Review: Norwich Jazz Party 2014

Bruce Lindsay enjoys a weekend of the best of mainstream jazz at Norwich Jazz Party but finds his favourite moment in a new composition

If the eighth Norwich Jazz Party needed a motto, then "New home, old school" might well fit the bill. This year's party took place in a new venue, the Dunston Hall Hotel on the southern outskirts of Norwich, but kept to its tried and tested formula that once again gave the sell-out crowd the sort of straightahead jazz entertainment it craved.

The party's musical focus is on what many of those in attendance, audience and players, view as a Golden Age of jazz. As clarinettist Bob Wilber (pictured below right with Eiji Kitamura) said during one of his sets, "We seem to keep playing the old songs, because they're better than the new ones." The tunes came, in the vast majority of cases, from Great American Songbook composers and from jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. Familiar tunes, welcomed like old friends by the knowledgeable audience: although the finest five minutes of the weekend came from a rather surprising compositional source.

The party's new home, a country house hotel set in large grounds and with its own golf course, gave the event a certain elegance that was lacking in the previous venue. The first floor concert room had its own private terrace, giving a view of the course and the rolling Norfolk countryside beyond. The venue has already been confirmed for the 2015 party.

The three-day event brought around 30 musicians to Norwich. As always, the majority of players were old hands, coming back year after year. This year's "veterans" (if that's the right term) included Scott Hamilton, Steve Brown, Alan Barnes and Ian Bateman. Guitarist Howard Alden and bassist Andy Cleyndert returned as late additions to the bill, replacing Bucky Pizzarelli and Giorgos Antoniou who both had to withdraw. Jim Galloway had to pull out at the last minute due to illness.

Organisers Brian Peerless, Jerry Brown and Ann Brown always introduce new faces to each Party, keeping things fresh and adding a frisson of the unexpected. This year there were four party débutantes: saxophonist Robert Fowler, New York pianist Ehud Asherie, French clarinettist Aurélie Tropez (pictured left) and the Denmark-based American bassist and singer Kristin Korb.

Talking with audience members it became clear that almost every set had its admirers. Fowler's "International Concert Jazz Band", featuring the music of Gerry Mulligan, gained wide approval: so, too, did the Monday morning set from the Norfolk Students' Jazz Orchestra. Houston Person's appearances all went down a storm: his Monday night set showcased his control and grace on Fools Rush In and his upbeat swing on Isn't It Romantic. Karen Sharp showed her continuing stature as a tenor player, performing with real attack and confidence. Saxes, trumpets and trombones featured strongly but the weekend's commonest instrument was the clarinet, with six or seven musicians featuring the woodwind in their performances. Scott Robinson (pictured above right) even appeared with a tárogató, a Hungarian clarinet-like instrument, that once belonged to Armstrong reedsman Joe Muranyi.

Tropez, Korb and Asherie all became party favourites and will hopefully return. Asherie's inventive contributions were a joy to hear. His planned solo spot became a trio performance thanks to the addition of Dave Green and Steve Brown: classics such as Tea For Two and Top Hat, White Tie and Tails were played with an enthusiasm that was reflected in the audience's warm response. Korb's gently swinging bass style contrasted with the more muscular playing of Cleyndert and Alec Dankworth and proved to be an ideal partner for her voice, particularly on romantic numbers such as These Foolish Things. Tropez also proved adept at romantic tunes, with a flowing style and a warm, woody, clarinet tone. She closed her own set by asking the audience to vote, for "a fast one" or "a slow one". Fast won, and her performance of Crazy Rhythm was joyous.

As I reflect on almost 30 hours of live performance, it's often the small things that stay in the memory. Not all of them are musical. Awards for sartorial elegance should go to Scott Robinson, for a rather splendid jacket, and to Houston Person for a couple of natty suits. Person's sharply cut purple number also resulted in my favourite line of the weekend, when Ken Peplowski leapt on stage and pleaded with Person to "Please turn that suit down to 'stun'." A small prize should go to the musicians themselves, for their unfailing willingness to stop and chat with audience members, be photographed or sign autographs. It's clearly something that people value and it gives the party its distinctive vibe.

The finest five minutes of the weekend? It was tucked away in Scott Robinson's excellent Sunday morning quartet appearance, a Robinson original called Step Into My Dreams. A slow ballad with a 40s feel (and some free improvisation at the end), it was my personal highlight for three reasons: Robinson's warmly romantic tenor saxophone, the beauty of the melody, and the fact that it was an original tune. For me, and for the audience member who exclaimed that the tune had "really spoken to me", it came pretty close to disproving Bob Wilber's assertion all on its own.

Photography by Bruce Lindsay

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