Newcastle Jazz Festival 13 – 15th August 2021

Earlier this year I reviewed two albums (Abbie Finn’s Northern Perspective and Dean Stockdale’s Promise the Moon) by artists booked to play at this year’s Newcastle Jazz Festival. As I like to hear musicians whose work I have reviewed play live this event gave me the perfect opportunity to do so, but would the long trip north be worth it for two bands in a roster of names many of which I was unfamiliar with?

Image captured from the festival website

Friday. My festival began at the Newcastle Civic Centre – resplendent with chandeliers – with the Dean Stockdale Trio featuring Dean on keyboard, Mick Shoulder on bass and Abbie Finn behind the drum kit. I like this trio and they opened the set with ‘On The Sunny Side of The Street’, a good upbeat tune to settle everyone in. The set, although relatively brief – somewhere between forty to fifty minutes – was well balanced and gave plenty of opportunity for the musicians to show what they were capable of, for example: Dean allowing the notes space to be savoured on the album title track ‘Promise the moon; the strong melodic bass playing from Mick Shoulder on ‘First Light; and Abbie Finn’s brushwork and accents of bass drum on ‘Out of Nowhere’.

Dean Stockdale left & the Strictly Smokin’ Big Band right

There was a short break while the Big Band got themselves ready to please their following who had turned out in numbers to support this clearly popular outfit. The seventeen piece band comprised of drums, keyboard, electric bass, electric guitar, four trumpets, four saxophones and three trombones all under the direction of Michael Lamb. They were joined by singer Alice Grace who got the set under way with ‘Honeysuckle Rose’. The vocals were clear, strong and with very good diction but when the band kicked in with a wall of sound that caught my breath I knew I was listening to a tight-knit group who knew how to play.

The Big Band played ten tunes and a thoroughly deserved encore. ‘I Said No’ showed off Alice’s fun side and ‘Mean to Me’ her vocal control. The Billy Strayhorn number ‘A Flower is a Lovesome thing’ is a beautiful ballad that Alice sung with a breathy quality that gave it added poignancy – and the sax solo was delightful. The stand-out tune for me was ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, played with all the panache that this well-known number warrants – though I have to say that the arrangement and playing of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ was terrific and almost stole the limelight. This was Big Band playing of a very high standard and thanks to Donald, a local jazz fan who I met on the night, I was introduced to members of the band a number of whom I would be seeing again – and in some cases again – over the course of the weekend.

Saturday. The line-up for day two of the festival read as follows: Alice Grace & Pawel Jedrzejewski; Francis Tulip Quartet; Swing Manouche; JASMINE Quintet; Dennis Rollins Velocity Trio; and the Mo Scott Band. I am not going to give a detailed review here, just an overview, otherwise this will be a very long read.

Vocalist Alice Grace and guitarist Pawel Jedrzejewski were both involved in the Big Band performance on Friday but they opened day two as a duo playing a number of tracks from their album A Timeless Place. Pavel’s guitar playing was subtle, understated and perfectly pitched in the support of Alice’s delightful vocals. There were a couple of light Bossa Nova style number and a wonderfully told story of infidelity in ‘Guess Who I Saw Today?’ But the highlights were ‘Dulcinea’, for its guitar work and vocal range and variation, and ‘A Timeless Place’ for the controlled vocal gymnastics and phrasing.

The next band to take to the stage were a last minute replacement for Sogo Rock who were, unfortunately, unable to attend. The Francis Tulip Quartet gave us a great set of bop numbers written by the some of the greats in jazz such as Joe Henderson, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard. Guitarist Francis Tulip led the band with the very good John Pope on bass, John Bradford on drums and a London based keyboard player who Francis said reviewers just refer to as ‘T’- I like to do as I am told. It was a strong set with solid bass playing from John Pope throughout. However, a special mention must go to tune that is currently unrecorded, a number entitled ‘Blues of Gratitude’ by Paul Bernstein (?). This piece opened the set and I believe deserves to be cut (do artists still “cut” music in this digital age?) as soon as possible: terrific stuff.

Swing Manouche is a Gypsy Jazz band led by guitarist Mick Shoulder (yes, the same guy who played bass on Friday night for Dean Stockdale). I believe Paul Grainger took on bass duties, Martin Whinney was on clarinet, and Dan Smith (?) was the other guitar player. This was a lively, fun filled set with great covers of Django tunes and a mussette thrown in for good measure. For me, the star of this set was clarinettist Martin whose playing was sublime and on the final tune built up to a stunning final high note that was jaw dropping to hear.

From Gypsy Jazz to something much more contemporary, the Jasmine Quintet led by saxophonist and composer Jasmine Whalley who are support by the Jazz North Northern Line project. “The band perform an interesting blend of Jazz and Hip-Hop which creates a unique and current sound. Jasmine is inspired by artists including MF Doom, Madvillain, Soweto Kinch and Bonobo”. This is a band I am glad I got to be “introduced” to and hear because I may not have “discovered” them otherwise. I really like the sound they produce but I can’t really name any of the tunes because they weren’t name checked. Ben Haskins played guitar and I should like to hear more of him as I would this fascinating Quintet who were a revelation to me.

Album sleeve design by
Pritpal Ajimal

The final set of the day went to Dennis Rollins and his Velocity Trio. To coin a phrase “oh my days”! This band not only took the roof off they pushed the floor away too. Dennis on trombone, the wonderful Ross Stanley on the Hammond B3 organ (Ross deserves an ovation for just getting the beast of an instrument on to the stage) and the exuberant Pedro Segundo playing drums. This was a high energy, jazz funk set that had people on their feet dancing and whooping their appreciation. The Trio was joined by the talented trombonist Anoushka Nanguy whose sound added greater depth to the tunes she played on, in particular the number ‘Symbiosis’. I particularly enjoyed the take on Pink Floyds ‘Money’, the exuberant playing of Pedro on drums and percussion, and the wall of sound from the full-fat tone of both trombonists: what a way for me to end the day while the rest of the audience stayed on for the blues of Mo Scott.

Sunday. The final day of this terrific festival lined up like this: Abbie Finn Trio; Gerry Richardson Quartet; Not Now Charlie; Sue Ferris Quartet; Jay Phelps. The Abbie Finn Trio were the first to take to the stage – Abbie on drums, Harry Keeble on sax, and Paul Grainger on bass. This is one the acts that drew me to the Newcastle Jazz Festival and they did not disappoint. The band opened with a very good ‘Night and Day’ before introducing an original tune ‘Walkabout’. What I like about Abbie’s playing is her compact style (a total contrast to Pedro Segundo the night before), she plays what she needs to play to add something to the music without detracting from the tune with over-extended solo’s (a pet hate). The stand out tune was Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ with irts terrific opening solo from Harry Keeble (do check out his EP The Beacon on Bandcamp). ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ brought the set to a close before the Gerry Richardson Quartet came to the stage (they were listed as a Quartet but there were five of them but I have no idea who the interloper was).

Gerry Richardson’s band play a mix of Soul, Gospel, Funk, Swing and Samba with Gerry on organ and vocals, David Gray on trombone, Garry Linsley played alto sax and Paul Smith on drums – unfortunately I did not catch the name of the percussionist and I think he may have been the addition to the quartet of five. This was a good set of great tunes, raw edged vocals, and full-toned trombone from David Gray who had a nervous energy about him that was endearing.

Another band supported by the Jazz North Northern Line project was next in line: Not Now Charlie. This band is led by saxophonist Jamie Toms (who also played in the Strictly Smokin’ Big Band and is one of the festival organisers) and features guitarist Pawel Jedrzejewski (Big Band member and duetist with Alice Grace), Richard Campbell on piano, Liam Gaughan played bass as well as doing all the sound engineering for the festival, and David McKeague on drums. They opened the set with ‘Mythos’, a track from their album Nostalgia Revisited and finished it with the album’s title track. In between were a further five tracks including ‘What Were You Thinking’ from the forthcoming, as yet untitled, follow-up album. For me, the standout number was ‘The Greatest Game’, but I also very much enjoyed the drum & bass influenced ‘Keep Your Eyes on The Prize and Your Feet off The Table’. ‘Hadath’ also stood out with its extended drum solo before the bass comes in setting the groove which the rest of the band picks-up on: track two on the album, check it out!

Baritone saxophonist Sue Ferris, with support from Paul Grainger on bass, Stu Collingwood at the keyboard and Rob Walker on drums gave us a tribute set of Gerry Mulligan tunes. Clearly Sue had done her research and put together a wonderful selection of Mulligan’s work including ‘Rocker’ – instantly recognisable – and ‘Festive Minor’ from the What is There to Say album recorded towards the end of the fifties. The festival photographer Malcolm Sinclair, who I first met on Friday evening, had told me how well respected a musician Sue Ferris is in the north-east, on this showing I can understand why.

Painting by Gina Southagate. Album sleeve design by
Pritpal Ajimal

This leads us to the closing act of the festival: trumpeter and vocalist Jay Phelps. Jay was joined on stage by Dean Stockdale (full circle here) at the keyboard, Andy Champion on double bass (who was sporting a most magnificent beard) and David McKeague behind the drum kit. The set featured a mix of tunes from the likes of John Coltrane (‘Syeeda’s Song Flute’), Hank Mobley (‘This I Dig of You’ with a terrific bass solo from Andy Champion), Ornette Coleman (‘Blue Connotation’) and originals like ‘Everyone’s Ethnic’ from the Live at The Cockpit album. I found Jay Phelps to be not only a superb trumpet player but also an engaging performer who established a warm rapport with the audience who responded with enthusiasm.

I said my goodbyes and left at 7.30pm. I thanked Michael Lamb and Jamie Toms for putting together a very well-run event with a balanced set list of jazz styles from musicians I hope to hear more of now that I have been “introduced” to them. I received a very warm welcome to the north-east from the festival organisers as well as those musicians whose work I have had the privilege of reviewing for this blog. I should also like to thank singer Alice Grace, and her family, who allowed me to share their space at the Tyne Bank Brewery where Saturday and Sunday’s gigs took place. To Donald, and Malcolm Sinclair for giving me the low-down on some of the artists or band members, and to Jay Phelps whose Sunday night show on Jazz FM (10pm ’til 1 am) kept me company on the drive home – and yes I did hear the entire show.

So, was the journey worth it? Yes!

Would I go again? Yes!

Enough said!

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