Manchester Jazz Festival, Thursday 1 August - Antonio Serrano, Taiwa

Antonio Serrano: Harmonious
St Ann’s Church 

Antonio Serrano

Expectations are high for harmonica virtuoso and Madrid native Antonio Serrano, given his impressive CV – collaborations with symphony orchestras, Paco de Lucia, Pedro Almodovar etc – and I settle into the gallery of a packed St Ann’s Church undeterred that the artist is outside my range of sight. Jazz promoter Bob Jones is a neighbour (somehow I’ve bumped into lots of jazz promoters at this year’s MJF). 

For the opener ‘I Got Rhythm’, Serrano utilises that gizmo that plays back a phrase, which allows instant riffing from a second harp on the chorus. It’s highly effective. Serrano follows this with ‘Summertime’. 

‘Summertime’ is the most perfect song in the world and every version of it elicits a groan. Perhaps if a good song isn’t nailed by a definitive version early in life it’s doomed to become a cliche. Miles’ treatment a possible exception. ‘Porgy and Bess’, now. Cracking songs, and a neat story. So why is it never staged? 

Technically, songs played consecutively with applause between don’t count as a medley. Parental problems. Dad was miffed that I hadn’t removed the ‘promo only’ sticker from his CD birthday present. But it was Mel Torme! I mean, it was a wrench to part with. His words were, “I’ve heard better Gershwin medleys.” Talk about ingratitude!

I could be at home playing ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ now. It’s more fun to be a performer than a spectator. I said the same to Al Parry the other day. With his one-track mind, his inevitable response: “Are you talking about sex, Mike?” No, I was thinking about free jazz, actually. With some things it’s the other way around. Darts and cooking. 

Sonny Terry had a showpiece where he reproduced a fox chase, from dogs yapping to hunt to kill, all on solo harmonica. He was a force of nature, that man. Seamus Ennis did the same thing on uilleann pipes. I wonder which came first? It must be far easier to impersonate the sound of a steam locomotive on a harmonica than a piano. Yet Meade Lux Lewis managed it OK with 'Honky Tonk Train Blues'. 

Why was Larry Adler a figure of fun whereas Toots Thielemans enjoyed critical credibility? The context. Adler emerged at the fag-end of vaudeville, whereas Thielemans was proper jazz. I could never work out if he (Adler) was any good. Dr Johnson. “Surprised to find it done at all.” I could never work out if Jacques Loussier was any good either. He hammered that Swing Bach thing into the ground. Whereas John Kirby swung the classics and he was wonderful. No-one knows him. ‘Who is Sylvia?’ A Desert Island Disc. 

This brought me to the surface just in time for a vastly enjoyable, multi-layered, multiple harmonica ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire’. ‘Danny Boy’ was one too much, and I made my exit. 

Taiwa: A Tribute to Moses Molelekwa 
Festival Pavilion Teepee 

Al MacSween

A band formed to celebrate unsung South African composer Moses Molelekwa has the effect of alerting to unsung homegrown talents Al MacSween, a superb piano-player, and multi-instrumentalist Richard Ormerod, who did the arrangements tonight. 

The frontline was completed by Claude Deppa on trumpet and Tony Kofi on alto and soprano saxophone. There were mutterings about the non-appearance of Dennis Rollins, but Kofi made an acceptable replacement. 

Tony Kofi

The opening ‘Biko’s Dream’ announced the agenda: township jazz mediated by a fine intelligence. It emerged that Moses Molelekwa wasn’t the only South African musician to die too young. There was music too by Kula Kwendi (a new name to me). Indeed, “South African musician” and “die too young” are words that occur tragically frequently in the same sentence. 

Claude Deppa

This adds a sombre undertow to the celebration. This dance music is not just for dancing, and the exultation is not only exultation. Compare the contrasting styles of Deppa and Kofi. The trumpeter sings with almost childlike simplicity, and his clear ringing tones announce a mischievous spirit. Kofi is made of sterner stuff. Impassioned and urgent, his method is to barrage with a tirade of notes, all aimed at spiritual ascension. His solo during ‘Blues for Hugh’ contained a precis of ‘Love Supreme’. It was odd that John Coltrane should cast such a long shadow over an evening of South African music. MacSween’s piano too, is sometimes a ringer for McCoy Tyner’s.

Rhythm is the thing, of course, and drummer Joost Hendricks and conga-player Sam Bell interacted marvellously, creating a carpet of beats, while Kenny Higgins was as steady as a rock on bass. 


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