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Southport Jazz Festival 2018

Royal Clifton Hotel, Southport
Thursday 1st - Sunday 4th February 2018

The fourteenth annual Southport Jazz Festival, otherwise known as Jazz on a Winter's Weekend, was kicked-off in style by Dan Whieldon's Positive Changes quartet on Thursday evening. Indeed, there are few finer ways to launch one of the UK's friendliest jazz festivals than with a Charlie Parker blues standard. Whieldon's buoyant take on Parker's Cheryl provided a fitting introduction to the young British pianist's lithe and wholesome piano style as well as Gavin Barras' deep and dependable double bass and Dave Walsh's shimmering percussion. On Victor Young's delectable My Foolish Heart, Richard Iles draped his long improvised flugelhorn lines over the other instruments with ease and sensitivity whilst a strutting and swaggering take on Cole Porter's What Is This Thing Called Love? and Whieldon's self-penned Marina's Song showcased the talents of an uncompromisingly ambitious rhythm section.

Once again, the Thursday evening slot furnished the Southport Jazz Festival with an impressive opening performance that hinted at the many treats to come. And whilst bands such as the seventeen-piece Swingtime, the Alan Barnes Octet, Joshua Cavanagh-Brierly's Nonet and the Leeds College of Music Big Band satisfied tastes for bigger ensembles, this reviewer's appetite leaned excitedly towards the festival's generous programme of smaller outfits.

One of those aforementioned treats was trumpeter Andy Davies whose indefatigable invention and humour at the mouthpiece of a trumpet is something to behold. The Welsh trumpeter performed as part of Blakey's Boys on Friday afternoon, an energetic sextet that celebrates the indelible impact on jazz history of Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. With Matt Telfer on sax, Chris Jerome on piano, Max Luthert on bass and Gabor Dornyei on drums, Blakey's Boys tested the floorboards of the Windsor Suite with their thunderous versions of Ellington's Caravan, Horace Silver's Nica’' Dream and Wayne Shorter's Ping Pong. Paul Pace contextualised the music with his informative narration as well as scat-sprinkled vocals on the band's cool and punchy take on Bobby Timmons' Moanin'.

Further indulgences in great jazz were witnessed late Friday evening when pianist Gwilym Simcock, guitarist Mike Walker and drummer Asaf Sirkis brought their sonic slalom ride to the Windsor Suite. Their uninterrupted set of well-known melodies and sublime improvisations nudged everyone to the very edges of their seats. Beginning with a meditative take on the Scottish folk tune Wild Mountain Thyme and concluding with a sultry and innovative My Funny Valentine, this trio of respected musicians peppered their first ever performance together with tunes that melted into one another, sometimes with seductive ease and sometimes with jolting surprise such as the welcome surfacing of Miles Davis' All Blues and the ever-arresting Davis/Evans classic Blue in Green.

One of the highlight acts from last year's festival returned to the Windsor Suite on Saturday morning equipped, once again, with distinctive Liverpudlian wit and vigour. The Weave - a sextet led by trumpeters Martin Smith and Anthony Peers  - delighted the early morning crowd with a selection of compositions from their eponymous debut album and second release Knowledge Porridge. Indeed, it was the title track from their aforementioned second album, complete with Peers' "state of the union" address which urged us to "take a bowl of Knowledge Porridge each morning" that succeeded in dusting the sleep out of our eyes. Other selections included the shimmering and painterly Our Day On The Mountain which showcased the smouldering drums of Tito Pirnbaum as well as the dazzling finger-work of guitarist Anthony Ormesher and pianist Rob Stringer, a new composition entitled Study in Fog which, in true Weave fashion, contained a Smith-led melody that teetered perilously close to the edge of the stave with a frenetic eagerness to spill over, as well as the stunning Caresser Caress Her with its captivating harmonised melody. With such an impressive front line, it would be easy to ignore Hugo Harrison's bass lines were they not so measured and dependable and, thanks to the inclusion of Hugo's self-penned Mary Waited, we all got a chance to experience this fine musician's accomplished compositional skills.

Beginning their set with the life-affirming Breathe, Andrew McCormack's Graviton, ironically, took our breath away with their slice of progressive jazz in the Balmoral Suite on Saturday afternoon. Led by British piano virtuoso Andrew McCormack and launched into orbit by innovative vocalist Noemi Nuti, the quintet sewed ribbons of ethereal chants and scat to McCormack's mesmeric playing, Rob Mularkey's delving baselines and Josh Blackmore's fevered drums. Mirroring and intertwining with Nuti's vocals, Leo Richardson's sax often channeled John Coltrane via some impressive scale-explorations, especially on the mighty Fellowship. The poetic side of this forward-looking outfit was delivered via the transcendent lyrics and chord structures of The Time Delay of Light, a stunning composition which saw McCormack drawing his whole body into the piano, globing his shoulders and burying his head in each rippling arpeggio.

More progressive dabblings were at the forefront of Saturday evening’s performance by the Phil Meadows Project. The young saxophonist led a quartet of superlative musicians through a selection of self-penned compositions including the spirited Trashlantis which saw guitarist Michael de Souza play inventively with pedal effects and Steve Reich-like arpeggios whilst Joe Downard thrashed deep chunks out of his bass and Meadows moved between sprawling echo effects and dry soprano lines. Jay Davis held the little industry of this frisky piece together with his calculated but no less thrilling drums. And whilst the politically fuelled Divided Kingdom was undeniably exhilarating with its range of time signatures, distorted guitar and wailing tenor sax, the young outfit's set wasn’t made any more interesting by the pesky mention of Brexit which drew a few yawns from the otherwise engaged crowd.

Keeping it strictly jazz in the Windsor Suite later that evening was the Tricia Evy Quartet. There's simply nothing to dislike about this French singer's voice. Indeed, her phrasing along each line stitched new seams into old standards as she gave an enchanting late performance. Cherished songs such as Cole Porter's You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To, Styne/Cahn's I Fall In Love Too Easily and Victor Young's Golden Earrings benefited not just from Evy's honeyed vocals but also the sensitive piano of David Fackeure, the warm embrace of Thierry Fanfant's bass and the froths and swells of Francis Arnaud's drums. Tricia also treated us to such originals as the half-French, half-English Blow Me Away, complete with hearty backing vocals from the guys in the band, and the sweet, swinging love song Meet Me On The Bridge which had us all singing along in no time. If that wasn't enough, those of us who'd resisted sleep to catch a glimpse of this outstanding young vocalist were fortunate enough to hear her rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim's Retrato Em Branco E Preto, which prompted hoots of appreciation from all four corners of the room.

As Sunday arrived it seemed entirely fitting, perhaps due to some nifty planning from dependable Festival Director Neil Hughes and his team, that the Royal Clifton Hotel was filled with the much loved melodies of Ray Davies and The Kinks. The offering of inspired renditions of Davies' most treasured songs came courtesy of bassist Ben Crosland and his quintet, led by the slick sax of Dave O'Higgins and featuring the piano of Steve Lodder, the drums of Sebastian de Krom and the guitar of legendary jazzman John Etheridge. A bossa take on Set Me Free, a frothy arrangement of See My Friends as well as a fleet footed version of A Well Respected Man gave Etheridge and O'Higgins the chance to toss melodies and improvisations between one another whilst a sultry version of Tired of Waiting For You aroused a wonderfully creamy organ backing from Lodder. Despite Crosland's reservations, I would argue that this wonderfully engaging set was well worth missing The Archers for.

Once again, Southport has proved itself to be one of the foremost British jazz festivals with its fourteenth programme of outstanding performances. And as we all leave the West Coast behind for another year, it’s tempting to wish away summer in the hope that our annual feast of jazz on a winter's weekend is served up as soon as possible.

Liam Wilkinson
Northern Sky