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Holt Festival: Holt, UK, July 25, 2012

Holt Festival: Holt, UK, July 25, 2012
Bruce Lindsay By

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Holt Festival
Holt, UK
July 25, 2012
Holt, in Norfolk, is a pretty East Anglian market town that nestles in pleasant, almost stereotypical, English countryside. It's home to a mere 3,500 people, but it punches way above its weight artistically and culturally, seeming to have more art galleries than Manhattan. In recent years it has developed a thriving and innovative Arts Festival which, in 2012, played host to some exceptional performers from the UK jazz scene, including a night devoted to concerts by three of the UK's top vocalists: Christine Tobin, Liane Carroll and Ian Shaw.

The festival was established in 2008: a multi-arts festival, it incorporates drama, poetry, visual arts and children's events as well as music. Festival Director Delaval Astley, who took on the role for the 2012 festival having been Chair of the Festival Board in 2011, is the man responsible for arranging most of the program, including the jazz performances. He acknowledges that he's not an expert on jazz—"I know virtually nothing about it," he says. "My record collection stops around 1960"—but he is clearly a man with a great ear for top quality musicians and a pleasing willingness to explore widely in search of festival performers.

Astley's aim in programming these concerts was to book singers whose appeal went beyond the relatively small specialist jazz audience. He made wise choices, selecting three exciting and innovative acts whose own inspirations include '70s pop music, the Great American Songbook, and contemporary songwriters such as Carole King, David Bowie and Joni Mitchell, as well as classic jazz. In Carroll and Shaw he also booked performers with a fine sense of comic timing.

Festival events took place in venues across the town, including a Festival Club at the Lawns Hotel, which played host to a concert by singer and cellist Ayanna. The Theatre In The Woods, a 900-seat amphitheatre in woodland close to Holt, was the venue for the festival's closing event, a concert by saxophonist Courtney Pine.

The concerts featuring Tobin, Carroll and Shaw took place in the Auden Theatre, in the grounds of Gresham's School, a venerable English public school founded in 1555. The theatre (named after the poet W. H. Auden, a Gresham's Old Boy) is a modern, cozy 300-seat venue with excellent acoustics and sightlines: a terrific venue for the intimate, engaging, performances on which all three singers thrive. The night was divided into two separate events; Tobin's concert in the early evening then Shaw and Carroll's later on.

Christine Tobin

Tobin, originally from Dublin but now resident in England, has a deserved reputation for her vocal talents and her ability as a songwriter. This concert was devoted to her latest project, in which Tobin pays tribute to the great Irish poet W B Yeats. Apart from the opening song, a traditional tune which Tobin sang in Irish and English, the set consisted of 10 songs from Sailing To Byzantium (Traile Belle, 2012), a set which combines Yeats' poetry and Tobin's music with great success.

Tobin (pictured right) performed with a quartet of exceptional musicians, all long-term collaborators and all of whom also played on the album—only flautist Gareth Lockrane was absent from the lineup. Tobin was in superb voice, her clear tone and precise diction ensured that every word could be heard. Her total engagement with Yeats' work readily transmitted itself from the stage, especially on the more romantic poems such as "When You Are Old" and "The Wild Swans At Coole."

Each band member made distinctive individual contributions. Pianist Liam Noble and bassist Dave Whitford took control of the rhythms of each song with confidence. Whitford's arco playing was especially effective, while Noble constructed his solos with imagination, occasionally reaching into the body of the piano to add brief pizzicato flourishes. Cellist Kate Shortt contributed flowing melodic lines and quick staccato phrases, her rich melancholy playing on "In Memory Of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markievicz" beautifully capturing Yeats' longing for the memory of past times, and her repeated three-note phrase on "The Fisherman" proving to be simple but effective punctuation. Guitarist Phil Robson underpinned many of these tunes with his mellow, beautifully judged chordal washes. His introduction to "The Wild Swans At Coole" and his fluid melodic single note solo on "The Fisherman" were beautifully empathetic.

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