Scarborough Jazz Festival: Scarborough, UK, September 28-30, 2012

Duncan Heining By

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Scarborough Jazz Festival
Scarborough, UK
September, 28-30, 2012
Now in its tenth year, Scarborough Jazz Festival is a fixture in the UK's jazz calendar. Situated on the east coast of North Yorkshire, Scarborough's heyday was in the Victorian era, when coaches would pull up outside hotels like The Royal or The Crown to disgorge wealthy patrons wanting to take the waters in the local spa. Unlike other British spa towns such as Bath, Cheltenham and Leamington, Scarborough has lost the gloss that wealth and affluence brought to the town. Yet it has its own slightly down-at-heel charm and nothing can detract from the beauty of its setting around two bays.
These days the Spa is an entertainment complex, home to the usual eclectic mix of performances from ballet and classical music to tribute bands and standup comedians. At the end of each summer, however, these make way for a three day festival of excellent jazz, all extremely well-organized by the local jazz club and Festival Director, Mike Gordon.

Some regional festivals specialize in styles—big bands, trad or mainstream, for example. Scarborough's a little different. It's generalist in approach and, if it leans towards the modern-mainstream, it still likes to dip a toe or two in more adventurous waters. On this year's final afternoon, two newish bands offered just such a hint of adventure, leading a willing audience into, what was for some, unchartered territory.

Rhythmica owes its origins to bassist Gary Crosby's Tomorrow's Warriors project in South London. Its music occupies that kind of Branford Marsalis/Terence Blanchard space that owes more than a little to mid- to late-sixties Blue Note, yet it also has something of its own. Their usual saxophonist, Zimbabwean Zem Audu, was absent on this occasion, his place taken admirably by Binker Golding. In fact, the intriguing thing was that as well as Golding, the band was using a new bassist in Rob Astley and yet their presence changed Rhythmica's sound not one beat. Of course, in managing change, it helped to have a pianist of the caliber of Peter Edwards, but then he was just the most immediately striking in a quintet of quite outstanding young musicians. In fact, it seemed that, if anything, Rhythmica has developed an even greater sense of identity since its eponymous 2010 release on Dune Records.

In a way, it's hard to say quite what it is that made the group's music seem so fresh and new. After all, no jazz fan reared on hard bop could find this music difficult. It swung. It had drive and confidence and there were little occasional hints towards abstraction. Yet it felt like more than just a case of an older form being revisited. It was partly due to the role played by the rhythm section. Rob Astley's bass sounded quite percussive in the mix—not just an anchor but a definite and defining pulse. And the way he linked with Andy Chapman's bass drum brought a Siamese twin to mind—two hearts but effectively one conjoined body. That hard backbeat within a still flowing and subtle rhythm section provided an enormously strong platform for the soloist and that, in turn, allowed for a powerful sense of drama and dramatic tension in Rythmica's music.

Rhythmica is at its best when eschewing standards or a more easy descent into Marsalis/Young Lions territory, though its take on Herbie Hancock's "The Sorcerer" was strikingly dark in mood. Its "Mr. J.J." was a case in point—beautifully executed but missing its own personal stamp. There is a Rhythmica way of doing things and the group needs to have the confidence to follow its own lead. Peter Edwards' "Solace" and "Triple Threat—The Build" and "Blind Man's Bluff," the latter with its echoes of old and present-day New Orleans, gave a better idea of a personal, expressive style in the process of forming. At its best, it was almost theatrical, and there was a palpable sense of excitement when the group's excellent trumpeter, Mark Crown, or very impressive saxophonist, Goldings, came to the mike.

But it was a style in formation, which indeed it should be at this point. There was, perhaps, too great a reliance on well-trodden paths and in its writing not enough attention to thematic development, but these things will come in their own time. The progress Rhythmica has already made since its debut shows how quickly it's getting there.

Bassist Jenni Molloy's music came from a very different place. Her starting point lies with Bach's cello suites and solo violin sonatas and partitas, which, given her classical training, is perhaps not surprising. However, the way she took these source materials into jazz was simply inspired. It wasn't a matter of exploring how Bach might sound played à la mode jazz—after all, both pianists Jacques Loussier and John Lewis and others have done that. Her aim was to take Bach on a journey through the many worlds of jazz.

Molloy's Bach ReLoaded project featured Stuart MacDonald on saxophones and Chris Sykes on drums and percussion, and for this performance they were augmented by Gary Gillyatt on guitar, banjo and balalaika. They began the journey from below the Equator in Argentina, where baroque already meets the local dance form, opening with the sinuous and sexy "Prelude and Piazzolla Tango." MacDonald was a fine saxophonist with a light touch on tenor and soprano, while Sykes proved a thoughtful, articulate yet propulsive drummer. Molloy's bass was appropriately forthright and upfront, combining long echoing notes with staccato runs. More than that she could swing—all qualities well in evidence here.

Molloy's geography, however, clearly wasn't too hot, as their next point of arrival was Abu Dhabi by way of Bradford. Gary Gillyatt joined at this point on balalaika, its twangy, elastic sound echoing perhaps the oud, the sitar or tambura on "Footprints in the Sarabande." As Molloy made clear, the music now resonated with the Muslim call to prayer. Was it surprising to find Johann Sebastian in such company? Less than one might imagine, perhaps. The late 17th and early 18th century saw Central Europe living almost cheek by jowl with the Ottoman Empire. It might not be a cozy relationship, but in the hands of Molloy's trio it was a productive one. From there, we were directed to America's Deep South with its country and blues accents reinforced by Gary Gillyatt's banjo, and from there to South Africa, District 6 and the Cape Flats with "District 6 Revisited," all enlivened by the sensuous, dancing rhythms of township and kwela.

It was a heady but also funky and even primal music that the Jenni Molloy Trio fashioned from these curious but somehow fitting musical appropriations. Importantly, it worked. As with Rhythmica, it was a music still en route and yet to arrive, but in both cases the journey itself was fascinating and part of the fun. With Bach ReLoaded, there was a sense that this set might have worked better in a club than on the concert stage. Perhaps there wasn't quite enough dynamic contrast. Yet, it's the potential of both groups that is most intriguing. Molloy's ideas could be heard expanding into larger ensembles using all manner of non-western instruments and electronics to fine effect. At the same time, Rhythmica could be imagined tackling the brooding, abstract territory of mid-seventies Miles Davis, acoustically rather than electrically, with vision and skill. Both will probably follow their own, distinct paths but the fact that such potential can be heard in their current musical locations promises much and shows just how fine both bands already are.

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