Review: Llandudno Jazz Festival

Brian Payne is entranced by the first Llandudno Jazz Festival, seeing the start of something big despite the damp weather. Brian Robinson seconds the idea 100%

Llandudno’s first jazz festival took place 24-26 July in Bodafon Fields overlooking the Irish Sea. The summer weather had taken an unexpectedly damp turn and this affected footfall. Even so, spirits remained high and the bands played on. The main gigs were in the festival’s marquee. A separate outdoor stage hosted jam sessions backed by saxophonist Ed Kainyek and his house band. These were interspersed with scheduled sets by a string of jazz singers including Esther Ambros, Doreen Edwards, Orli Nyles, Kirsty Almeida and Terry Shaltiel. Various fringe events were also held at venues across town.

The Jim Mullen Trio opened the festival with a diverse set of originals and re-arrangements of standards by the Glaswegian guitarist with Mike Gorman on keys and Luke Flowers on drums. Next up was Peter King’s quartet (King pictured right). Following King’s soloing of Strayhorn’s Lush Life, Gorman featured with his own arrangement of Loesser’s If I Were a Bell. His majestic piano interlude in King’s tribute to John Coltrane – World Of Trane - was particularly well received. As ever Geoff Gascoyne was commanding on double bass throughout and Mark Fletcher was on fire on drums.

Darius Brubeck is normally seen in smart suits on stage which seems to befit the lineage so he looked somewhat unusual in casual attire and a baseball cap. However, his set was anything but casual. It was professional to a tee. With apologies to the waiting audience Brubeck required several adjustments from the sound technician before he was happy to commence but once he was satisfied the band was off like a rocket. With Dave O’Higgins on sax sounding uncannily like Paul Desmond, the excellent Matt Ridley on double bass and Wesley Gibbens driving the drums, they took the audience on a flawless ride through a catalogue of original compositions and Dave Brubeck back numbers.

Over at the jam stage Kirsty Almeida also looked different. Known to some as the “Lady Gaga of Jazz” she’s usually seen eccentrically dressed in Victoriana on quirky stage sets with chirping toy birds and the like. Today she appeared quite normal - maybe it was the sea air. Even so her mix of guitar-led Latin, jazz and blues was as distinctive as ever.

The Jazz Worriers’ line up comprised Dean Masser on tenor sax, Neil Yates trumpet, Alan Barnes alto, Brian Archer trombone, John Donaldson piano, Tom Hill bass and Mark Fletcher drums. What a band! Their hard bop delivery of the Messengers’ legacy was spectacular. Understandably, Moanin' was chosen as the climax to the set. It left people hummin’ long after they’d finished. As well as playing in this septet Alan Barnes featured strongly in several other permutations over the weekend. He co-led the Barnes/Adams Quintet, wrote the charts and ran the Festival Octet and played in the Big Band at the close. He also jammed in several sessions with other musicians on the outdoor stage.

Just as Art Blakey before him, Clark Tracey has become something of an incubator of young talent. His current outfit of Henry Armburg-Jennings on trumpet, Chris Maddock tenor sax, Harry Bolt piano, and Daniel Casimir on double bass is an absolute cracker. The set included superb renditions of Coltrane’s Moments Notice and Cedar Walton’s Bolivia with the latter generating startling solos from Jennings on trumpet and Harry Bolt on piano. Note to self - must get their CD.

Whilst each band at the festival seemed to have an exceptionally accomplished pianist, Mark Nightingale bucked the trend by having none at all. His “Piano-less Quartet” featured Robert Fowler on tenor sax, Arnie Somogyi bass, Steve Brown drums and of course Nightingale himself on trombone. It was excellent.

I normally associate Paul Sawtell, of the cavalier locks, (pictured left) with the vibraphone but at short notice he was asked to deputise for the pianist in Chris Gumbly’s Cannonball Adderley Tribute band. With Gumbly on alto, Neil Yates trumpet, Tom Hill bass and Carl Hemmingsley on drums their earthy repertoire included One For Daddy-O, Jive Samba, Jeannine and This Here. Sawtell turned out to be an excellent piano player. When Chris introduced him, he asked how long he had taken to grow his hair. We learnt from Paul that it only took 10 minutes! So not just an amazing pianist then.

Sawtell appeared later in his familiar vibes role with Shades of Shearing. This band also had deputising issues. Tony Ormesher was standing in for Andy Hulme on guitar and Tom Hill was deputising for Bill Colman on double bass. Also Trefor Owen had been stuck in traffic. He joined partway through but immediately took the helm with a most impressive guitar solo in Black Orpheus. The whole set was well received.

The Don Weller Quartet had John Donaldson on piano, Andrew Cleyndert on double bass and Dave Barry on drums. With little ado and minimal commentary Weller on tenor sax jumped straight in with The Night Has A Thousand Eyes. He continued in similar vein right through to the end of the performance. The non-stop pace may have wilted some of the audience but I think most were absorbed. Later on, Neil Yates’s Chetrio performed an impressive mix of Chet Baker standards and re-interpretations by Yates. He took the role of Chet Baker and was expertly backed by pianist John Donaldson, Percy Pursglove on double bass and vocalist Esther Ambros. Unfortunately I missed Art Themen’s Festival Five and Denys Baptiste’s Late Trane Quartet.

The array of female singers at the festival culminated in the penultimate set being that from Anita Wardell (pictured right). With Robin Aspland on piano, Tom Farmer on bass and Steve Brown on drums Wardell performed her signature mix of scat, bebop and ballads to an appreciative audience. The finale belonged to the Festival Big Band which incorporated many of the artists who had played over the weekend. Too numerous to mention here but suffice to say the talent on display made for a tremendous finish.

This was a great first festival with performances from some of the best jazz musicians in the UK. Thanks must go to Neil Yates as artistic director and for shouldering much of the organisation. The poor weather may have blunted things a little but it didn’t affect the brilliance or enthusiasm of the artists. With the sun switched on next year this festival could be the start of something big. Watch the website:

Text and photos by Brian Payne

JJ writer BRIAN ROBINSON adds further glowing endorsement to the Llandudno festival:

This venue was the new home to the earlier highly regarded Appleby and in more recent years Titley festivals. Held in Bodafon Fields, an area of rising grassland at the eastern end of Llandudno's elegant promenade it was a great success. Some 50 or so top-ranking musicians played in formats from trio to the Sunday night's final big band session.

Organising an event like this is no easy task and Neil Yates and his team did a truly magnificent job. Picking out just a few of the sessions we heard, on the Friday altoist Peter King in forthright mode was followed by Darius Brubeck who gave a brief but interesting talk and then played with Dave O'Higgins taking the Paul Desmond role. Darius is a real chip off the old block. Later Clark Tracey propelled a quintet with Henry Armburg Jennings on trumpet. Alan Barnes and Bruce Adams brought the evening to a close in their inimitable style, great playing and their usual touches of humour.

Saturday's offerings included Chris Gumbley's tribute to Cannonball Adderley, the quintet offering a very impressive performance from Paul Sawtell on piano who then went on to play vibes with Trefor Owen in a Shades of Shearing programme. Further segments included an Art Themen quintet with Dick Pearce on trumpet and a Don Weller quartet with John Donaldson on piano. All very well received as were the two eight piece line-ups in the evening - Ernie Wilkin's Top Brass Revisited with five trumpets and the Festival Octet which included Adams, Weller, Barnes, Dave Newton and Clark Tracey.

A jam stage was situated in the main food outlet area and here aspiring vocalists could be heard in front of a trio. Food and drink stalls were plentiful; the Thai food offering was very good. There were various fringe events around the town but I didn't get to any of them.

Sunday produced yet more great music; David Newton's trio played music from the movies, Trumpeter Neil Yates paid homage to his hero Chet Baker. Denys Baptiste's quartet including Nikki Yeoh on piano performed some of John Coltrane's lesser known pieces but Naima was included much to everyone's delight.

The evening sessions included a pianoless quartet led by Mark Nightingale with the ever smiling Steve Brown on drums who was present on many of the sessions throughout the festival. Anita Wardell gave an engaging set with the perfect accompaniment provided by pianist Robin Aspland. At 10pm 16 of the stars of the proceedings came on to give a rousing 75-minute big band finale to what had been a thoroughly enjoyable and very well organised festival.

This should become an annual event and I expect plans for next year are already under way. Add a few extra days to explore the Snowdonia area and make sure you have a ride on the 115-year-old cable-operated tramway up the Great Orme and you've got a great holiday.

Your Comments:

Posted by Clifford, 12 August 2015, 11:26 (1 of 2)

Fully agree with everything you say here, an excellent festival

Posted by John Cook, 2 September 2015, 13:57 (2 of 2)

Re: Llandudno. Henry Armburg Jennings did not play at the festival. The excellent trumpet solos enjoyed by both your correspondents were by Mark Armstrong, NYJO' s MD.

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