Brass Jaw/Stu Brown Sextet at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival
Keith Bruce, The Herald
Brass Jaw/Stu Brown Sextet, Sage Gateshead *****
Gateshead International Jazz Festival, like much else on Tyneside, has been shaped by the existence of The Sage.
With its contrasting performance spaces and vast open public area, linked by an indoor street, the festive feeling in the venue over the weekend was one of participation and inclusion.
As I arrive, a fine youth band called Rocket Science are setting up for their performance on the concourse and just before I leave a large number of amateur singers, who have just finished a vocal invention workshop, share their skills on an un-selfconscious perambulation through the waiting, drinking and eating audience.
Scottish musicians have always been an important part of the Sage’s work – Tom Bancroft’s Kidsamonium began life here and this year trumpter Ryan Quigley and saxophonist Paul Towndrow have been schooling resident youth ensemble Jambone – but the Scots contribution to this year’s event was on another level altogether.
This was serendipitous, because the venue was also bidding farewell to one of those who brought about the construction of the splendid Norman Foster building, Andrew Dixon, who takes up his post as chief executive of Creative Scotland at the beginning of May. He moves north fully aware of just how healthy Scottish jazz music currently is.
The Caledonian invasion concluded with a concert by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, playing the double bill of Tommy Smith’s new arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, featuring pianist Brian Kellock, and the music of Buddy Rich, showcasing drummer Alyn Cosker, which has already been seen in Scotland (and half of which is at Perth Festival in May).
Various SNJO stalwarts could be seen in other guises over the weekend, playing music of the widest possible range of styles. As well as Towndrow and Quigley’s work, the SNJO leader was also helping young musicians with a masterclass on Sunday lunchtime.
Towndrow and Quigley are also half of Brass Jaw, a quartet completed by tenor player Konrad Wiszniewski and the baritone of Allon Beauvoisin, who tore up the Sage’s newest space, St Mary’s Church next door. Mobility is essential to the work of Brass Jaw and the foursome explored every corner of this heritage building, from the nave to the apse. They make a big noise (and in Quigley’s case often very highly pitched too) as well as a virtuosic one, but they are chiefly great fun.
Towndrow’s arrangement of Sting’s Walking on the Moon is a case in point: it is a starting point for some superb improvisation but always keeps a toehold on the utterly familiar and is as much about the talents of four individuals as the ensemble sound.
Stu Brown’s Raymond Scott Project was a mini-festival in itself. The drummer’s band, including Martin Kershaw and Tom McNiven of the SNJO, has gone far beyond its original remit of playing the 1930s music of the composer whose work was appropriated for Warner Brothers cartoons. This performance included portions of a film about the composer made by his son Stan Warnow and featuring Hal Willner, Don Byron and DJ Spooky, as well as animation made the previous day by young people at BALTIC next door. Most impressively it built on the group’s superb recreations with new arrangements of Scott’s compositions, including his later ground-breaking electronic music, re-imagined by Kershaw, and a superb funked-up re-scoring of cartoon classic The Penguin by Tom McNiven. This project is now exploring areas just as forward-looking as Raymond Scott was in his own day.