Swanage had a few travails even before the pandemic so it was good to see the festival bounce back after a 2-year hiatus. Reason enough for the blog to stir briefly from stasis – mainly to note some things for my own benefit for next year: I’ll be going back!
It’s a small festival, in an unbeatable location: a jazz festival where you can swim before breakfast (this year it was warm enough for there still to be swimmers after dinner). I like that. Easy to get to, as well. Bristolians may like to note that public transport is pretty easy – take the Weymouth train, change in Dorchester to pop over to Wareham, then a pleasant bus ride into Swanage. Beats driving in this heat.
The festival is all UK-based artists, and retains a strong trad stream along with four venues this year featuring more contemporary efforts. They have not gone back to marquees (because £s) so making do with built venues. This is a mixed blessing. Sound is generally good, with one exception. The biggest, the Mowlem Theatre, is a little stuffy in the heat, but bearable. Swanage Conservative Club is, well, a Conservative club so one would welcome demolition for other reasons, but ought probably to be dropped anyhow as it’s too small for the bands who appear there. A couple of hotels have spaces that are nicer.
The festival offers stroller tickets – like Brecon in the old days, and has a small fringe, also like Brecon but featuring more actual jazz. There’s far too much music over two days to take in, but here’s the kind of weekend you could have:
Saturday noon. Pigfoot in the Methodist Church. A venue known for unfriendly acoustic – some later bands suffered from rushed soundchecks, but this lot were fine, and had a healthy crowd as the other large space at the Mowlem hadn’t got under way. They’re a favourite band and their knack of making old tunes new again makes for a great live show.
A similarly satisfying set from a favourite altoist, Martin Speake’s Charukesi in the same venue featured brilliant guitar from Rob Luft who then joined some of us strollers in making his way directly to the Cons******** Club to join Adam Glasser’s group for an hour of mainly South African tunes. As Glasser knows about this stuff that meant pieces by the excellent Caiphus Semenya as well as Abdullah Ibrahim, Dudu Pukwana and the leader himself.
Then another short walk to the Mowlem to sample Festival favourite Alan Barnes’ octet, before a break – otherwise no dinner. Refreshed, the evening schedule permitted a first half of Julia Titus’ packed show dedicated to Bessie Smith songs, with Claude Deppa‘s trumpet outstanding on pretty well every number, and a quick switch in the interval to catch the second half of Yazz Ahmed’s quintet in a steamy Mowlem Theatre. Ahmed’s band have a special sonority courtesy of Ralph Wyld’s vibes and George Crowley’s bass clarinet (Crowley having essayed tenor sax with Adam Glasser) and they have lived with most of the material for a few years now. The result is well-organised, intriguing music, delivered with huge panache.
Back to the Methodist Church at 1.00 pm Sunday (time for a swim first) for the wonderful Babelfish. The Church was certainly a cool retreat in the heat, though few folk seemed to find it, and this fine band (Chris Laurence on bass, a second showing for the redoubtable Paul Clarvis on drums, Barry Green on piano and Brigitte Beraha’s voice) really suited the venue. A superb way to start the day. The QOW trio’s take on the saxophone trio – with Alex Hitchcock standing in on tenor in the Rollins/Joe Henderson/Dewey Redman role – sounded pretty good too. Not so Trevor Watts’ trio with Veryan Weston and Jamie Harris, who I guess didn’t have time to take the measure of the echo before having to get under way.
Some hopeful strolling at the same time drew a blank for Art Themen at the C club, which was declared full, a glimpse of Nat Steele’s rather lovely MJQ tribute in the Mowlem, but just before the interval, alas, and then a seat in the Club for Henry Lowther’s Still Waters. This turned out to be my gig of the festival. Lowther, at 81, is older than most (but definitely not all!) Swanage punters and his band is… pretty well flawless. Each of them – Pete Hurt on tenor, Barry Green again on piano, Paul Clarvis, Dave Green on bass and Henry himself, delivered perfectly constructed, compelling solos on every number. One looks back on a festival for the musical moments that stand out as work of real quality, players delivering more than one really has a right to expect after everyone has sweated to show up at a modest venue down on the coast. This set was an uninterrupted stream of them. Lowther and Hurt’s compositions are subtly effective and the players took them as inspiration for some small miracles.
Ears full at this point, but had to share at least the first set of the festival finale, Simon Spillett’s big band in the Mowlem. This well-drilled ensemble brought joy to many with their spirited renditions of Tubby Hayes charts from the 1960s. Not my kind of thing particularly, but you could tell it was very well done.
All this, and I missed: Xhosa Cole; Mark Kavuma; Nicola Farnon; Kate and Mike Westbrook; Nigel Price; Mark Lockheart; Tony Kofi; and quite a few other things I’d have happily tried given time and energy. But Swanage also has the attribute of a good festival, that if you miss one thing, there’ll be another good’un along shortly. The whole thing is astounding value, and if not perfectly organised or housed this year, offers a fine weekend of first rate music. And the setting: if you need a break from music, and I do, where could be better?