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2014 Festival programme notes by Simon Spillett



Kicking off this year’s festival, Herts Jazz present a true legend of British jazz. Trombonist Chris Barber has enjoyed a long and eclectic career which has seen him embrace many kinds of music, from Rhythm and Blues to Skiffle and beyond: famous as a chart-topper in the days of the Trad Boom, over sixty-plus years as a band leader he has collaborated with all manner of artists both in and outside of jazz, including Louis Jordan, John Lewis, Van Morrison, Alexis Korner and Paul McCartney.

Formed in 2001, the Big Chris Barber Band enables him to encompass all his musical passions and boasting a line-up including long-term collaborators such as fellow trombonist Bob Hunt and new stars like saxophonist Amy Roberts, it is as likely to explore the repertoire of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington as it is to delve back into the sounds of New Orleans.

THE BRIAN DEE TRIO - audio clip

The early 1960s was a rich time for British jazz piano: emerging at the same time as Dudley Moore, Gordon Beck and Michael Garrick, Brian Dee initially made his mark as a member of the Vic Ash-Harry Klein band, touring opposite Miles Davis in 1960 and receiving favourable comparisons to none other than Wynton Kelly. His subsequent career found him blossoming firmly into his own man, a musician able to fit in all manner of contexts, from vocal accompanist to solo piano. He has also become a composer of note. Tonight he’s heard in the intimate setting of a trio, the perfect showcase for his subtle and swinging skills, and which promises to find Dee exploring some of his own themes along with choice samples from the Great American Songbook.


THE JAMES PEARSON TRIO – A History of Jazz Piano - video clip

Musical director at Ronnie Scott’s club and boasting a CV including Sir John Dankworth and Wynton Marsalis, among many others, James Pearson is the ideal performer to take this morning’s whistle-stop tour through the history of jazz piano. Working with celebrated bassist Arnie Somogyi and ubiquitous man-about-Herts Jazz Clark Tracey on drums, James will take listeners on a joyous ride from Boogie Woogie to Bebop, Blue Note and beyond, tipping his hat to such stellar piano players as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock.


If jazz is truly “the sound of surprise”, as one writer once famously put it, then there can be no finer exponent of the musical revelation than saxophonist Art Themen. Over a dazzling fifty-year career, Art’s talents have been showcased with a notably wide-range of artists both inside and at the fringes of jazz, including Stan Tracey, Al Haig, Alexis Korner and Georgie Fame, with each appreciating his genuinely unique adaptation of the methods of heroes like Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon. Featuring long-term collaborator, drum legend Bryan Spring, this afternoon’s session presents the kind of warm, no sell-by date jazz that does exactly what it says on the tin.

NIGEL PRICE solo - video clip

Not so long ago, this list of top-class jazz guitarists to have emerged from the UK could be counted on the fingers of one hand. However, the arrival of Nigel Price a few years ago was cause for a whole new evaluation of the hierarchy. One of the most natural jazzmen on the current circuit, he’s equally at home leading a funky organ-based trio, or venturing into the realms of Acid-Jazz with the likes of James Taylor as he is with the delicate art of vocal accompaniment or straight-ahead bop. His festival set today however offers a rare unaccompanied recital, a setting which provides the ideal format for his mix of harmonic sophistication, lyricism and swing.


Saxophonist Castle is a musician who wears many, many hats, and who has defied virtually every attempt to pigeon hole his talent: “a musician who puts emotion ahead of licks” as Jazzwise magazine puts it. One minute he’s working with jazz legends like the late Stan Tracey, the next he’s appearing with Sting or The Brand New Heavies, but today’s gig finds him in partnership with pianist Mark Edwards, a player of similarly eclectic tastes, in a personal take on the classic saxophone-led quartet. Expect to hear inventive reconstructions of standards alongside some of Castle’s own distinctive compositions.


JEAN TOUSSAINT QUARTET – Tribute to Art Blakey - audio

Since moving to the UK in the mid-1980’s tenor and soprano saxophonist Toussaint has become a much valued member of the London jazz community. He offered early encouragement to such outstanding players as Julian Joseph and Jason Rebello, and has become a much-sought-after jazz educator, but above all he has continued to be one of the most creative saxophonists operating on the British circuit.

This evening’s gig is an affectionate celebration of the man who helped launched Toussaint’s career, drum legend Art Blakey, whose veritable Jazz Messengers dynasty created the roll-call of Hard Bop. Appropriately enough, stoking the drums is festival director Clark Tracey, a player who has operated a similar musical policy to that of Blakey in his own impressive series of bands, and who knows Buhaina’s style inside out.


As with previous Herts Jazz Festival programmes, this year’s event introduces another rising star in guitarist Michael De Souza, a name that may be new to some. Describing himself as “one of those guys who play music for the love of music”, De Souza is not only refreshingly free from pretension, he’s already an award-winner, taking the coveted Eric Kershaw Prize for Plectrum Guitar. Currently completing his studies at London’s prestigious Royal Academy, he’s clearly a name to watch, offering a style that draws fully on the rich history of jazz guitar.


From a rising star to a genuine super-group of established British jazz giants. Pianist and composer John Taylor lit up the London jazz scene at the close of the 1960s, working first as a sideman with players such as Ronnie Scott and Alan Skidmore before emerging as bandleader in his own right. His collaborative trio with Kenny Wheeler, Azimuth ranks as one of the most important improvising units in European jazz history, whilst his work as a composer has taken him across the globe. Tonight he is joined by three truly hand-in-glove associates - saxophone colossus Julian Siegel, bass icon Chris Laurence and the unclassifiable drummer Martin France - for what promises to be a stunning concert of original material. Taylor rarely appears on the provincial UK jazz circuit, so make sure you take this opportunity to hear a true musical legend in action.


If a jazz musician can be reduced to a single word, then the word for pianist Leon Greening would be energy. One of the most instinctively hard-driving piano players of his generation, his virtuosic overflowing style contains echoes of all manner of jazz legends – Wynton Kelly, Cedar Walton, Red Garland, Sonny Clark -  but what makes Greening almost unique is that he has so successfully found his own voice from within what is a truly daunting set of role models.  He’s also a musician who never hides how much palpable enjoyment he derives from performing. Indeed, what better way is there to end the festival’s second day than by listening to his trio, featuring long-term musical partners bassist Adam King and drummer Steve Brown. This after-hours set may also promise the appearance of an unscheduled guest or two.



Making their third appearance at the annual Herts Jazz Festival, the Herts Youth Jazz Ensemble are a band with a formidable pedigree, having worked closely with festival director Clark Tracey over the past few years, as well as appearing with such illustrious guests a Django Bates, Dave O’ Higgins and Mark Bassey. 2014 marks something of a bumper year for the ensemble, with their appearance at the festival coming hot on the heels of a successful concert at the Royal Albert Hall. This lunchtime gig is the ideal place in which to hear the future of British jazz.


Continuing the accent of youth, and celebrating his thirty-years as a band leader, Clark Tracey’s new quintet is a group already making waves on the UK circuit. Their debut album “Meantime” has been universally well-received and the band's club and festival appearances across the country have illustrated the leader's ongoing knack for cherry-picking the best of today’s young talent. Each of the quintet is deeply steeped in the history of the music, and with a repertoire that boasts a healthy dose of British jazz composition, the band is continuing the great traditions of the Tracey dynasty. “Finding young guys who can play this music is becoming much easier”, the leader maintains. “But finding young guys who can understand this music in addition is always more of a challenge. I believe with this band I’ve found what I’m looking for.”

MIKE GORMAN solo - audio

One of the most delightful aspects of the Herts Jazz Festival is its insistence in providing performers the chance to offer something slightly outside their usual remit. Take this solo performance by pianist Mike Gorman, a player whose high-profile CV boasts stints in bands led by such luminaries as Alan Skidmore and Jim Mullen. One of the most powerful and dynamic pianists of his generation, Gorman might initially seem like the kind of player who needs a full rhythm section to prove his point, however, as today's solo gig will showcase, he’s a musician with a truly orchestral approach to his instrument whatever the setting.


Formed in 2009, the J. J. Wheeler Quintet is a young band whose success makes a heartening antidote to all the negative press surrounding the future of jazz. Drummer/leader Wheeler’s website lists their influences as ranging from “Coltrane to Genesis” -  a heady concoction -  and esteemed UK promoter Tony Dudley-Evans find them “truly unique…I don’t know where to place them on the spectrum of jazz styles.”  However, those forgetting labels and simply listening to the band have included bass legend Dave Holland, who offered fulsome praise for their personal take on acoustic jazz. Today’s edition of the quintet features two rising saxophone stars, both familiar from Stan and Clark Tracey’s bands, altoist Chris Maddock and tenorist Nadim Teimoori, and will feature music from the group's appropriately titled debut album, Unconventional.

STICK CHOPS – featuring Orphy Robinson, Anthony Kerr and Clark Tracey

When was the last time you heard two vibraphonists together? In another festival coup, Stick Chops presents the highly unusual union of Robinson and Kerr with the added bonus of Clark Tracey.  Actually there’s more than a hint of a reunion to the line-up: all three players rode the crest of the much-hyped 1980’s jazz  wave – Robinson with the Jazz Warriors, Kerr with Georgie Fame and Tracey with his own star-packed quintet – so as well as providing a genuinely unique blend of talents, tonight’s gig is a great place to witness a co-operative blend of novelty and maturity. Both Kerr and Robinson also double on marimba, widening the musical texture further still, and, in another slightly nostalgic note, Tracey’s first musical experiences were impromptu vibes contributions to his Dad’s piano practise.  It’s an intriguing prospect as to whether he’ll pick up the mallets again tonight…


No UK festival would be complete without the inclusion of Barnes and Newton, the two most ubiquitous faces on the current jazz circuit. They’re old friends of course – dating back to their days together at Leeds College of Music, when the pianist’s air of brinkmanship regarding musical deadlines frequently astonished Barnes – and over the ensuing thirty-five years they’ve played together in all manner of line-ups, big and small. The duo however remains the best format in which to witness the combination of their simpatico musical personalities. Alan’s multi-instrumental skills are perfectly matched by Dave’s ‘one-man-rhythm section’ talents, and as the pair cover a repertoire that takes in classic jazz compositions, original pieces and spontaneous inventions, there’s an ever-present air of good humour to it all. Indeed, one might easily mistake Barnes' witty introductory patter for stand-up comedy. The duo's music however is no laughing matter – it is simply great jazz.


To close this year’s festival, Herts Jazz presents a stellar collaboration that takes in the best of several musical worlds.

Saxophonist Skidmore has long been recognised as among the most powerfully individual synthesisers of John Coltrane’s enormous influence, forging the great man’s message into his own virtuosic style. Still capable of burning the paint off the walls as he reaches into his 70s, Skid’s musical pedigree doesn’t just embrace the avant-garde though. For over forty years he’s also been associated with Georgie Fame, a musician whose successful chart-topping 1960s hits enabled him to indulge in his passion for modern jazz.  Running parallel to his pop career, Fame’s enthusiasm for vocalese – the art of putting lyrics to instrumental jazz solos – not only won him the respect of the master of the idiom, Jon Hendricks, but has found him collaborating with musicians including Phil Woods and Stanley Turrentine.

Tonight’s gig, uniting the vocalist with a quartet of British jazz royalty, will include his witty adaptations of music associated with Chet Baker, Benny Golson,  Tadd Dameron,  John Coltrane and others, together with his own original compositions and even the occasional nod towards his more popular successes.

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