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There's No Such Thing as a British Jazz Scene

Bruce Lindsay By

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March and April 2010 were eventful months for JazzLife UK—my photo-documentary project on the jazz scene in Britain. Spring finally emerged from winter's grasp, snowdrops replaced snow drifts and jazz life got busier. Debates about jazz and the media took center-stage, at least for some of us, politicians limbered up for a General Election (I know the result, but I'll leave you in suspense until JazzLife UK #3), I was roundly chastised for my optimism and blatant lack of musical awareness and I was forced into a major paradigm shift in my thinking. I heard some great music, saw some terrific performances, took a lot of photographs and met yet more wonderful jazz people.

In Performance

Musically, it was a diverse and fascinating couple of months, with JazzLife UK visiting a variety of gigs in some unusual venues. Four trio gigs came along in quick succession and demonstrated all by themselves just how diverse jazz can be. Firstly, the Norfolk-based Chris Cooper Trio—Cooper on keyboard, Dave Pullen on double-bass and Neil Kane on drums—played a set of standards in the Norwich Arts Centre bar. Soon after, the Jim Mullen Trio performed at the Milestones Jazz Club in Lowestoft, a coastal town in the county of Suffolk. The club, in the cellar bar of the Hotel Hatfield, has the distinction of being the most easterly jazz club in Britain. Mullen has the distinction of being one of Britain's best, and best-loved, jazz guitarists and picks the strings with his thumb in a style reminiscent of Wes Montgomery. The Mullen trio favors a guitar, organ, drums line-up—Mike Gorman casts off his right shoe to play the organ, I never got the chance to ask why.

Back at Norwich Arts Centre, the main hall played host in quick succession to The Invisible and the Steve Howe Trio, two bands that fit less obviously into jazz but have clear jazz influences. The Invisible—Mercury Prize nominees in 2009—have a guitar, bass and drum combination that derives from rock but their influences are wide-ranging and jazz is obviously one of them. Guitarist Dave Okumu (pictured above, right) has played in Jade Fox and with Matthew Herbert, bassist Tom Herbert was also in Jade Fox and remains a member of Polar Bear, and drummer Leo Taylor has played with Matthew Herbert. On stage the band is dominated by the voice and physical presence of Okumu, but Herbert and Taylor create some gorgeous, mesmerizing, grooves to underpin Okumu's vocals.

The Steve Howe Trio is strictly instrumental. This is another guitar, drums, organ ensemble but its set list draws from a much wider base than Mullen's. Howe writes his own tunes, reworks songs from the Yes back catalog, and draws on compositions from his own jazz influences including Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. Howe's best known as the guitarist with rock giants like Yes and Asia, but his style is rooted in jazz. Drummer Dylan Howe (Steve's son) and organist Ross Stanley have experience across a range of genres—Dylan Howe's most recent project is a duet recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with pianist Will Butterworth on Stravinsky: The Rite Of Spring Part 1 (Motorik Recordings, 2010).

It wasn't all trios for JazzLife UK, of course. March ended with a most enjoyable quartet gig led by altoist Peter King (pictured above, right)—a veteran, Charlie Parker-inspired British jazzer who played the opening night of Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in 1959, aged 18. It was a pleasure to hear King's bop-influenced playing. For me, bebop always conjures up images of big-city cellar bars, but King was playing in the rural Norfolk setting of the Lyng Country Club, a place where fishing and indoor bowls competitions are the main focus of business. This was one of the regular weekly meetings of the Dereham Jazz Society, another great example of a small club run by enthusiasts which brings top players to out-of-the-way places—the Society even has its own compilation CD with tracks by some of the UK's best musicians.


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