Birmingham Conservatoire’s Head of Jazz Jeremy Price reports on the award night and applauds a jazz competition that turned into a jazz celebration.
Last Saturday I went to hear the Final of the BBC Young Musician Jazz Award at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. The television broadcast will be on BBC Four on 13 May 13, so if you want to watch this without knowing the outcome, don’t read any further. Those of you who can’t or won’t shelter from multi-media sources and already know the winner, go ahead.
I’ll start with a bit of a lead in to the competition itself. The BBC Young Musician of the Year, the classical version, has been running since 1978, was broadcast on BBC1 prime time and achieved 12 million viewers in its heyday. It’s worth noting the shift in cultural landscape since then, as not only have the likes of Britain’s Got Talent and X-Factor bumped this competition out of prime time slots, they probably don’t achieve anywhere near these viewing figures. Cultural progress?
The jazz award was introduced in 2014 and as both competitions are biennial this was only the second jazz award. This year the age limit (for jazz only) has been raised to 21 which opened things up to undergraduate level. This widening of the field is helpful and welcome as good creative improvising requires a little more time to mature than interpretative musical skills, plus, due to educational culture in the UK, young improvisers are considerably more scarce than hot-housed young classical musicians.
The build-up to the final has been a good adventure, with Birmingham Conservatoire fielding several semi-finalists and one of these, pianist Elliot Sansom, got through to the televised final. There has been much media interest around Elliot and BBC film crews have visited the Conservatoire, creating a good deal of positive publicity around our department. Thanks Elliot! This has been great for everyone associated with the jazz course and for Birmingham in general.
The other finalists were all claimed by the Royal Academy, two undergraduates, Tom Ridout and Tom Smith, and two juniors, Alexandra Ridout and Noah Stone. And yes that’s not a typo; you spotted two Ridouts, brother and sister in the same competition.
The day of the final arrives at last and this sees a veritable turn out of jazz musicians and jazz educators at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Theirs is a really impressive building in a fabulous setting. It really throws down the gauntlet for the Conservatoire’s new-build next to Millenium Point. The venue was the Dora Stoutzker Hall, which made an excellent TV studio and had a perfect acoustic. There was a great atmosphere and sense of occasion and, I’m pleased to say, a lot of camaraderie and mutual support across the board. This was becoming less a competition and more a celebration of amazing young jazz talent and the education scene in the UK that gives them the opportunities to develop. The BBC provided a pre-concert reception which was a nice opportunity to catch up with friends and meet the very passionate BBC people connected with the competition.
The panel was revealed: Tim Garland, Zoe Rahman, Gwyneth Herbert, Byron Wallen with Julian Joseph as chair. Of course you can’t help yourself but try and predict which of the young musicians are more likely to be favoured by which panelist, but with this panel selection, I think it genuinely threw things wide open. There was a very broad aesthetic within jazz represented here and no sense of knowing what might hit the spot with the judges. The rhythm trio to accompany the finalists were Gwilym Simcock, Yuri Goloubev and James Maddren.
Saxophonist Tom Ridout started the evening. Two originals plus Stella… and Infant Eyes. A balanced set and obvious instrumental competence. Where do ubiquitous saxophonists in the jazz world go to get an original take on the music? The recorder apparently. Wise use of change in tone colour for the set. A fluent and agile improviser. Very impressive confidence and delivery.
Our man, Elliot Sansom from Solihull was next. I’m biased of course but I heard great poise and real improvising, rich harmonic palette, very engaging, organic and thematic melody unfolding. Yuri Goloubev on bass and James Maddren on drums seemed to relish being let off the leash to improvise rather than merely accompany, so I felt sure we were listening to the winner. Elliot’s opening original had great interplay with the drums and Yuri seemed to be having fun holding it all down so the others could spin off each other. A very beautiful ballad, Tramonto by Ralph Towner, followed, with Yuri taking a very prominent role, again clearly enjoying the three-way piano trio conversational format. Closing was Solar; lots of risks with harmonic and rhythmic obfuscation, showing high level sophisticated improvising. Like all the candidates, Elliot was cool under the pressure with boom cameras winging around his head all the while.
Third on was Alexandra Ridout on trumpet and flugel. Myself and Nick Smart quipped that anyone on brass should win by default because the instrument takes so much more effort to get to base camp than all the others. Alexandra has a really beautiful tone; clear and pure as a classical player but with really authentic jazz articulation and feel. It was a great pleasure to hear the instrument played so well. Her programme was well balanced and very musical and her melodic lines were always satisfying and eloquent. Loquacious, bubbly and gleaming was her set. The rhythm section were very artful in accompanying her, sensitively setting her off and framing every move. By the time she played her final tune, the funky Golden Lady by Stevie Wonder, it was clear she was a contender to win despite her considerably younger age.
Fifteen-year-old Noah Stoneman was next. A really confident and relaxed performance. Incredibly rare to have this amount of language down at this age. He chose to trade solos with Gwilym for the last tune. Again the rhythm section were super-pros and knew just how to pitch things for the candidate.
Lastly, we had saxophonist Tom Smith. He presented a very mainstream set and served it up straight down the middle. Perhaps he thought this was the best tactic having been in the competition before. His second attempt as finalist presented many facets we expect from the tenor sax; warm fat sound and good swing feel. It was a good finale set and we could tell this seasoned pro was having fun.
Intervals for deliberations of the panel and guesswork from the audience. Julian Joseph announced Alexandra Ridout as the winner. Regardless of who you were rooting for, who could fail to be pleased with this outcome. She thoroughly deserved this and will definitely capitalize on the opportunities that will come from it. Brother Tom was gracious in his younger sister’s success and led the way in transcending “competition” into “celebration” of young musicians. I think we were just so delighted for the Ridout family over all.
And finally, for those of you still with the patience to lumber to the end of my very long and rambling review, some thoughts on jazz, competitions, and the scene. Can this competition be tweaked to be more jazz? Have we inherited the format of the classical competition and should this have been used as the blueprint? How about the rhythm section being part of the panel? Can the producers be looser with the time restrictions so that the candidates don’t have to box themselves in to set numbers of choruses or worry about over running? And for you cultural theorists: where is the status of this competition relative to the classical award and other TV talent competitions?
Categories: Live review