Music: Review: Bristol International Jazz & Blues Festival 2017

Tony Benjamin, March 20, 2017

The big headliners went down a storm, the young hotshots proved their worth, the legends lived up to their names, the jam sessions were jammed and the local talent kept things sparkling in the Foyer. In short – this year’s Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival can count itself a major success. OK, so maybe Macy Gray could have been more punctual, but that didn’t seem to diminish the love from the crowd when she did finally stagger onstage for the festival’s closing session and it was great to see her band turn up later to jam with the rest at Bambalan.

Hers was a sell-out event, as had been Quantic’s Friday set at O2 Academy and the remarkable Sounds for Spies and Private Eyes (above) on Saturday – a specially commissioned evening of classic film and TV music brought stunningly to life by the Heritage Orchestra with the Bruce-Ilett big band and the judicious skills of Adrian Utley on guitar and Will Gregory’s electronica. There was even a cameo for the great Pee Wee Ellis for The Pink Panther theme.

The big band had a pretty relentless festival, in fact, with the horns playing for Andy Sheppard’s Metropolis soundtrack on Thursday (another special commission) and the whole caboodle driving Friday’s Big Swing dance session as well as veteran trumpeter Bobby Shew’s tribute to My Friend Dizzy on Sunday afternoon. It says a lot for their collective stamina and musicianship that Mr Shew (above) paid such fulsome tribute to their playing throughout.

The band weren’t needed for Mud Morganfield’s Saturday set, Muddy Waters’ son (above) providing a definite highlight of the festival’s blues strand, delivered with proper showmanship, a supersharp suit and gravel-voiced Chicago authenticity that nicely capped the preceding blues guitar pyrotechnics of Robben Ford and Kirk Fletcher.

Previous festivals have seen some splendid acts play to a half-empty Lantern so it was very gratifying to see big queues and capacity audiences rewarded by groundbreaking contemporary jazz performances in the smaller venue. Trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s atmospheric and ambient music (above) drew on her Bahreini heritage, with Ralph Wyld’s vibraphone and Martin France’s drumming real bonuses, while bass playing superstar Jasper Høiby stepped aside from the mighty Phronesis with new project Fellow Creatures. This was a multi-generational jazz quintet playing more structured and arranged music than his other band and it featured Laura Jurd on trumpet whose own electro-acoustic Dinosaur set was one of the weekend’s finest hours.

Her music for Dinosaur (above) pitted the writhing Elliot Galvin’s keyboard electronica with her own processed trumpet and electronics, while Conor Chaplin’s bass and (fellow-Fellow Creature) Corrie Dick’s drumming were unobtrusively brilliant throughout. Naturally the shadow of Miles Davis hung over them but this was their music, rooted in another time and place.

There was one sadly under attended gem, however, when Jason Rebello (above) performed his solo piano set at lunchtime on Saturday. Those who caught this were rewarded with an hour of absolutely beautiful music, played to perfection (despite an apparent lack of caffeine), with a powerful stride piano tribute to Errol Garner and a Keith Jarrett style deconstruction of Every Little Thing She Does is Magic showing the breadth of his musical imagination. It was a blissful moment of calm in complete contrast to the raucous horseplay between saxophonists Gilad Atzmon and Alan Barnes later that day, their good humoured banter nearly as entertaining as their bebop-driven reedsmanship.

As always the free programme in the Foyer kept the building thronging throughout the weekend, providing a great showcase for some of the many fine local acts and musicians. Special mention should go to guitarist Kit Morgan’s appearance with The Sneakers and the Jim Blomfield Trio (above) who previewed some of the electro-prog numbers being developed for their new album.

And, finally, it was clearly a wise choice to move the late-night jam session over the road to Bamalan. Past year’s arrangements have been shaky, to say the least, but this was ideal, with a good performing area and space for a proper crowd to enjoy the music and many of the festival’s performers finding their way over. Trumpeter Nick Malcolm’s firm hand on the comings and goings seemed to keep things running very smoothly and it became a real asset to the festival’s programme as a result.

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