Report by Paul Khimasia Morgan
Photographs © 2015 by Agata Urbaniak (All Rights Reserved)
Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival assembled a true picture of contemporary 21st century jazz and presented a handful of its component parts with clarity and integrity.
Recently, there has been talk in certain areas of the music-related print media of an ongoing crisis in contemporary jazz. It has been pointed out that there is, in the early 21st century, a reliance on the regurgitation of 20th century forms which has led to the current malaise in both content and worldwide decline in the popularity of jazz. You could cite Wynton Marsalis’s backward-looking stance; here’s Eddie Myer in September’s Sussex Jazz Magazine: “At least by re-stating the primacy of the tradition, Marsalis contributed to an affirmation of jazz’s core values that went some way towards re-invigorating it as a cultural and commercial force. But he’s also proved to be a divisive figure to many in his inflexible insistence about what constitutes ‘real’ jazz.” Indeed, to some enthusiasts, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus are lauded to the exclusion of all others and jazz itself comes to a halt at Miles Davis’ “second great quartet” performances around 1965.
Perhaps this can be defined by the current uncertain identity of jazz itself. Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival director Daniel Spicer quite rightly pointed out in a recent interview; “… I wrote an article for The Wire in which I was bemoaning the corporatisation of jazz. So I was moaning about Jazz FM being mainly a station that plays soul and funk with not much jazz. And I was also moaning specifically about what passes for a jazz festival, in the UK and elsewhere – it’s a global thing these days. I was moaning about Love Supreme [festival]… The fact that they have the nerve to call it that… Also, I disagree with what the London Jazz Festival has become as well, especially now that it’s known as the EFG London Jazz Festival, which means they get funding from a Swiss bank, which specialises in helping people avoid paying tax. I’m not sure if that really chimes with the spirit of jazz. It’s the sound of an oppressed people – I can see some disjunction there.” Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival goes some way to address these misgivings. As their website says; “…it proposes a genuine alternative to more mainstream festivals, providing a platform for the truly left-field – while maintaining an emphasis on music that isn’t afraid to swing”.
Brighton is the perfect place to host a jazz festival. It has its own jazz venue; The Verdict on Edward Street, plus regular live jazz in bars like The Mesmerist, Bohemia and Casablanca; organisations like Brighton Jazz Club, Brighton Safehouse, plus Brighton Jazz School and Chichester Jazz College not far away.
The Festival brought together a host of international musicians. Director, Daniel Spicer, utilising his experience of writing and interviewing musicians for years for publications including Jazzwise and The Wire, and his involvement in organising concerts for touring units at a co-operative venue in Brighton, has assembled his wish list from jazz luminaries, journeymen, minor legends, relative newcomers and established names. He is also known for presented the jazz-centric Mystery Lesson show on Brighton’s Radio Reverb, so it’s a short stretch to impresario. He is aided by a team of organisers who are all working musicians/artists themselves. Buried under the weight of admin – hotel bills, plane tickets, bar tabs, funding applications, trips to the printers and so forth – are Ingrid Plum, Luke Twyman and Holly Jarvis. All three are artists in their own right; Twyman is a designer, Plum and Jarvis are musicians.
Thankfully (for me at least) there is no sign of either electric guitars or digital keyboards over the two days; the acoustic instruments are all amplified through the capable venue PA. If I have one quibble, it is that it would have been nice to hear some music acoustically; although large enough, the venue was not so cavernous that the instruments wouldn’t have been heard. Also, mainly on the Saturday afternoon, there were a couple of occasions of uncontrolled feedback due, possibly, to the overall level of the PA being unnecessarily high (when Mette Rasmussen stepped away from her mic during her and Steve Noble’s set on Saturday evening, her maximalist saxophone blasting was surprisingly quiet in comparison). Mostly the groupings are small, which ramps up the intensity of the performances.
Friday’s crowd is near capacity and with the Saturday sold out, the only weak link in the chain is, perhaps, the venue itself. Set up with raked theatre-style seating, with the decision to leave all house lights completely off during performances resulted in many a precarious journey up and down the stairs especially for those entering the venue from the brightly lit bar; not wanting to miss anything while their eyes were adjusting to the dark. Not ideal, especially as the festival appealed to a wide age range – many older attendees were visibly struggling.
The kick-off outfit of the fest is London improvising outfit Woven Entity, joined tonight by Danish saxophonist and flautist Julie Kjaer. And what a great way to start. Totally anathema to the commercial jazz that organiser Daniel Spicer rails against, Woven Entity produce combustible jazz-inflected free improvisations which draw equally upon post-punk, afro-jazz, electronics and “eccentric ethnological forgeries”, and were the only act tonight whose product I, personally, felt absolutely compelled to purchase from the well-stocked merchandise tables. Woven Entity feature fermenting percussion, are not afraid of modulation and have the only electric bassist in attendance this weekend. Laid back, certainly, but they come alive when Julie Kjaer plays. Woven Entity make the most sense when they have access to a soloist; the YouTube video of their performance at Stoke Newington’s The Others captivates me more than the document of their Brighton Safehouse performance (both filmed earlier this year), mainly due to the presence of a saxophonist.
In stark contrast to Woven Entity are the festival’s largest grouping, the Sarah Gail Brand Sextet. Putting the music aside momentarily, having never witnessed Ms Brand in concert before, I was somewhat surprised to witness her attempts to communicate with the audience as if she were a comedy compere. Her efforts went over my head and those of the majority of the audience, which was a shame in a way because the music didn’t need it. Putting that aside, however, her compositions – apart from an unrecognisable (to me) REM cover – were fantastic. Crowd-pleasing for sure; running the gamut of trad, be-bop, showy, free and atonal, but flipping between the styles so fast and with emotional depth.
Heading the Friday was Kiermyer-Birchall Transcension. This quartet was a specially-commissioned meeting of Canadian drummer Franklin Kiermyer and British saxophonist Nat Birchall, joined by Americans Davis Whitfield on piano and bassist Nimrod Speaks. The skills on show by all four were exemplary. Nat Birchall has a stated John Coltrane influence, although I would say both John and spouse Alice Coltrane, especially in the use of bell clusters and general mood tonight. For more evidence of this, check out the track ‘Dance Of The Mystic’ from his 2011 album Sacred Dimension. Listen here. The inclusion of harp on that track puts me firmly in mind of Alice Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda. And this is certainly no bad thing. The word “spiritual” gets bandied about a fair bit and Birchall is no exception, but having witnessed this group’s playing, I can’t dismiss it. For me, Kiermyer puts in a very close second-most-impressive percussion performance of the festival behind Saturday’s performance by Steve Noble.
After-show festivities, including the promise of jazz DJs and live poetry readings are hosted in the basement of The Bees Mouth, a bar around the corner, but as I am dependent on the train to get home, I miss out.
The next day, walking through the Clifton area of Brighton from the train station, I marvel at the unusually clement weather and grin at the fact I am willingly going to spend the rest of the day and evening in a darkened room with a couple of hundred strangers instead of making the most of the seafront. The Westhill Blast Quartet live up to their name; a blast of free playing that makes the first pint of the mildly hungover early crowd taste that much sweeter and makes the second day of the festival lift off nicely. Westhill Blast Quartet are: on saxophone, Ron Caines (formerly of 60’s progressive rockers East of Eden); on drums, Andy Pyne (of Map 71 and head of the Foolproof Projects label); and on many and various percussion and eastern horns, festival organiser Daniel Spicer. Their usual double bassist Gus Garside (ARC, The Static Memories) is mysteriously absent, but the very capable Verity Spott deputises on cello. In fact, Spott, along with Spicer’s rapid-fire percussion objects, is one of the most compelling aspects of this grouping tonight. There’s plenty of saxophone and pipe duelling courtesy of Caines and Spicer for purists, but it’s the interplay between Pyne’s caressing touch on the drums, Spicer’s bits and bobs from his percussion table and Spott’s exuberant playing that makes it for me.
Yana are vibraphonist Corey Mwamba, double-bassist Dave Kane and on drums, Joshua Blackmore. Yana are a highly technical proposition from the word go – Mwamba’s lightning fast dexterity on his vibes propelling the trio into the realms of raw, punk attitude from time to time. In a particularly fast and heated exchange with the other musicians, Mwamba shouts out to augment a loud and aggressive passage. Kane is equally capable of speed and aggression or, briefly, dub pastiche. Such is his versatility demonstrated tonight that it comes as little surprise to hear that he is playing in London in a grouping with Mark Wastell the following night. Occasionally, there are touches in Yana’s music, of Afrobeat in the vein of Chicagoans like Bundy K Brown and John Herndon, HiM, or Chad Taylor’s marimba and vibraphone work with Rob Mazurek. Like Stereolab’s Cobra And Phases… might sound, stripped of all superfluous electronic noodlings. The only blip in their performance is when Mwamba attempts to sound his vibes with the foam insert from its flightcase – possibly he was attempting to lighten the mood a little, but having produced barely any sound from this bizarre strategy, he quickly picks up his mallets again.
The stand-out performance of the festival for me, was the duo of Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and London-based drummer Steve Noble. Noble is somewhat of a stalwart of the London improv-scene as well as being highly regarded and in demand internationally. His numerous collaborations read like a Who’s Who of the Improv world; Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, Tony Bevan, Dominic Lash, Alan Wilkinson, Lol Coxhill, John Dikeman, with Alex Ward and John Edwards in his regular grouping N.E.W., the London Improvisors’ Orchestra, Ikue Mori, and, unexpectedly, Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))). Mette Rasmussen plays a form of ecstatic jazz, liberating her saxophone from being purely a solo (and endlessly soloing) instrument to produce the perfect high-octane accompaniment to Noble’s quicksilver percussion sound-searching. Rasmussen is one of the younger performers this weekend whose mildly punky appearance and tender years belie her natural talent and transcendent approach.
Summoned by text to get home and help deal with a minor family emergency, I had to leave just prior to the Rachel Musson Quartet set. Musson is joined by Corey Mwamba of Yana on vibes, bassist Neil Charles and percussionist Mark Sanders. This meant I also missed out on the big names: William Parker, Hamid Drake, John Dikeman. Gutted. The big names. By all accounts, it was extremely good; by turns intimate, joyful, and transcendent.
The side-effects, if there are any, of “going big” and basing an event of this type on arts council funding and therefore needing to augment the application process with separate, independent funding initiatives, (Indiegogo crowd-funding in this case), means there is perhaps a need to offer incentives to the people who might put their hands in their pockets. Consequently, there was an unmarked but distinctly tangible “VIP seating area” – table seating at the foot of the stage – with, I was reliably informed, “free champagne”. This information I got first-hand from Geoff from Brighton promoters of electronica, The Spirit of Gravity, who apparently accidentally wandered into the VIP area unchallenged and was handed a free glass of said beverage.
So, musically, Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival was a massive success. However, the knives are already out. It’s a pity that the local press couldn’t quite feel charitable enough to actually send someone who enjoys jazz to report on the goings on. Hilariously, John Keenan of The Argus had this to say: “Steering clear of any concession to mainstream sensibilities, this two-day festival showcased avant garde experimentalist musicians who regard accessibility as a misfortune to which unwary players are apt to succumb”, before going on to spend the remainder of his piece in praise of Sarah Gail Brand’s performance on the opening night, whose music is nothing if not accessible. I get the feeling it’s unlikely he stuck around for Saturday’s performances.
Mention should also go to the comprehensive merchandise stalls in an ante-room to the bar where as well as an official festival stall holding titles by all the participants, there were also stalls from local independent publisher Slightly Underground and Brighton Jazz School.
I’ll leave the last word to Daniel Spicer: “…turns out, if you do a jazz festival and pretty much forget to eat for the whole weekend, running largely on tobacco, ale and enthusiasm, you end up feeling a little shady come Monday”. Hopefully that won’t stop him doing it all again next year. Bravo!