Review: Fishguard Jazz and Blues Festival

Dave Jones enjoyed an eclectic programme of music and a range of intimate and quirky venues at the Aberjazz Fishguard Jazz and Blues Festival

The 12th Aberjazz Fishguard Jazz and Blues Festival was arguably one of their best to date, with another eclectic programme that struck a successful balance between returning familiar faces from previous years and acts new to the festival, the latter including what seemed like a few more high profile acts than usual.

The emphasis here will be on the jazz acts. It’s written from a participant’s perspective: there were a number of acts that I wasn’t able to see because I was involved with playing in several other bands and others that I can’t make much or any comment about because the acts or musicians in them are too well known to me personally.

Fishguard is blessed with a wide range of suitable venues for the festival, from the intimacy and great-sounding room and piano (and great food) of Peppers to the slightly larger, nicely quirky Ffwrn (a converted church institute building, with the mixing desk positioned within an upright piano whose action had been removed and placed on a windowsill, and "live" bread-making at the bar during the gigs), to the larger and slightly more formal Theatr Gwaun.

Thursday evening took flight with The Coltrane Dedication Quintet, followed later at Peppers by the standards of The Ray Butcher Trio (pictured above right) featuring Paul Sawtell on piano and drummer Miles Levin, who collectively, and stylishly, replaced the scheduled Freight.

Friday night’s gig at Theatr Gwaun by Emily Saunders' ESB got off to a late start because of what sounded like a long and harrowing car journey, but it didn’t take them long to get into their stride, even if some of the early solos sounded as if they were being played whilst still hareing down the motorway. However, this band is more about the compositions, arrangements and their delivery (driven by the electric bass of Paul Michael) than the jazz solos, although increasingly as the gig progressed there were notable solo contributions from the excellent Byron Wallen.

Saunders has a distinctive vocal style using points of sound in brass instrument fashion, rather than particularly breathy long tones, sounding rather like a scatting Beth Gibbons-tinged Latin-jazz singer, and the Portishead trip-hop influence could also be heard in some of the material. I particularly liked the interaction in the arrangements between Saunders and Wallen, with their quite exaggerated glissandi in the phrased interludes between solos, and with Saunders leading the band and audience all the while with her encouraging gestures.

Saturday lunchtime saw Sandra Grant providing her own brand of jazz karaoke at Ffwrn, with her competent and popular performance on alto and tenor sax, with vocals and occasional flute, played to recorded backing tracks of pop and jazz favourites. Whatever serious jazz enthusiasts might think of the idea of jazz karaoke, the end result was a room full of people of wide age range enjoying the music whilst eating, drinking and dancing – effectively a family jazz event without the interaction between musicians on stage.

Later in the afternoon Tomos Williams’s Seven Steps tipped their hat to Miles Davis at Peppers, followed by the highest profile jazz group of the festival in the shape of Polar Bear (pictured above by Bruce Lindsay), with their hypnotic slow-burn atmospheric soundscapes, where increasingly the on-stage MacBook/laptop threatened to take over the performance, albeit under the expert human control of Leafcutter John, aided by the also human but extraordinary bandleader Seb Rochford on drums.

Canadian blues guitarist and songwriter Rusty McCarthy (ably aided by Irish visitors Steve Tierney and Kevin Lawlor) saw out the evening in style with one very long but enjoyable set at the Railwayman’s Club and early on Sunday evening yours truly led his quartet at Peppers through a warmly received selection of original compositions, followed by the intricate musical phrasing of Huw Warren’s Trio Brasil.

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