The Hexham Jazz Festival 2023

The drive from England’s south coast to Hexham in Northumberland is a long one but what does that matter? it was for live jazz after all. This was, I believe, the second jazz festival held in Hexham and was made possible with collaboration with Hampstead Jazz Club. The event was spread over three evenings with the Friday and Saturday making use of Hexham Abbey, and The Queen’s Hall on the Sunday. Jazz FM’s Nigel Williams was our MC for the first two dates as well as playing a late night DJ session to end Saturday evening.

The event began with an apt suite in nine sections inspired the The Lindisfarne Gospels. The music, a mix of jazz, contemporary classical and folk music, was written by Musical Director Paul Edis. Paul, from the piano, led the Ushaw ensemble: Andy May (Northumbrian pipes), Graham Hardy (trumpet/flugel), Graeme Wilson (tenor sax/bass clarinet/flute), Emma Fisk (violin), Rob Walker (drums), Paul Susans (double bass). The sound produced really was quite something and not easily described in the words but the effect was mesmerizing, thought provoking, and emotive – you can hear this group on Ushaw Ensemble Volume I CD.

The second set of the evening was billed as ‘An Evening With Rachel Sutton’. Her rich, emotive voice and theatrical stage presence make her a fine interpreter of classic jazz standards and contemporary music. Somehow managing to make each song she sings sound as if it’s a page lifted from her own diary, her debut studio album, A Million Conversations was dubbed ‘a revelation’ by the highly respected London Jazz News. Together with her top-notch trio –  Roland Perrin (piano), Andy Champion (bass), Steve Hanley (drums), she performed a selection of her own compositions alongside a generous helping of ageless Great American Songbook classics. Rachel had a very good stage presence and her rapport with the audience sounded confident. I liked what I heard, particularly her original material, and made a point of checking out her album when I got home.

Vocalist Freddie Benedict backed by Paul Edis (piano), Emma Rawicz (saxophone), Andy Champion (bass), Steve Hanley (drums) opened the Saturday night performances. Freddie made his name as the lead singer of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra – but can also play trumpet, which he demonstrated later in his set. This was the first time I had had the opportunity to hear Emma Rawicz live and what a player she is! Freddie sang a mix of cool jazz standards and Brazilian sambas, some of which he wrote himself. His final number included making use of a recording loop machine on which he built a layers of vocal sounds before bringing in the band to take us through to the audience participated final section – the effect was quite impressive.

Another vocalist, Jo Harrop, was Saturday’s headline act with the same backing band Freddie had used. Much of this music I had heard at the Boulevard Soho for the album launch for When Winter Turns To Spring, which also included alongside songs from her previous LPs – Weathering The Storm and The Heart Wants. The big difference here was that the string ensemble that played in London was replaced by Emma Rawicz and that completely changed the sound profile and I loved it! Jo Harrop is a terrific vocalist with wonderful phrasing and a genuine sounding connection to the emotional content of what she is singing. There was a duet with Freddie Benedict and it was good to hear the contrasting vocal styles from two singers who had connected with their audience.

Sunday evening saw the festival move across the street to The Queen’s Hall and a new band to me open the proceedings. Borealis are described as a group of “brilliant young musicians [who] sound utterly unlike anything you’ve heard before, fusing folk and cool contemporary jazz. Borealis is the brainchild of guitarist, Joe Steel, a rising star and recent graduate of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, accompanied by Ferg Kilsby (trumpet), Asha Nicholson (vocal), Dan Brown (piano), Paul Susans (bass), John Hirst (drums). The compositions are very good and the inspiration of the wild untamed beauty of the North East countryside apparent. Ferg Kilsby has a terrific trumpet voice and when mixed with Asha Nicolson’s wordless vocals the result is captivating. Their debut album is available on Bandcamp and on the strength of what I heard it will be added to my collection. This, for me, was the standout act of the festival.

Sunday evening, and the festival, closed with vocalist Claire Martin accompanied by pianist Jamie Safir. Jazz Times USA said this of Claire: ‘She ranks amongst the four or five finest female jazz vocalists on the planet.’  Nothing in the performance at Hexham would do anything to argue with that statement. Her rapport with the audience was first class, her choice of song and running order likewise. Jamie Safir was superb at the piano and their working relationship is clearly built on trust and understanding. Jo Harrop was in the audience, demonstrably enjoying herself, but did join Claire on stage for a terrific version of ‘Old Devil Moon’. A fitting end to the 2023 Hexham Jazz Festival and well worth the long drive north!

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