On song at Southport’s Jazz On A Winter’s Weekend

Friday, 07 February 2014

Southport’s winning combination of distinctive concert choices, seamless organisation and congenial surroundings turned up trumps yet again. The Royal Clifton Hotel was full, every concert a sell-out and the sun shone. First up was Jean Toussaint’s trenchant Coltrane-imbued tenor, his intense if relaxed set featuring the mercurial Reuben James, this 20-year old pianist filling every corner of the harmonies with his own compendium of possibilities, hinting here at Garner’s behind-the-beat delays, there at Tyner’s crunching chords. Asked about James’ potential, Toussaint replied, “The sky’s the limit.” Quite so. The Beatles may already have fulfilled theirs but Ian Darrington thought they deserved a jazz hearing, assembling a decent big band for a Lennon & McCartney programme; the charts culled from online sources or faithfully transcribed, many from Chico O’Farrill’s Basie band album. Sparked by top London trumpeters Andy Greenwood and Craig Wild, and with local drummer Guy Walsh hitting every mark, the band did well, even if some of the purists present took a less charitable view. Friday closed out with the Peterson-inspired trio of Dutchman Rob Van Bavel, with guitar and bass; comely music that deserved a better spot.

With Julian Joseph on hand to set up their BBC Radio 3 recording, Art Themen’s 5Tet dug deep and produced a superb set, the orthopaedic tenorman on imperious form, his efforts supported by the clever lines of trumpeter Steve Fishwick. Just to hear these guys on Dexter Gordon’s ‘For Regulars Only’ was enough to get the juices going, pianist Gareth Williams in perfect command, bassist Arnie Somogyi and the brilliant drummer Winston Clifford completing a dream team. ‘Autumn in New York’ taken as a solo ballad by Art was a peach. New York guitarist Freddy Bryant, a new name to me, followed with his trio, tight and tuneful, the American’s command of Brazilian rhythms a standout. He was joined by fellow New Yorker, tenorist Tim Armacost, a strong improviser who impressed everyone, only adding to his lustre when he joined Alex Garnett in his Bunch of Fives Quintet. Garnett is game for the kind of tenor jousting that hints at jazz’s past but theirs was wholly contemporary take on the genre and the better for that. Garnett, a witty man at the mike, excelled himself, fierce and seemingly inexhaustible. Radio 3 took this one, too. Saturday’s delights were completed by the on-form MJQ Celebration with guest tenorman Alan Barnes, the combination of Barry Green, Matt Ridley, Steve Brown and the cleverly inventive Jim Hart providing the perfect prelude to Sunday’s triumphs.

Robert Fowler took the Gerry Mulligan role in front of his specially assembled big band tribute to the baritone star’s Concert Jazz Band. The omission of piano allowed the full majesty of Dave Green’s bass lines to be revealed, the section playing and free-spirited solos offered by Adrian Fry, Karen Sharp, Barnes again, Fowler himself and Martin Shaw were all of the highest quality. Just to hear their version of ‘Blueport’ was heaven itself. The Damon Brown/Martin Zenker group teamed the widely travelled British cornetist with German baritone expert Michael Lutzeir in a very stimulating Blue Note and beyond set. Expatriate drummer Mark Taylor’s time feel is the real deal and with Scottish pianist Paul Kirby on form, this group swung hard and compelled attention, Brown’s masterly constructions emphasising just how valuable he is. He writes good originals, too. As does Alan Barnes, of course, his octet set revisiting many of his past suites, with the estimable singer Liz Fletcher reprising Alan Plater’s lyrics and the assembled cast doing Barnes proud.

Winding up the festival, chief organiser Geoff Mathews dropped a bombshell. For reasons of age and strain, his organising committee had decided that this one, easily one of the most successful in the 10-year series, was to be their last. If replacements with the necessary savvy could be found in time, the 2015 Festival would run; if not, it would not.


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