Review: Gateshead Jazz Festival

Fred Grand has mixed feelings about the addition of strings to Laura Jurd's jazz-rock but finds they work perfectly with Daniel Herskedal's tuba-led trio

Regular readers will no doubt be aware of my admiration for Edition Records, an artist-led British label whose high production values and readily identifiable brand offers an enviable platform to some of the best emerging and established talents in contemporary European jazz. I was only too pleased then to discover that, with a little bit of help from the Royal Northern Sinfonia, two ensembles from the label’s ever-expanding talent roster were to provide the curtain raiser to the 2017 Gateshead International Jazz Festival.

Representing Edition’s occasional eclectic-electric strand was Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur. Their label debut - Together, As One - took something of a back-to-the-future approach. Blending post-Silent Way fusion with the grandiosity of prog and the vibrant grooves of funk and Afro-beat, they have hit on a pleasingly fresh and contemporary brew. In keyboard maverick Elliot Galvin and the adaptable bass/drums team of Conor Chaplin and Corrie Dick, Jurd has drawn together some of the cream of emerging British talent. The decision of the festival’s programmers to pair the group with selected players from the Royal Northern Sinfonia seemed driven by more than a little hubris. With a tight-knit sound world that is already complete in itself, what could the strings really add?

The results were predictably mixed, and perhaps not surprisingly the best moments of the set came when the quartet managed to break loose. Opening with the moody Awakening, whereas the album track occupied its space with assurance, this rendition required a certain amount of compromise and contrivance. The upbeat Robin, replete with an archly twee strings intro, was even less convincing. The band really asserted their identity on the unaccompanied Living, Breathing however, and the interactions between the quartet bordered on ecstatic as Galvin’s electrical storms crackled around the room. Happy Sad Song from the 2012 album Landing Ground was actually written with the strings of the Ligeti Quartet in mind and as a result the performance felt noticeably less impromptu. Closing with Extinct, one of the standout tracks from the new album, there were once again signs that the strings were working sympathetically with the music. By and large it had been marriage that didn’t really fulfil its potential, but given the limited rehearsal time Jurd managed to make a decent fist of a somewhat questionable brief.

The second set brought the welcome return of Norwegian composer and tubaist Daniel Herskedal (pictured above right), who has previously appeared at the festival both in a memorable duo with Marius Neset and as part of the Norbotten Big Band with Joakim Milder and Django Bates. Far more than just an extraordinary instrumentalist, Herskedal is an accomplished composer with a distinctive style and vivid palette. His quasi-orchestral albums Slow Eastbound Train and The Roc are two of my favourite Edition releases and their very widescreen vistas almost demand full orchestration. It was entirely right then that his regular trio of Eyolf Dale (piano) and Gard Nilssen (drums) should be joined by strings and a woodwind section. Opening with the haunting Eternal Sunshine Creates A Desert, Herskedal’s sombre bass trumpet struck just the right balance between despairing melancholia and hope. Dale’s fleeting solo on Kurd Bayat Nahawand To Kurd was simply mesmerising and after the ensemble’s faithful rendition of Slow Eastbound Boat his solo introduction to sister piece Slow Eastbound Train had the rare intensity of early Jarrett. Dale is a significant bandleader, composer and soloist in his own right and my first live exposure to his work didn’t disappoint. Much the same could be said for Nilssen, whose limber brushwork always challenged but was never less than apposite. Closing with All That Has Happened Happened As Fate Willed, Herskedal’s expressive tuba multiphonics introduced a reflective piece which exuded a steadily rising and slightly unsettling tension. As the final note hung in the air like an unresolved question, I was left in little doubt that Herskedal’s music and festival collaboration had been a triumph.

Thinking back to my days as an enthusiastic amateur promoter, I vividly recall one particular gig in a small, smoky upstairs room at a celebrated Newcastle pub. The room was full to capacity, the audience uncharacteristically young and the atmosphere closer to an underground rock venue than a jazz club. It was drum ’n’ bass pioneer Squarepusher (aka Tom Jenkinson) that they’d all come to see, but quite what they made of his power trio with northern free-jazz stalwarts Mick Beck and Paul Hession I’ve no idea. A gratuitous anecdote perhaps, but the story nevertheless leads nicely into day two of the 2017 Gateshead International Jazz Festival, which marked Jenkinson’s return to Tyneside as the principal attraction in an evening of new music with post-jazz leanings.

First to take the stage was Manchester trio GoGo Penguin (pictured left), who recently signed a multi-album deal with Blue Note Records. They're young enough to have been influenced by Squarepusher, their acoustic-electronica isn’t universally popular with the jazz cognoscenti. Drawing on influences including the ambient music of Brian Eno, the exoticism of John Cage’s prepared piano pieces, the heavy grooves of Massive Attack and the sophisticated electronica of Aphex Twin, they’re a conventional jazz trio in appearance only. To judge their music against illustrious Blue Note forebears is to spectacularly miss the point, and I see them as a bit of a bellwether of the extent to which the label has changed. When I heard them here a couple of years ago I liked the way they recombined their influences, but I found their airplay-conscious Blue Note debut a little disappointing. This was an opportunity for some reappraisal, and while the music scaled-up to the big stage rather well very little had really changed. It was clear that older material such as Kamaloka and One Percent offered more thematic development and a greater sense of light and shade than the newer pieces, and while their music is easy on the ears and very accomplished within its own narrow terms, I can't help feeling that they’ll need to develop some new tricks to extend their shelf life.

Judging by the hundreds who’d packed the main hall, Jenkinson’s sideline as a jazz-fusion bassist is clearly no longer such a well-kept secret. Appearing with his band Shobaleader One to promote their new album Elektrac (Warp), the project is intriguing on a number of different levels. Renewing Jenkinson’s interest in live performance, they revisit a selection of tracks from the Squarepusher back catalogue and bring Jenkinson’s studio creations to life in real time. One of the most liberating aspects of the sequencing technology he harnessed so effectively in the 90s was that no complex lick or quicksilver breakbeat was off-limits, but recreating such devilishly complex music live must surely be a challenge too far. Yet the mysterious hooded figures of Strobe Nazard (keyboards), Arg Nution (guitar) and Company Laser (drums) made light work of the task. Their Druid-cum-Jedi garb brought a genuine sense of theatre, and while I quite like the sense of mystery, speculation is rife that the trio may in fact be Kit Downes’s Troyka (Chris Montague’s sunburst Strat was certainly in plain view). Material from landmark albums Feed Me Weird Things, Hard Normal Daddy and Music Is Rotted One Note sped past like scenes from an arcade game, and the absurd quadruple time of pieces like Anstromm Feck 4 can only be described as technically jaw-dropping exercises in shock and awe. Yet the underlying human qualities of the music were abundantly apparent, and Jenkinson’s longstanding love of fusion writ large. Despite a higher than average number of audience walk-outs, I left the hall feeling invigorated if a little cowed.

Rounding off the evening’s trip into post-jazz hinterlands was a late set by the Neil Cowley Trio. He's closer to the classic jazz piano trio tradition than GoGo Penguin but further from the improvisational maelstrom of Shobaleader One, and I continue to hold a soft-spot for his strong compositions and playful humour. The trio opened with a full rendition of the recent Arthur C Clarke inspired album Spacebound Apes, including back-projected visuals by acclaimed director Sergio Sandoval. Grace is one of Cowley’s very best ballads, and although the album is a more tempered work than the trio’s typical repertoire The City And The Stars and The Sharks Of Competition nicely disrupted the flow with some trademark foot-stomping. It was then a race to squeeze in as many “hits” as possible before the midnight witching hour. Slims, Rooster Was A Witness and She Eats Spiders were among the standouts and each piece felt more relaxed and “lived in” than in previous years. A sign perhaps that Cowley is getting some distance on what has been a particularly creative period and I’m looking forward to hearing what he does next. All in all the evening had showcased three very different facets of the post-jazz landscape, and though purists may baulk it offered plentiful evidence that inter-genre dialogues continue to be both necessary and musically enriching.

Photos by John Watson

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