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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.

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