Jazz by the Sea
For me, the Swanage Jazz Festival kicked off Friday evening at The Conservative Club with The Sound of Blue Note, essentially a tribute band not to another band but to a record label. The band played two albums from the Blue Note catalogue, Herbie Hancock’s Takin’ Off, originally released in 1962, and Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil from 1966. The audience (and it was a packed venue) lapped it up, familiar tunes performed by a good band led by Terry Quinney on saxes, with a nice tone on tenor, and Andy Urquart on trumpet, who I did feel was pushing some of the notes a little too hard at times. I have to say that I particularly enjoyed the rhythm section, great piano from Phil Doyle, and equally impressive bass and drums from Ben Taylor and Andy Chapman respectively. One gig down and many to follow with choosing what to attend being the biggest challenge I would face this weekend.
Saturday and back at The Conservative Club to hear The J Fashole-Luke Trio followed by the Alex Clarke Quartet. My first time of hearing J Fashole-Luke and I liked what I heard… I liked it a lot. The playing was excellent, weaving in and out of each others space, changes in tempo, volume, mood, and rhythms over repeated patterns and phrases. This band, to the best of my knowledge, have not recorded yet but I hope that they will soon particularly the closing set number the wonderfully soulful number ‘Citizen of Nowhere’.
Alex Clarke I have heard live before but not as band leader. She was backed by some of the very best on the British jazz music scene: Dave Newton, Dave Green, and Clark Tracey. The set was made up of original Alex Clarke material, including the title track from her latest album Only A Year, and jazz standards. Alex’s tone really shone through on the Duke Ellington number ‘Ballad For Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters’ and her enthusiasm for the music came through when she engaged with the audience. I felt that the band really came to life on the standards, which probably reflects just how well the guys know the music they were playing.
A short walk through Swanage took me to the Mowlem Theatre to hear The Xhosa Cole, which for me turned out to be the highlight of the weekend. In 2021 Downbeat Magazine commented that “He’s got technique, talent, artistry and a burning desire that shows throughout the set.” and nothing I saw or heard at Swanage would suggest that they got that comment wrong. An engaging personality, great band, terrific playing and an imaginative set. Xhosa has been looking at the music of Thelonious Monk and his version of ‘In Walked Bud’ was something else and the way it moved seamlessly into ‘Isfahan’ was an absolute joy!
The Alan Barnes Octet was next. I have heard the band before and, of course, I have heard Alan play many times in different band formats. So, was everything as it should be? Great band? Check. Good music selection? Check. Packed audience? Check. Corny jokes and anecdotes? Of course! There are very good reasons Alan Barnes is considered one of the very best in British jazz: hard-working, respectful, a very good player, a very good composer, and amusing. All of that was on show at Swanage as it has been in the past and will be again in the future.
I had intended that The Yazz Ahmed Quintet would be the final set of the day but it was not to be. I was very much looking forward to hearing this band, particularly in light of the exceptional press coverage she has been receiving, but I only heard the first half of her split set. This music is not to my taste. I did not like the use of electronics during the set (for me it did not add anything to what was being played), and I did not enjoy the sound levels, which I considered to be set too high. The upside was that I was able to catch some of the Greg Abate set back at The Conservative Club and one has to ask, can anyone play an alto sax with so much soul better than Greg Abate?
Sunday morning started with an audience with broadcaster and writer Alyn Shipton. Alyn has just launched a new book Alyn Shipton On Jazz, and he was being interviewed by Festival Chair person Paul Kelly, and Bruce Adams. It was an amusing and enlightening way to spend the first hour of the day and I should have been quite happy for it to have gone on a bit longer – it didn’t, but I bought a copy of the book to read at leisure. This was followed by The Nicola Farnon Trio, featuring Dave Newton at the piano. If there were an award for engaging personality Nicola would be a very strong contender. Nicola was lively and enthusiastic from the moment she stepped on stage to point at which the last note sounded. The music, a mix of originals, standards and covers was most enjoyable and I very much liked Nicola’s vocal sound: good range, intonation, and phrasing – and she plays good double bass too.
The Nat Steele Quartet with their tribute to the music of The MJQ was the next act I chose to hear and a very fitting tribute it turned out to be. Nat clearly has a real feel for the music of The Modern Jazz Quartet and whilst, stylistically, he may be inspired by vibes player Milt Jackson he is very much taken with the compositional skills of John Lewis. I particularly enjoyed hearing the ‘La Ronde Suite’, ‘Golden Striker’, and ‘Bags Groove’, all great tunes made better by being played live by such accomplished musicians.
My final event of the festival was Jo Harrop’s ‘The Heart Wants’ set. I was fortunate to be asked to review this album back in October of last year, so was very interested to hear it performed live under the musical directorship of Paul Edis. It was a very good set! Jo’s vocals are unmistakably her, distinctive, warm toned and clearly delivered. The backing from the likes of Jamie McCredie on guitar, Freddie Gavita playing trumpet – the muted tones were delightful -and, of course, Paul Edis at the piano was superb, as were the rhythms from bass player Jihad Darwish and drummer Pete Adams Hill. The set also featured the lyrical strings of The Kate Keats String Quartet who brought added another layer of musical texture to the setting.
That, for me, was the end of a, musically speaking, very enjoyable 31st Swanage Jazz Festival. Will there be a 32nd edition? Probably, but unless the event can start to attract a younger audience (and by that I mean people between the ages of thirty and fifty) there will come a point where its future may be in question but for now, well done, and thank you, Paul Kelly and team for putting on another fantastic feast of jazz music.