Review: Scarborough Jazz Festival

The 13th Scarborough Jazz Festival proved to be top notch, with record ticket sales, a varied progamme and a high energy finale, according to Brian Payne

The 13th annual Scarborough Jazz Festival took place from 25 to 27 September 2015. For those who may not have been before, the home of this top-notch festival is Scarborough Spa, a Grade II listed building on the seafront in South Bay.

The whole complex is nearly half a mile in length and includes the Grand Hall, Spa Theatre, Ocean Room, Promenade Lounge and open air Sun Court. A funicular tramway - the cliff lift - links the complex with the South Cliff district 200 feet above.

Cafés, bars and a brasserie are on site and the festival has its own specially brewed real ale. The main concerts are in the Grand Hall, which has excellent acoustic properties and seating for up to 2000 people.

Friday began at lunchtime with Jam Experiment. This fast-rising jazz quintet currently studying music in London set the festival off to a great start. The Weave from Liverpool followed. The twin-trumpet front line of Martin Smith and Anthony Peers led a novel set of melodic originals, hard bop and quirky Zappa-type numbers. Look out for Smith pogoing on stage next time.

The Phil Meadows Group played most of their set without their main man, saxophonist Phil Meadows, as he and bassist Flo Moore were stuck in traffic. But from adversity comes greatness and Laura Jurd on trumpet, Elliot Galvin on piano and Simon Roth on drums gave such a moving interim performance that the audience was clearly reluctant for the trio to finish.

Flo Moore featured again in Ben Cox’s band. Cox was confident on vocals and sounded good for the first number. However, subsequent deliveries were too similar in pitch and tone for my liking. Later in the evening Meadows returned with his ground-breaking 26-piece Engines Orchestra - an array of strings, brass and woodwind. The soaring soloing of harpist Olivia Jageurs (pictured above right) was mesmeric: somewhat incongruously, she's also played with Deep Purple. With Alice Zawadzki adding climactic vocals to the mix this was an absorbing performance.

Friday night ended on a blistering note with Jean Toussaint’s Roots and Herbs Art Blakey Project. The enthusiasm of the players was infectious with Toussaint on tenor sax, Byron Wallen on trumpet, Dennis Rollins on trombone, Jason Rebello on piano, Daniel Casimir on double bass and Shaney Forbes on drums. Along Came Benny, Moanin', That Old Feeling and Blues March were loudly cheered by the late-night audience.

Saturday began with the Zoe Gilby Quartet. What a varied and engaging performance this was. From Tom Waits’ Way Down In The Hole to jazz standards such as That Old Black Magic, Andy Champion’s intricate bass playing on Phil Lynott’s Dublin, Gilby’s personal accounts of a Newcastle childhood, her Julie Driscoll like voice on My Tears Keep Me Warm and crystal-clear diction on Midnight Bell, the flawless drumming of Richard Brown, the splendid rock-tinged guitar solos of Mark Williams and the dramatic finale of Red City - this band was at its eclectic best. Unfortunately I missed Gareth Lockrane’s set and Pigfoot. (You have to find time to eat during these festivals.)

The headline act on Saturday had to be Jazz @ Café Society. Directed by Alex Webb, the show depicts the legendary New York night club of the 1930s and 40s. The Café Society Allstars comprised Webb on piano, Ciyo Brown on guitar and vocals, Denys Baptiste on tenor sax/clarinet, Alan Barnes on alto, Sue Richardson on trumpet, Winston Rollins on trombone, Miles Danso on bass and Shaney Forbes on drums. But the star of the show was Vimala Rowe (pictured left). She absolutely captivated the audience with her powerful portrayals of Sarah Vaughan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Billie Holiday. Rowe’s compelling and heartfelt finale of Strange Fruit left hardly a dry eye in the house. The applause hit the roof.

Jazz @ Café Society was always going to be a hard act to follow yet the Tony Kofi/Alan Barnes Aggregation with John Turville on piano, Adam King on bass and Rod Youngs on drums managed to maintain the dynamism albeit on a different level. Ian Shaw with his trio and guest Guy Barker followed. According to the adage, never appear on stage with children or animals. To this list we should add Ian Shaw. His larger than life presence and comic asides to the gallery all but overshadowed Barker's sensitive trumpet playing. To his great credit Guy weathered the storm admirably.

Sunday afternoon was seen in by Dave Newton and Alan Barnes. Their varied set included Art Pepper’s Chilli Pepper, Jobim’s Favela, Billy Strayhorn's Blood Count and Barney Bigard’s Charlie The Chulo. For the Basie number, Jive At Five, Barnes played tenor for the first time since the 90s. We were also informed that one of Barnes’s self-penned tunes - Wendi - was written for a friend’s wife. Alan said he thought it was a fair swap.

Michael Janisch’s Paradigm Shift caused some head scratching for an audience unsure of what they were listening to. For instance, here was saxophonist Paul Booth (pictured right) playing the didgeridoo. The band’s delivery was a busy mix of electronic sound effects, improvisational alchemy, polyrhythms, heavy bass lines, rock, funk and fast changing melodic snippets. Colin Stranahan was a powerhouse of precision on drums throughout. Some audience members I spoke to afterwards thought the set was superb. Others were confused but were working on it.

Pianist Barry Green’s New York Trio with Chris Cheek on sax and Gerald Cleaver on drums delivered a set of sparkling compositions such as Cheer Up Charlie together with inventive re-interpretations of standards. Green’s haunting solo in tribute to John Taylor was well received by an appreciative audience.

The Darius Brubeck Quartet came on in the evening. They opened with Blue Rondo A La Turk and continued with a mix of Dave Brubeck numbers and catchy originals including Ghost Of A Chance and Cathy’s Summer. Brubeck has an easy conversational rapport with the audience and it was interesting to hear, for instance, that Paul Desmond originally played for free with his father because there was no money to pay him. The chemistry of this quartet has to be seen live to be appreciated. With Dave O’Higgins on sax, Matt Ridley on double bass, Wesley Gibben on drums and of course Brubeck on piano this band never fails to delight. They closed with a majestic delivery of Take Five to rousing applause from the Grand Hall’s capacity audience.

Beats & Pieces provided the festival’s grand finale. This high-energy big band, directed by Ben Cottrell, has been compared favourably to Loose Tubes and is crammed full of gifted musicians. It played two sets. Prior to the interval it seemed that every number swelled to a tumultuous crescendo. Perhaps a single climax would have been ample. The second half was infinitely more varied and allowed individual soloists to shine. Anton Hunter on guitar was exemplary, to name but one. The sheer exuberance of the band’s delivery left people in high spirits. At midnight, the cliff lift that transported us safely up to the real world was buzzing.

Scarborough ranks in the top echelons of British jazz festivals and Mike Gordon and his team are to be congratulated for making this happen. The 2015 festival broke the record for weekend ticket sales.

Early bird tickets for the 2016 Scarborough Jazz Festival, taking place from 23-25 September, are available now on the website.

Photos by Brian Payne

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