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Bristol Jazz Festival – Colston Hall, Sep 20th.

September 23, 2009

Well, definitely a fun-filled day as part of the Hall’s opening celebrations for the shiny new foyer – the most expensive staircase in England as Jim Barr commented lugubriously. Worth celebrating too, as it really makes the building special. But this was mainly about the music, and mainly about jazz in Bristol.

The Resonation Big Band, on their second ever (I think) appearance, matched their debut at the Cube, and showed the strength in depth of local players – not to mention composers. Highlight this time for me was Jim Blomfield’s jazzed-up Messaien, and nice too to hear him playing a first class piano. He seemed to be enjoying it even more in a blistering set from Andy Hague’s quintet, who responded to the standing room only audience in Hall 2 (formerly known as the bar) with some really classy playing.

In between those two was a fun episode in the foyer involving 18 masked double bass players, assembled by Barr. Not particularly profound but definitely festive. Barr appeared again in the augmented Get the Blessing in the main hall – augmented by a string section who didn’t really have much to do. Theirs isn’t really music which leave much space for that kind of thing. The whole set, while reinforcing that they are all fine musicians, occupied that fashionable area that is mainly about establishing patterns and grooves which, while pleasing enough, don’t go anywhere very much before the piece is over.

Then a pause for feeding – hence missing James Morton and Pee Wee Ellis – and return for Andy Sheppard’s “ECM” band. They present a faithful recreation of his latest recording – a little too faithful perhaps.? There aren’t many surprises in his music, which in spite of the addition of a second guitarist sounds much as it has since Learning to Wave in the late 1990s. But it is a good sound, and benefits immensely from the addition of uber-bassist Arild Anderson, who seems to spend ever more time playing with Brits (Tommy Smith; John Etheridge). How nice for us. And Sheppard’s own playing usually develops slowly but consistently delivers nice things – especially on soprano where he tends to start out sounding very-Surman like but ends up doing something more distinctive. (Not that Surman isn’t distinctive, but sounding like him wouldn’t be.) Lots of careful textures in this group, and rewards for patient listening.

Patient listening was also in order for Abdullah Ibrahim’s trio who topped the bill. The leader, now firmly instated as a grand old man, has pared back his style since his glory days as an exiled jazz hero in the 1970s. Lots of concerts then stand out in the memory – nights when his ecstatic medleys took performer and audience to a near-transcendent awareness of musical power.

He is still a rare spirit, but now largely eschews the pounding rhythm and extended loud-pedal heavy passages which used to punctuate his recitals. The overwhelmingly predominant mood now is meditative, supported by gentle bass and drums played with featherweight brushes. As there are no breaks, announcements or other interruptions, this places pretty serious demands on the concentration. No applause for solos here either: it would feel like farting in church. Nor much in the way of familiar tunes. He seems to have abandoned most of his old anthems – especially the rousing ones like Soweto, though we did get a brief touch of Ishmael – and the nods to Ellington and Monk now come in odd phrases rather than entire themes.

The result – pleasing for decent stretches but ultimately, alas, a bit soporific. There is touch and technique here, and deep commitment, but little in the way of dynamics. An awful lot of medium tempo exploration of the middle of the keyboard, in fact. I’m happy to see him still fit for action when so many compatriots whose music I loved died young, but this particular night was a disappointment. Ah well, I still have all the recordings with Carlos Ward to remember how it used to be.

None of this takes away from a successful “Jazz Festival”. (Can you have a one day festival? Not sure.) But this undoubtedly worked, and drew a decent crowd even though it clashed with the other Bristol music fest. Here’s hoping there’s another, more ambitious, next year – maybe opening out into other venues and with programme notes, even. Why not?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. phil johnson permalink
    September 23, 2009 6:16 pm

    very fair comments….

    abdullah with carlos ward – live at sweet basil, what an album!

    remember him at the victoria rooms in mid-80s with the killer ekaya band, ricky ford etc….

    missed him at the top rank suite (?), locarno (?) above the ice rink, even earlier….

    also two or more solo shows at st g’s, in the days when you could still hear him properly…and he’d sing ‘for coltrane’ as an encore

    cue “I remember when all this was fields” etc

  2. September 23, 2009 7:15 pm

    ah yes… I’m thinking the Roundhouse, the Albany in Deptford, The Shaw Theatre (with Carlos that one) and Ekaya on the South Bank.

    Only frustating thing about Live at Sweet Basil is it was labelled “volume 1”, but Vol 2 never appeared.

    Incidentally, Zim Ngqawana has an alto style not a million miles from Ward, and a pianist who often hews close to Ibrahim…

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