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Southport Jazz Festival 2017

Royal Clifton Hotel, Southport
Thursday 2 - Sunday 5 February 2017

The Southport Jazz Festival, held annually at the Merseyside town's Royal Clifton Hotel and now in its thirteenth year, was kicked off in style on Thursday evening with an early performance by The Weave who welcomed a small crowd of keen jazzers before the festival proper was launched the following afternoon. Unfazed by the responsibility, the commanding Liverpool sextet, led by trumpeters Martin Smith and Anthony Peers, impressed with startlingly quirky melodies that weaved around each other with the graceful complexity of a double helix. During such numbers as Caresser Caress Her and the irresistibly bouncy The Pogo, Peers's trumpet threw a series of fascinating shapes as Smith, a member of beloved Liverpool punk jazz outfit The Wizards of Twiddly, coloured inside and outside the lines. There was a palpable warmth radiating from The Weave as solos were pinballed from player to player with nods of approval and the occasional appreciative tap on the shoulder. And whilst pianist Rob Stringer laid thick garments of piano underneath each original composition and Anthony Ormesher's guitar picked out some dazzling chords and solos, bassist Hugo Harrison and drummer Tilo Pirnbaum fuelled the band's engine with toe-tapping funk and tropical rhythms. Perhaps the highlight of this, the first concert of the weekend, was Smith's self-penned Our Fathers, inspired by his and dedicated to everyone's dad. With its haunting melody and Peers's achingly delicate muted trumpet, a distinct reverence settled comfortably amongst the crowd. It was a fine way to begin the proceedings.

Friday afternoon saw the arrival of more jazz fans to Southport's Promenade in time for the official opening show. Jam Experiment is an irritatingly young band of impressively dexterous musicians. Their unblemished youth, however, appeared to be where the irritability ended as the London-based quintet rattled the ornate white panels of the Royal Clifton's Windsor Suite with two sets of original compositions. Toby Comeau's milky electric piano smothered the stage from Enough For Me onwards, picking up a little grit as the show rolled along. Joe Lee's bass experiments were usually subtle but no less powerful than the fiery drumming of Jonathan Mansfield. And whilst Rory Ingham's trombone solos moved effortlessly between warm, furry notes and fat, filthy blasts, Britain's answer to Michael Brecker, the multi-talented Alexander Bone, hypnotised the crowd with his alto sax, mini synth and blazing Akai Electronic Wind Instrument. After showcasing a staggering repertoire of self-penned compositions such as the smouldering First Day and angular Rory Rogers, the band performed a considerate rendition of Herbie Hancock's Tell Me A Bedtime Story, the only cover on their extensive set list.

Later, Liverpool's Jez Murphy led the mighty Swingtime Big Band in a performance that featured vocals from the band's regular singer Emma Holcroft and guest Clare Teal. As the first row, seated a hazardous foot or so away from the band's plumbing, remoulded their faces and straightened their hairdos, Emma Holcroft's alluringly smoky vocals wound around the melodies of What A Difference A Day Made and Something's Gotta Give before renowned singer and broadcaster Clare Teal delighted the tightly-packed crowd with her northern wit and reedy tone. Gershwin's Fascinating Rhythm and Rodgers and Hart's Manhattan were performed with more than a nod to Ella Fitzgerald as Clare pointed out that 2017 marks one hundred years since the late singer's birth. And if there had been enough room for it in the crammed-to-overflowing Balmoral Suite, perhaps Ella's ghost would have been spotted amongst the suitably satisfied crowd.

Friday evening was topped off with a performance that widened eyes and mouths all around the Windsor Suite. Since forming in 1999, Trichotomy have been described as one of the most inventive ensembles in contemporary jazz. Utterly absorbing and fiercely ambitious, this fine Australian trio delivered a set that rivalled the heavy west coast rain and winds outside with its indefatigable passion and drive. There were moments of tranquillity during such self-penned compositions as It's Strange Coming Back and the haunting Past Tense, especially within the interplay of Sean Foran's liquidy piano and Samuel Vincent's plucked and bowed bass, but the late set was at its most intoxicating during performances of Junk and the strikingly experimental Semi-Quasars, both taken from the trio's forthcoming release KNOWN UNKNOWN, which gave drummer John Parker the opportunity to bedazzle the audience with a range of live samples and loops. Trichotomy are a thoughtful, melancholic piano trio of musicians who harbour a keen urge for sonic exploration and subtle, unimposing experimentation and their Southport performance was one that many of us will not forget in a hurry.

Saturday's schedule got underway mid-morning in the Windsor Suite with an uncompromising straight-ahead set from the Seamus Blake Trio. The New York-based tenor sax man drew some pretty complex lines over Ross Stanley's undulating Hammond organ and James Maddren's blustery drums, but never to the detriment of melody or mood. Like the great Sonny Rollins, Blake possesses an impressive faculty for pushing a tune to its very limits without ever punching a hole in the soul of the piece and he did so with gusto during such numbers as The Song That Lives Inside, written for Sue Mingus, and a sprightly reading of Ann Ronell's Willow Weep For Me.

Surely one of the highlights of this year's diverse festival was the performance given by The Train & The River in the Balmoral Suite on Saturday afternoon. The brainchild of trombonist Jeremy Price, The Train & The River took the uniquely bewitching sound of one of Jimmy Giuffre's legendary trios as the basis for a tastefully sparing exploration of self-penned and more well-known jazz pieces. For anyone familiar with Giuffre's groundbreaking trio consisting of guitarist Jim Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, the magic created on stage by Birmingham-based reedsman Andy Panayi, guitarist Jez Franks and the aforementioned Price was nothing short of a gift. Beginning with an impeccable rendition of The Train & The River, famously heard in the film Jazz on a Summer's Day, the trio also made stops at compositions by Thelonious Monk and Mike Gibbs amongst others. And whilst the studious and restrained guitar, sax/clarinet/flute and trombone allowed the trio to explore sprawling natural and urban landscapes, the fourth member of the trio was the silence that perforated each piece with aching, pregnant pauses.

While dinner jackets were donned for an evening meal with Liane Carroll and Jamie Safir in the Windsor Suite, the Balmoral Suite hosted one of this year's guaranteed crowd-pleasers. Saxophonist Derek Nash has led a long and illustrious career with many an ambitious project under his belt. For this year's Southport Jazz Festival the distinguished sax man brought his Acoustic Quartet, along with a selection of saxophones in all shapes and sizes, for a performance of well-known compositions including a swinging version of the Fain/Webster classic Secret Love and an assertive meshing of Count Basie favourites Lil' Darlin' and Cute as well as a deft reading of Gerry Mulligan and Paul Demond's arrangement of All The Things You Are. With the reliably steady and melodic bass of Geoff Gascoyne, the lilting piano of David Newton and dynamic drums of the revered Clark Tracey, Nash dredged his soul for some monumental baritone, tenor, alto and soprano solos.

Saturday came to a close with a visit from French trumpeter Fabien Mary who, at the age of only thirty-eight, is one of the most respected young musicians on the scene. It's easy to see why. With a crystalline trumpet and a rhythm section consisting of Hugo Lippi on guitar, Fabien Marcoz on bass and the unflagging Steve Brown on drums, Mary's late night performance provided a masterclass in cool. Though it was refreshing to see a quartet set free from the shackles of mic stands, cumbersome PA equipment and pages and pages of manuscript, it was the uncluttered musicianship of this sharply-clad quartet, especially during spirited renditions of Grant Green's Jean De Fleur and Kenny Dorham's Philly Twist, that sent us all off to bed feeling invigorated and fulfilled.

Sunday morning was ushered in via the laid back charm of vocalist Ben Cox and his band who performed a selection of familiar songs and several original compositions. Having released their second album ROUND AND ROUND back in October, the young quintet impressed the early crowd with the gorgeous Cathaleen, written and arranged by the band's pianist Jamie Safir who widened the landscape of each piece with wonderfully evocative improvisations, as well as Round and Round, a delightfully sweet song which Ben wrote as a birthday gift for his niece. As well as injecting new life into a series of covers such as piano/vocal renditions of Paul Simon's Still Crazy and a rousing gospel blast of the Holland–Dozier–Holland classic How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You, the band re-worked the Tears For Fears hit Everybody Wants to Rule the World with an ambition that paid off beautifully. And if such inventive re-imaginings of well-known songs wasn't enough, the Ben Cox Band treated the audience further in the second half by inviting beloved vocalist Liane Carroll to the stage for an ebullient version of the Edison/Hendrix standard Centrepiece.

Having appeared there with The Train & The River the previous day, trombonist Jeremy Price returned to the Balmoral Suite on Sunday afternoon with a much larger ensemble. Making their way to the stage via a sassy, brassy parade, the Birmingham Conservatoire Ellington Orchestra delivered a selection of the Duke's finest including a wonderfully evocative rendering of Half The Fun from Ellington's 1957 album SUCH SWEET THUNDER and the languid Flirty Bird, featuring some seductive slurred brass and tip-toeing piano. Clarinetist Sam Wright dazzled with a nourishing solo during Idiom 59 and pianist John Turvill was recruited for a stunning reading of Ellington's mighty Far East Suite in the second half.

The big sound continued into the evening, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, with festival stalwart Alan Barnes and his octet. Consisting of fine players Bruce Adams on trumpet, Karen Sharp and Robert Fowler on saxophones and clarinet, Mark Nightingale on trombone, David Newton on piano, Simon Thorpe on bass and Clark Tracey on drums, the Alan Barnes Octet helped to glide the festival safely into harbour with typically engaging, textured sax lines from the band's well-respected leader. The mid-evening show provided a taste of the quality to come as the Dixon Walker Chisnall Quartet, albeit without Lee Chisnall due to a shoulder injury, concluded the weekend's imposing line-up in an almost boastful manner later on. Saxophonist Iain Dixon, guitarist Mike Walker and replacement pianist Malcolm Edmonstone  (of Walker's Madhouse Band), each highly respected heavyweights on the contemporary jazz scene, were joined by bassist Steve Watts and drummer Steve Brown for a show that reminded the Southport weekenders just why we love this music and return to the west coast each winter for a nutritious portion of damn fine jazz. The success of this year's festival lands firmly at the feet of its new director, the ever enthusiastic and extremely organised Neil Hughes, who has taken the reigns from Geoff Matthews and managed to sustain the latter's dedication to live jazz in Southport. After four days of outstanding performances, impeccable scheduling and warm hospitality, it seems pretty certain that most, if not all of us, will be back for a fourteenth festival in 2018.

Liam Wilkinson
Northern Sky