footsteps of Chico Marx. Audience walk-outs are often a sign that something interesting is happening, and Bates certainly lost a few this evening. His determinedly off-kilter tempos, stabbing pointillistic riffs and prismatic approach to harmony make heavy (though not unreasonable) demands of an audience, and for the vast majority who lasted the distance he served up a witty, edgy and above all virtuosic display.

With only a few minutes to grab a breather before Robert Glasper’s Experiment took to the stage in Hall Two, I’d already missed what was reported to have been an energetic set by Brazilian jazz-funkster Ed Motta in the first of many inevitable programme clashes. Many of Motta’s audience will almost certainly have made their way over to Hall Two, and it was refreshing to see a younger demographic. My only previous live encounter with Glasper’s band had been in Glasgow in 2012 (reviewed here for Jazz Journal). Decidedly jazz-oriented that night, Glasper’s piano took centre-stage as the group embraced elements of style from the present while plotting a path through Mwandishi-era Hancock.

Hall Two is a wonderfully intimate space, and tonight’s format removed the seating from the lower level to create more of a club vibe. It was a different kind of set to the recent London show (reported for JJ by Francis Graham-Dixon). There were no guest vocalists in this relaxed and open-ended jam. Chris Dave or Derrick Hodge were absent, but the unstoppable Glasper still managed to deliver a deeply engaging set. Drummer Mark Colenburg is something of a marvel, the Tony Williams of the locked groove. Their close rapport was particularly evident on a duet which was an open homage to 70s Hancock, and may yet turn out to be one of the high spots of the weekend.

Despite the lack of guest vocalists, Charismatic Casey Benjamin leant heavily on his vocoder, only picking up his saxophones twice during this 90+ minute set. His Tranish soprano duet with Colenburg was another standout moment, and it’s clear that Glasper is a supreme arranger of diverse and disparate musical building blocks. Switching between Rhodes, synthesiser and digital keyboards, his turnover of ideas is rapid but never throwaway. Reaching out across generations in a way that I can only describe as healthy, performances like this give him complete freedom to take the music in any direction he chooses and don’t sell his jazz constituency short (in contrast to his recent Blue Note albums). With no encore given or needed, this was another completely satisfying set from one of the brightest and most frequently debated talents in contemporary jazz.

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