by Ian Mann
July 06, 2011
A lovely festival that rapidly appears to be establishing itself as a vital part of Birmingham's cultural calendar.
Saturday at Mostly Jazz Festival 2011.
Moseley Park, Birmingham, 02/07/2011
The inaugural Mostly Jazz Festival, held at the same location in 2010, was an enormous success with hundreds of happy music fans soaking up the sunshine and enjoying some great sounds. The festival organisers probably couldn’t believe their luck when they were blessed with glorious weather for a second year running. Billed as “a celebration of jazz, funk and soul” the 2011 Mostly Jazz Festival had expanded to a third day with this year’s festivities starting on the Friday. I was unable to attend that particular session which appeared to have more of a “club” vibe but I’m told that the atmosphere in the park for a string of performances headlined by The Cinematic Orchestra was “electric”.
Broadly speaking Saturday was the “jazz” day of the festival with Birmingham Jazz programming the events on the smaller of the two stages. Sunday was more geared towards funk and soul with Craig Charles programming the events on the main stage in addition to acting as festival comp?re and playing a fine DJ set. The Yardbird, one of Birmingham’s leading music pubs programmed the Sunday events on the smaller stage.
One of the key factors in Mostly’s success is Moseley Park itself. An oasis of green in an urban location the park acts as a natural amphitheatre with grassy slopes sweeping down to the two stages and the lake beyond. Traffic noise is screened out by tall tress in this little piece of the country in the heart of the city. The location positively invites a relaxed vibe, this is a lovely multi cultural, family friendly festival with frolicking children and blissfully chilled out adults. As we walked to the park from the car we looked as if we were heading for a day at the beach rather than a day out in Birmingham. Mind you I hate to think what it would be like if it actually rained….
Mostly Jazz is an offshoot of the well established Moseley Folk Festival which takes place here in early September. It follows a similar format with two stages side by side. Whilst one band is performing another is setting up on the other stage, the wonders of modern technology now allowing for virtually silent sound checking. It’s a system that works well with the flow of music virtually seamless. The Mostly Jazz festival is a well organised, highly professional operation. They even provide a compilation CD of artists appearing at the festival with every programme, a nice touch.
And so on with the music;
ANDY HAMILTON & THE BLUE NOTES
We arrived just in time to hear the closing numbers by the remarkable Andy Hamilton who was the opening act on the Main Stage. Born in Jamaica in 1918 tenor saxophonist Hamilton moved to Birmingham in 1949 and has since become a city institution. In 1991 he reached the attention of the national jazz audience with the best selling album “Silvershine” and in 2007 he was awarded the MBE for his services to music. Hamilton is still playing cogently at the age of 93, aided and abetted by his excellent Blue Notes band of Birmingham based musicians including Dutch Lewis on reeds, who helps to lift some of the soloing responsibilities from the veteran’s shoulders, Edgar
Macias (keyboards), John Smith (guitar), Ray “Pablo” Brown (bass), Johnny Hoo (drums) and Vic Evans (congas, vocals). The Blue Notes sunny blend of calypso jazz helped to get the day off to a great start and the grand old man of Birmingham jazz got a suitably warm reception from his home town crowd.
BIRMINGHAM JAZZ ENSEMBLE
At the other range of the age scale came the Birmingham Jazz Ensemble. As comp?re Tony Dudley Evans explained they have only just dropped the word “youth” from their name and this community based band is still very young. They originally came together under Birmingham Jazz’s outreach scheme under Musical Director Sid Peacock but have now become a gigging ensemble in their own right and have started writing their own material. Some of these including “From Here To Illinois” and “There Ain’t No Chicken Wings” appeared alongside more familiar “real book” tunes. Alicia Gardener-Trejo and Jonathan Brown on guitar soloed confidently but Will Jenkins on trumpet sounded a little shaky. The band was completed by bassist James Banner and drummer Ric Yarborough with alto player Peter Lewis also augmenting the group. They ended their set rather abruptly and perhaps need to work a little more on their presentation. However it’s good to see that this former “youth project” is developing a life of its own.
Over on the Main Stage Manchester based trumpeter Matthew Halsall and his band produced one of the best performances of the day. Halsall released his d?but CD “Sending My Love” on his own Gondwana label in 2008 but it was the critical acclaim accorded to the follow up, 2009’s “Colour Yes”, that brought Halsall a national reputation and a string of festival appearances, including one that I was fortunate to witness at Brecon 2010.
Halsall’s latest album “On The Go” (2011) has maintained the momentum and is reviewed elsewhere on this site. Halsall, also a talented producer and DJ, takes the modality of Miles Davis’ “Kind Of Blue” plus the “spiritual jazz” of John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and filters it through more contemporary influences to come up with something that is immensely satisfying to modern jazz audiences.
Here Halsall deployed the nucleus of the band that appears on his albums. Nat Birchall on tenor and soprano saxophones is very much Halsall’s right hand man and a highly fluent soloist on both instruments as he demonstrated here. Newcomer Taz Modi on piano also produced a string of fine solos at the piano, I was highly impressed with his contribution and the Leeds based musician was to turn up the following day playing electric keyboards with the Ariya Astrobeat Arkestra, a very different but no less impressive performance. Halsall’s regular rhythm section of Gavin Barrass (double bass) and Gaz Hughes (drums) were excellent throughout offering sympathetic and intelligent support and guest flautist Lisa Mallett brought a welcome instrumental voice to some of the pieces.
Halsall’s unhurried, almost chilled out music struck just the right chord with a relaxed lunchtime audience but there’s a keen rigour and intelligence behind the superficially relaxed sound. The clarity and cogency of Halsall’s own playing is remarkable and similar qualities apply to the excellent Birchall. There’s a genuinely spiritual element to the Halsall group’s playing as titles such as “Samatha” (a Buddhist phrase meaning “calm”) and “The Journey Home” suggest. Perhaps Charles Lloyd should be added to the usual frame of references.
If one were being hyper critical one could accuse Halsall of being derivative but for me this was still the best musical performance of the day. Besides Halsall is plainly searching for a clarity of sound with this ensemble and achieves this brilliantly. Plus he’s not afraid to give this music a more contemporary twist via his Remixed and Gondwana Orchestra projects, both of which will feature at the 2011 Brecon Jazz Festival.. Halsall’s star seems destined to continue to rise.
CHRIS YOUNG BAND
Another young Birmingham based band were next to appear on the Birmingham Jazz Stage. Alto saxophonist Chris Young is currently a student on the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire. His youthful group of, presumably, fellow students contained two other excellent soloists in guitarist Tom Ford, and vibraphonist Liam Halloran, the latter already an accomplished exponent of the four mallet technique. Bassist Dan Casimir also showed considerable soloing ability when called upon and formed a flexible rhythm section with drummer Ben Kane. The group featured a number of Young’s original tunes including “Outward” (which appears on the festival CD), “Twenty Four” and “Horizon Calling”. The group’s arrangements also feature the wordless vocals of Lottie Hodgson but in a live context at least I found these superfluous and rather distracting. Nevertheless the Chris Young Band harbours a clutch of young players with considerable potential.
MILESTONES PLAY “KIND OF BLUE”
Pianist Terry Seabrook leads Milestones, essentially a Miles Davis tribute band. However this is probably the classiest tribute band you’ll ever see, containing as it does some of Britain’s finest jazz musicians. Graham Flowers fills the Miles role on trumpet, Alan Barnes is on alto and baritone saxes, Ian Price on tenor and Paul Whitten and Spike Wells form an experienced rhythm section.
Seabrook, also leader of the Latin ensemble Cubana Bop led his troops through a performance, in sequence, of the whole of “Kind Of Blue” but presaged this with a rumbustious version of Victor Feldman’s “Seven Steps To Heaven” with Barnes blowing up a storm on baritone. All the other group members, including Wells, were featured on this rousing opener.
The most familiar bass motif in jazz ushered in “So What” with the solos coming in the same sequence as the album with Flowers’ coolly Milesian tones being followed by Price, Barnes, now back permanently on alto, Seabrook and Whitten.
Seabrook led off the solos on “Freddie Freeloader” followed by Flowers, Barnes and Price. Flowers introduced the Harmon mute on the ballad “Blue In Green” making him sound more like Miles than ever. Further solos came from Seabrook and both saxophonists.
The frequently covered “All Blues” featured Flowers’ best solo of the afternoon plus further strong contributions from Barnes and Price and a further drum feature from Wells. Flowers, again using the mute, bookended “Flamenco Sketches” with Price and Barnes soloing between times.
As probably the most famous jazz album of them all “Kind Of Blue” is extremely familiar. Seabrook’s arrangements tweaked the originals a little but didn’t really take any liberties with the Davis legacy. It was all pleasant enough and the playing well up to the standard you’d expect from this bunch of seasoned professionals but I couldn’t help feeling that the whole project was a little bit redundant-after all how do you improve on perfection? Milestones may also have suffered by going on so close after Halsall. The younger man may take the Davis legacy as a starting point but he brings much more of himself to it. As I said, this was a very high class tribute act.
LLUIS MATHER’S NOOSE
As Milestones were superficially similar to Matthew Halsall so were Noose similar to the earlier Chris Young. Both of the young Birmingham bands featured wordless vocals, this time tenor saxophonist Mather was joined by singer Holly Thomas, keyboard player Dan Nicholls and drummer Euan Palmer in an unusual bassless line up. The members of Noose are older than those of the Young group and Mather has already graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire. Mather has already headlined at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, leads two other bands, is a busy sideman on the Birmingham jazz scene and generally looks to be something of a star in the making.
He is also an interesting composer and this set featured material from Noose’s d?but album “High Windows” including “Cotes Du Rhone Villages” and a setting of the Tennyson poem “Ask Me No More”. The blend of saxophone and voice was more successful here and Mather has already established a very personal sound on his instrument. Perhaps an open air festival was not the best place to appreciate the full subtlety of Noose’s sound. I look forward to checking them out again at the Harmonic Festival later in the year.
Over on the main stage Joe Acheson, leader of The Hidden Orchestra described his group’s music as being “slightly jazz”. Well that’s as maybe but it was jazz enough for me, I rather enjoyed this set by the band formerly known as the Joe Acheson Quartet.
The group has an unusual line up of Acheson on bass and samples, Poppy Ackroyd on keyboards and violin and twin drummers Jamie Graham and Tim Lane, the latter also occasionally featuring on trombone. The music blends interlocking drum rhythms with electronic trip hop beats and live looping but with Ackroyd’s violin, either bowed or plucked, adding a folk element that highlights the band’s Scottish origins. There’s something of Massive Attack or Portishead in the group’s sound and jazz listeners may occasionally be reminded of Polar Bear or the current edition of Portico Quartet. Hidden Orchestra may have seemed to be a left field choice for what is nominally a jazz festival but their all instrumental music was perhaps more at home here than on a more rock orientated bill. Certainly their distinctive sounds went down well with the Birmingham crowd.
Some of the music was dark and ominous with sampled speech merging with heavy beats, dense loops and eerie violin drones but in a well programmed set the Orchestra built to an anthemic closer that ended their set on a pleasingly upbeat note.
The Hidden Orchetra are also due to play Brecon Jazz Festival in August 2011.
THE STEVE TROMANS DEBOP BAND
Pianist and composer Steve Tromans has been a key figure on the Birmingham jazz scene for many years appearing in a variety of contexts from the avant garde to the jump jive of King Pleasure And The Biscuit Boys.
The Debop band featuring Chris Mapp on double bass and Miles Levin on drums was originally founded in 2004 with the aim of re-working John Coltrane’s classic “A Love Supreme” album. The trio have moved on from those days but decided to revisit the Coltrane album for their Moseley performance.
Using Coltrane’s music as a base the trio improvised at length but on the smaller stage it didn’t really seem to work. Tromans’ electric piano sounded puny and tinny from my vantage point at the back of the slope and this didn’t really seem to be the right place for this kind of experimentation.
Familiar Coltrane themes appeared from time to time but I still found my attention wandering despite the best efforts of the trio, Levin drummed crisply with a fine eye for detail and Mapp contributed some excellent arco bass. All in all I couldn’t escape the conclusion that Coltrane without the sax didn’t work but it may be that the best place for this noble experiment would have been an indoor venue with a proper piano.
The festival organisers were extremely pleased to have added Afrobeat giant Dele Sosimi to the bill. The Nigerian born singer and keyboard player now lives in London but once played alongside both Fela and Femi Kuti as a member of the famous Egypt 80 band.
Sosimi remains a key figure on the London Afrobeat scene and scored a big hit in 2002 with the song “Turbulent Times”, a title that seems even more relevant these days and which was included in his set here. The flamboyant Sosimi led an excellent band that included Femi Alias on bass, Kunle Olofinjana on drums, Maurizio Ravalico on percussion, Soothsayers’ Phil Dawson on guitar and a horn section featuring Justin Thurger on trombone, Tom Allan on trumpet and Eric Rohmer on tenor sax. Although this was very much Sosimi’s show Ravalico, Dawson, Allan and particularly Thurger (who also plays with folk big band Bellowhead) turned in some excellent instrumental solos. No doubt about it, this was a crack band.
But essentially this was about Sosimi, an accomplished showman whose act is big on audience participation and who soon had most of the festival crowd on their feet. Old Fela favourites “Zombie” and “Custom Checkpoint”, the latter featuring an extended drum/percussion feature brought a highly energetic show to a suitably rousing climax.
LEVI FRENCH TRIO
Birmingham based pianist, a regular presence in the bands of trumpeter Bryan Corbett (I’m surprised he’s never played Mostly) and saxophonist Chris “Beebe” Aldridge appeared on the Birmingham Jazz stage with two other Midlands jazz stalwarts double bassist Mike Green and drummer Carl Hemmingsley, the latter witnessed by myself at Lichfield RAJB only last week in the band of pianist Tim Amann.
French’s trio set was rather more accessible than Tromans’ and his keyboard possessed an altogether stronger sound. French’s tunes were accessible and often funky, sometimes drawing on the Blue Note sound of Horace Silver, at others hinting at more contemporary influences such as E.S.T.
Green and Hemmingsley were given plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and set highlights included the ballad “Leaves” and the E.S.T. ish “Incandescent”. The latter appears on the Mostly Festival CD and is also a current i-tunes single as well as being the prospective title for French’s next album. This was a swinging, unpretentious and thoroughly enjoyable set from this trio of local heroes. Well done guys.
A version of this group appeared at last year’s festival under the name “Bright Size Gypsies”. Leader Simon Harris’ group continue to merge gypsy jazz with other jazz styles, many of them seeming to date back to the 1920’s.
As Manouche vocalist/guitarist Harris and his troupe have acquired a reputation as a supremely entertaining live act and most of the Moseley crowd seemed to enjoy them with many getting on their feet to dance.
Personally I found them a bit too much of a pastiche, especially when vocalists Esther Dee and Kay Elizabeth were introduced to the proceedings. However there’s no doubt about the quality of the group’s musicianship with some fine players, including trumpeter Quentin Collins, having passed through the band’s ranks. All in all this is pretty clever stuff but a little too arch and calculated for my tastes.
I seemed to be in a minority as the group breezed through a high energy , high camp show that included a merger of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” with the James Bond Theme, the original song “Toulouse Blues”, “I’ll Be Loving You” and Harris’ signature tune “Don’t Get Me Wrong”.
BEATS AND PIECES BIG BAND
Here at The Jazzmann we feel rather proprietorial about this young Manchester based big band having given them their first review (for their eponymously titled EP) outside of Manchester.
Under the guidance of their youthful composer, conductor and musical director Ben Cottrell
B&PBB bring a punk energy to the big band sound that hasn’t been seen since the halcyon days of Loose Tubes. The fact that most of these guys are hardly old enough to remember the Tubes in their heyday just makes it all the more refreshing.
Utilising a classic big band line up of reeds, trumpets and trombones plus keyboards, electric guitar, bass and drums the group immediately clattered their way through “Bake”, the opening track on their self titled EP. Although the personnel at Moseley differed substantially from that featured on the album the spirit of the band was very much intact and the standard of musicianship excellent. B&PBB have forged an excellent reputation for their live shows which have included numerous other festival appearances plus a London engagement at Ronnie Scott’s. In a band of highly talented young musicians fiery altoist Sam Healey, rock influenced guitarist Anton Hunter, tenor saxophonist Nick Watts and trumpeter Graham South stood out as key soloists.
Hitherto the band’s repertoire has been entirely composed by Cottrell (we also heard the EP’s “Yafw”) but other members of the band are now staring to write and we also heard Watts’ “Queen’s Park” and Hunter’s “Sisterhood”, both worthy additions to the B&PBB canon.
Despite working in the big band format B&PBB have their collective finger on the pulse of contemporary musical developments. They frequently deploy an off-stage electronics artist to manipulate the group sound and tonight their set included a segue of Radiohead numbers, “Nude” and “Just”, the former including the sampled voice of Thom Yorke.
Along with fellow Mancunians the Matthew Halsall Group B&PBB were one of the musical highlights of the day, plus it was good to chat briefly with Ben Cottrell and Anton Hunter afterwards and put some faces to the names.
MATTHEW HERBERT BIG BAND
As in 2010 the festival closed with a cult artist. Last year it was Marshall Allen leading the Sun Ra Arkestra, this time British musical maverick Matthew Herbert leading his Big Band. Herbert is no respecter of musical boundaries and his subversive approach also applies to politics. Herbert has no time for the political and economic establishment.
Herbert is consistently busy, operating across a range of genres under a variety of names including Radio Boy and Doctor Rockit. Tonight’s performance was a rare outing for the Big Band and was therefore something of an event for Herbert’s followers. However, rather like last year, Herbert’s performance probably baffled those who were new to his music. Herbert is a deep thinker and his music deserves to be thought about. Like the Arkestra last year this wasn’t quite the right sort of music for the “party slot” despite the undoubted reputations of the performers.
Herbert almost qualifies as a performance artist and appeared here on samplers and other electronic devices, he actually hires somebody else to conduct the band. Singer Alice Grant who was once a member of Sebastian Rochfords’s Fulborn Teversham and has also sung with Acoustic Ladyland was playing her first gig with the band and acquitted herself superbly. The band were competent and well drilled but the performance was really all about Herbert and his ideas. Much of the music was drawn from the 2008 Big Band album “There’s Me And There’s You” and included “One Life” which has one beep for each death in the Iraq war, the single sounds coalescing to form a constant drone. These political comments/gestures are an integral part of Herbert’s work but many of them may have bypassed the audience here. Elsewhere Herbert and his colleagues tore up copies of The Sun, although I’m sure other well known newspapers have also received the Herbert treatment. On another number Herbert covered his face with a hood and he also indulged in a bout of balloon noise sampling in the style of Polar Bear’s Leafcutter John.
Frankly I didn’t quite know what to make of it. My co-writer Tim Owen is a big Herbert fan and I sensed that there was much to admire about the man and his ideas but felt that this wasn’t quite the right time and place for a proper appreciation of Herbert and his work. He went down well enough but the atmosphere was some way short of “electric”.
Despite my occasional misgivings this had still been an excellent day’s music in a beautiful location. Mostly is simply a lovely festival and rapidly appears to be establishing itself as a vital part of Birmingham’s cultural calendar.
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