Review: Bristol International Jazz & Blues Festival 2017

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Bristol International Jazz & Blues Festival

Colston Hall & other venues, Bristol

weekend 16-19 March

I knew it the moment I stepped through the door on the Saturday night: people dressed up (the swing enthusiasts enjoy the sartorial standards of that era as much as the musical ones), a crowd watching upcoming local talent in the foyer (because they were there), premium gigs in other venues (not far away) - this felt less like a series of gigs in the Colston and more like a festival. I missed last year, but already this is more like it.

In the late jam session, the faces were out, the stars of the weekly jazz and blues gigs we go to - and they were smiling. This was the party that Bristol musicians deserve (and since the demise of Brisfest none of them has) - because they’re ace, it’s a special musical culture. People who know me know that I can fulminate for longer than strictly necessary about the nature of Festival: coming from a community (rather than from the analysis of a spreadsheet) is one of the things that makes it so.

I hope it wasn’t just the hack pack who went to enough events to notice the multiplicity of roles some of the city’s top players took up - and not just in the Big Band and the Spy Movie coterie either. A number of well-known modernists in the swing orchestra, a similar number of ‘serious’ faces (often the same people) in the Spies & Private Eyes programme: I’m going to be simplistic - and hope the musos are going to forgive me - and say that those tunes must be so much fun to play. And a big band (or band + strings) moves so much air in such a glorious & thrilling way. It reminds me - and only for good reasons - of those symphony orchestra for kids type concerts I used to go to, tho’ Charles Hazlewood is a bit groovier than the old guy we used to get. Seeing Andy Hague, for one example, I am reminded of the - albeit smaller - big bands his generation of players used to convene seemingly just for the pleasure of doing it, and to allow fellow composers the treat or test of writing for large ensembles: behold, here they are still, only this time writing arrangements (another one of the tasks of the working musician, always an important one for making a living).

So what else do festivals do? They mix audiences, and I don’t see that BIJBF failed here either. Having artists who - whilst not for a moment lacking in serious chops - have scored on the pop, club, and Hollywood ends of the business like Quantic, Alice Russell, Macy Gray, if they’re bringing their audiences in and those hear something young and odd in the foyer on the way, even if they just pick up the programme and wonder what the rest of that music is all about, points will have been scored and conversions facilitated.

Even among the Blues crowd, not exactly known for forward thinking: I met a friend who’d come to hear Mud Morganfield (in good voice, great suit, and still with a classy Dutch guitarist) but was enjoying the angular but groovesome of Snazzback, saxman Thomas Sefia is a future gem. The foyer gigs came up with hit after hit (Bartoune, Jim Blomfield Trio, Ruby Two Shoes, Jackson) and I know some folks just came along for that, or stayed for hours after their ticketed show, and all power to all concerned (and the audience trusting the selectors). Only in a festival.

Festivals also give opportunity for billing artists or situations you’d not get in the usual round of gigs. Major players who might be a shade too big for the regular local venues: Jason Rebello alone with a piano for an hour (surely a highlight), Chris Garrick(Britain’s top ethnic jazz fiddler whose turn of speed and originality defies such an easy label), Gilad Atzmon & Alan Barnesscribbling switchbacks of melody in the air. And they can celebrate too: any Bristol gig for Andy Sheppard has to be that, nowadays, and his Metropolis was a further step on down the road to serious contemporary composer status.

You’ll see that I’m advocating you take an interest in this event next time it comes round on the calendar (and especially now Bath Jazz has dwindled to a couple of concerts). I shan’t burden you with more detailed thought on the bands, tho’ down to the luck of the draw and what I saw, I still need to squeeze in references to the ever-advancing Dakhla Brass, the superior rhythmic constructions you get when a master bassist like Alec Dankworthis running the band, the way the much drier Barnes matched the always entertaining babble of Atzmon for wit and surpassed him in his writing. Alternately, one of my other definitions of a proper-job festival is when you literally can’t make it to everything you fancy: from the accounts of others I chatted to I missed something significant when I didn’t get to Dinosaur, MDC, Yazz Ahmed, Kansas Smitty’s House Band (the return of Dave Archer), Swordfishtrombone, Chimera, James Morton… did you?

Quality Scene + Quality City = Quality Festival

I Tamlin

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