Ambleside Days Contemporary Jazz Festival 2019

Mike Collins By

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Ambleside Days Contemporary Jazz Festival
Ambleside, UK
August 29-September 1, 2019

'Music that requires a different kind of listening' were the words Derek Hook used, to describe the essence of the Ambleside Days Festival programme at the start of the third edition of this small but top quality festival.

Hook is festival director and founder of Zeffirellis, the restaurant and cinema business that hosts the event. Located in the centre of Ambleside, a town nestling amongst hills at the head of Lake Windermere, England's largest lake, it may be a surprising place to find a contemporary jazz festival, but Hook has built up an extensive network of contacts and friendships whilst promoting gigs there for most of the last forty years. Those friendships included the late John Taylor in whose memory the inaugural festival was organised, over a long weekend in 2017. It's Taylor's composition from which the festival takes its name.

Day 1

Pianist Gwilym Simcock and guitarist Mike Walker opened the first night of the 2019 festival with a duo set. They've been a central presence in each of the festivals, performing and helping to engineer collaborations each year. Their tuning-up quickly drifted into an improvised exchange, rippling piano chords mingling with trade-mark Walker muted cries from the guitar. An elegiac melody emerged, followed by a rhythmic joust, damped strings and percussive playing from both fizzing with energy before Walker spiraled off into a fluid, expressive solo and then, suddenly they were into a familiar sequence. "All the Things You Are," emerged through a blizzard of counterpoint. A version of "Ambleside Days" followed, then a guest appearance from violinist Thomas Gould to play Simcock's "Now We Know," before the duo closed out with a explosive version of "All Blues," played with a grooving funky shuffle. Their high-wire act, what was coming next never quite certain, was rapturously received.

For the second set, saxophonist Tim Garland, another Festival regular, brought a project based on Focus, Stan Getz's 1962 collaboration with composer and arranger Eddie Sauter. Garland has developed pieces and arrangements, based on the originals, creating a suite he's called Re-Focus. With Yuri Goloubev on bass, Asaf Sirkis on drums and a string section, Thomas Gould on violin again with the Singh Quartet, closely scripted string parts and more loosely defined roles for the trio made for close interweaving and a sense of interaction between the two elements. "I'm Late, I'm Late" scampered and scuttled, with mazy and furious flurries from strings echoed by drums and then bass. "Maternal" had a more yearning flavour, Garland's creamy-with-a-touch-of-bitter tone flowing easily over swirling strings. The suite was varied. Quickfire call and response of spikey phrases, austere textures, contrasted with soaring melodic accompaniment. Garland sounded effortless and inventive throughout breathing life and electricity into everything. It was the first of several compelling appearances from him during the festival.

Day 2

If the first evening stuck close to Derek Hook's script of music to listen to differently, relishing silence and different textures, the second evening offered some thrilling contrasts. First up was a solo set from Gwilym Simcock playing mainly material from his Near and Now (ACT, 2019) solo recording. It was a very personal set, the compositions all his own and dedicated to various inspirations. Simcock's trademarks were all there; dense, moving harmony, glittering runs, surging rhythmic pulse often with dancing implied triplet feel, leaping riffs in the lower register, often all that the same time as if somehow more than two hands were at work on the piano. His declared intent to play positive, soaring, melodic music more than realized in "Beautiful is our Moment" and "You're my You" a short, heartfelt melody dedicated to an early mentor Les Chisnall. There were darker, contemplative episodes creating shimmering, shifting textures but Simcock always seems to return to melody, albeit enriched and stretched by his harmonic imagination. He closed with a sublime reading of "My One And Only Love."

From the first chord of the set from Tommy Smith's Embodying the Light Quartet' there could hardly have been greater contrast. They launched straight into Pursuance, from the legendary Love Supreme album. This band was brought together to mark the Coltrane 50th anniversary and they inhabit the music with a fidelity both to the soundworld, and to its energy and spirit. Pianist Pete Johnstone gave an early flavour of what was to come as he built up from fragmentary phrases and motifs over shifting quartal voicings in his left hand, to a blistering tumult of patterns, layering rhythms on top of each other. He was burning. Smith, in total command of his instrument was similarly explosive and expressive. He showed also his capacity to move from the tender, fragile phrases on "Dear Lord," and "Naima" to agonized, almost demented extremities on his own "Transformations." On the encore, a Coltrane take on "Summertime," it seemed he may never stop, in true Coltrane style. This was a homage, but one that nevertheless seemed a very personal expression of these musicians. Although there were fewer moments in the spotlight, Calum Gourlay on bass and Sebastian De Krom on drums were extraordinary, a relentless, propulsive force together that kept the pot boiling for the entire set.

Day 3

An afternoon gig the following day provided the perfect palette cleanser. Virtuosic, Dutch, harmonica player Hermine Deurloo teamed up with singer and violinist Alice Zawadzki and pianist Les Chisnall a line-up that drew a sizeable crowd. When we got there, Mike Walker had joined and later in the set, they added percussionist Asaf Sirkis. A feature of the festival, with many musicians staying the weekend, is some spontaneous collaborations. They found a hatful of pieces that seemed to assume an understanding of 'less is more,' whilst having a quiet, zestful energy. This was a first meeting and not everything gel-ed immediately, but there was no mistaking the chemistry at work, a collective feeling for the delicate but buoyant character of the music and the sparkle of magic as they found a way to play together. The Ambleside Days formula had worked its magic.
About Gwilym Simcock
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