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‘One of Britain’s finest jazz events’ - Alyn Shipton, The Times

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Festival preview by Simon Spillett


A Tribute To Jazz At The Philharmonic

The first gig of any jazz festival is always something of a scene-setter and it's difficult to imagine a better curtain-raiser for this year than this celebration of what ultimately makes jazz – no-limits swing.

A few years ago one-man jazz dynamo Pete Long decided it was high time someone recaptured the sweat-dripping, no-holds-barred excitement of the on-stage jam sessions that were Jazz at The Philharmonic. Brainchild of impresario Norman Granz, from mid-1940s to the late 1950s, these JATP packages played to packed houses across the globe, the centrepiece of each presentation always being a multi-horn showdown in which stylistic bias went out the window and musicians from the schools of bop, cool and swing got together to dig in on standards and the blues. Tonight's UK-JATP finds another disparate cast-list united to address the timely business of swinging. Alongside the individual contributions of the solo horns, there's a rhythm section to die for – the whole being tied together with Long's signature anarchic wit. As an opener for the Herts Jazz Festival's first day there can be no more exciting (or fun) musical experience.


Art Themen 'New Directions' Quartet

Herts Jazz’s Patron, tenor and soprano saxophone giant Art Themen, has been an imposing presence on the UK jazz scene for over five decades, although both to see and hear him you might not guess it. Accompanying his sprightly, enthusiastic demeanour, he brings to his music an energy that is truly ageless. Indeed, whereas other veteran jazzmen grow into play-safe and risk-free pastiches of their younger selves, the septuagenarian Themen seems, if anything, even more wilful and daring than ever. Witness his New Directions Quartet, not simply a handy title appended to a group of regular musical accomplices but more akin to a mission statement about where he and his band like to take whatever theme they choose to play.

“A fresh though accessible examination of this music” says the label copy on Art's latest CD release The Tour Continues..., a description which could apply equally to what you'll hear on today's gig, a programme promising not only playful re-imaginings of jazz standards but also compositional input from him dream-team rhythm section of Williams, Somogyi and Clifford.

Misha Mullov-Abbado Sextet

“Both his composing talents and his propulsive bass-playing are currently hot UK jazz news” declared The Guardian of Mullov-Abbado, just one of several critical notices that have come his way since winning the prestigious Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize in 2014. Other recent accolades awarded this outstandingly talented musician include the 2014 Dankworth Prize for composition and being chosen as a 2017 BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist.

Today's gig showcases his writing for a sextet comprising some of his noteworthy contemporaries (including rising trumpet star James Davison, a player whose eclectic approach seems to find a home in any jazz context), featuring music from their album Cross-Platform Interchange (voted among The Guardian's top jazz releases of 2015), which the leader describes as encompassing “a broad spectrum of music in the classical, jazz and pop genres as well folk traditions [and] chorale-based and contemporary-classical styles...influenced by Bach and Brahms right through to Stravinsky and Bartok and beyond.”

For those who doubt that fusing such disparate approaches can ever truly succeed, let alone become workable as jazz, Mullov-Abbado's band is welcome proof that they can.

Paul Dunmall's Sunship Quartet plus special guest Alan Skidmore

Taking its title – and the cue for its repertoire – from John Coltrane's incendiary 1965 album, one of the “classic” quartet’s final recordings, tenor titan Paul Dunmall's Sunship project is a shining example of what can happen when reverence for “the tradition” collides head-on with a genuine dedication to improvisation and adventure.

Trane's themes and post-modal approach may be the basis for the band’s music but this is no mere tribute act. Each of the frontliners have found their own voice within the expansive Coltrane legacy, while the bass and drums team of Brice and Bianco channel Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones into creative new avenues rather than simply play copy-cat. There's also more than a hint of mutual admiration between Dunmall and the band’s special guest, fellow saxophone icon Alan Skidmore. Duns was co-featured in Skid's fondly remembered Tenor Tonic back in the 1980s, and when asked recently who he rated as the best around Skidmore unhesitatingly named Dunmall. Both men's love of Coltrane is well documented. “Simply the greatest saxophonist of all time,” says Skidmore of his tenor touchstone. “Overwhelming” adds Dunmall, a word that might also be ideal to describe this gig, which promises to be an energised ride to the outer reaches of the acoustic jazz tradition.

Robert Mitchell's Epiphany 3

It's easy to sniffy about the jazz press, what with its frequently heady predictions for certain artists and overinflated endorsements of passing fads, but in the case of pianist and composer Robert Mitchell a single quote taken from his many justifiably partisan reviews really does say it all. “Mitchell draws influence from many musical styles in his playing; jazz, latin, funk, blues, classical... all components that go towards making the pianist what he is; a truly original virtuoso.” Mike Gates of UK Vibe didn't just stop there. “Melodies are often pushed towards surprising destinations, versatile styles weave patterns of magic that enliven and delight, his controlled virtuosity singing songs within songs, portraying thoughts within thoughts and summoning light from dark, a rainbow of colour washing away grey clouds.”

This afternoon's gig showcases music from Mitchell's accolade-garnering album A Vigil For Justice and its follow-up EP Epiphany, both works of socio-political as well as musical profundity.

In fact, so grippingly contemporary is the pianist’s music that another critic has described it as “[a] quest for an optimistic solution to troubling events”. For anyone curious about what the future of post-millennial jazz may sound like, Epiphany Three make an intriguing listen.

Alan Barnes' Octet

There's always been a paradox at the heart of jazz – that of whether a listener wants to be “challenged” by new material and po-faced, edgy performers, or whether they simply want to look down the personnel list of a band and know with 100% certainty that what they'll hear will be the real deal, played by familiar musicians who'll deliver the goods hands down every time. Just take a look at the names in this particular edition of Alan Barnes' Octet to witness how, very often in jazz circles, familiarity breeds not contempt but genuine affection. Those who like to follow the British Jazz Awards will spot a clutch of very deserving category winners, including, of course, the leader whose mantelpiece we understand has recently undergone extensive underpinning in order to accommodate his ever expanding tranche of jazz trophies.

But besides award-wins and music that is guaranteed to embody the swinging lifeblood of the idiom the Barnes octet also boasts another collective asset: humour. Alan has never shied away from the fact that a jazz gig is as much about entertainment as it is about self-expression and his witty compering and subversive observations on his fellow musicians are almost worth the price of admission alone. But it's the music that really matters most, and today's gig promises to highlight some of the best of Barnes' writing through the years.

Joey DeFrancesco Quartet

There are those who are simply born to be jazz musicians. In the case of American organist and trumpeter Joey DeFrancesco, there was never any doubt that music would be his life. A Hammond child prodigy (he was playing Jimmy Smith themes by ear aged just five), jamming with Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones at ten(!) and signed to Columbia Records by his seventeenth birthday, DeFrancesco was all set for true jazz stardom early. Since those notable triumphs, he's carved his own path as one of the most versatile and original of all jazz organists  (he's collaborated with everyone from Miles Davis through to, most recently, Van Morrison), melding the tradition with innovation, en route collecting Grammy nominations and annual DownBeat awards and working virtually non-stop throughout the world. It's widely recognised that DeFrancesco's rise to prominence in the 1980s reignited the fortunes of the Hammond organ. What's perhaps less frequently noted is that, like Jimmy Smith before him, he has remained the instrument’s front-runner ever since, creating a thirty year reign at the very top of the jazz tree. Indeed, it's hard to envisage anyone being able to topple this genuine musical giant.

Herts Jazz are especially proud to present DeFrancesco's own hard-grafting band featuring Wilson, Roberts and Ode in what promises to be a full-on and grooving climax to the first full day of the festival.


Herts Youth Jazz Ensemble – Bernstein &  Beyond

Directed by Duncan Fraser

As a notable jazz educator (currently on staff at Birmingham Conservatoire and author of a celebrated jazz drum method) as well as a talent spotter par excellence, it's small wonder that Clark Tracey ensures that each year Herts Jazz's festival features young up and coming talent. Indeed, the Herts Youth Jazz Ensemble is now something of a festival fixture, and deservedly so. Having played at venues including the Royal Albert Hall, and been tutored by musicians including Django Bates and Mark Armstrong, they're clearly more than capable of holding their own in high company. Under the expert leadership of Duncan Fraser, today's programme does exactly what it says on the tin – offering a performance that takes in imaginative jazz re-workings of Leonard Bernstein and others.

Claire Martin/Dave Newton

A class act? A dream ticket? This year’s festival highlight? Take your pick. Whichever way you put it, this lunchtime’s intimate duo of Martin and Newton is sure to figure heavily as a must-see. Multi-award winners both (Claire bagging an OBE in 2011), creators of a string of classy albums in the most elite of musical company, and old friends, it's actually small wonder that they haven't paired up to duet more frequently. That said, the wider jazz world's loss is most certainly Herts Jazz's gain this afternoon. As those who know Newton's playing will tell you, he's virtually a rhythm section all by himself - spinning out no end of inventive right hand lines while maintaining a ceaseless pulse from his left. On more reflective fare, his natural good taste is even more in evidence, never failing to find just the right chord voicing to make a melody note sound like a pin drop. In addition to these assets, he's among the finest vocal accompanists anywhere, all the more fortuitous as on this gig he's working with one of the finest vocalists anywhere. Martin's way with a lyric is nothing less than masterly, her phrasing ranging from tight and in-the-pocket to capriciously loose and her tone – something of a signature – crossing the spectrum from a husky-echo of the great 1950s divas to a soul-stirring contemporary edge which reveals the eclectic tastes that lie beneath all the classicism. Unmissable.

Portrait of the Modern Jazz Quartet

There was a time not so long ago when the Modern Jazz Quartet, always one of the most commercially successful of jazz outfits, found their work downgraded as a consequence, as if touring the world, taking jazz to the wider public and creating a litany of iconic albums transpired to be some sort of artistic sell-out. And for a while it was all too common for critics to parrot-fashion the myth that John Lewis' artful arrangements had trimmed the wings of the unit's key soloist, Milt Jackson.

Thankfully, with a bit of hindsight, things are now viewed more considerately and Lewis' carefully crafted compositions and arrangements of standards are recognised for what they always were – perfect cameo settings for Jackson's inextinguishable brilliance.

Taking the MJQ's music as a starting point, vibraphonist Nat Steele and his band are doing what all jazz tradition homages ought to – neither slavishly aping its every mannerism nor reinventing the music in unrecognisable guises, they find their own new things to say in a tried and tested format, thus making this celebration an equally appealing prospect for veteran MJQ fans and new listeners alike.

Gareth Lockrane's Grooveyard

Every so often a musician comes along to renegotiate the potential of their chosen instrument, as well as wake up those who'd been asleep as to its validity within the music. And so it was when Gareth Lockrane emerged a few years ago to astound the jazz scene with his flute-playing artistry. For too long regarded as merely a “double” for saxophonists or, worse still, as a weak and inconsequential vehicle for jazz improvisation, the flute hadn't had a big champion in years but in Lockrane it got that and much, much more. Master of the entire family of instruments (hearing him play the unforgiving alto variant with the dexterity and power of a saxophone is enough to make many flute dabblers weep in envy), he's also a distinctive composer, leader of one of the UK's finest big bands and, as on today's gig, head man in Grooveyard, a regular line-up which features a hand-in-glove front line partnership between the leader, Garnett and Outram.

If such a thing as instrumental prejudice still exists in this age of ever expanding jazz textures, then Lockrane's virtuoso playing is a sure-fire way to dispel it once and for all.

Jean Toussaint's Young Lions

How fitting it is that Toussaint, a 1980s-vintage graduate from one of the finest on-the-road jazz academies of all -  Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers – should perpetuate the lessons learned from his old boss by taking his own band of young bloods out on the circuit. Bandleading is just one of the saxophonist’s many skills, and ever since he settled in London thirty years ago, he's been a keen supporter of rising talent – be it the Jazz Warriors generation of Julian Joseph, Steve Williamson and co. or the new faces he's showcasing on this gig. That Toussaint acts as catalyst to others is not surprising: he's a hugely commanding performer, a saxophonist whose distinctive voice mixes elements from the Rollins/Coltrane lineage with a hard-clipped delivery all its own. He's also a figure of dyed-in-the-wool integrity, sounding like a genuine link in the chain of authentic, uncompromising Hard Bop giants that stretches back to his predecessors with Blakey. His composing is likewise full of nods and winks to the great era of Shorter, Timmons, Golson and Mobley, albeit with a twist of post-bop funkiness for good measure. This new line-up has been generating a lot of talk on the jazz underground – tonight will surely win them a host of new fans.

Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames

It's altogether rather heartening to realise that the Herts Jazz Festival has now existed long enough to have established its own in-house traditions, one of which appears to be that Georgie Fame is a mandatory inclusion, no matter what. He's already appeared with his own inter-family trio and fronted a roaring big band revisiting material from his Sound Venture days, but this year’s festival closer promises something else again – his own Blue Flames, a band that has morphed through various incarnations to emerge as it does tonight – a veritable all-star line-up of British jazz greats. And it's the jazz side of Fame that this outfit seems to encourage – although there'll undoubtedly be a selection of “the hits”, the Blue Flames natural blend of small-band bop, soul and ballads leaves equal room for name checks of such formative Fame influences as Chet Baker, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks. In between the cool-cat crooning, there's also bags of space for the instrumental  talents of Barker, Skidmore and Kerr, with the leader offering a timely reminder that long before he became a chart-topping household name he was among the pioneering jazz organists in the UK. Nearly fifty-five years after he first scored a number one, Fame is still on top of his game, still bridging the gap between jazz and more populist idioms, and, all the more importantly, still ensuring that neither loses out as a result. Forget all those pretentious mixes of this music and that, all those tiresome fusions of incompatible stylistic idioms – this is where jazz meets pop and truly works.