Monday 29 July 2013

Manchester Jazz Festival, first weekend

Well, I’ve been having a half-arsed Manchester Jazz Festival so far (I write on the Monday following the first weekend on the Festival). I landed from Madrid on Friday, July 26, and could just have conceivably caught BBC Introducing at Manchester Jazz Festival, to be broadcast on Jazz on 3, but I decided to cool my heels, and so I can’t report on tomorrow’s jazz stars Metamorphic, Dominic J Marshall, Moonlight Saving Time and Twelveheads. 

Everything at the flat, I was relieved to find, was exactly as I remembered it, and the same might be said of MJF. It’s a Festival with a special identity: esoteric new music perhaps (and not strictly jazz) with the emphasis on listener-friendly creativity from obscure corners. 

Trish Clowes

On Saturday I received a good report of Yazz Ahmed from recently retired jazz promoter Denis Dundon, outside the Festival Teepee. He was particularly effusive about vibes player Lewis Wright. Dundon recalled how, when he presented Wright at his club, the combined total age of everyone in the band came to less than the age of a single member of the audience! He played a blinder, apparently (“Jim Hunt will have to watch his back”) and Asaf Sirkis (not mentioned in the publicity) excelled on the Arabic-tinged material, distinguished by Ahmed’s fine melodies and intricate writing. Dave Woonton came by like the March Hare, complaining that they were people leaving Trish Clowes’ Tangent, and the empty seats at the sell-out gig were were not being filled, and he didn’t have a ticket. Fortunately, I did, and she from what I was hearing, she was sounding very good indeed. 

At close quarters, she was excellent. Trish Clowes is a warm-toned tenor saxophonist with a feel for real straightahead jazz. Whereas guitarist Chris Montague’s terrain was bop and beyond. They shared the fertile middle ground but then he was take off on a fire-breathing guitar solo a la John McLaughlin, from another time frame altogether. It worked beautifully. 

And then came Ultra High Flamenco to ease my transition from balmy Madrid to turbulent Manchester.

Ultra High Flamenco

I will say here that the inhabitants of Madrid know how to extract the maximum pleasure out of life, and that goes equally for the serious musicians. Ultra High Flamenco sounded like the gypsies had taken over the conservatoire, and there was real fire and anarchy behind the impeccable musicianship, let loose by Alexis Lefevre’s highflying violin and Jose Quevedo’s snapping Spanish guitar, driven by Pablo Martin’s gut-strung double bass and Paquito Gonzalez’s tactile percussion (he concentrated on cajon, that percussion box to sit on and tap, but he even played the kit with bare hands). Ultra High Flamenco put the ‘head’ into ‘hedonism’ and deservedly won a standing ovation. 

(Incidentally, I notice UHF played Ciculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid less than 24 hours earlier, so they must have caught a later flight than me. Six o’ clock that morning, announced the English-speaking Martin from the stage. Could they have played with the same manic intensity if they weren’t super exhausted?)   

Sunday afternoon was taken up by Emilia Martensson with Ivo Neame from the Kairos stet accompanying on piano. Someone once sent me And So It Goes by Martensson in a batch of Babel (a previous batch of Babel), and I was impressed by the contrast of Martensson with virtually everything else. 

Sir John Soane Museum: upper...

... and going down

I thought of the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Do you know it? A typical Victorian eccentric, Soane collected art and anthropological curiosities and designed his house as a metaphor for civilisation. The sunlit, well-ordered upper floors represented enlightenment with every floor downwards becoming progressively darker and more claustrophobic. Corridors turn into labyrinths and the false walls confound the senses further. Suffice to say, the basement resembles Hammer House of Horror. 

Anyway in my analogy, Emilia’s CD occupied the sunlit upper space, whereas the other Babel releases descended downwards, with Bilbao Syndrome as the ultimate barbarity in the basement. For some reason, I couldn’t sustain the metaphor, and it wound up unfinished and unpublished. But say, isn’t Manchester Jazz Festival all sun-drenched and top floor? 

Emilia Martensson

Emilia Martensson is a personable singer of Swedish extraction whose many songwriting friends are talented up to a point. She loyally tried to represent them all, and was intermittently bewitching and sporadically captivating. Actually, I had to force myself to focus, and when I did, the lyric went something like “I shall dream my dreams by your side until morning comes…” and so I drifted off again. (I was struck by the encore, a song from the last Kairos 4tet, album, so perhaps Adam Waldman is the most talented of her circle.) Having said that, Martensson undoubtedly held the audience captive. She had help from the rain, which was beating a magnified tattoo on the canvas of the Teepee. 

I skipped Benoit Martiny Band, which might have been a mistake, and another heavy downpour, complete with sheets of lightning, frustrated my plan to see Kefaya on the evening. 

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