Review: Lindsay Hannon Plus at Lancaster

The varied repertoire, consummate band and smokey vocals of The Lindsay Hannon Plus impressed Sally Evans-Darby at Lancaster Jazz Festival

It’s always a treat to visit a city for the first time and find a jazz scene that’s alive and well, and in this case, clearly on an upsurge. While in Lancashire recently, I discovered just that. The city of Lancaster, lying between Morecambe Bay’s seaside nostalgia and Cumbria’s imposing mountain tops, its skyline dominated by the blackened stone of a medieval castle and the Edwardian Baroque Ashton Memorial, is home to a burgeoning jazz festival now in its fifth year. Created by Matt Robinson and Dave Shooter with the aim of developing "a truly artist-led festival", the three-day Lancaster Jazz Festival takes place over a weekend every September across the city’s pubs, squares and theatres.

Unfortunately circumstances meant I wasn’t able to attend this year’s headline gig, 2010 MOBO award-winners Empirical featuring Julian Siegel on tenor saxophone (the only ticketed event - all other gigs were free), but I did spend a happy lunch hour at an afternoon set by vocalist Lindsay Hannon (pictured above right) and her "Plus": John Pope (bass), James Harrison (piano) and Tom Chapman (drums). The venue, a bright, high-ceilinged, chandeliered restaurant in the 19th-century Royal Kings Arms hotel, was virgin territory for the festival, and its bright afternoon glow struck an interesting contrast with Hannon’s smokey, late-night vocals.

Hannon’s voice is soulful, brooding and unselfconscious in its longing, with many of the songs in her set exploring themes of wistfulness and introspection, such as Joni Mitchell’s Hissing Of Summer Lawns and one of Hannon’s own compositions, Heather Forever. Yet it wasn’t all melancholy; Hannon can also swing with the best of them, as she showed particularly on her closer to the first set, What A Little Moonlight Can Do. Starting off slow and deliberate, the band then jumped into a racing tempo, with Hannon’s vocal effortlessly riding the beat and coming in to land gracefully at the finish. This was met with uproarious applause from the audience, startling us awake from any post-lunch slumber we may have been succumbing to.

Another highlight of the gig was the quartet’s intriguing reading of Jim Morrison’s The Spy, a lesser-known Doors song that fits perfectly into the jazz idiom. Here it was delivered gritty and dark, creeping along at an unhurried pace. Nature Boy was also mesmerising; focusing on the percussive nature of the song, Chapman’s jungle drumbeat paired well with Hannon’s full-bodied, lyrical vocal. Harrison on piano was a rather captivating figure when the spotlight turned on him for a solo: animated and dynamic, his run of the keys was creative and highly musical.

The Plus repertoire also took in Tom Waits (Romeo Is Bleeding) and Dire Straits (Romeo And Juliet), as well as the 1934 standard Stompin’ At The Savoy which, though set off with a pleasingly gentle swing, lacked a little conviction compared with the rest of the set. There was also a muted, tender reading of What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life, a stripped-back duet between voice and piano.

The audience at the Royal Kings Arms may have been small, but those who did attend were rewarded with an intimate set of songs served up warmly by a committed and consummate band. Other events on throughout the weekend included a workshop by bassist and artist-in-residence Seth Bennett, gigs by the Blind Monk Trio and Thunkfish, and an after-hours jam session at one of Lancaster’s historic pubs. Lancaster Jazz Festival returns next autumn and the programme will no doubt be worth a look, and with Lindsay Hannon among only a smattering of female vocalists performing this year, hopefully more of that persuasion.

For updates about the Lancaster Jazz Festival go to the festival website.

More information about the Lindsay Hannon Plus can be found here.

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