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Norfolk And Norwich Festival 2014

Norfolk And Norwich Festival 2014
Bruce Lindsay By

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Norfolk And Norwich Festival
Norwich, UK
May 9-25, 2014

From a refurbished high street bank, to a 15th century church, via a Georgian trading hall and a 100-year-old travelling mirror tent, the 2014 Norfolk and Norwich Festival's jazz program covered a range of venues that offered plenty of history, quirkiness and decorative variation. The music added its own variety, from dance grooves to moments of extreme beauty, from 18th century mysticism to 21st century funk. It was a good year for jazz at the NNF.

A multi-arts festival such as this one covers such a broad spectrum of work that a single strand is likely to vary in strength from year to year. The 2013 jazz strand had been disappointing: relatively few performers and an underwhelming appearance from the Bad Plus. The 2014 program was much stronger. Big name acts Hugh Masakela and Madeleine Peyroux filled the Theatre Royal—the largest of the festival's many venues—but it was the smaller-scale gigs that proved to be the most interesting and rewarding.

Snarky Puppy / The Comet Is Coming

The Comet Is Coming arrived, as all good comets used to do, without warning or fanfare. Indeed, many audience members seemed unaware that a support band was actually due to be part of the evening's entertainment. The trio wasted no time, blasting its beats across Open (a revitalised former bank) from the off. Gratifyingly, the insistent rhythms soon led to spontaneous outbreaks of dancing—not bad for a support act at a jazz gig.

The band's combination of Shabaka Hutchings's short, repetitive, staccato tenor sax phrases, Dan Leavers' keyboards and swooshing electronics, and Max Hallett's powerhouse drumming created some hard-hitting grooves. The audience needed no time to think about what was being presented: this was visceral and exciting stuff.

On the night, the mix often worked against Hutchings and rendered his tenor almost inaudible at times: a pity, as his powerful playing was a key part of the band's sound. However, the trio's energetic mix of jazz, techno and dance influences cut through, creating a positive response from the crowd that bodes well for the band's future.

Thirty minutes later, The Comet Is Coming was gone.

Snarky Puppy appeared soon after. Something of a coup for Festival organisers, the band's appearance had been well-publicised and the hall looked filled to capacity. Snarky Puppy proved to be a slick, polished, band and, like The Comet Is Coming, its tunes were catchy, immediate and easy to engage with. The music sat somewhere between the funk of the Average White Band and the jazz and hip-hop influenced Jaga Jazzist, but the band's spirit also seemed close to the '40s dance band era—a (relatively) large combo, playing music for dancing, looking like it's enjoying itself and projecting that enjoyment out to the audience. Once again, outbreaks of dancing spread wide: including one group of young women whose style owed more to Kate Bush than any jazz dance.

Snarky Puppy aren't pushing any envelopes—but then this wasn't a crowd that was looking for the cutting edge. People wanted a good time, the band gave them a good time. Job done.

The Westbrook Blake

The Westbrook Blake—the words of English visionary poet William Blake (1757-1827) set to music by composer and pianist Mike Westbrook—offered a marked contrast to the Snarky Puppy concert of the previous evening. St Peter Mancroft was the venue, a church that was already 300 years old when Blake was born and which contains memorials to some of the poet's contemporaries. It demanded a respectful and hushed audience, and that's what it got.

The program featured just under a dozen of Blake's poems. Mike Westbrook led a quartet of musicians, including the consistently excellent accordionist (and occasional backing vocalist) Karen Street, along with two singers—Kate Westbrook and John Winfield.

Blake's poetry is among the most accessible in the English language, filled with striking imagery that still resonates today. His words need little assistance to achieve their impact. For the most part, musicians and singers gave Blake's words the space to breathe, to deliver their message. The venue's sound quality was excellent, the singers' delivery clear and precise. However, there were occasions when Kate Westbrook's delivery diminished the impact of the words. This was most obvious during "A Poison Tree"—one of the most dramatic of the chosen poems. Steve Berry's meaty double bass created a suitably doomy atmosphere, but the vocalist's melodramatic approach to the lines moved at least two audience members to inappropriate bursts of laughter.

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