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Scarborough Jazz Festival 2016

Scarborough Spa, Scarborough
Friday 23 - Sunday 25 September 2016

"Come kiss me quickly, we might not have long before all this is washed away," so Liane Carroll sings on Seaside, perfectly encapsulating the temporary joy that is a trip to the coast. It's something with which most of us Brits are familiar, considering that the vast majority of us still lug buckets and spades to our nearest stretch of beach on a regular basis. Perhaps it has something to do with our very British love for small pleasures, brief flirtations with simple amusements and the concentration of a variety of entertainments in one place and time. Some of us are content with our penny arcades and crazy golf while others find delight in an ice cream cone and a well-located bench. Some build sandcastles and fly kites whilst others get their kicks from surfing and swimming in the cold, grey sea. And then there are the pleasure domes, the theatres, spas, bandstands and ballrooms where comedy and tragedy are delivered to day trippers via plays, music hall routines, concerts and recitals a plenty.

We do like to be beside the seaside and, thanks to the organisers of the annual Scarborough Jazz Festival, even us jazzers - sticklers as we are for good music and quality performances - can revel in the variety that this salty wonderland has to offer. From Friday to Sunday, the festival, now in its fourteenth year, doesn't just boast a wealth of good jazz, but a wide and diverse programme of jazz to suit all tastes. Big bands, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, vocalists, saxophonists, pianists, harmonica players, bebop, fusion, world rhythms, experimental and traditional jazz; it's all in there somewhere, delighting, sometimes bewildering but always entertaining the large and appreciative crowd that flocks to the festival each year.

For the more adventurous jazzer, the festival couldn't have kicked off with a better performance than the one given by Artephis, a Jazz North-sponsored quintet of twentysomethings eager to share its forward-looking brand of jazz with the excited Friday lunchtime crowd. Aaron Wood's thoughtfully experimental trumpet and flugelhorn solos revisited the exploratory improvisations of a Big Fun-era Miles Davis, each note enjoying the interplay of ambient acoustics and pedal-processed reverb, whilst the band's lynchpin James Girling painted a wide and impressive background with his electric guitar. And whilst the band's Miles Davis and Thom Yorke-inspired tone poems created some rather pleasing vistas throughout the set, particularly during Girling's self-penned Chagrin, there were several moments of exquisitely sparing beauty, thanks in part to Ali Roocroft's warm and considerate piano.

Astutely imaginative jazz was well represented this weekend with Malija and Trish Clowes & Gareth Williams providing two unmissable performances. The drummerless trio Malija consists of Polar Bear saxophonist Mark Lockheart, Phronesis bassist Jasper Hoiby and the ever-inspiring Liam Noble on keys. Almost a year since the release of this super-group's superlative album The Day I Had Everything, Malija effortlessly hypnotised the Saturday evening audience with a set of wonderfully angular, speculative vignettes such as The Pianist, with its strangely ominous chugging piano chords and bluesy sax flourishes, and Hoiby's creeping, soft-footed Wayne's World. Whilst Noble's solos saw the pianist visibly searching the length of his keyboard for ornate methods of arriving at Mozart-like cadences, Lockheart's ribbony improvisations floated serenely a few feet above, with Hoiby's equally explorative bass lines expertly gluing the outfit together.

Pianist Gareth Williams is a friendly face at the festival and this year he introduced the Scarborough crowd to saxophonist Trish Clowes who has been busy making a name for herself with a handful of stunning albums over the last few years. Clowes and Williams brought that all-too-rare piano/sax sound to the Spa on Friday evening and, with it, a few genuinely arresting compositions. Clowes's Pfeiffer and the Whales conjured up a sonic illustration of a whale watching trip she recently enjoyed with her husband, with the young musician's soprano saxophone perfectly replicating the bewitching sound of whale-song as Williams fed faultless, watery improvisations into his piano. The duo were able to complement their mostly cerebral jazz with some nice banter between tunes, with Gareth's engaging wit shining through as usual.

A mainstay of jazz in general, and certainly of this festival, the saxophone made regular appearances throughout the weekend, most notably during sets by Alan Barnes and Dave and Judith O'Higgins, familiar faces on the local jazz scene and musicians who consistently pump masses of quality into this festival each year. Barnes/O'Higgins & The Sax Section, who played a rousing set on Saturday afternoon, delighted listeners with their sax-powered machine, helped along by the non-flashy mastery of drummer Sebastiaan de Krom and sinuous basslines of Adam King, not to mention another fine appearance from pianist Gareth Williams.

British born LA sax man Benn Clatworthy played an impressive set on Friday afternoon which was just as sharp and smart as the musician himself, who arrived on stage looking like a Mad Men cast member in his crisp grey suit and magenta tie. Whilst Rod Young scoured each nook and cranny for some intriguing drum fills and pianist John Donaldson and bassist Simon Thorpe were given plenty of room to explore their own seemingly limitless prowess, Clatworthy seemed to empty his very soul into his sax to produce some surprisingly delicate melodies. His version of Lennon/McCartney's Here, There and Everywhere was unlike the usual jazz readings of the piece, with some interesting repositionings of melody and a dreamlike mood that was sustained throughout. Clatworthy also performed a strikingly original version of Limehouse Blues, founded unconventionally on an attractive minor key.

Australian tenor saxophonist Brandon Allen called upon some golden age be-bop to close the festival with a straight-ahead powerhouse performance on Sunday evening. His sextet, featuring Nigel Hancock on alto, Mark Nightingale on trombone, Ross Stanley on piano, Sam Burgess on bass and Ian Thomas on drums, performed a powerful version of Stanley Turrentine's Don't Mess With Mr T which featured a searing Hammond solo by Ross Stanley, as well as a sprightly reading of the Bricusse/Newley classic Pure Imagination from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which Allen dedicated to the recently departed Gene Wilder.

The moment the sax took centre stage, however, was during Saturday night's Charlie Parker on Dial; a stage documentary headed by pianist Alex Webb. The show, which took the audience on a whistlestop tour of Parker's 1946-47 stint with the American bebop label via music and screen projections, showcased the talents of alto man Nathaniel Facey whose somewhat nonchalant approach added further power to his staggeringly sweet sound.

Big band fans didn't have time to find disappointment during the weekend’s line-up, with two of the very best bands on the scene performing rousing sets. The Abstract Truth Big Band paid tribute to Oliver Nelson's classic 60s album with an energetic performance of consistently daring arrangements of those solos by Hubbard, Dolphy and Nelson we've come to love. Like the Charlie Parker on Dial set, however, this tribute to great jazz of the past was executed with a forward-looking approach that made each composition seem fresh and vibrant. On Saturday afternoon, the SK2 Jazz Orchestra, led by drummer Dave Tyas, brought the unique sound of the late Stan Kenton to Scarborough with arrangements of the great band leader's finest selections. The muscular eighteen-piece outfit almost blew the roof off the Victorian Spa, whilst solos from lithe trombonist Ellie Smith and razor-sharp trumpeter Neal Morley left some of the crowd standing in ovation.

Despite festival organiser Mike Gordon's recent remarks on Radio York concerning his wishes to keep Scarborough from becoming a world music festival, there were robust arguments this weekend to maintain a world flavour at the festival, not least in performances by Vula Viel and Pan Jumby. The latter act delivered a red hot set of steel pan-infused jazz to the Friday afternoon audience, with Dudley Nesbitt proving that a single steel pan can fill an ornate English seaside theatre to the brim with Trinidadian calypso. Nesbitt's tight band had everyone bobbing around in no time, perhaps providing a little practice for Vula Viel's high-energy performance on Sunday afternoon. Whilst the rest of the country were tucking into their Sunday dinners, Scarborough's South Bay was being shaken to its core by a band who call upon the tribal rhythms of Upper West Ghana to create some of the most passionate fusion jazz you're ever likely to hear. While George Crowley braved a sprained ankle to impart some nifty sax licks and drummers Dave De Rose and Simon Roth sparred tirelessly at stage left and right, Bex Burch all but destroyed her self-built Gyil - an African wooden xylophone - with a performance that left every photographer with a roll full of blurred images. Selections from the band's wonderful 2015 album Good is Good, such as Zine Dondone Zine Daa and the infectious Yes Yaa Yaa were recreated perfectly and sewn together nicely with the ethereal synth of Dan Nicholls.

For the lovers of vocal jazz amongst us, this weekend's bill had been lovingly peppered with some of this country's finest singers. New York-based pianist Alan Broadbent performed a sumptuous set of original compositions with British vocalist Georgia Mancio. The duo have been engaged in a transatlantic writing relationship for the past few years and, during this weekend's performance, several pages of their "songbook" were shared with us including such beautiful songs such as The Last Goodbye and the tongue-twisting Someone's Sun. On Saturday, the festival welcomed the ever-jovial Nicola Farnon whose Sheffield-based trio performed a selection of buoyant standards. Nicola's warm, husky vocals breathed new life into such classics as Frim Fram Sauce and Moonlight in Vermont, whilst her performance of Antônio Carlos Jobim's One Note Samba left the crowd awestruck.

Perhaps the most memorable and genuinely moving moment of the festival came during the set of one of this country’s most treasured vocalists. Liane Carroll performed a laid-back set of crowd pleasers, showcasing her dazzling piano skills (a distinctly impressive talent she, remarkably, downplays) as well as her soaring vocals on Sunday evening. Her solo performance was coloured by her reliably pleasing selection of songs including Bring Me Sunshine and the wonderful Seaside from her latest record, as well as The Nearness of You and an arresting version of Artie Butler's Here's to Life, the song Carroll played to her mother just one hour before she passed away. A beautiful tribute to an admirable lady, and a fitting close to a truly outstanding and humorously engaging set.

The original Scarborough Spa was built around the source of the town’s famous spa waters; a spring that was said to have healing powers and which gave birth to the very idea of the seaside resort. Nowadays, the local council suggest that visitors don’t try to drink the water that flows from Oliver's Mount, down the cliff and into the grey North Sea. But that doesn’t mean that you can't come to Scarborough, especially at the end of each September, to find rejuvenation in the trickling sound of piano, the flowing streams of sax solos and the deep froth of a good bass. The Scarborough Jazz Festival provides a weekend of diverse jazz performances, tinged with a feeling of being on holiday and a general atmosphere of fun and relaxation. It is a continuing credit to its organisers, its staff and its musicians.

Liam Wilkinson
Northern Sky