Review: Swansea Jazz Festival

Brian Payne hails the ’hugely successful’ second Swansea International Jazz Festival, including the Cottles, John Critchinson, the Jive Aces and Radio Londra

The second Swansea International Jazz Festival took place in the city’s maritime quarter. The main concerts were hosted in the imposing Dylan Thomas Centre – formerly the city’s Old Guildhall - and in the National Waterfront Museum. The latter is a listed Victorian warehouse integrated with modern slate and glass architecture. Local pubs and other venues around the waterfront provided an array of jazz and blues fringe events all within walking distance of each other.

Friday’s sets in the Dylan Thomas Centre opened with pianist John Critchinson’s quartet performing numbers by Cedar Walton with Art Themen (pictured right) on sax, Dave Green on bass and Dave Barry on drums. The band was joined by former Shakatak vocalist Jacqui Hicks who cleverly reinterpreted varied compositions from the American Songbook. Laurence Cottle’s excellent quintet followed with originals by the bassist and his re-arrangements of Kern and Gershwin standards. Cottle’s pulsating bass lines and blistering performances from Nigel Hitchcock on alto sax, Steve Fishwick on trumpet, Gareth Williams on piano and Josh Morrison on drums had the audience gripped throughout. Fishwick’s accomplished arrangement of Buster Williams’s ballad Christina was notably well received.

The headline act on Friday night was The Jive Aces and their energetic mix of jazz, swing & jump jive. With their sunshine yellow suits and musical acrobatics the Aces may project a slapstick style to purists but make no mistake - these are seriously talented musicians. Ian Clarkson as Louis Prima (aka “the King of the Swing”) leads a band that plays with authority, style and precision. With an eye-popping performance as Keely Smith, Cassidy Janson (pictured left) captivated the audience with her quicksilver vocals and comic expressions. What a gem this singer is! The band is adept at developing audience participation and by the end of the night the joint really was jumping. For a flavour of their feel happy music see this Youtube video clip.
It’s become a viral hit. Whenever you’re gloomy it’s guaranteed to cheer you up.

Saturday at the Dylan Thomas Centre began with the Geoff Eales Quintet. Eales is a versatile pianist who has worked with Bernstein, Mancini and Shirley Bassey amongst others. His quintet with Ben Waghorn on saxophone, the Australian Carl Orr on guitar, Fred T Baker on bass and Malcolm Mortimore on drums propelled a stirring mix of funk and jazz rock to a packed and appreciative audience. Gareth Williams’s ‘Bill Evans’ Trio followed. With Williams on piano, Dave Green on double bass and Steve Brown on drums the trio performed the classic numbers that had been recorded by Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motion before LaFaro’s death aged 25 in a car crash in 1961. The contemplative nature of this fine music was constructively balanced later with that from Gary Potter’s lively gypsy swing quartet at the National Waterfront Museum. Potter was backed by the superb Felix Bellingham on guitar, the formidable Andy Crowdy on double bass and the excellent Nora Cullen on violin.

Virtually every member of Robert Fowler’s Gerry Mulligan Concert Big Band is a band leader in their own right. So as expected their delivery later in the afternoon was highly polished and well received. Fowler as Mulligan featured strongly on baritone. Radio Londra came on in the evening at the Dylan Thomas Centre. The band comprises Jim Mullen and Luca Boscagin on guitars, Ross Stanley on Hammond B3 organ and Enzo Zirilli (pictured right) on drums. Radio Londra is Zirilli’s brainchild. It’s a hard-swinging outfit and it delivered a scorching medley of soul, jazz and classic rock. Boscagin’s unusual jazz version of Jagger’s Satisfaction was top notch. Toby Stewart’s Monsters On A Leash finished the night with their energetic rendition of the soul and funk music of Tower of Power. Jaelee Small’s powerful voice and range was remarkable. It’s not my particular sort of music but the band has clearly attracted a sizeable following. Their many fans were dancing in the aisle.

Sunday morning was seen in by the Cottle Brothers Jazz Band with Dave Cottle on piano and trumpet and interestingly his brother Laurence on trombone. Andrew and Tom Cottle were on clarinet and drums respectively. The band was great. Its foot-tapping trad and New Orleans jazz provided a different oasis from that of the festival’s overall musical agenda. Midday saw the charismatic Lee Gibson with the Capital City Jazz Orchestra. She has been described in the media as a jazz vocal sensation. The audience reaction to her performance and that of the orchestra clearly endorsed that accolade. The Sunday afternoon gig at the Waterfront Museum was by The Busquitos. These are brilliant Dutch musicians who deliver a fast-changing variety of musical styles. At one point the band’s zany antics succeeded in persuading some of the audience into a bout of musical chairs. Dave Jones’s quartet back at the Dylan Thomas Centre set out to play a number of intricate compositions by the pianist. Unfortunately their bassist had fallen ill and a last minute replacement was needed. As it happened Alan Vaughan had just stepped foot into the building to prepare for Steve Waterman’s later set and he was asked to fill the breach. Whilst the original scores were undoubtedly a challenge Vaughan met the task admirably. It turned out to be a great session.

The Session from the USA came on later in the afternoon. They played original compositions in the hard-bop style. This forceful and compelling quintet is led by bassist Jasen Weaver and fronted by trumpeter Steven Lands. Andrew McGowan was on piano, James Partridge on baritone sax and Miles Labatt drums. Their two sets were nothing short of dynamic. Watch out for them when they return to the UK. In the evening Steve Waterman on trumpet and flugelhorn led his quartet through novel arrangements of mainstream classics including those from Miles Davis and Clark Terry. Waterman’s impressive and faultless soloing served to solidify his reputation as one of the country’s top trumpeters. The Hamish Stuart Octet provided the festival’s finale. Hamish Stuart was the singer in the Average White Band. For several years he toured with Paul McCartney and has recorded with Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and David Sanborn. This octet appears to be yet another band with a travelling fan club as the centre was packed to the gunnels with enthusiastic and cheering dancers late into the night.

This was a hugely successful festival and special thanks must go to Dave Cottle and his team for organising it. The atmosphere was magic. With this in mind I recall that Dylan Thomas once wrote that he read somewhere of a shepherd who when asked why he made ritual observances to the moon each night to protect his flock had replied: “I’d be a damn fool if I didn’t!” There’s no need of course to go to such extreme lengths to ensure your place at next year’s jazz jamboree. Just be sure to earmark your diary for Swansea June 2016. See you there.

Text and Photos by Brian Payne


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