Various venues, Lichfield, Staffordshire UK
25 & 26-06-2016
Conflicting commitments, together with the name of this blog, meant that I concentrated on the jazz content of the Lichfied Arts festival. What was offered was a good mix of contemporary jazz, from large groups to small, from younger players to older ones, from relative mainstream to swing to jazz-rock.
Aside from making a modest contribution to the on-the-street performance by Lichfield Arts’ community big band Blast Off! on Saturday morning, my first event was a double bill of two youthful, large ensembles: Birmingham Jazz Orchestra and the Callum Roxbrugh (Swing) Orchestra.
The latter were the clear crowd-pleasers with a set that included Glenn Miller swing, an original tune or two, and some of the charts from the 2005 Paul Anka album Rock Swings – big band versions of songs like Spandau Ballet’s True, Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life and Oasis’s Wonderwall – which were entertaining then and still raise a smile today. Keyboardist Tom Lindsay sang them well. What Roxburgh has done is constructed a versatile 11-piece band and material that has wide appeal outside jazz confines while still staying true to high jazz standards and demanding fine jazz chops.
Birmingham Jazz Orchestra is even bigger at 17 musicians, and it has higher ambitions too. This is a band created by the coterie of young Birmingham Conservatoire graduates, led by trumpeter/composer Sean Gibbs, with the intention of being a vehicle for original compositions. So far it has recorded two suites of music – one by Gibbs and inspired by the poetry of Robert Burns, the other musicial portraits of five cities by pianist/composer Jacky Naylor. Both were played live in their entirety on Saturday and both were simply superb – or should that be far-from-simply superb.
The quality of the writing by both composers, the meticulous and highly professional way the music has been prepared – trombonist Tom Dunnett told me afterwards that one of the reasons he so enjoys playing with the BJO is the high quality of the written music – together with the playing of the orchestra, which is not only expert at reading the dots and giving the music shape but also brings their combined positive energy to the whole project – for all these reasons I think this band is the most exciting summation of all the ingredients that go together to making Birmingham an increasingly crucial jazz city, not only in this country but in Europe (if we are still allowed to care about the continent that I have always considered the UK to be a vital part of) as well.
Special solo applause to Chris Young and Elliot Drew on alto saxophones, Alex Astbury on trumpet and Gareth Fowler on guitar, and a standing ovation for the whole orchestra and the two composers/conductors. All their performances on Saturday were a complete joy.
Before calling it a day I popped across from Lichfield Guildhall to Wade Street Church and caught the first set of the Steve Waterman Quartet – Steve on trumpet and flugelhorn, Gareth Williams on piano, Alec Dankworth on double bass and Dave Barry on drums.
These are all excellent and very experienced musicians, and a gig with Williams at the piano will always have its pleasures, but I confess that if I never hear another set of familiar tunes played in head/solos/head form with precious little arrangement in the accompaniment I will not be lamenting. It’s not that it’s terrible, it’s just so lazy and unimaginative. It’s like watching four fairly good golfers playing a round – they need never have played together before, but they know the rules and they can each hit the ball straight and putt it true, but in the end what is acheived is only 50% at most of what is possible.
You want an example of a much higher percentage of what’s possible, maybe 80% or more? Well, how about the quintet I heard on Sunday afternoon in the grand upstairs room at the George Hotel. At the helm was another trumpeter, this one young enough to be Steve Waterman’s son. With Nick Dewhurst, for it was he, were Callum Roxburgh on tenor, Tom Lindsay on piano/organ, Tom Moore on bass and Carl Hemmingsley on drums.
This band has probably played fewer gigs than Waterman’s – it has been together for a year, the first performance being at this same festival last June – but even on standards like Love For Sale or Easy Living there is a more imaginative arrangment, the sense that the band has probably rehearsed, an interesting sense of development during a solo, not just from the soloist but from his accompanists too, the feeling that the musicians are thinking much more of a group sound and character. Crucially, there is no sense of a tired procession of solos.
The festival ended with a bang – in fact a whole load of bangs – from the drums of Mark Fletcher, deputising for regular Zappatistas sticks man Mike Bradley. To say Fletcher was enjoying himself would be to state the obvious, as would to suggest that he was far too loud. But such Frank Zappa classics as Peaches en Regalia, The Grand Wazoo, Sofa No.1 and Eat That Question sound marvellous at any volume, and lead ’tista John Etheridge is a guitarist who blends wisdom and power into an intoxicating brew.
Categories: Live review