Monday 28 July 2014

Manchester Jazz Festival Pt 3, Fri 25-Sun 27 July, with Matt Owens, Papanosh, Beats & Pieces, Parshmaune, Sam Healey, Paradise Trio, The Music Place Choir

Friday 25, Day 7 

Matt Owens

Keys is the subtitle of Matt Owens’ performance at St Ann’s Church, and there, squeezed in front of the altar-rails beside a grand piano, electric keyboard, two microphones and a tangle of cables, is a sculpture of keys hanging on strings. This is a sure indication that Kirsty Almeida is involved, because Kirsty excites creative energy across the boundaries. And so does Kirsty’s long-standing accomplice, Matt Owens. There is no doubt that Owens is a excellent bassist and peerless accompanist, but his own music is rich with a sense of limitless possibility.

David Muñoz, Matt Owens and John Ellis 

The opening piece - David Muñoz on piano and John Ellis on keyboard flank Owens on upright bass – sounds like the theme from some lush, glamorous and exciting film, perhaps made in the sixties. Rather prosaically, it has the working title, ‘New Idea’. The next piece, again freshly minted, is a tune with a gospel flavour called ‘Ray’. Its dedicatee is visible in the apse to the side, listening intently, and cradled in his mother’s arms. Then Kirsty puts down little Ray, takes a few steps to the altar front, and proceeds to sing a luminous new song called ‘Restless’, with music by Owens. 

It’s clear by now that Matt Owens has a genius for swooning melodies and is a pastoralist in the venerable musical tradition of George Butterworth, John Taverner and Mike Westbrook: his prowess on bass is just an incidental spin-off.  The realisation dawns on everyone in St Ann’s Church: this is my lucky day. 

And fortune continues to smile: with a playful piece described as “Tchaikovsky meets tango”, a spiritual invocation on which Ellis plays the church organ (an especially memorable moment, this) and an exploration of Latin America in tandem with pianist David Muñoz, who, with bursting heart, offers an unpremeditated autobiographical sketch (born in Chile in 1973, a terrible time and place). 

It’s less like a concert and more like being clasped to the bosom of an affectionate family, the experience was so intimate and, at times – like the communal singing during ‘Going Back to the Village’ – a sweet, sweet embarrassment.

David Muñoz, Kirsty Almeida and John Ellis 


Papanosh (Festival Pavilion) are so French. But how? I mean, they eschew obvious signifiers like berets and striped jerseys and all those other silly cliches. Yet the fact remains: their music owes nothing to USA jazz, and precious little to British jazz. They have that peculiar Gallic attitude to pleasure, and abandon themselves with more intensity and strenuousness than the English have ever felt comfortable with. Their enthusiastic embrace of anarchy, too, is very French – the music is characterised by theatrical swerves of tone. And the idea of life as a carnival, and the circus as an apt metaphor for life’s absurdity: well, that is part Antonin Artaud and part Jacques Tati, and finds expression in the band’s freakish, fantastic inventiveness. Sebastien Palis’ organ is a surreal art object in itself, with its trailing wires and twinkling valves (it sounds great too, when he begins to play). Raphael Quenehen is a brilliant saxophonist, at one point blowing two horns simultaneously, just like Roland Kirk. And Quentin Ghomari, doubling on trumpet and trombone (though not at the same time), has an acute grasp of dynamics and engineers some mercurial changes. Of all the events at this year’s Manchester Jazz Festival, this is the one I would most like to relive, if the chance should come again. I was the person nodding off in the front row. 

The modus operandi of the much vaunted Beats & Pieces Big Band (Festival Pavilion) is clear by the second number: big, brassy and populist, albeit with traces of ambiguity that hint at the genuinely radical. Once in every generation in every major conurbation in the developed world, some visionary musician will gather together the most conspicuously talented players of his generation and run with it. The readiest comparisons to Beats & Pieces in Manchester in the twenty-teens (is that the proper word?) would be Loose Tubes in London in the eighties, or the Stan Kenton Orchestra in L.A. in the fifties. Really, there is a comparable wealth of talent  – Sam Healey on saxophone is a real fire-breather, and I was impressed by trumpeter Nick Walters’ ability to surf the cacophony. The evident excitement and anticipation in the Pavilion is not confined to the audience alone. The fourteen musicians of Beats & Pieces gratefully seize the opportunity to transcend small group confines. 

The second half is all new, and exhilarating in its balance of large-scale musical concepts and individual freedom: though the charts were very complicated, there were only three music stands on stage. The unexpected appearance of David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ is a sop to populism. And dance we did (some of us), despite the complexity and shifting rhythms, and the deafening sound of the band in full cry (another reference point might be Buddy Rich). The genial director Ben Cottrell orchestrates all the thunderous roar.

Beats & Pieces Big Band

Saturday 26, Day 8 

A low-key day at the Festival, although I miss the best acts, receiving glowing word concerning The Wagon Train, Billy Buckley’s twanging poke about in USA roots, and Mr Wilson’s Second Liners live up to the buzz. “Glowing word” is an understatement; this is a declaration of love! (Actually directed at an individual in the group: I shall say no more.)

No, I catch Parshmaune (Festival Pavilion), who reflect the sensory overload of the inner city with lightning juxtapositions, quotations, merging rhythms, evolving jazz funk and real-time interventions by Timmy Montague, with the woolly hat and headphones at the back, intently peering into his laptop. Actually, his input is not so obvious, but, at a guess, he’s responsible whenever a hollow clang emerges from Tyrone Isaac-Stuart’s otherwise agile alto saxophone. There’s lots of urban immediacy, as when brief solos are exchanged, each topped with the ‘Here Comes the Bride’ jingle. This is presumably a comment on the constant steam of wedding parties emerging from the Town Hall opposite. 

Zuri Jarrett-Boswell, crouched over his keys, has the virtuosity to handle every situation, and Isaac-Stuart projects crafty mischievousness via his alto horn. His fellow saxophonist, Reiss Beckles, is a more diffident player. Jack Polley and Peter Hill (bass and drums) nicely dislocate the jazz funk conventions. Hearteningly, in Shirley Tetteh, the group contains that rare thing in jazz: a female guitarist. This means that  Deirdre Cartwright and Kathy Dyson are no longer alone. 

Occasionally MJF will employ a cabaret singer to fulfil their populist brief. This is always a mistake. For the finale of the last Saturday of the Festival, nouveau soul singer Charlie Cooper lives her Beyoncé fantasy in the big tent (Festival Pavilion) to overwhelming indifference. The spectacle is so dispiriting that I leave before the Hackney Colliery Band, another post-modern New Orleans-style marching band, can turn the situation around. 

Charlie Cooper

Sunday 27, Day 9 

Sam Healey, Luke Flowers and Stuart McCallum 

I and everyone else want to hear more of Sam Healey, who brought the house down at Beats and Pieces on Friday. But if the capacity crowd for the Sam Healey Quintet at the Fesitval Pavilion are, like me, expecting a blowing session shoot-out from the fastest saxophone in the West, we soon learn to adapt to a different reality. Healey tentatively lays out a theme on piano, and the musicians drift into a state of trance. The other mode is cathartic grandeur, which is the default mode of guitarist Stuart McCallum, which drummer Luke Flowers leavens with steamroller funk. Titles like ‘Death and Impermanence’ also set Healey apart from the common jazz herd. “I’ve never been good at titles,” he blushingly confesses. Here, his bravura technique is placed resolutely at the service of the sublime. After the show, jazz promoter Janet Higgins tells me that Healey, like herself, is a Buddhist, and suddenly the preceding events all make sense. She hands me a flyer for Healey’s upcoming date at The Slug and Lettuce (August 5th), and I promise I’ll be there. 

Richard Iles

In contrast, the Paradise Trio (Festival Pavilion) offer something I’ve searched for all Jazz Festival, possibly all my life. In a word: jazz. ‘Paradise’ is the right word, because jazz at this level of accomplishment contains rich spiritual nourishment, with the three musicians embodying distinct yet sympathetic varieties of beauty? Richard Iles’ flugelhorn pours forth an unbroken thread of burnished grace in linear space; whereas pianist Les Chisnall is a harmonist, and a profoundly elegant one, and Mike Walker, as we can readily hear, is simply the most songful guitarist in the world. The feeling is of limitless resource, and power held in check. Walker, a force of nature when inclined, favours weightless chords that float in the air, and essays a plangent lyricism that is one of the most affecting sounds in jazz. The music is paradisal too because it represents an ideal of life: Iles’ ‘Appleton Avenue’, Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ and, especially, Walker’s ‘The Clockmaker’, are luminous, transient moments to last for eternity. 

Les Chisnall

                                                                                Mike Walker

The last word, however, comes from The Music Place Choir (Festival Pavilion), a sixty-strong community choir from Altrincham with a programme of Richard Rodgers tunes. It’s one of those gigs that disarm criticism. This is partly because of the inspirational leadership of Clare Morel, the sense of togetherness exuded by the ladies and gentlemen of the choir, the deathless potency of Rodgers’ melodies, and, well, the undeniable fact that everyone present is having a whale of a time. Or, if they’re not, their fixed smiles give a reasonable impression that they are. 

It’s disarming too, because Richard Rodgers and Ivor Novella were my own mother’s domestic muses. She used to sing these songs about the house when we were kids. How interesting to probe into the source of the songs that come unbidden into our heads. Coincidence and the subconscious play a large part. ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’, for example, is a great song to accompany the ceremony of spring cleaning, although the spring cleaner with her mop and bucket might be oblivious to the connection. Similarly, my mum was very fond of he’s-rubbish-but-I-love-him songs like ‘Bill (He’s Just My Bill)’ , again for fathomless reasons. ‘Edelweiss’, from the Choir’s repertoire, is a song associated in my mind with my first brush against Nazis.

The voices, effective in unison though fragile individually, are bolstered by a bona fide great voice in Alison Owen, whose flexibility and force derive from the more recent tradition of soul music, although the ladies and gentlemen of the choir are delighted to have her. There’s also a small jazz combo on hand, and again, t.l.a.g.o.t.c. are gratefully accommodating. The stirring, if secular, sound of sixty raised voices (plus audience) proclaiming, for the second time that afternoon, ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ brings the 2014 Manchester Jazz Festival to a memorable close. Everyone agrees that it’s been a vintage year.   

    Clare Morel, Alison Owen and the Music Place Choir 

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