Review: Norfolk and Norwich Festival

Despite her broken leg Dee Dee Bridgewater's soul-filled show is Bruce Lindsay's musical highlight of the 2017 Norfolk and Norwich Festival

The Family Jazz All Stars kicked off the jazz element of the 2017 Norfolk & Norwich Festival, with shows on the morning and afternoon of the opening Saturday at the Playhouse (I attended the afternoon show).

Leader and vocalist Juliet Kelly (pictured right by Annabelle Narey) proved to have a talent for engaging fans of all ages, as well as having a lovely voice well-suited to her chosen repertoire. It was heartening to see an audience ranging in age from 3-80. The set list mixed standards (It Don’t Mean A Thing, One Note Samba, When You Wish Upon A Star) with a couple of songs from Kelly’s recent album, Spellbound Stories.

Kelly educated the audience about the music and some of her inspirations. Not that the audience were all complete beginners: when Kelly asked for names to fit into her rendition of My Baby Just Cares For Me one small fan, probably no more than five years of age, yelled loudly “Leonard Cohen”.

The band was composed of some of the best jazz players in the UK: Kate Williams on keyboard, Oli Hayhurst on bass, Cosimo Keita on drums. Out front with Kelly was alto saxophonist Tony Kofi, whose enthusiastic display of hand dancing is also worthy of note. Don’t Worry, Be Happy had the audience participating happily. A very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and a great show to introduce jazz to a younger crowd.

The following night New York based a cappella septet Naturally 7 played to a full house in the venerable St Andrew’s Hall. The group, as the opening announcement made clear, make all of the sounds with their voices (and some looping) - and an impressive array of sounds it is. It’s all in the service of the songs though.

As with the Family Jazz All Stars, Naturally 7 mix well-known songs with their own numbers, with an emphasis on pop and rock hits. In The Air Tonight, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and An Englishman In New York all got the a cappella treatment. Only one number came close to being a jazz standard, a reworking of Puttin’ On The Ritz with new lyrics about credit cards.

At one point it seemed like there was a problem with sound: after a brief moment the band launched into an unamplified Simon and Garfunkel medley consisting of Sound Of Silence, Scarborough Fair and the lovely but under-rated April Come She Will, which served to prove that their voices and harmonies are strong even without electrical assistance.

Naturally 7 thrive on audience interaction. It can get a bit schmaltzy (one extended routine involved finding the longest-married couple in the hall, another resulted in the audience crying out a Mother’s Day greeting - Mother’s Day in the USA that is - as one of the band filmed us and tweeted it) but it’s good-natured and the audience were certainly up for it, giving the band an extended standing ovation at the end of the evening.

A couple of days later it was the turn of the Brad Mehldau Trio - Mehldau (pictured left) on piano, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard - to play at St Andrew’s Hall. Press tickets were in short supply for the gig, which suggested a full house was expected, but on the night there were plenty of seats still available.

Last time I saw the trio Mehldau made no attempt to interact with the audience and seemed somewhat disinterested throughout. This time he was in a much chattier mood, even making a couple of jokey asides and telling the anecdote about Van Halen and their demand for specific M&Ms. He’s still as intense and focused when he plays however.

The hall’s acoustics aren’t always kind to musicians and Larry Grenadier’s bass, especially in its lowest register, was not always easy to hear from my position. A pity, as he played some intriguing lines and his solo on the encore tune was a highlight.

The trio played some new numbers that were yet to receive their definitive titles - one such was a tune which Mehldau announced as Green M&Ms, before launching into the Van Halen tale. Mehldau dedicated the soft, considered, opener, Gentle John, to guitarist John Scofield. Lennon and McCartney’s And I Love Her (from 2016’s Blues And Ballads) was beautifully played, all three musicians in sympathy with the romance of the lyric.

As is often the case with extended festivals it wasn’t possible to get to every jazz performance - Get The Blessing, Ezra Collective, Kansas Smitty’s House Band and LaSharVu all played in the Spiegeltent but sadly I couldn’t make their shows. Thankfully I did make it to Dee Dee Bridgewater’s concert at the Theatre Royal. It was not only a highlight of this year’s festival, but one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve attended for some time - it just wasn’t jazz.

There was some jazz on show. Keyboardist Bill Laurance, last in Norwich as a member of Snarky Puppy, played a pleasant 30-minute opening set that included interpretations of The Nearness Of You and House Of The Rising Sun. But as Bridgewater (pictured right by John Watson) explained at the beginning of her own performance, she’s gone back to her roots, “paying homage” to the greats of gospel and R&B.

One or two audience members appeared a little glum at this announcement, fearing the absence of jazz standards, but by the end of the evening as the crowd stood, clapped and boogied a bit, the glumness was gone. Every song in her set was taken from her forthcoming album, Memphis - and what a stunning set it was.

The instrumental sextet opened the show, with a tight and funky take on Booker T’s Burnt Biscuits. Bridgewater made her entrance as the band played, as glitzy as a star singer should be. She was in terrific voice throughout, with genuine stage presence and energy - even though she spent most of the show seated, due to a broken right leg that required a bulky below-knee splint.

Opening with I’m Going Down Slow, she followed up with Can’t Get Next To You and carried on with a string of 60s classics including B-A-B-Y and two songs associated in most minds with Elvis Presley - Don’t Be Cruel and Hound Dog. The band proved equal to the task of keeping pace with Bridgewater’s own performance. Backing vocalists the Norman sisters were superb, providing note-perfect support for the leader and taking their own share of the spotlight with verve. Bridgewater moved a little off-topic for her encore, Prince’s Purple Rain, but it was another excellent performance from everyone on stage.

This year’s festival was the final one under the charge of artistic director William Galinsky, who’s moving on to pastures new. Let’s hope the incoming director maintains Galinsky’s love of the unusual, odd and unique - and that the festival’s jazz element stays strong.

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