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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.

Winfield delivered a beautifully-judged performance that moved from the subtlety and grace of "The Fields" and "I See Thy Form" to the powerful R&B of "Long John Brown And Little Mary Bell." His rendition of "Lullaby" was the evening's highlight—a beautiful performance that embodied the proud, slightly embarrassed, parent's love for their newborn child.

Phronesis

Over the course of five critically-acclaimed albums and a host of live performances, Phronesis has gained a reputation as one of the most exciting bands on the European jazz scene. The trio's Festival gig, the first date of a tour to promote Life To Everything (Edition Records, 2014), boosted that reputation still further.

Phronesis played at Diss Corn Hall, an 18th century trading hall in a small market town around 20 miles south of Norwich. It's not a regular stop on the UK touring circuit, but the festival organisers are cognisant of the Norfolk part of the festival's title. In Norwich, the band would have attracted a larger crowd, but Diss provided a sizeable and enthusiastic audience as well as an excellent selection of local beers in the cosy bar. The room's acoustics, coupled with a fine PA system, ensured that the evening's sound quality easily exceeded that of the Snarky Puppy concert.

Visually, the band's focus shifted between double bassist Jasper Hoiby—tall, slim, cool but frequently smiling—and drummer Anton Eger, constantly in motion, dynamic, hair flying back and forth across his face. The drummer played the entire gig wearing a buttoned-up, double-breasted jacket ("Such a lovely jacket," Høiby explained to the audience). The much less demonstrative Ivo Neame was dressed in black shirt and trousers, with black and white checked shirt cuffs: piano camouflage, almost as if he deliberately aimed to blend in with his instrument.

Musically, the focus was definitely evenly spread. Phronesis is occasionally referred to as a piano trio but that suggests the dominance of one instrument over the others. It's a trio of equals, as writers as well as players. It worked exceptionally well as an ensemble, each instrument shifting elegantly between rhythm and lead roles. Høiby, Neame and Eger are also superb soloists. At the Corn Hall it was difficult to pick out one player over another in terms of the skill and inventiveness they each brought to their solos, although Eger's dynamic, slow-burning, drum solo on "Behind Bars" was rewarded by the loudest audience applause.

Høiby proved to be an engaging front-man: self-effacing, conversational and funny, he quickly had the audience members on-side. The concert focussed on the music from Life To Everything. The album's range was readily apparent: from Neame's gentle "Phraternal" to the jaunty "Nine Lives"—the short, sharp, bass and piano phrases suggestive of a cat at play—through to the shifting grooves of "Deep Space Dance" and the drama of the evening's encore, "Dr Black." Phronesis delivered two consistently exciting sets, a killer combination of technical skill, almost telepathic interaction and strong compositions that left many better-known combos in its wake.

Camille O'Sullivan

The Spiegeltent is a Norfolk and Norwich Festival favourite. An intimate venue, seating around 250 people, the Spiegeltent (the name comes from the Dutch for "Mirror Tent") created an atmosphere that combined the circus, a sophisticated Salon and a bordello. It was the perfect setting for Camille O'Sullivan's arresting mix of cabaret, contemporary song, mystery and eccentricity.

O'Sullivan entered as the crowd was still settling down, moving through the centre aisle from the rear of the tent, stroking people's hair and stopping to exchange a few words. Her trio of guitar, keyboards and drums joined her on stage as she opened with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings' "Revelator."

Clad in a long black vintage style evening gown and matching head dress, the Irish singer looked like a glamorous and unpredictable Madame Arcati. Before too long she hitched up the dress and ditched the black headgear, morphing into a succession of new characters (and new hats) as she moved through her set.

O'Sullivan's song choices formed a veritable Who's Who of great contemporary songwriters, featuring work by Nick Cave, David Bowie, Tom Waits and Jacques Brel. She performed Brel's "Amsterdam" with almost frightening intensity, on the edge of the stage, challenging the audience with her tale of drunken, debauched and dying sailors. Kirsty MacColl's "In These Shoes"—the only song in the set that could be described as "light"—signalled the appearance of sparkly red shoes and a hint of S&M. For Waits' "All The World Is Green" O'Sullivan was joined by a musical box in the shape of a tiny songbird in a cage.

The set closed, as her 2010 NNF concert had done, with Cave's "The Ship Song." Once again, this was a showstopping performance. O'Sullivan has made this sad, lovely and mysterious song her own. Sung simply, with minimal backing, it captured the attention of every person in the Spiegeltent: the rapt silence gradually shifted as, one by one, the crowd began to quietly sing along. O'Sullivan left the stage and moved through the crowd again, leaving the musicians to sing a final chorus.

O'Sullivan returned for a short encore—Bowie's "Moonage Daydream"—but it was the Cave song that stayed in the memory on the journey home.

Photo Credit

Bruce Lindsay

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