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Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz and Blues Festival 2008


by Ian Mann

July 09, 2008

A strong line up representing incredible value for money makes this one of the hidden treasures of the UK jazz calendar. This is a little gem of a festival with a very welcome beery bonus.


This little gem of a festival is one of the relatively undiscovered treasures of the British jazz festival calendar. Organised by Lichfield Arts and now in it?s nineteenth year it offers an adventurous programme that not only highlights local talent but also hosts high profile musicians from right across the country. This year was no exception with cutting edge London based bands such as Polar Bear and Curios appearing on the final day. Festival director Brian Pretty certainly has an eye for a good band. Last year the festival enjoyed appearances by young rising stars Empirical and Mercury Music Prize nominees the Zoe Rahman Trio.

The festival takes place at Lichfield Rugby club in a marquee adjacent to the clubhouse. There is a relaxed family friendly atmosphere and the real ale is a considerable bonus with local Staffordshire breweries featuring strongly. For visitors such as myself it was a great chance to sample beers unavailable at home. Although the rugby club is right on the edge of the city a shuttle bus runs from the city centre and there is also overnight camping so drinking and driving need not be an issue.

The event began on Thursday evening and highlighted the local talents of the youthful Netherstowe Big Band and the more mature Walsall Jazz Orchestra.

Friday night was dedicated to the blues with local youngsters Funktional and The Baddest Blues Band (Ever), which included well-known musicians such as bassist Malcolm Creese, organist Mike Gorman, guitarist Rob Koral and singer Zoe Schwarz.

Saturday included no less than five bands covering a wide geographical spread and a wide range of jazz styles. These were Tom Hill and The Straitjackets, Fret and Fiddle, Dylan Howe?s Unity Four, The Keith Little Band and Tipitina.

It would have been great to see all of it but I could only attend on Sunday when an impressive bill consisted of the Tim Amman Quintet, Tom Cawley?s Curios, Rod Mason?s Elements and Polar Bear. All these bands played two sets each and there was still singer Gwyneth Herbert and her band to come as the festival finale.

An all day ticket for either Saturday or Sunday cost just ?15.00, which is just incredible value. I don?t know how they do it for the money.

The format for the all day sessions sees each band playing two sets, but not back to back. Tim Amann was on at noon and again at four for example. Surprisingly the musicians seem to like this format, it gives them a chance to hang out and relax, talk to other musicians or even have a kick about on the rugby pitch.

Birmingham based pianist and composer Tim Amann was the first artist to appear on Sunday leading his quintet featuring powerful tenor saxophonist Sam Rogers plus Adam Gilchrist on electric bass and Carl Hemmingsley at the drums. In a change to the advertised line up trumpeter Ray Butcher was replaced by Australian emigre Danny Healey on alto and soprano sax and flute.

Amman?s group play contemporary jazz that hints at the classic Blue Note sound but without in any way copying it. Having travelled a considerable distance I missed the start of their set only arriving to hear the end of a number entitled “Solstice”.
In an unexpected twist Amann then called Anglo/Irish singer Sheila MacRory to the stage to sing a number of songs in a jazz/folk crossover style. These were mainly Irish traditional tunes arranged by Amann and given a strong jazz twist. They included “When I Was On Horseback” and “Culmore”. Healey?s flute playing featured extensively in theses items alongside more conventional jazz solos from Rogers and Amann. MacRory?s pure voice and articulate phrasing sat well in the jazz setting, but despite being a technically accomplished singer I felt she lacked stage presence.

The closing “South Australia” was a rousing sea shanty with Roger?s gutsy tenor featuring alongside MacRory?s voice and Amann?s piano. This was a high note to finish on and taken as a whole the group?s folk/jazz experiment was very well received.

There was to be more of the same in Amman?s second set when MacRory joined the band mid set for interpretations of “She Moved Through The Fair” and “Black Velvet Band”.

Instrumental material included “Thats For Sure” with Rogers on alto plus the segue of “Three Nights In Moscow” and “On The Way Back” which featured Healey on a distinctive curved soprano plus the leader?s piano.

Following the vocal interlude there was a drum feature for Hemmingsley before both saxophonists made significant contributions to the closing “Dreams Of Leaving”.

Amann leads a talented group with the core quartet (Amann, Rogers, Gilchrist and Hemmingsley) being mainstays of the Walsall Jazz Orchestra. Amann is a fluent pianist and an interesting composer and arranger and Rogers? fiery soloing certainly caught the attention. The rhythm section was solid rather than inspired but this is a pretty decent unit who more than held their own in a strong line up.

Tom Cawley is a supremely talented keyboard player, classically trained and blessed with enormous technical skill. To compliment his incredible technique he also has a huge sense of musical fun and can be found harnessing his abilities right across the jazz spectrum. Cawley is as at home backing singers as he is torturing his Nord electric keyboard with Acoustic Ladyland.

Curios allows him to stretch out in a piano trio context in the company of double bassist Sam Burgess and young drum prodigy Joshua Blackmore. They have a unique sound, heavy on group interaction, but at the same time finding room for Cawley?s classical influences.  The trio earned considerable critical acclaim for their debut album “Hidden” and the follow up “Closer” was recorded in April 2008. The album is due for release in September but Cawley is already selling copies at gigs. Curios is very much a working band and there is a clear sense of development from one album to the next.

That sense of musical fun comes out more on the new record and was also readily apparent in the music played at Lichfield. Cawley clearly enjoys pushing his technique to the limit and bending the musical rules. Dense clusters of notes and several examples of an artful dissonance peppered the opening “Squat Little Man”, Cawley?s dedication to Diego Maradona. Cawley is a sports nut and many of his titles acknowledge sports people, particularly in the fields of football and motor racing. The tune appears on “Hidden” and Cawley gleefully deconstructed it here, sparring with the youthful Blackmore who seems to have come on in leaps and bounds since I last saw him. Blackmore too has technique to burn but he is also an assured and sympathetic accompanist for one so young. He should become a major figure on the UK jazz scene for years to come.

“The Chosen One” also from “Hidden” calmed things down a little and contained a resonant solo from the redoubtable Burgess, a player with a huge singing tone. Burgess is the ideal bass player for the trio, capable of making inventive solo statements as well as anchoring Cawley?s quixotic compositions in the manner of Charlie Haden. He is also a very accomplished player with the bow as he proved on several occasions during the afternoon.

Mention was made of the family friendly atmosphere at the festival and this was perfectly demonstrated by the fact that Cawley seemed to have most of his family in the audience. “The Tiling Song” was dedicated to his father in law Bob Adams and was another example of Cawley?s impish musical sense of humour. With it?s playful atmosphere and almost impossible time signatures this item proved to be a big crowd pleaser.

The tune appears on the new album and the trio combined it with “Closer” itself before drifting into the beautifully elegiac “Truce” to close the first set. The trio were extremely well received. The programme had been musically inventive, slyly humorous and finally very moving.

Curios? second set was more considered and ballad like with “Roebuck” merging into the child like melody “Song For Greta”, a dedication to Cawley?s young daughter.

“Very Loved” and the percussive, grooving “Joseph?s Mud”, both from “Hidden” completed a somewhat truncated second set.

The piano trio format has enjoyed a revival in recent years in both Europe and America. Curios are already right up there with the best of them and it was both a pleasure and a privilege to see them in Lichfield.

Yorkshire based saxophonist Rod Mason and his band are popular figures at the festival and were making their return after successful appearances here in 2004 and 2005.

Unfortunately drummer Dave Walsh and bassist Richard Hammond were held up by an accident on the motorway when travelling down with the result that there was a fifty-minute delay before the band went on. In my experience the festival normally runs like clockwork so I guess this was “just one of those things” as Cole Porter might have said. At least this was a good place to go and have a beer while you were waiting.
The downside was that although the organisers made up some time on the day subsequent sets had to be slightly shortened.

Man mountain Mason is a larger than life figure in every way. He is an accomplished and fiery player on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones and a humorous and engaging personality who can?t resist a joke. His recordings show that he is also an interesting composer and a capable and sensitive player of ballads.

In a live context Mason tends to focus on the funk/fusion side of his playing with Walsh and Hammond plus keyboard player Richard Wetherall more than up to the task. Advance publicity suggested that guitarist Jez Franks was also due to appear but of him there was no sign.

The first set comprised of Mason?s own funk orientated material such as “Six Of One, Half A Dozen Of The Other” alongside a John Surman tune and the standard “You Don?t Know What Love Is”, the latter given a funk/latin twist. There were fine solos from Mason on alto and also on curved soprano, Hammond on five string electric bass and Wetherall on both piano and electric keyboards.

Later   Mason?s second set saw him tackling material normally associated with ECM recording artists and putting his own stamp on them. This was an unexpected move, but one that worked surprisingly well. This success was partly because Mason had chosen such great tunes as his source material.

First came Mason?s arrangement of Pat Metheny?s “Hermitage”, a tune that originally appeared as a solo guitar item on the Metheny album “New Chatauqua”.

Keith Jarrett?s “Spiral Dance” from the album “Belonging” was an interesting choice and a pleasant change from the more widely covered “My Song”. Here Mason (who had thus far played mainly alto) switched to tenor and there was an opportunity for Wetherall to stretch out on acoustic piano.

Jim Pepper?s beautiful “Witchi Tai To” was most famously covered by Jan Garbarek.  Mason?s version saw him making effective use of echo on his curved soprano as he conjured up an uncannily accurate impersonation of the great Norwegian?s sound. The group subsequently stretched out and made the piece their own, with Hammond soloing on bass.

The ECM inspired items were punctuated by Bob Mintzer?s funky “Mr Fonebone” and by Mason?s own “Cracker Jack” with it?s slithery bebop phrasing and funk beat. Mason engaged in a little audience participation encouraging the audience to shout “get off!” every time he finished the song?s main riff. He was obviously mindful of the families present, he probably asks for the crowd to shout something rather more Anglo Saxon when he plays in a club.

Elements had delivered two entertaining sets that in part atoned for their late arrival.
Mason?s overly jokey stage demeanour can sometimes wear a bit thin but his albums are well worth investigating as they cover a wider spectrum than the crowd-pleasing stage shows.

The appearance of the much acclaimed Polar Bear was a considerable coup for the festival. Led by drummer/composer Sebastian Rochford the band?s long awaited third album, simply titled Polar Bear is due for release by the Tin Angel label on 14th July 2008.

Much of the material played by the group at Lichfield was drawn from the new album including the opening “Want To Believe Everything”. This showed the group to be as unique as ever with Rochford subtly dictating from the drums. The tenor saxophone dialogue between Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham is as vital and articulate as ever while Leafcutter John?s contributions on electronics and mandolin have become an increasingly   integral part of the band?s sound. The huge tone of Tom Herbert?s muscular but incredibly supple double bass is the anchor that holds it all together.

Leafcutter samples his colleagues playing in real time, a saxophone phrase here, a bass riff there, and loops them adding layers to the already impressive band sound. His quirky sense of fun and low-key theatricality adds to the character of the music, which is already full of the other worldliness and offbeat charm of Rochford?s writing.

Lockheart and Wareham play both as soloists and in tandem, their interlocking lines yet another unique feature in this most unique of bands. Wareham has always been cast as the more aggressive player and Lockheart the more lyrical but these days they are increasingly blurring their roles as the band continues to develop.

“Leaf Cut” featured Wareham as a soloist alongside Leafcutter?s sampling of Herbert?s arco bass. On the groove driven “I Am Alive” it was Lockheart?s turn to take the honours on a number that also incorporated Leafcutter?s mandolin. The last time I saw the band this instrument was used only sparingly but it is now beginning to occupy a more significant role in the band?s sonic palette.

“Industry” closed the group?s first set in incendiary fashion with squalling twin saxes, whistling electronics and Rochford generating more power with brushes than most drummers manage with sticks.

It had been an excellent first half balancing virtuosity with playfulness and improvisation with fiercely individual writing. There were some first timers who were somewhat bemused, especially by Leafcutter?s contributions but on the whole the band were very well received.

The crowd had thinned out a bit by the time of the band?s second set, partly the result of the earlier delay. “Hope Every Day Is A Happy New Year” again featured the mandolin, this time played with a bow before subsequently being sampled and treated.

“Fluffy (I Want You)” from the Mercury nominated album “Held On The Tips Of Fingers” represented slightly more familiar fare and was followed by “Tomlovesalicelovestom” from the new album. If you were wondering Tom is Mr. Herbert and Alice is Alice Grant the singer with Fulborn Teversham, yet another Seb Rochford led band. Mark Lockheart featured extensively here alongside Leafcutter at his most surreal and theatrical as the latter coaxed and treated sounds from a fluorescent pink balloon. Tom Herbert himself shone in a groove based finish.

Finally came “King Of Aberdeen” a favourite from “Held On The Tips?” With it?s racing horn lines and dynamic drumming plus the set piece percussion/electronics sparring session between Rochford and Leafcutter this was a great way to finish.

In it?s short lifespan Polar Bear has been extremely influential with other twin saxophone bands such as Led Bib and Outhouse springing up in their wake. Both these bands have plenty to say on their own account but Polar Bear, guided by the extraordinary musical vision of Rochford and with the maverick Leafcutter on board remain the undoubted leaders of the pack.

The earlier delays meant that we couldn?t stay to hear Gwyneth Herbert, which was unfortunate as her band boasted a strong line up including Curios bassist Sam Burgess. Herbert?s recordings have also received a compelling amount of critical praise. Next time perhaps.

Nevertheless it had been an outstanding days music and incredible value for money. Even the delays, which were outside the organiser?s control, didn?t seem to spoil things very much. Congratulations to Brian Pretty and Lichfield Arts for another successful event.

Lichfield Arts run events throughout the year at the Guildhall and other venues in the city. They have a particularly strong jazz and folk programme running through Autumn 2008 and into 2009. See for full details.

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