by Ian Mann
July 08, 2010
Mostly was a wonderful celebration of the British jazz and funk/soul scenes with a real emphasis on the music of the host city.
Photo of Courtney Pine courtesy: Russ Escritt (http://russescritt.photoshelter.com)
Sunday at Mostly Jazz Festival, Moseley Park, Birmingham, 04/07/2010
The Sunday of the new Mostly Jazz Festival was not blessed with quite such good weather as the previous day. However the programming was equally strong and had a higher genuine jazz content.
The smaller of the two stages saw Birmingham Jazz taking over programming responsibilities from the Yardbird and featured more bona fide jazz artists, all of them local. Many of these had featured at the enterprising but smaller scale Harmonic Festival curated by Chris Mapp and Percy Pursglove held in the city centre earlier in the year (see review elsewhere on this site). The estimable Tony Dudley-Evans acted as compere for the day, his approach less strident than that of Craig Charles but still full of genuine enthusiasm for the music he has supported for so long.
However it was another local hero, Steve Ajao who opened the day on the main stage. Ajao has been a fixture on the Birmingham scene for many years and is a highly versatile musician schooled in both jazz and blues. As a jazzer he is a talented alto saxophonist but with his blues hat on he is an equally fine guitarist and singer. At Mostly he wore both, playing a laid back jazz set on the main stage before moving over to the tiny third stage, the Swing Meadow Stage to deliver an acoustic blues set.
I only saw his jazz performance, just the kind of thing to lie back and relax to on a Sunday lunchtime. Together with Tim Amann (keyboards), Adam Gilchrist (bass) and Miles Levin (drums) Ajao opened with the standard “Alone Together” which featured each member of the quartet.
Next came “Irresistible”, an unannounced ballad, and finally a coolly funky version of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman”, rather appropriate as Donovan is due to headline Moseley Folk Festival later in the year.
Ajao’s coolly elegant performance got the day of to a mellow but hugely enjoyable start.
BIRMINGHAM JAZZ YOUTH GROUP
Birmingham Jazz have been running music workshops in city schools in conjunction with the Sound It Out community project. A septet of promising young players played a short but enjoyable set on the Birmingham Jazz stage deploying a line up of keyboards, guitar, alto sax, trumpet, soprano sax (doubling on baritone), electric bass and drums. The talented youngsters performed three jazz classics, Wayne Shorter’s “Mah Jong”, Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” (one of several versions of this to be heard today) and Horace Silver’s most famous composition “Song For My Father”. It’s good to know that the future of jazz in the city is in good hands.
ANDY HAMILTON AND THE BLUE NOTES
At the other end of the age scale is veteran saxophonist Andy Hamilton who is still performing regularly at the age of 92. Hamilton is a real Birmingham legend having moved to the city in 1949 from his native Jamaica.
Hamilton formed the first edition of the long running Blue Notes in 1953 but despite his local hero status national acclaim didn’t arrive until 1991 when his d?but album “Silvershine”, recorded on the World Circuit label and featuring several high profile special guests, became a runaway success. Hamilton was awarded an MBE in 2007 and holds an honorary degree from Birmingham University. The grand old man of Midlands jazz still runs a weekly residency at Corks Club in Bearwood.
Needless to say Hamilton and his band received a great reception from the Moseley crowd. He still has a warm, round tone on the tenor and played a number of effective solos. He doesn’t play as much as he used to and took a breather when percussionist Vic Evans stepped up to the mic to sing a few songs, among them “Falling In Love With Love.”
Hamilton’s band included a second saxophonist, trumpet, guitar, percussion (Evans), bass, drums and keyboards, the latter played by Tim Amann who was quickly establishing himself as the Festival’s house pianist. Like Ajao’s set this was pleasantly laid back jazz with a palpable Caribbean lilt, just perfect for a summer Sunday afternoon.
This cleverly named organ trio is led by guitarist Matt Chandler and also includes two Birmingham Conservatoire jazz graduates in the shape of organist Matt Ratcliffe and drummer Tymoteusz Jozwiak. They can groove with the best of them but MC3 are far jazzier than any of Saturday’s more funk orientated bands, drawing their inspiration from the organ trios of Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino and from contemporary Hammond players such as Joey De Francesco.
I saw the group earlier in the year as part of the Harmonic Festival. They played in the less than sympathetic confines of the Slug & Lettuce in Birmingham City Centre where they were largely ignored by “The Great British Public”. A review of that performance is to be found in our Harmonic Festival coverage and for those of us that took the trouble to listen the music was very good indeed.
The audience at Moseley was far more appreciative and gave a great reception to the trio’s short set , a mix of originals and Wes Montgomery tunes. Chandler is a skilful soloist full of elegant, tricky runs and nimble chords. Ratcliffe is similarly talented, grooving and wailing in the best Hammond tradition. Both are also supportive accompanists and the whole is driven on by Jozwiak’s firm, intelligent drumming. Their material included a couple of numbers heard at the Slug, the closing “Dirty Rat” and “Bar Short” which appears on the festival CD and gives a good idea of the band’s grooving but jazz orientated sound.
THE BRIGHT SIZE GYPSIES
2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, the first great innovator of European jazz. To mark the occasion the next three bands on the festival programme offered their own very different takes on the Reinhardt legacy.
First up on the main stage were Bright Size Gypsies who offered an eclectic mix of gypsy jazz and retro swing. Led by guitarist Simon Harris they began as two guitar/double bass trio and cantered through a few Reinhardt staples including the ubiquitous “Minor Swing”.
So far, so predictable but Harris then called the classy horn section of Quentin Collins (trumpet) and Dave Shulman to the stage which immediately moved the music some place else. Collins and Shulman are classy players and both delivered excellent solos on this group’s version of “Caravan”.
Next to join the party were singers Bev Lee Harling and Esther Dee as the music moved more squarely into retro swing territory. The girls harmonised on a vocal arrangement of Django’s “The Gypsies Of Belle Vue” and provided a sexy stage presence as Harris steered this fun group into more obvious crowd pleasing territory.
Harris handled the vocals himself on his own “Don’t Get Me Wrong” which appears on the Festival CD and on the audience participation number “Whisky And Soda Rock ‘N’’ Roll”.
The final guest was Joelle Barker who proved to be a talented tap dancer and a mean cajonista as the music shaded into Spanish territory.
The closing “King Of The Swingers” (yes, the one from Jungle Book) had the crowd on it’s feet and ended an eclectic but highly enjoyable set. Bright Size Gypsies is full of great players and obviously represents a bit of light relief for some of them. Behind the knowing fa?ade there’s some real musical ability and on the whole this set was great fun.
The group didn’t do any of their celebrated pop covers (apparently their version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is legendary) and we didn’t get any of the Pat Metheny tunes that their name suggests but by the end I don’t think anybody was worrying.
TG COLLECTIVE TRIO
The TG Collective grew out of the Birmingham based guitar trio Trio Gitano featuring Jamie Fekete and Sam Slater. The trio’s 2005 album “Who Ate All The Tapas?” was a surprise commercial success and since those days Fekete and Slater have expanded the group adding bass, percussion, flute and violin to form the extended TG Collective. The group’s influences include jazz (particularly the music of Django Reinhardt), flamenco and contemporary classical with the flamenco side of things becoming increasingly dominant. Some Of TG Collective’s performances are enhanced by the fiery flamenco footwork of dancer Ana Garcia.
For today’s performance Fekete and Slater returned to a trio format augmenting their guitars with the double bass, trumpet and cajon of Collective member Percy Pursglove, co- founder of the Harmonic Festival.
The trio produced an eclectic programme that ranged widely and drew on many of their collective influences. Thus Django’s “Minor Swing” and “Minor Blues” bookended J.S. Bach, Pursglove switched between trumpet and bass for Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” before moving on to cajon as the group expressed their flamenco leanings.
This was an enjoyable set, full of outstanding individual musicianship. A switch to the main stage with the full complement of the Collective should be in order for next year.
GARY POTTER TRIO
Moseley Park used to host a Django themed festival entitled “L’Esprit Manouche”. A regular in those days was guitarist Gary Potter, one of the most revered Reinhardt stylists in the country. The Liverpudlian is also an acclaimed educator and has taught many Django inspired guitarists including Will Barnes of the Inspector Gadjo Trio.
Potter’s set at Moseley was the most conventional of the three Reinhardt themed performances and stuck more closely to the style of the man himself. Potter is a formidable technician and his abilities were perhaps best appreciated on a stunning solo version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Honeysuckle Rose”.
Elsewhere he gave plenty of space to his colleagues Mike Dexter (double bass) and second guitarist Dcato Piotrowski on material that included “All Of Me”, “Anniversary Song” and the closing “Sweet Georgia Brown”. There were moments when I felt that Potter was a little too faithful to the Reinhardt legacy but on the whole this was an enjoyable , if rather low key, set.
TIM AMANN X-TET
Having already appeared with Steve Ajao and Andy Hamilton pianist Tim Amann was having a very busy day. I saw his modishly named X-tet give an enjoyable performance at Lichfield RAJB a couple of years ago and I’ve always admired his abilities both as a composer and a player.
Amann’s writing is both melodic and sophisticated and in recent years he has borrowed increasingly from Irish folk music. His group at Moseley consisted of long term associates Sam Rogers (saxes), Adam Gilchrist (bass) and Pete Hammond (drums) with Sheila MacRory’s flute and vocals bringing a tangible Celtic element to the music.
Much of the material heard here is due to be released on Amann’s impending new album “Still Waters” and mixed jazz, folk and Latin influences. Saxophonist Sam Rogers proved to be one of the day’s outstanding instrumentalists with a series of powerful contributions on both alto and tenor, his sound clear and biting.
MacRory’s flute combined well with Rogers’ saxes and her voice was heard on Amann’s intriguing arrangement of the traditional Irish folk tune “The Maid Of Culmore”. Amann himself contributed some effective solos but was essentially the glue holding the ensemble together through his writing and arrangement skills.
The last two numbers Amann’s “In Hope And Faith” and yet another version of Ellington’s “Caravan” saw the group moving away from the melodic and lyrical approach to something more Latin and funky as Gilchrist and Hammond took the chance to lay down some grooves.
Amann is an important figure on the Midlands jazz scene although his abilities are perhaps taken a bit too much for granted. His composing skills ensure that his group’s CD releases “X-Tet” (1999) and “The Scarecrows” (2000) are well worth checking out. The new release “Still Waters” is keenly anticipated but in the meantime “Dreams Of Leaving” on the festival CD is a delightful taster with Amann’s various influences coming together on a superbly melodic piece of writing.
I must admit that the original version of Cymande passed me by altogether back in the 70’s. However the 2010 edition of the band proved to be a highly popular act as their set on the main stage got the crowd back on it’s feet again.
Led from the back by Jamaican born drummer Sam Kelly Cymande II play a combustible mix of funk, soul and reggae that they like to call Nyah Rock. Fronted by charismatic Jamaican vocalist Jimmy Lindsay the band is a powerhouse of energy and I was pleasantly surprised by the vigour of their attack and the quality of the musicianship.
Besides the contributions of the group’s two mainstays there were also key roles for keyboardist/MD Paul Jobson, rock influenced guitarist Tony Qunta and flamboyant percussionist Jerome Marcus. With saxophonist Tim Herniman and bassist Spy Austin rounding out the group this well drilled unit went down a storm, no more so than when they played one of their old 70’s hits “Brothers On The Slide”.
Besides their obvious dance-floor appeal the band also have a strong political stance and still emanate attitude. This was music for the head and heart as well as the feet.
Fronted by trumpeter Aaron Diaz this Birmingham based group is comprised of current and former members of the Birmingham Conservatoire Jazz course. Originally the group was convened to play the music of Frank Zappa as the band name might suggest. These days their programme has expanded to include original material and pieces by other jazz composers such as the piece by Swedish bassist Anders Jormin which opened their set.
Joining Diaz were tenor saxophonist Lluis Mather, bassist Rob Anstey, guitarist Tom Durham, Andy Bunting on the keyboards and Jim Bashford at the drums. It was a slightly different line up to the one I’d seen at the Harmonic Festival with Mather replacing Nick Rundle and with baritone saxophonist Colin Mills absent.
In a shortish set the band only played three numbers, the Jormin piece, Anstey’s “Hoop Garden” and finally “Zellaby”, Diaz’s tune inspired by a character in Birmingham born writer John Wyndham’s novel “The Midwich Cuckoos” .
“Hop Garden” and “Zellaby” were both heard at Harmonic but here they were subtly different. Anstey’s tune contained features for himself, Diaz and Mather. The saxophonist is a distinctive player and is already acquiring a good reputation for himself having led his own quartet at this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
“Zellaby” took on a kind of cerebral funkiness and harboured fine solos from Bunting and Diaz himself.
Given the complex nature of their music it was unfortunate that Moon Unit were only allocated a half hour slot. Nevertheless they once again acquitted themselves very well.
I’ve written extensively about Portico Quartet before and they remain one of my favourite bands. The band legendarily honed their skills busking outside the South Bank Centre and subsequently all over Europe and their 2007 d?but release “Knee Deep In The North Sea” (Babel, 2007) was a runaway success accruing the band a young cult following and a Mercury nomination.
A switch to Peter Gabriel’s Real World label saw them working with former Stone Roses producer John Leckie and their second album “Isla” (2009) was a darker, more atmospheric collection but with the group’s trademark melodicism surviving intact.
Portico’s signature sound is that of the hang drum, a Swiss designed instrument of recent origin that looks something like a giant wok. Its delicately ringing timbres allow the hang to assume both a melodic and a rhythmic function and it remains at the heart of the group’s sound. The quartet’s de facto leader Nick Mulvey ( he announces the tunes) currently plays a set of three, all tuned slightly differently, normally striking them with soft head mallets but sometimes playing them with his bare hands in the manner of a tabla player.. He is joined by drummer and occasional hang player Duncan Bellamy, double bassist Milo Fitzpatrick and saxophonist Jack Wyllie.
The group’s current set list is still based around the tunes on Isla. I last saw them just before the record came out in a memorable performance at East Quantoxhead Village Hall in Somerset, a show reviewed elsewhere on this site. Since then the arrangements have taken on an even darker hue with Wyllie and Fitzpatrick adding extra layers of loops and electronics to their respective set ups.
Not that this rendered their Moseley performance inaccessible. The Porticos got one of the warmest receptions of the day for their complex yet highly melodic music. Like Polar Bear the Porticos often deploy simple fragments of melody, it’s the way they develop them that’s so fascinating with complex, interlocking Reichian rhythmic patterns bubbling away beneath Wyllie’s well enunciated sax melody lines.
Since the Somerset performance the arrangements of many of these pieces have been altered. Fitzpatrick is the band’s anchor with his enormous bass tone but these days he is increasingly making use of the bow to add a grainy, earthy element to the group’s often ethereal music. The added electronics have had a similar effect and the tune “Clipper” here included a face off between Wyllie’s sax effects and Bellamy’s drums.
These days the group have also increased the improvisatory content of their live performances and a squalling free jazz interlude in the middle of the closing number “Dawn Patrol” was a radical departure from anything I’d seen them do before.
Like Led Bib and Polar Bear Portico Quartet continue to develop. At present they are touring pretty much incessantly throughout the UK, Ireland and Europe and are due to visit the US later in the year. The “Isla” tunes have developed a life of their own on the road but speaking briefly to Bellamy afterwards he told me that the group badly need to take some time out to write some material for their third album. On this evidence it should be well worth waiting for, in the meantime try to catch this most distinctive of modern young bands live.
Classy Birmingham based vocalist Sara Colman closed the programme on the Birmingham Jazz Stage with her regular quartet of double bassist and MD Ben Markland, pianist Chris Taylor and drummer Carl Hemmingsley.
Colman is a highly popular figure on the Midlands jazz scene with her own following and her set was subsequently very well received. Colman appeared at the Harmonic Festival earlier in the year and I saw her there and was impressed by her professionalism and technical expertise. Having said that I found some of her material a bit too smooth and “poppy”.
In this relaxed open air setting her warm, blues and soul tinged voice topped off with a jazz sensibility seemed to hold more appeal and this time I thoroughly enjoyed her set. Material included her own “Get You Gone” which graces the festival CD, the Everley Brothers “Bye Bye Love” done as a jazz shuffle and a movingly sung version of Sting’s “We’ll Be Together”.
Markland and the band offered excellent support but it was Colman’s assured singing and confident stage presence that crowned a highly competent and enjoyable set.
It was left to Courtney Pine to close the festival with an all star band featuring pianist Zoe Rahman, violinist Omar Puente, guitarist Cameron Pierre, bassist Darren Taylor and drummer Robert Fordjour.
I’m never quite sure what to make of Pine. He’s a hugely talented player that’s for sure. I remember seeing him front an American quartet featuring pianist Geri Allen at Birmingham Town Hall years ago and he looked world class. On the other hand some of his cod reggae excursions have been abysmal.
But Pine’s populist leanings were just what was needed for this closing festival set and needless to say with that line up the playing was terrific. Pine dedicated the first tune to Andy Hamilton which drew a massive cheer. Increasingly these days Pine’s principal mood of expression seems to be the bass clarinet and he produced an astonishing solo taking the instrument to places even Eric Dolphy couldn’t have imagined in a formidable display of technique and showmanship. Rahman, always a pleasure to see and hear weighed in with a dazzling passage of solo piano.
“Le Matin Est Noire” from Pine’s latest album “Transition In Tradition” paid homage to Sidney Bechet and included a feature for Pierre on acoustic guitar, duetting with Pine’s clarinet before embarking on a dazzling Django inspired solo of his own. Puente was also featured, first duetting with Pine before taking flight on electric violin.
“The Sound Of Jazz?” was a whistle stop tour of the music’s various styles and beyond with Pierre’s bebop runs, Puente’s Cuban flourishes and finally Pine on soprano riding deep reggae grooves.
“Au Revoir” with Pine on flute began slow and drifting before Pine called the band to a halt and decided to play it with a drum and bass beat with solos coming from flute, piano and Taylor’s muscular bass. The crowd who had been on their feet throughout responded enthusiastically. One group sent a flight of rather dodgy looking Chinese lanterns into the air as the party mood took hold.
Pine, the master of ceremonies descended from the stage and, still playing led a conga round the park, all ages, all ethnicities, this truly was a celebration and Pine’s whole populist stance started to make perfect sense.
Naturally the crowd didn’t want to let him go and the group played an encore of Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone” with Pine conducting the crowd as we sung the melody line back to him. Only the curfew saved him from being there all night.
In jazz terms Pine is a great showman and a great populariser of the music. Some would dismiss tonight’s set as all smoke and mirrors, a collection of dazzling musical set pieces with little real substance. But if jazz is to flourish we need popularisers like Pine. He stayed on to sell and sign CDs afterwards and hopefully got a whole bunch of new people into the music. Maybe some of those bought albums by Rahman, Puente and the others too, and let’s face it Pine’s “Afropeans” is a damn fine record in it’s own right.
This was a magical way to end the festival that I hope will become a fixture in my personal jazz calendar. The organisers got lucky with the weather but the running of the festival was superb with my only real quibble being the lack of lighting on the main stage. It was sometimes difficult to see the performers clearly even when you were up close.
The other gripe was the length of the queues in the beer tent. Everything seemed very slow despite the number of staff present. Four pint containers were on offer but they took so long to fill that the queues lengthened, maybe not an exercise to be repeated. At the end there was still plenty of unsold beer, presumably because people couldn’t be arsed to queue at ?3.50 a pint. Before Pine’s closing set it was announced from the stage that beer was reduced to a ?1.00 per pint almost provoking a stampede. I’ve no complaints about the quality though, the Pure Gold was delicious right until the end and I hope Purity get the franchise next year providing they can organise things a little better.
Mostly was a wonderful celebration of the British jazz and funk/soul scenes with a real emphasis on the music of the host city. The chilled out atmosphere may well appeal to those who miss the deliciously laid back vibe of Brecon Jazz’s much missed Stroller programme.
From my point of view Mostly was pretty much an unequivocal success. I hope it broke even financially and very much look forward to attending the event next year. In difficult times this was a fine example of music bringing people together. Long may it continue.
Ian’s star rating- 4 Stars