Manchester Jazz Festival

Various venues, Manchester, UK

I have always thought that the Manchester Jazz Festival is a model of how to run a jazz festival in a major British city; it focusses on the local jazz scenes and placing them in the programme on an equal par with bands from other UK cities and abroad. It is mostly based in the city centre and therefore has a good profile in the city and the region. It provides opportunities for musicians based in the North West region to develop new work through the Irwin Mitchell Originals commissions.

Recognition of the festival’s excellence came this year with the award of the Europe Jazz Network’s Award for Adventurous Programming, see HERE  for details on this. Manchester is the first UK jazz festival to receive this award.

Ben Cottrell

Ben Cottrell

Strong evidence of the justification of this award came on the first night I was able to attend. I caught the premiere of Ben Cottrell’s commission New Seeing, a piece inspired by the album Focus made in 1961 by Stan Getz with a string orchestra. New Seeing is an impressive piece that I hope will have a number of repeat performances. The ensemble featured a string orchestra with six violins, three violas and three cellos, also two double bass players, both from the jazz world, two drummers, piano doubling celeste and the featured soloist Graham South on trumpet and flugelhorn.

Ben had made the very sensible decision not to feature a saxophonist as the shadow of Getz would undoubtedly have hung over the chosen player. Graham South was able to avoid that pressure and made a wonderful soloist; Richard Jones on piano was also impressive as well as those involved in the two duo passages, first Mick Bardon and Stewart Wilson on double bass, and Finlay Panter and Johnny Hunter on drums. But it was the writing for the strings and the whole ensemble that impressed me most. Ben writes brassy funky tunes for his Beats ‘N Pieces band, but for this project he made very effective use of the strings with electronics added; the textures created were very original and effective, mostly gentle and enigmatic but opening up to make a glorious climax on the final tune Big Bad Zölf.

Kit Downes and Tom Challenger - Vyamanikal

Kit Downes and Tom Challenger – Vyamanikal

The other highlight was to hear Kit Downes and Tom Challenger’s new church organ and saxophone project Vyamanikal that took place in the lovely St. Ann’s Church in central Manchester. This project came out of a residency at Aldeburgh and recordings made on various church organs in Suffolk.  Apparently, Kit learnt to play the organ before the piano, and his father was also an organist and learnt on the very organ that Kit was playing at St. Ann’s Church.

The piece lasted about an hour and also featured a very beautiful and evocative film of the Suffolk coastal area made by Ashley Pegg. The music itself was improvised and involved Kit bringing out the gentler side of the church organ and Tom playing lines to integrate with the organ sounds using the acoustics of the church very effectively. Kit switched to the harmonium for a short section and returned to the organ to build with Tom a wonderful loud climax to the concert. I look forward to hearing this again in different types of venue.

I was also able to catch concerts in the Hobgoblin Festival Pavilion and the Music Room at the Central Library. Theon Cross on the tuba in a trio with Moses Boyd on drums and Nubya Garcia on tenor sax played a very enjoyable set that enabled one to marvel at Theon’s ability to construct long lines on the bulky tuba. The trio itself was nicely integrated with Moses Boyd very dynamic on the drums and Nubya Garcia very forceful and elegant on the tenor sax. Their material was definitely jazz, but drawing on other contemporary genres such as reggae and funk.

By contrast, Empirical, the quartet with Nathaniel Facey on alto sax, Lewis Wright on vibes, Tom Farmer on bass and Shaney Forbes on drums, played a wonderful and unashamedly jazz set. Their material, their soloing and their presentation makes this work really well and appeal to a broad audience.

Atom String Quartet from Poland also played in St. Ann’s Church; festival director Steve Mead and I had heard them play at the Jazzahead showcase where they played a very entertaining and funky short 30min set; here over 70 mins one was able to hear the full range of their programme with various pieces drawing on Polish folk music and their interpretation of a Lutoslawski string quartet.

The Peter Edwards piano trio in the Pavilion was also good fun, but I preferred Moses Boyd’s drumming with Theon Cross; with Peter Edwards I felt he was a bit too busy and a little staccato in his accompaniment.

These two days provided a snapshot of what is a 10-day festival that brings to the city of Manchester a wide range of excellent music of various styles, but all linked to jazz.

Categories: Live review

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