Gateshead International Jazz Festival 2010 reviewed by The Times
Gateshead Jazz Festival at the Sage, Gateshead
Alyn Shipton, The Times ****
Now in its sixth year, the Gateshead Jazz Festival is not only the earliest national festival in the calendar, but it has also set a high benchmark for quality and variety. This year’s programme surpassed previous editions on both counts. The artistic perfection of Abdullah Ibrahim’s seven-piece band Ekaya, the big band precision of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the tonal variety of the Swedish bassist Dan Berglund’s band Tonbruket were all elements to savour.
In addition there was new music for the local big band, Voice of the North, by Jason Yarde and the first performance by the Scottish drummer Stu Brown of newly arranged pieces by the maverick American composer and bandleader Raymond Scott.
Recent visits to Britain by Ibrahim have been so-so affairs, giving the impression that the South African pianist was coasting slightly, preferring hypnotic slow tempi to the township vivacity of his early work. The new edition of Ekaya, fresh from a month-long European tour, dispelled any such thoughts. Over two and a half hours, the music shifted from reflection to celebration, and from the most intimate solo piano ballads to the lusty full volume of the entire band.
Although Ibrahim is often compared to Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, the timbres on display here were more reminiscent of Charles Mingus, particularly in the seductive combination of flute and tenor saxophone.
The drummer George Gray propelled the group with a flamboyance that he cannot always display with Ibrahim’s trio. The extrovert mood was caught by the four-piece front line with Cleave Guyton’s joyous alto saxophone outstanding.
There was solo passion on show too in the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s extended version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The original composition served as the basis for a jazz interpretation, much in the manner of Buddy Rich’s reworking of Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite (which the band went on to play, featuring Alyn Cosker in the demanding drum role).
With Gershwin’s original themes opened out for swing and Latin improvisations, several members of what is now Britain’s most polished and versatile big band shared the solo honours. The most exceptional playing came from the leader Tommy Smith, whose masterly tenor saxophone phrasing was matched by Brian Kellock’s effective corralling of piano styles from many eras of jazz.
Berglund, the bassist for many years in the trio led by the late Esbjorn Svensson, was bringing his new project to Britain for the first time. Wrapping rock and jazz influences into a heady mix, it lacked a strong core of compositional depth, but was a triumph of texture over content.
When it came to getting that balance right, nobody surpassed the veteran British pianist Stan Tracey, whose octet (launching its CD New Works) found fresh things to say especially in a dashing 12-bar blues, Moon Cake, built around Tracey’s distinctive angular, spiky piano figures.