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Norfolk And Norwich Festival 2015

Bruce Lindsay By

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Norfolk And Norwich Festival
Norwich, UK
May 8-24, 2015

With a program that includes dance, visual arts, site-specific theatre in city streets and ancient woodland and a few almost impossible to define events, a festival such as the annual Norfolk and Norwich Festival still manages to find space for jazz. The 2015 festival found space across a range of venues, for possibly the most exciting jazz line-up of recent years—hot jazz from the early decades of the twentieth century, contemporary jazz from some of the UK's brightest new players, jazz and European classical music sharing a single concert, acoustic jazz with a rock-influenced energy and drive, were all to be found and enjoyed.

Mammal Hands

As an arts festival, rather than a specialist music festival, the Norfolk And Norwich Festival programs a sometimes bewildering array of entertainment. Some events concentrate on a single art form, some bring different forms or genres together. So it was that Mammal Hands (pictured above), like Polar Bear on the previous Sunday night, found itself part of the Sunday Night Beat Club at Norwich Arts Centre. The up-and-coming Norwich trio headlined a bill that included spoken word performers and two folk bands—the Balkan-inspired Horo Quartet (featuring Mammal Hands' reeds player Jordan Smart) and the folk-rock flavored Fishclaw.

It may sound like an odd combination of bands, but it worked well. When push comes to shove, Norwich is much more in love with folk than jazz so Horo Quartet's cheerful Balkan tunes soon led to a minor outbreak of dancing towards the front of the crowd. Fishclaw's more complex and grandiose instrumentals calmed things down a little but the dancing continued, if rather self-consciously. The large crowd welcomed Mammal Hands like the three musicians were old friends, which in many cases they probably were.

A partisan audience always helps a band feel at home (a loud cry of "Welcome home" from one crowd member served to underline the audience support) but Mammal Hands, still with just one album to its name (Animalia, Gondwana Records 2014), is growing in confidence and extending its reputation well beyond its home city. Most of the set concentrated on tunes from the debut album, including the rollicking "Bustle," driven by Nick Smart's rolling piano phrase, and the gentler, more reflective "Mansions Of Millions Of Years." The three musicians are not the most demonstrative or visually exciting bunch of players, but they exuded a quiet authority and produced music with a pleasing mix of rhythm (enough grooves to ensure that some low-key dancing soon made a reappearance) and melody.

The Hot Sardines with John Etheridge

Guitarist John Etheridge played a short set in support of the Hot Sardines at the Theatre Royal. Those who know Etheridge through his role as guitarist in Soft Machine Legacy might well have been surprised by his appearance but he was Stephane Grappelli's guitarist back in the '70s and he's more than able to perform selections from the American Songbook.

Swapping between two electric guitars, Etheridge's set included tunes by John Scofield and Abdullah Ibrahim. He proved to have a warm and humorous stage presence—his routine about the innate coolness of bass guitarists as they perform their necessary but simple role in the band was laugh-out-loud funny (and presumably tongue-in-cheek). Two numbers stood out: a straight-ahead version of "Stormy Weather" and a beautiful take on Charles Mingus' elegy for Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," made even more poignant by Etheridge's dedication of the tune to the memory of B B King.

The Hot Sardines was what the sold-out crowd had come to see—the band did not disappoint. This was good time, old school, hot jazz at its best: a terrific combination of musicianship, showmanship, humor and tap dancing rolled into one entertaining package. Fronted by Miz Elizabeth Bougerol (aka Miz Elizabeth) and directed from the piano by the Fats Waller-inspired Evan Palazzo the Hot Sardines had the audience onside from the start—Bougerol's declaration of support for Norwich City football team did no harm either.

The Hot Sardines may take inspiration from the early decades of jazz, but the band is not in thrall to the strict tradition, which is to the good. The members all dress sharp but with a rather timeless quality, rather than attempting to conform to a strict '20s or '30s dress code. The touring 8-piece included seven of the line-up from the band's debut album, The Hot Sardines (Decca, 2014)—there's no guitarist in the touring line-up and valve trombonist Mike Sailors is a new addition. Individually and collectively they had the chops the music needed and the sass and charisma (Bougerol and Palazzo in particular) to ensure that a fine time was had by all.

The set list took in songs from the first decade of the twentieth century through to the seventh, each one delivered with flair. Bougerol is the lead vocalist and front person, but every one of the band's members has a strong visual image. Tap dancer Fast Eddie Francisco spent much of the time seated, his taps acting as additional percussion alongside Alex Raderman's kit drums, but his tap solos were loose-limbed yet elegant and garnered as much audience approval as the instrumental solos.

The Hot Sardines' set moved between fast tempo dance rhythms and slow ballads, a varied mix of classic songs. "Lady Be Good" featured Nick Myers' smooth clarinet; "Until The Real Thing Comes Along" incorporated Evan "Sugar" Crane's rich, romantic, double bass; a rousing "Charleston" gave the chance for the band to show that it wasn't only Francisco who could cut a rug. An encore of "I Wanna Be Like You," Bougerol singing the lyrics in French, ended the concert on a happy high.

Abdullah Ibrahim Trio

Abdullah Ibrahim's concert in the Theatre Royal the following evening was in complete contrast to the stagecraft and engagement of the Hot Sardines. From start to finish of the 80 minute performance no words were spoken to the audience, no announcement of song titles, no naming of his fellow musicians (regular trio member Noah Jackson was on bass and cello, but regular wind player Cleave Guyton's itinerary has him touring Australia with the Count Basie orchestra). It felt oddly detached, even when the three men took their closing bows, with Ibrahim almost forcing the others to the front of the stage. The promised upbeat township jazz was notably absent.

Ibrahim began with a 20 minute solo set of gentle, slow tempo, music. A few phrases from the pen of Thelonious Monk appeared—"Bemsha Swing" sticks in my possibly false memory—but there was little variation, no dynamic. Jackson and the wind player then joined him on stage, beginning with the evening's only upbeat, up-tempo, piece which put the spotlight firmly on the double bass. Jackson's fleet-fingered single note runs served to provide rhythm and melody, with the support of soprano sax. Ibrahim played little when the others were on stage, at times comping almost imperceptibly at others sitting out to leave us with a duo.

After Ibrahim's second short solo spot the wind player returned to the stage, bringing a clarinet to join his flute and soprano. Jackson also returned, this time with a cello. The second half of the set became a chamber jazz recital: refined, controlled, pretty but generally rather bland. Many audience members responded with some enthusiasm to the music, cheering and whistling as the musicians took their applause, but after a short encore the lights quickly went up and the applause just as quickly died down.

Neil Cowley Trio

The Neil Cowley Trio, appearing the following night at the Norwich Playhouse, burst with energy over the course of two sets of original tunes. For the first set the band played its 2014 album, Touch And Flee (Naim Jazz) in its entirety. The second set, as pianist and leader Neil Cowley quipped, was devoted to "the hits." These tunes—"Dinosaur Die," "Rooster Was A Witness," "His Nibs" and encore "She Eats Flies" among them—may not have troubled the Top 20 but their memorable hooks and rhythms, coupled with the trio's enthusiastic approach, meant that they readily caught the audience's imagination.

For the most part Cowley's playing was strong on rhythm, the pianist often beating out repeated chords with impressive energy. This gave drummer Evan Jenkins and bassist Rex Horan the chance to take on subtler, more melodic, roles with Horan often playing flowing lead lines. An exception was the pretty "Box Lily," which Cowley wrote soon after the birth of his daughter and played with great delicacy.

Chassol / Misha Mullov-Abbado Quintet

The Spiegeltent is always a popular festival venue and lends itself well to many different performances—circus, folk music and cabaret all featured here during 2015. Two contrasting jazz performances also took place and proved to be two of the joys of the festival.

Chassol is a young French keyboard player and composer. For his late-night concert (which overlapped with the Hot Sardines, causing me to miss the first third of his set) he presented his audio-visual project Indiamore (Tricatel, 2014). It was an intriguing work. The visual element was a film of musicians and singers in India. Parts of the film were edited, repeating short phrases of music or song in order to emphasise their rhythmic qualities—Chassol and drummer Jamire Williams, both seated in semi-darkness in front of the screen, then improvised over the film.

The movie's vibrant colors were reflected in the mirrored walls of the circular Spiegeltent, the Indian singers and musicians reverberated around the room. Chassol and Williams played sympathetically, never clashing with the on-screen performers—Williams was especially impressive, often playing with a deft lightness of touch that heightened the impact of Chassol's keyboards.

The Misha Mullov-Abbado Quintet played a lunchtime concert a couple of days later, attracting an almost full house to the Spiegeltent despite the relatively early start. Double bassist and composer Mullov-Abbado and his bandmates are all part of the seemingly endless group of young UK jazzers graduating from the music colleges. They were an engaging bunch, with the musical talent which we've now come to expect from jazz course graduates. However, problems with Mullov-Abbado's vocal microphone showed that they still lack the skill to deal with unforeseen difficulties and a rather grumpy audience member's shout of complaint seemed to affect their concentration for a few minutes.

No doubt such stagecraft will develop as these young men gather more experience. More importantly, the performance showed Mullov-Abbado's talent for compositions that took on a wide range of influences, a talent matched by the band's ability to play these compositions with admirable skill and empathy. Influences ranged from bebop on the lively "Grommit's Grand Day Out," with some fleet-fingered soloing from Mullov-Abbado, altoist Matthew Herd, pianist Liam Dunachie and trombonist Tom Green to the Latin swing of "Hair Of The Bop" and the hard-bop of encore "Lock, Stock and Shuffle." Honorable mention must go to "Satan Oscillates My Metallic Sonatas"—a fine title, even though the complex and dynamic tune never really matched its promise. Mullov-Abbado's arrangement of Earth, Wind and Fire's "September" was a surprising but fun part of the set—a version to excite the jazz fan, if not the habitués of the discotheque.

The Misha Mullov-Abbado Quintet has yet to release an album, although one is promised for the end of 2015. Definitely one to anticipate with pleasure, from an exciting new ensemble.

Aurora Orchestra/Man Overboard Quintet

The festival's jazz program closed with a fine collaborative concert from the Aurora Orchestra and the Man Overboard Quintet, in the historic St Andrew's Hall. The link between the chamber orchestra and the swing jazz combo is Thomas Gould, a rising star of the violin who is both the Orchestra's leader and a member of the Quintet.

Alongside classical pieces such as Jean-Philippe Rameau's Les Indes Galantes and Igor Stravinsky's Concerto In E Flat (Dumbarton Oaks) the program included Duke Ellington's "Jubilee Stomp" and the traditional "St James Infirmary," both arranged by Iain Farrington. The Man Overboard Quintet's first appearance was heralded by clarinetist Ewan Bleach, walking across in front of the stage as he played the first bars of "Jubilee Stomp" while Gould moved from his position in the Orchestra to join the band in its place on stage right.

The free-flowing energy and enthusiasm of the Quintet was readily taken on board by members of the Orchestra, most notably on a storming "Tiger Rag," where Aurora trombonist Simon Baker joined in with particular relish. Quintet vocalist Louisa Jones' distinctive voice was perfect for the melancholy stories of JC Johnson's "Travellin' All Alone" (arranged by Man Overboard Quintet bassist Dave O'Brien) and "St James Infirmary."

The concert closed with George Gershwin's "Porgy And Bess Fantasy." It's a pity that Jones wasn't given the chance to add vocals to any of the tunes, but Farringdon's beautiful arrangement and the superb musicianship of the Aurora Orchestra emphasised Gershwin's timeless melodies.

Photo Credit: Bruce Lindsay

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