Review: Bristol Jazz & Blues Festival 2015

Bob Weir enjoys full-house tributes to Louis Armstrong and concerts by Dr John, Tcha Limberger and Andy Shepherd at the third annual jazz bash in Bristol

The cultural twinning of Bristol with New Orleans from this year was a good reason for making the Crescent City the pivotal focus of the third Bristol International Jazz & Blues Festival at Colston Hall, Bristol, 6-8 March. There were two major tributes to Louis Armstrong, several engaging guest appearances by Lillian Boutté and a prestigious closing concert by the dynamic Dr John (pictured right). Other blues, jazz and jazz-related genres were well represented with enough US and continental European attractions to justify the international designation. Bristol's status as an important UK musical city was not overlooked with lots of opportunities for home-grown talent, headlined as usual by homeboy, Andy Sheppard.

Over the three days, there were 18 main concerts, 20 foyer events and seven masterclasses offering almost continuous music from 5pm on Friday to midnight on Sunday. The large crowds throughout, therefore, had the choice of free shows in the foyer or ticketed concerts catering for all musical tastes from the familiar to the new and challenging.

Satchmo was celebrated first with a video lecture by Ricky Riccardi, Louis Armstrong archivist and author of the new biography What A Wonderful World. His expertise and enthusiasm were infectious and at times very moving as he played excerpts from Louis's personal tapes and showed rare TV clips from concerts and chat shows. A subsequent concert presented Armstrong big band classics alternating with All-Stars favourites by a specially assembled all-star small group featuring Enrico Tomasso (t, v), Ian Bateman (tb), Evan Christopher (cl) and Don Vappie (bj, v). The Wire/Treme actor, Clarke Peters, introduced each number with readings from Louis's autobiographies and interviews. Both shows were rapturously received by full houses.

The Dr John concert included a couple of songs from his recent Satch tribute album but for the most part he played his usual programme of New Orleans R & B, boogie and swamp blues to the delight of another packed hall. His rousing support band was greatly enhanced by the inclusion of Rhoda Scott (hammond organ) and Herlin Riley (d). Like Louis, Dr John is a wonderful entertainer and a distinguished ambassador for that singular city.

Two of the festival patrons, tenor saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and vocalist Lillian Boutté (pictured left), popped up all over the place. Pee Wee had his own concert of Ben Webster-ish ballads and James Brown funk with a featured guest appearance by Fun Lovin' Criminals singer/guitarist Huey Morgan. The Funk Assembly band had strong soloists in Tony Remy (g) and Jason Rebello (organ). Pee Wee also sat in the sax sections of the festival's big bands and guested with Dr John. Lillian did not have her own show this year but her cheerful presence was ubiquitous. She was featured on the Louis Armstrong concert and guested with other groups.

There were several other impressive female singers, notably the contrasting stylists Carleen Anderson and Alice Zawadski. Soul diva Carleen has had a big following over here and in her native USA for the past 20 years and on this form it seems sure to continue. She sang her powerful hits and some strong covers including a Dizzy-via- Chaka Khan Night In Tunisia. Her gospel roots were recalled on a couple of solos with just her own piano accompaniment. Singer/songwriter and violinist Alice Zawadski was even more eclectic on a programme of her originals, jazz numbers and Sephardic laments, each creating a distinct atmosphere of places and personal experiences.

Festival patron Andy Sheppard was outstanding in a number of contexts. His feature concert was built around material from his forthcoming ECM album by his new quartet - Andy (ss, ts), Eivind Aarset (g, elec), Michel Benita (b) and Michele Rabbia (d). Their playing was lyrical, subtle, rhythmically flexible and always absorbing. Andy also gave a masterclass, sat in as a section player with big bands and entertained the foyer crowd with his "fun" band, The Pushy Doctors, playing standards.

Bristol loves a spectacular show. On Friday night the Bruce Ilett Big Band played toe-tapping swing for hundreds of jive dancers who wore period garb as if for a hot night at the Savoy Ballroom c.1938. The Cartoon Jazz concert was a visual and musical delight. The Big Buzzard Boogie Band with guest soloists and a massed choir of 300 singers of all ages rocked the large hall with tuneful Disney and Raymond Scott songs from cartoon films. This is a very successful way of involving the local community.

Artistic director Denny Ilett obviously has a soft spot for gypsy jazz and there were two such groups this year. Tcha Limburger (pictured left), from a famous musical gypsy family, played guitar, violin and sang in a most engaging manner, skilfully supported by rhythm guitar and bass. He drew on the QHCF and songbook standards repertoires but also included a few unfamiliar Manouche ballads from way back in his family history. Already impressing with his virtuosity, he surprised by playing Bechet-style clarinet on his encore. Evan Christopher's Django À La Creole blended the traditions of gypsy-swing with classic New Orleans very effectively.

The seven-piece Slowly Rolling Camera, fronted by the striking soul singer Dionne Bennett (pictured below), delivered a synthesis of diverse contemporary influences with jazz sensibility in an exciting and entertaining way. With a new LP and a German tour in the offing, they seem set to make a big impact internationally.

The Bristol festival is already established as one of the UK's premier jazz events. This is due to the quality and variety of the musical presentations but also the efficient organisation and friendly atmosphere. It takes place on 18-20 March next year and this is the site to monitor for future information.

Photography by Tim Dickeson except Tcha Limberger by Brian Payne

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