Review: Gateshead jazz festival 2014, Day 2

Fred Grand is spoilt for choice on his second day at Tyneside's jazz hothouse, reserving special mention for Neset & Herskedal and GoGo Penguin. Photography by John Watson

Saturday tends to be the busiest day of the festival, and this year proved to be no exception. The sheer volume of gigs on offer throughout the day brings the danger of over-exposure and burnout. With back-to-back shows running for close to 12 hours, an acceptance that it's neither possible or desirable to see everything certainly helps.

Alyn Shipton's annual residency kicked off proceedings at 11am on Saturday 5 April with another live recording of his popular Jazz Record Requests show. The first live music "proper" came slightly later at 2pm with the double bill of Jean Toussaint (pictured right) and quartet and Andrew McCormack and Jason Yarde. Trailing an upcoming album, McCormack & Yarde augmented their well established partnership by joining forces with the Elysian String Quartet for an entirely new programme of original music. As the players took the stage the seating arrangements were in marked contrast to Glasper’s club-style performance in the same hall the previous night. McCormack's opener Nice Cup Of Tea was a rather more serious affair than its title suggested. With a rocking Bartokian motion and post-serialist dissonance, it was immediately apparent that this wasn't going to be a tokenistic jazz-with-strings affair. Both McCormack and Yarde of course found space to improvise, but a heavy accent on through-composition and scoring made something of an interesting new departure for the duo. Yarde's Some Time After obliquely referenced Monk's 'Round Midnight, but perhaps the highlight of this impressively integrated sextet’s performance was Pasties For Gateshead, an impromptu improv based on intervals shouted out by the audience. 

McCormack was back on duty straight after the interval, this time as Jean Toussaint's wingman. Regular drummer Troy Miller was replaced by the ever-dependable Shanie Forbes in a programme largely drawn from the saxophonist's new album Tate Song (Lyte Records - to be reviewed in JJ May issue). As you may expect from former Jazz Messenger Toussaint, the music was largely rooted in post-bop. It was one of the few straight-ahead events in this year's GIJF and hearing music so obviously rooted in "the tradition" was almost shocking. The opening Mood Mode was a Traneish burner, followed by a change of pace on the lovely Shorteresque ballad My Dear Ruby (dedicated to Toussaint's daughter). Mulgrew, composed in memory of long-time friend and colleague Mulgrew Miller, was a heartfelt outpouring which framed anguished free passages within a haunting post-Coltrane lament. All in all this was a satisfying set played with great panache, and the festival's largely forward-looking gaze had been momentarily deflected.

Attendances at this year's event seem to be significantly increased, with many shows selling out. One of the hottest tickets of the weekend was Manchester's GoGo Penguin (pictured left), whose early evening slot filled the Northern Rock Foundation Hall. Very much a GIJF kind of act, bubbling under and pushing genre boundaries, they appeared here a couple of years ago hidden away on a showcase of new talent from 'up North'. Their recent album v2.0 (Gondwana Records - to be reviewed in JJ May issue) is an absolute delight, balancing elements of jazz, classical, rock and electronica to make a fresh and engaging entry into the decidedly overcrowded post-E.S.T. market. With a P.A. system large enough to fill several halls, this was one of those gigs where internal organs are in danger of reorganisation. For some it was too much, but I couldn't help but admire the trio's great energy and attack. Not unlike the Neil Cowley Trio, their approach to improvisation tends to be more vertical than horizontal - cyclical motifs probed as collective swells of improvisational energy are cumulatively layered. Some of the material from their debut album Fanfares is already sounding relatively passé - short assemblages of drum 'n' bass breaks flirting with sameness - but several as yet untitled pieces, and of course the selections from v2.0, point towards an evolving and more sophisticated style. It'll be interesting to see where they go next, and their obvious success in attracting a new generation of listeners to jazz is commendable.

For many the festival's headline was the Spring Quartet, a stellar inter-generational aggregate with Joe Lovano (pictured below left), Leo Genovese and Esperanza Spalding under the nominal leadership of Jack DeJohnette. They were emblazoned across the cover of the festival programme, and the main hall was packed in high anticipation. Before the main event however there was the not inconsiderable attraction of the support act (pictured right). Since storming the GIJF in 2012, Marius Neset has continued to fulfil the potential which many were quick to recognise. Now a well-established artist of growing international repute, he returned with good friend and conservatory classmate Daniel Herskedal. Reprising the charm and splendour of 2012's Neck Of The Woods (Edition Records), their 45-minute set touched many bases. From Scandi-folk themes to Township jazz and beyond, their flights of wonderfully telegraphed improvisation showed great poise, taste and technical virtuosity. The warm and reverent reading of Abdullah Ibrahim's The Wedding was particularly beautiful, but as the set unfolded the improvisational nous of both players was increasingly foregrounded. As impressive as Neset's tone, control and full-blooded Breckerian chromatic lines may be, Herskedal's command of the full and extended ranges of the tuba were equally breathtaking. From low pedals to singing multiphonics, he's a one man orchestra. It was one of those sets that leaves you hungry for more, and the interval break arrived all too quickly. 

Before the Spring Quartet had even played a note their slow and deliberate entry to the stage brought a huge ovation. Only Leo Genovese, a gifted Argentine pianist with a penchant for the avant-garde who plays with Spalding in her Radio Music Society ensemble, could be described as anything less than big box office. The set opened brightly, with a couple of smoking post-bop looseners booted along by the inimitable DeJohnette. Other-worldly Rhodes tones from Genovese on DeJohnette's punning Herbie's Hands Cocked then signalled a marked shift of emphasis. The music moved into late 60s Miles territory before tackling a series of turbulent and not altogether satisfying free improvisations. On Spalding's Shakin' The Shark the bassist and Genovese both picked up saxophones, three horns bouncing against DeJohnette's imposing wall of percussion before resolving with an Ornetteish head. Ethiopian Blues, a Genovese original, saw the quartet reaching towards pure and almost naive forms of improvisation. It's probably fair to say that the performance was more fun on the bandstand than in the stalls, and applause became increasingly polite as others left the show early. Such responses only serve to highlight the problem with jazz supergroups. Highly accomplished improvisers will naturally want to stretch and create something fresh, but if they're marquee acts at major festivals the heavy weight of audience expectation must also be negotiated. Of course I'd never advocate a descent into unvarying repertoire - after all, I once promoted a series of gigs which included Derek Bailey, Ken Vandermark, Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann - but much of the evening's music was almost certainly too far ahead of the curve for many.

Yet with so many episodes of great individual brilliance, the performance could hardly have been said to have been a disappointment. As I rather wearily left the venue my exhaustion wasn't entirely symptomatic of festival burn-out. Too bruised to linger for either the Caribbean flavours of Courtney Pine's House of Legends or Roller Trio front-man James Mainwaring's new Space Flight project, the creative provocations of the Spring Quartet had left my mind curiously sated.

Your Comments:

Posted by Ernest Hunt, 12 April 2014, 12:30 (1 of 1)

GoGo Penguin "fresh and engaging"? Really? Sounds like minimalist film music based on indie rock - loads of triadic harmony, endless ostinati and pedal tones, static rhythms, all that guff - ok for BBC drama, but in jazz terms pedestrian. In my broad experience jazz types are far more musically articulate, well-versed, creative, swinging, funky etc.
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