One of the reasons that I’ve been posting so many concert previews recently is simply that (being mostly homebound at the moment) I miss going to gigs. Looking at the lineup and scope of the 2015 Manchester Jazz Festival (which starts today and runs rampant for ten days through until 9th August) reminds me that not only do I regret not attending the wealth of music that takes place here in London, but that I miss more freewheeling days of music elsewhere. Discovering unexpected, treasurable bands at random while on holiday in Brugge, for instance; or immersing myself in a week of concerts and more in Edinburgh or Leeds (such as the one I reviewed here, over a decade ago.)
We know that, as a British pop and dance city, Manchester punches well above its weight. Despite a bubbling undercurrent of improvised music, its reputation as a jazz town is hazier…. or, more probably, I’m just ignorant. The Festival’s been going for twenty years, long enough to gain enough gravity to generate its own traditions. (One such is ‘Surroundings’, a longer-form ensemble piece by Salford composer Neil Yates. Commissioned for the festival in 2010, it seems to have become the event’s unofficial signature – this year, it’s being revisited as a quartet performance in the Central Library Reading Room.)
Even a quick sift through this year’s programme reveals a jazz party that any city would be proud of – diverse, inclusive, inviting and multi-levelled, an exciting noise ranging from the stately to the vividly scraggled and all the better for it. With many tickets going at only four pounds, (with a ten-pound all-events daily ticket and free-entry deals if you stump up as a low-level event sponsor), they could hardly have made it any more inviting to the casual walker-upper. Excuse me for a moment while I strip-mine press releases and YouTube, and check Soundcloud pages and Bandcamp links.
Starting with the higher-end, bigger name events… Acclaimed Blue Note pianist Robert Glasper slips away from his experimentations with latterday R’n’B to get back to basics with an acoustic trio; John Surman re-teams with the Trans4mation String Quartet to revive the thoughtful, tidally-deep music from his ‘Coruscating’ and ‘The Spaces in Between’ albums. Norma Winstone, Klaus Gesing and Glauco Venier bring along their trans-European project Distances. Partisans bring their transatlantic swing storm; Christine Tobin her ‘Thousand Kisses Deep’ jazzification of Leonard Cohen songs. French Jazz Musician of the Year Airelle Besson makes an appearance with her Quartet for a set of “gently experimental songs animated by heartfelt lyrics, plaintive melodies and rolling harmonies.” backed with pinballing rhythms and punchy countersyncopations.
There are heavyweight two-headed summit performances by acclaimed British jazz talents – one by frequent quartet buddies Mike Walker and Gwilym Simcock, another by the more recent pairing of Tori Freestone and Alcyona Mick. Two further British scene fast risers – Stuart McCallum and Alice Zawadzki – bring string-enhanced performances of ongoing projects (the former offering contemporary soul jazz and bass-heavy electronica with surprise guest singers, the latter a fantastical Mancunian song cycle influenced by various shades of love and fairytale).
There are also several of those gentler, more literate projects which seem to blossom best in a festival atmosphere away from a hot core of gutsy brass. Andrew Woodhead and Holly Thomas’ Snapdragon trio specialize in chilled, ethereal song-settings of literature and poetry (Larkin and Bukowski-inspired) and bursts of vocalese. Mark Pringle‘s A Moveable Feast mates orchestral strings with a bold horn and rhythm section to explore “themes of wildlife, literature and city chaos.” The “fractured Anglicana” of Hugh Nankivell’s multi-instrumental/four-part vocal quartet Natural Causes means that they perform “curious compositions with improbable but poignant texts” including “psychedelic lullabies, pinprick-precise ballads, unpredictable group improvisation and brotherly harmony across the board”, and music which draws on classic and contemporary art pop (Robert Wyatt, XTC and Björk) as much as it does on jazz sources.
Elsewhere, much of the polyglot diversity of jazz today is celebrated. The Cuban tradition is represented by the Pepe Rivero Trio and Orquesta Timbala; the Congolese by Eddy Tshepe Tshepela‘s Afrika Jazz. Central and South American ideas are brought along by Agua Pasa (who, with Dudley Nesbit’s steel pan project Pan Jumby, also touch on the Caribbean). The Quarry Hillbillies (a teaming of Ulrich Elbracht, Ed Jones, Jamil Sheriff) from European contemporary jazz, while the frenetic whirl of Eastern European folk elements are covered by Makanitza. The Gorka Benítez Trio move between Basque-flavoured small group jazz and compelling free-form impressionism. David Austin Grey’s Hansu-Tori ensemble is inspired by natural, elemental and cinematic” ideas, as well as a fascination with Eastern world culture. Percussionist Felix Higginbottom’s Hans Prya provides genre-hopping jazz-dance and Jim Molyneux’s Glowrogues favour funk and hip-hop flavoured pieces. Trumpeter Lily Carassik‘s fusion group Yesa Sikyi take ideas from the ’50s and blend them with popular standards and soul arrangements; while The Stretch Trio include glossier elements from ’70s jazz rock, progressive rock and ’80s pop along with sinuous gusts of wind synth.
Those who prefer classic jazz – more traditional by-the-book American styles – might prefer Russell Henderson and Jamie Taylor’s Ellington-and-Strayhorn tribute ‘The Intimacy Of The Blues’, or the Dan Whieldon Trio‘s salute to Gershwin. The Dave Kane Quartet take inspiration from the knottier ambitions of Charles Mingus, John Zorn and Eric Dolphy. Two groups of students from the Royal Northern College of Music provide live celebrations of the history which they’ve been learning – the James Girling Quintet spans jazz, blues and funk from New Orleans roots through to the 1960s, while the Nick Conn Octet (a self-described “trombone choir”) interweaves re-arranged jazz classics with original material.
Fans of New Orleans jazz can check out genuine New Orleaners The Session (who offer a past-present take on their hometown’s music), or look out for the street sounds of the New York Brass Band (actually from old York, the cheeky buggers) or see how the Riot Jazz Brass Band dust up old New Orleans sounds with dancefloor, dubstep and drum-and-bass incursions. Hot jazz/Gypsy/jazz manouche aficionados can go for the loving recreations of 52 Skidoo (who promise you prohibition speakeasies, rent parties and Tin Pan Alley) or for Gypsies Of Bohemia, who manouche-ify latterday pop songs such as Heart Of Glass, Toxic and Hot In Herre. (Being Mancunian, they also do This Charming Man – I’ll bet that that high-life opening riff translates pretty well).
Of course, much of the fun of a jazz festival involves catching a lesser-known, or even unknown, band carving away at the edge, furiously discovering – and there are plenty of those here. Since they drew me into covering the festival in the first place, I’m going to put a particular word in for Jon Thorne’s Sunshine Brothers (playing at Matt & Phreds on 4th August) in which the double bass/laptop-wielding Jon teams up with drummer Rob Turner (of Blue Note-signed breakbeat jazz electronicists GoGo Penguin) and looping poly-genre bass guitarist Steve Lawson (a ‘Misfit City’ regular) for “a cutting-edge trio of genre-defying musicians mixing jazz, improvisation, electronic and filmic soundscapes to euphoric effect, evoking sounds far removed from their bass origins.”
However, you could just as easily catch a full performance by GoGo Penguin themselves; or by Lauren Kinsella’s Blue-Eyed Hawk, who offer “art-rock, jazz and electronic soundworlds: imaginative and emotive, from pindrop to powerhouse.” The Madwort Saxophone Quartet play intricate four-part math-jazz. “Power-jazz commando team” Taupe (a triple-city trio from Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh) punch around themes from jazz, hip hop and heavy metal. Craig Scott’s Lobotomy seem determined to take the cake for upfront experimental exhilaration this time around, delivering shout-outs to John Cage, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, proclaiming a performance in which “experimental jazz rubs shoulders with electronica and DIY alternative rock in a bubbling cauldron of live and recorded sounds” and promising to sample and reconstruction their own improvisations live on stage. There’ll also be a improvised summit involving bands associated with Manchester’s Efpi Records and Paris’ Onze Heures Onze collective.
One way into discovery is to take advantage of the free showcases for emerging bands. Care of the BBC’s ‘Jazz On 3’, London offers three bands – Nérija ( the all-female creative septet from the Tomorrow’s Warriors jazz school), the award-winning piano jazz of the Ashley Henry Trio and the decidedly psychedelic Phaze Theory (a quartet of drums, tuba, voice and guitar dedicated to “exploring the vastness of the musical cosmos”).
But perhaps it’s Jazz North’s Northern Line series that you should be checking out, showcasing bands from the north and the Midlands. Manchester offers the Iain Dixon/Les Chisnall Duo (whose repertoire of self-defined standards stretches from Messaien to Gracie Fields) and the John Bailey Quintet (guitar-led, and similarly inspired by twentieth century classical music). Newcastle provides barrel-house blues and ballads from The Lindsay Hannon Plus and the tricky free jazz/folk/rock/dancefloor entwinings of the Graeme Wilson Quartet. Lancaster and Liverpool provide one act apiece – Andrew Grew’s “total improvisers” The Grew Quartet and the “gothic bebop” of Blind Monk Trio, who claim to fuse the spirit of Thelonius Monk with Persian traditional music and the heavy-rock attitude of Led Zeppelin and Nirvana’s heavy-rock attitude.
However, it’s Leeds (still underrated as a musical powerhouse despite the world-class output of its music college and the vigorous inventiveness of its bands) which dominates the Northern Line. As well as providing the previously-mentioned Pan Jumby, Leeds brings the Portuguese/African/Latin and Indian song-fusions of Manjula, the Django Reinhardt swing of the Matt Holborn Quartet, Cameron Vale‘s ferociously energetic melange of jazz, metal, electronica, Afrobeat and Klezmer and the semi-electric “extreme, eerie to comic” improvisations of Tipping Point (featuring perpetual bad-boy pianist Matthew Bourne). Friendly rivalry aside, there’s also co-operation: Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool all join forces in The Bugalu Foundation for a Latin barrio take on northern soul.
Around all of this jazz there’s the usual happy agglomeration of related music – not quite jazz in itself, but possibly sharing a drink or a roll-up somewhere along the way. The festival covers various popular outcropping such as soul (in assorted Northern, jazz and diva forms courtesy of The Juggernaut Love Band, Terry Shaltiel & The Soultroopers, Charlie Cooper & The CCs) but also ’60s/‘70s funk (Buffalo Brothers), ’70s Afrobeat and Ethiopian pop (Kalakuta), ska (Baked à la Ska) and mbalax (Mamadou & The Super Libidor Band). There’s even an alt-country act (Stevie Williams & The Most Wanted Band) sneaking in at the back door. As for rock’n’roll/folk/reggae/swing scavengers The Flat Cap 3… well, for starters, there’s only two of them, so you can be dubious about anything else you might read, but don’t let that put you off.
Three female songwriters are also bringing their bands, coming from a folk or world music zone and overlapping into jazz. Kirsty McGee leads her Hobopop Collective through a “joyful, dirty” sound drawing from gospel, blues and a collection of found instruments (including musical saw, waterphone, Humber hubcaps and metal buckets). The constantly shifting song landscapes of the Zoe Kyoti Trio draw from their leader’s Armenian and Greek heritage (as well as Cajun, European and Indian ideas). Saluting home-brewed British polyculture, Shama Rahman‘s ensemble explore her London home, her Bangladeshi roots, and her childhood memories of Middle Eastern desert landscapes in a “sitar,stories and song” melange of jazz-inspired improvisation, classically-inspired melodies and folk-inspired storytelling accompanied by energetic rhythms of swing, funk, hip hop, bossa nova and drum’n’bass.
For parents of very young children, needing to balance a jazz fix with family responsibilities, there are a couple of fully interactive kids’ events with activities, storytelling and improvisations. The Living Story Music Ensemble and illustrator Ann Gilligan collaborate on ‘I Have A Duck Who Can Roar’; the blues-and-roots-tinged Hillary Step Quartet work with storyteller Ursula Holden Gill and dancers from The Dalcroze Society for ‘How Monkey Found His Swing’. Once the kids are attended to, there are still interactive events for the grown-ups, whether you’re talking about the all-in jazz vinyl night, the mixed-genre dj sets by Mr Scruff, Franny Eubanks‘ open-door blues jam or (for the more technologically inquisitive) Rodrigo Constanzo‘s showcasing of his dfscore software. The latter’s a creative music tool, cueing improvisers via graphical, visual and written clues: on this occasion, anyone with an instrument and a connectible smartphone/tablet/pad should be able to roll up and join in with the roar, joining some leading improvisers in performing music in tandem with the system.
For those remaining soundclips which I’ve not already snatched and pasted, visit the MJF Soundcloud page here … but better yet, if you’re anywhere near Manchester over the next few weeks, drop in at the festival (it’s hard to miss, considering that it’s not just hiding behind club doors but has effectively taken over the town’s main square for a fortnight). Seeing something this impressive light up and roll on fills me with delight – even if on this occasion I’m also filled with rue at not being able to go myself. But never mind me…