JQJAZZ15 Legends Festival – Day One

Various venues, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham UK

This is a new weekend festival established by Birmingham Jazz and set in the area where it already presents most of its regular gigs. It has been supported by the Jewellery Quarter Bid as well as University College Birmingham, and it has chosen as a theme, the great jazz “legends”, focussing on Miles Davis this year, but taking in a lot of players from the ’50s and ’60s, most with Davis links.

Toby Boalch (Photo © Brian Homer)

Toby Boalch (Photo © Brian Homer)

Day One began at lunchtime in Pomegranate, a friendly coffee and designer goods shop in the Jewellery Quarter’s main drag. Set up next to the front window was the Toby Boalch Trio – Toby on Nord piano, Nick Jurd on double bass and Euan Palmer on drums. Packing the tables was, I’m guessing, a mix of lunchtime regulars and jazz fans. In fact the only free table I could find was outside on the pavement, which still gave me both a good listening point and also made me aware of the passers-by who lingered to enjoy an unexpected jazz fillip with their lunchtime stroll. This, together with the audience age range of about three to about 83, meant it was the ideal, free, accessible jazz gig. People generally stayed put for the whole hour set, or if they had chanced upon it, they rarely moved on.

Nick Jurd (Photo © Brian Homer)

Nick Jurd (Photo © Brian Homer)

The programme mixed Monk tunes and jazz standards associated with Miles Davis, and one Boalch original squeezed in near the end. What impressed me most was the fresh way these young players tackled these venerable warhorses of tunes, playing with their rhythms, re-harmonising their chords, remaking them anew while staying true to their original spirit.

These same qualities were stretched even further at 5pm in the foyer of University College Birmingham’s smart new red-brick building. Little Church was the band, inspired by the electric Miles Davis track of the same name. Leading was pianist David Austin Grey, and he had Aaron Diaz on trumpet and electronics, Rachael Cohen on alto saxophone, the ubiquitous Nick Jurd on both electric and double bass, and Tymek Jozwiak on drums.

David Austin Grey (Photo © Brian Homer)

David Austin Grey (Photo © Brian Homer)

As the publicity talked about playing tunes from Miles’s electric period, I was half expecting long, spacey recreations of In A Silent Way and Miles Runs The Voodoo Down. That would have been great, but what we got was even better. The Miles tunes were less obvious ones – Wayne Shorter’s Waterbabies, for example, and Miles’ Cobra and Little Church – and most of the 90-minute set was made up of Grey originals, inspired in various ways by Electric Miles but very much reflecting the characters of the composer and his accomplished players.

Rachael Cohen (Photo © Brian Homer)

Rachael Cohen (Photo © Brian Homer)

Since Rachael Cohen graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire and moved to London our opportunities to hear her back in Brum are fewer and should be grasped – her strong sound (even more impressive in the high roofed foyer of UCB – I thought at first there was a microphone somewhere) and her innovative way with a long, flowing improvisational line never disappoints. It was also great to hear more of Aaron Diaz. He is developing an individual way of using electronics, and although he had more room to move here than he does in Sid Peacock’s large Surge Orchestra, his effects were still a little quiet at times and lost in the mix. Like Cohen he is a strongly lyrical soloist, and they made a fine frontline team.

The originals from Grey have good solid themes and the kind of development that maintains listener interest as well as giving the players lots to work with. Tiny Mice Church Service was a highlight with its high church organ sounds at the start and an almost Baroque set of horn harmonies which then gave way in sudden contrast to gloriously pumping electric bass, drums and electric piano Milesian funk.

The “artist in residence” of this festival is trumpeter Henry Lowther, and the Friday night at The Red Lion slot was filled by his Still Waters band. This is a cross-generational quintet with Lowther, bassist Dave Green and saxophonist Pete Hurt representing the seniors, drummer Paul Clarvis in the middle, and pianist Barry Green carrying the young person’s jazz flame.

Aside from a witty, reggaefied version of Too Young To Go Steady and a bebop romp through John Lewis’ Afternoon In Paris, all the tunes came from Lowther or Hurt, and while the arrangements were mainly in the head-solos-head pattern, the strength of the tunes, the richness of their harmonies and the creativity of the solos never made if feel like a procession. Lowther’s tribute to Birmingham’s master drummer Tony Levin, called simply TL, was one highlight, the other was the official closer (there was a quick encore but Barry had a train to catch) White Dwarf, which not only showed how these players can do free improv as well, but also featured a selection of whistles, specifically shipped in by the festival organisers from Birmingham manufacturer Acme Whistles (a legend in their own field).

Henry Lowther and Paul Clarvis in gladiatorial Acme mode (Photo © Brian Homer)

Henry Lowther and Paul Clarvis in gladiatorial Acme mode (Photo © Brian Homer)

Soloist of the day for me was Pete Hurt, especially on tenor. He manages to combine fleetness of finger and a composerly logic in his lines with an exceptional centred and full tone. He also sounds like no one so much as himself. A real delight.

A fine first day of this new festival venture – and there’s still lots more to come.

  • Full details of the JQJAZZ15 Legends Festival programme for tomorrow and Sunday are here.

Categories: Live review

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