Well… Jazz with a lot of RnB/Soul thrown in. Especially on the Main Stage on the first ‘real’ day, Saturday, where performances started with the wonderful a capella Naturally 7 and, via Michael Kiwanuka, finished with The Bryan Ferry Orchestra! So calling it a ‘Jazz’ Festival was stretching it a bit, and other punters seemed to agree. But calling it a ‘Something-for-Everyone’ Festival might not have proved such an appealing title.
Naturally 7 were an excellent way to begin the festival. Essentially upbeat, joyful and virtuosic, they pull the audience into a blend of gospel, soul and jazz that’s very infectious. Such that they can trade on the fact that four of the seven have British roots, two were actually born here; then break into a warm-hearted version of Sting’s ‘Englishman in New York’. Their expert harmonies point up the ironies in their singing this piece, but they carry it all off with such aplomb and expertise that we were all swept along in the midday sunshine.
At this point I decamped to the Big Top to see Manchester’s very own Go-Go Penguin. A post-EST piano trio, they work their clever pieces with great technique and care. They are players at the start of a long, and one suspects, stellar career, and stronger compositions and a stronger voice will soon emerge. At which point, I rushed back to the Main Stage to see Charles Bradley and the Extraordinaires. Bradley is, pun intended, an extraordinary figure: now in his mid-sixties, his debut album, No Time for Dreaming came out only two years ago. Having endured years of menial labour and homelessness, Bradley was discovered only ten years ago. He is an R&B ‘screamer’ along the lines of James Brown, Al Green and Wilson Pickett, and he and his expertly drilled band played numbers from that first album and also a new release Victim of Love. After this in the Big Top, came Courtney Pine; Pine has a sharp line in ‘calypso’ jazz. And his band, including the astonishing Cameron Pierre on guitar and Annise Hadeed on steel pans, certainly enjoyed themselves, as did the jumping audience.
The highlight for me on the Saturday was the terrific Snarky Puppy. Looking like nothing less than a bunch of fratboys out for a good time, the critics have tasked them with the revival of jazz fusion. And this they do with bravura technique and nifty tunes that carry the audience. Much of this must be down to their bass player and musical director, Michael League. The demands of the festival lineup meant that their adoring audience were left encoreless. Not to be missed! On the main stage then came Chic and Nile Rodgers, and if this wasn’t quite the performance that carried all before them at Glastonbury, then here too, adoration was the mood of the moment.
In the Big Top at that point was the Marcus Miller Band. Miller, who came to fame as Miles Davis’ bassist and musical director at the end of Miles’ career, now funks with the very best. His band consisted of equally heavy-weight musicians who grabbed the beat and pushed it, special mention should be made of trumpeter Sean Jones, and drummer Louis Cato, who had guessed with Snarky Puppy earlier.
It perhaps comes to something that that stature of pianist Robert Glasper is now such that it was he and not Miller who topped the bill in the Big Top on the Saturday. Glaspers’ current set features the saxist and ‘vocalist’ Benjamin on vocoder, and, again, the festival buzz was that this had not gone down so well. One tends to think that the vocoder had gone out with Herbie Hancock in the eighties. And it may have advantages, but its blunting lack of subtlety drowns out much of what goes on around it. This was more than pointed up when Glasper broke into a wonderful solo version of ‘Feels Like Teen Spirit’, and showed us what we had all been missing and just why he is a pianist of world standing.
Sunday’s line-up was even more of a curate’s egg. The main stage bill featured another artist who has suddenly rushed into the jazz pantheon. Gregory Porter went through a range of his better known numbers including ‘Be Good (Lion’s Song)’, and had an excellent band behind him. In the Big Top, then, was my high point of Saturday, the Terence Blanchard quintet. Blanchard, equally known in the States as a jazz educator, brought a fantastic band to Love Supreme; Brice Winston on tenor, Kendrick Scott on drums, Fabio Almazan on piano, and Robert Hurst fresh out of Julliard on bass. Blanchard has written for stage and screen and his compositions have a hard edged brilliance and narrative which keeps things organised, but allows his own and the others’ improvisations to deepen and thrive. It’s a cliché to call tenor players ‘muscular’, but Winston’s playing was both tender and piercing. And the leader’s own trumpet is inventive and commanding.
After Blanchard, was Britain’s very own Neil Cowley. Yet another post-EST piano trio, he is excellent live as his tunes very much consist of repeated figures – as he commented himself, ‘Why not repeat a note a hundred times? We’ve cornered the market in that.’ – and the audience is always ready to respond when the tempo or dynamics change. Cowley’s trio has also cornered the market in slightly frenzied British eccentricity, from his bassist, Rex Horan’s, Bobby Charlton comb-over and ZZ Top beard, to his own Basil Fawlty-esque striding round the stage. But that shouldn’t take away from the wonderful musicianship that made him the BBC Jazz Musician of 2013.
Back on the main stage was Esperanza Spalding, who is, apparently, Obama’s favourite musician. A woman for whom the word ‘diminutive’ was coined, Spalding is clearly a wonderful bass player with a lovely voice. This was rather spoiled by a patter which is queasily sentimental; she started off by non-plussing her audience with the information that there was a king in Britain, then going on to talk about men as ‘kings’. Her set rather consisted of arrangements in search of good tunes and there was a collective sigh of relief when she broke into her ‘hit’ ‘Black Gold’. What is undeniable, however, is Spalding’s astonishing charisma; this is a musician who could hold the attention of a colony of ants. Following Esperanza Spalding on the Main Stage were British funk band, Brand New Heavies, who reprised a number of their hits including ‘Dream On’.
Topping the bill in the Big Top on Sunday was singer, pianist and guitarist, Melody Gardot. Part of the Grammy winning Ms Gardot’s appeal is her astonishing variety; from torch song to blues, from cabaret to semi-Flamenco. Melody Gardot goes through this repertoire with seeming effortlessness and a sense of sweet perfection. Gardot, too, has enormous charisma and sacrifices none of that with her sweaty sense of humour and her by-play with her excellent band. As she was last on, the audience got their wish and there were a couple of encores from Gardot.
The Festival finished on the Main Stage with Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. In some ways, the perfect end, their musicianship and drive had most of the audience dancing wildly in the warm glow of the setting sun.