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Scarborough Jazz Festival

The Spa, Scarborough
Friday 22 - Sunday 24 September 2017

According to one vintage railway poster, Scarborough prides itself on being "the tonic holiday for all the family". With its dedication to providing a wide selection of seaside entertainments very much intact, the North Yorkshire coastal town is still a magnet for those of us who appreciate variety; it is, after all, the spice of life. The Scarborough Jazz Festival, now in its fifteenth year, continues the town's tradition for said variety with a lineup that leaves no paying customer unappeased. This year, thirsts for big bands and bold brass were quenched by the Stan Tracey Legacy Band, led by Stan's son Clark Tracey, as well as Issie Barratt's ten-piece Interchange, the New York Brass Band, Paul Baxter's Seven Pieces of Silver and Hans Koller's seventeen-piece Big Band, who celebrated the eightieth birthday of composer Mike Gibbs on Sunday evening. Tastes for smaller outfits were satisfied by Nikki Iles and Stan Sultzman, Clarinet Maestros, the Nicolas Meier Quartet and solo pianist Jason Rebello. And, thanks to some intrepid planning, the festival also treated the more adventurous jazzer to sets by such contemporary outfits as Get the Blessing, Wandering Monster and Janette Mason's Red Alert. There were also some wonderfully engaging performances from renowned jazz vocalists Mads Mathias and Polly Gibbons.

The festival burst into life on Friday afternoon via the sassy plumbing of the New York Brass Band. Hailing not from the Big Apple but from the ancient streets of old York, this eight-piece combo brought the sounds of New Orleans to the Scarborough Spa for a set that included jazzed-up renditions of Bob Marley's One Love and Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing as well as bold interpretations of Chick Corea's Spain and the classic Charles Mingus composition Better Get It In Your Soul, which was so good the sousaphone broke in two. This feel-good act have delighted the Glastonbury crowd several times and provided, perhaps, the best possible opening concert for this year’s Scarborough Jazz Festival via slippery trombone solos, fiery sax breaks and even a few harmonic vocal choruses to boot.

One of the most exciting performances of the weekend was delivered by Sam Quintana's Wandering Monster, a quintet of young and inventive musicians that have recently benefited from the support of Jazz North. It’s easy to see why when you encounter the band. Their thoughtfully textured set at this year's festival, which relied heavily on many-cornered chord structures and a notably dexterous drummer in the shape of Tom Higham, included a tasteful reading of Gary Willis's The Necessary Blonde, complete with warm and unobtrusive piano from Aleks Podraza and sublime upper range adventures from sax man Ben Powling. The set reached its zenith during The Rush Begins, a mischievously chugging piece that seemed to edge towards abstraction without straying from its infectious, stuttering beat and dampened guitar arpeggio. Those looking for further guitar arpeggios, as well as an impressive selection of six string improvisations, had to wait until Sunday afternoon's performance by the Nicolas Meier Quartet. The Swiss-born British-based guitarist is currently in the thick of his extensive Intensity tour and, along with Dan Oates on violin, popped into the Spa to wow the Sunday crowd with an energetic blend of lilting jazz ballads, evocative soundscapes and some infectious jazz rock.

Get The Blessing's sonic experiments could easily have divided the Friday evening crowd, but the Bristol-based quartet effortlessly united the entire audience via their magnetic charm and distinct respect for evocative jazz. By feeding trumpet and sax into effect pedals whilst relying on the stability of drums and bass, Get The Blessing conjured a series of bewitching soundscapes with such compositions as Green Herring, which seemed to exist in a slightly off-kilter alternate universe and Little Ease, which prompted Jake McMurchie to break his instrument in two to "demonstrate that most of the sax is pointless". The haunting waves of sound this prompted, laden with unsettling reverb effects, was nothing short of awe-inspiring. It wasn't a surprise when the crowd emitted hoots of joy and calls for more at the end of the quartet's animated set.

Mads Mathias is one of those rare artists who combines two distinct skills and pulls it off with verve. The Danish musician is both a fine saxophonist and superlative jazz singer and his performance on Friday evening benefited from the man's command over both. With a voice that treads the line between crisp and mellow, Mads handles a song with an unflashy sensibility that is mindful of melody, delightfully unobtrusive and all the more absorbing for it. His sax lines are similar, remaining restrained amongst the delightfully uncluttered piano explorations of Peter Rosendal, the relaxed walking bass-lines of Morten Ankarfeldt and the shimmering percussion of British drummer Steve Hanley. The quartet entertained a very appreciative Scarborough crowd with a series of songs about love and longing, interspersed with Mads' witty philosophies on both subjects. Further vocal splendour was unleashed on the Scarborough crowd on Sunday evening courtesy of the Polly Gibbons Quartet. British singer Gibbons toes the line between tender jazz and red hot soul via an incredibly versatile and beguiling voice. And while it would have been nice to hear more vocalists at this year's festival, Polly more than made up for the gap.

Come Rain or Come Shine provided an apt way to open Saturday afternoon's set by Nikki Iles and Stan Sultzman, given that the North Yorkshire climate is prone to change its mind at the drop of a hat. The rain stayed away, however, and whilst some festival goers decided to relax in deckchairs in the Spa's famous sun lounge, the renowned pianist and saxophonist played a sweetly soft set that played enchantingly with the Spa's outstanding acoustics. Via an exchange of improvised solos, the two British musicians displayed some adroit yet wholly respectful handling of their instruments. Their affection for subtle tones and captivating melody was at its best during Jerome Kern's Nobody Else But Me, the Hague/Horwitt standard Young and Foolish and Nikki's exquisite arrangement of Gershwin's My Man Has Gone Now, which took the usual blues of Gershwin's palette and spread them out along a spectrum of other colours, helped along by Stan's lithe sax notes and Nikki's gently inquiring brush strokes.

Alan Barnes relinquished his MC duties on Saturday evening in order to perform with The Lowest Common Denominator, a powerhouse of a quintet led by Barnes and fellow reedsman Gilad Atzmon. Entertaining from the off, the two giants of the sax firmly established each number with a strong melody and harmony before riffing around them with compelling boldness and oodles of merry mischief. From the quirkiness of Gilad's Blip Blop to the gentle melancholia of Billy Strayhorn's Sweetpea, the quintet's set provided the audience with some moments of bona fide astonishment. And although Barnes's Giladiator, dedicated to his Israeli-British band mate, evoked the spirit of Roman combat, it was during These Foolish Things that Gilad and Alan presented a battle of the saxes with an electrifying interchange of Charlie Parker-esque alto solos. And Alan was back on stage on Sunday afternoon when he guested during the Clarinet Maestros set, one of the highlights of the festival thanks to the talents of British clarinetist Julian Stringle and American clarinetist Ken Peplowski. The masterful duo were joined by a trio of fine musicians including pianist Craig Milverton whose fleet-fingered playing dazzled during I Can't Give You Anything But Love, dedicated to Julian's 102 year old nan, and a wonderful rendition of Oscar Peterson's You Look Good To Me. Stringle and Peplowski were equally dazzling thanks to their distinct clarinet dialects which made for some interesting conversations, most notably during a joyfully skittering reading of Buddy De Franco's Blues for Space Travel.

British pianist Jason Rebello has been reaffirming his dedication to jazz over the past few years after two decades of providing keys for the likes of Sting and Jeff Beck. His solo appearance at the Scarborough Jazz Festival, in which the virtuoso pianist performed compositions by such eminent artists as Erroll Garner and Sting as well as a selection of his own enchanting pieces such as the sublime Tokyo Dream and spirited Wind in the Willows, provided a moment of welcome tranquility before a bombastic performance by Clark Tracey's Stan Tracey Legacy Band.

Rounding things off with a celebration of composer Mike Gibbs' 80th birthday, Hans Koller's Big Band shook the Spa before tightening the lid on another impressive festival. As the cliff lift took its final trundle up towards the Esplanade and the twinkling lights of the South Bay dimmed into the distance, hundreds of weary jazzers were comforted by the thought of coming back and doing it all again next year. It’s somewhat gratifying to know that, like the "tonic holiday for all the family" on which Scarborough has always prided itself, the Scarborough Jazz Festival will be waiting for us.

Liam Wilkinson
Northern Sky