Review: Swansea Jazz Festival 2017

The Swansea International Jazz Festival basks in the Welsh sunshine and entrances Brian Payne, writer and photographer, with sets from Liane Carroll, Joe Stilgoe and many more

It was the hottest weekend in Swansea for years. And not just musically. What is now the biggest jazz festival in Wales basked in sunshine from 15 to 18 June. Venues across the maritime quarter hosted more than 50 jazz and blues gigs including jazz workshops, late jam sessions and the riverboat jazz cruise. Main ticketed concerts were held at the waterfront’s Dylan Thomas Theatre and in the Dylan Thomas Centre nearby.

The festival opened with a blast on Thursday night with the award winning Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra. Indeed, big bands were threaded throughout the festival with performances from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama Big Band, Bridgend Big Band, Swansea’s Constellation Big Band, the Jazz Outlaws Big Band and Norway’s Statoil Big Band. Friday opened at the Dylan Thomas Theatre with the Stan Tracey Legacy Octet celebrating what would have been Stan’s 90th birthday. Star pianist Steve Melling handled Stan’s work on piano. Chris Maddock, Simon Allen and Dave O’Higgins were on saxes, Mark Armstrong trumpet, Mark Nightingale trombone, Andrew Cleyndert bass and Clark Tracey on drums. Propelled with authority by Cleyndert and Tracey the octet played arrangements from Stan’s various suites and compositions including the Bracknell Connection, Salisbury Suite, Spectrum Suite and Portraits Plus. Timespring displayed intricate tenor sax dueting from Allen and O’Higgins and razor-sharp trombone work from Nightingale. Mainframe delivered pyrotechnic performances from Armstrong on trumpet (pictured right) and Allen on tenor. Maddock supplied a nicely understated contrast on alto. All in all this was a blistering set that had the audience shouting for more.

Pianist and singer Joe Stilgoe and his Songs On Film followed over at the Dylan Thomas Centre. Ably accompanied by Chris Hill on double bass and Ben Reynolds on drums, Stilgoe wittily presented jazz arrangements of tunes from the silver screen. These ranged from cartoons like Jungle Book to dark films such as Pulp Fiction. It was a unique and absorbing performance.

Saturday’s programme began with the Oikos Trio - Graham Harvey on piano, Laurence Cottle on bass (pictured left) and Ian Thomas on drums. Each number was associated with a name - the repertoire included Emily, Charlie Parker’s Cheryl and a clever arrangement of McCartney’s Michelle. The Tony O’Malley Band followed later with Richie Aikman on guitar, Sonny Winslow on bass and Ally McDougall on drums. O’Malley with gravel vocals was on keyboard. He founded the soul band Kokomo in the 70s and was a member of 10cc. His forte is soul and funk of which he is an undoubted maestro but for my part I can only listen to this sort of music in small doses. His fans loved it though. Later, the blues, bop and boogaloo band Fraser & the Alibis played a toe-tapping set with Fraser Smith in Dexter Gordon mode on tenor sax. This was a great performance with the added bonus of Alan Barnes joining in midway as surprise guest. He turned up again in the Queens Hotel (the best pub in Swansea) next day in the afternoon playing a fringe gig with Bruce Adams and the Dave Cottle Trio.

The Skelton / Skinner Septet on Saturday evening was highly polished as expected. This all-star band co-led by Matt Skelton on drums and Colin Skinner on alto sax had Russell Bennett on trumpet, Alan Barnes (that man again) on tenor and baritone, Rob Barron piano, Gordon Campbell trombone and Jeremy Brown on bass. They played a mix of standards and rearrangements including Frank Foster’s Shiny Stockings, Billy Strayhorn’s After All, Jumping At The Woodside, It’s Only A Paper Moon and There Is No Greater Love which featured a memorable trombone solo from Gordon Campbell.

Ruby Turner and her band provided the headline act on Saturday night. In earlier days she worked with Alexis Korner, Culture Club and UB40 and now tours regularly with Jools Holland and his Orchestra. Turner’s a powerful singer and she belted out a vigorous mix of soul, blues, R&B, gospel and Jamaican calypso to an ecstatic sell-out audience. Signature numbers included It’s Gonna Be Alright, If You’re Ready and Etta James’s I’d Rather Go Blind. Turner (pictured right) projects such a dynamic and commanding presence on stage that she’s been described as a force of nature. Her larger than life performance in Swansea amply justified that observation.

Sunday was seen in by the Power of Gower Festival Big Band which combined local talent with visiting musicians. Dave Cottle on piano was musical director. Featuring Bruce Adams, Gordon Campbell, Alan Barnes, Colin Skinner, Tom Walsh, Alun Vaughan and Laurence Cottle the band played a variety of arrangements by Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and Gordon Goodwin amongst others. At full blow this 16-strong band packed a punch. Amy Walton, the singer on some of their numbers, needed her clear, resonant voice in order to rise above the assembled power behind her.

The Remi Harris Trio that followed was gypsy jazz at its best combining forays into rock, swing and blues. Harris on lead guitar with superb support from Caley Groves on rhythm guitar and Mike Green on double bass provided a startling display of musicianship across a surprising variety of styles. Alongside Django Reinhardt numbers were unique arrangements of Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, Freddie Green, Lennon & McCartney and Fleetwood Mac songs. If you’ve not witnessed this trio before, put them on your list.

Liane Carroll was on next. She has the ability to capture the attention of an audience with her relaxed humour and conversational manner. She’s a seriously good singer and pianist who doesn’t take herself seriously at all. This endears her to all present. Expertly backed by Roger Carey on bass and Russell Field on drums her set included Love For Sale, All Of Me, Summertime, Secret Love and Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark. She entranced the audience with her solo of Here’s To Life and at the close of the concert had everyone singing along to You’ve Got A Friend. As always with Liane Carroll this was a consummate performance.

Another accomplished pianist, Chris Ingham, followed with a set in celebration of yet another accomplished pianist - Dudley Moore. Ingham’s quartet had Paul Higgs on trumpet, Geoff Gascoyne on double bass and George Double on drums. Ingham (pictured left) informed us that Dudley Moore, whilst renowned as a comedian and actor, has been almost erased from history as a jazz composer and pianist. For instance, Moore’s albums on Decca including one of the best selling records of the 60s - The Other Side of Dudley Moore - have never been reissued on CD. Ingham’s current UK tour together with his associated CD is his attempt to rectify the balance. Numbers played from Moore’s albums on the night included My Blue Heaven, Cornfield and Poova Nova from Bedazzled. This was a great concert - the trumpet playing of Paul Higgs was particularly remarkable.

The last act on Sunday night was All Fired Up! This comprised musicians from BBC’s Strictly band who have formed to play the music of the 1970s American band Earth, Wind & Fire. They closed the festival in fine style to yet another sell-out audience.

As always, Swansea was a hugely enjoyable festival. Be sure to keep June 2018 in mind for next year’s.

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