Dispatches from Manchester Jazz Festival, 2015

Joy is the common factor of the twentieth Manchester Jazz Festival. The joy takes many forms, from the rabble rousing exuberance of the New York Brass Band (eighties pop tunes in the style of a New Orleans marching band, with full oomph and oom-pah) to the more rarified rewards of John Surman and the Trans4mation String Quartet. Nerija communicate unabashed delight while the Grew Quartet express the frustrated rage that ensues when you aim for joy and miss the mark. Then there’s the joy which tips into craziness. Something of the sort happened at the Makanitza gig. The music triggered something that then passed out of the control of the musicians. And Orquesta Timbala exemplify the sort of joy that overwhelms by force of number.

Friday 31
The stars of BBC Introducing at the 2015 Manchester Jazz Festival – to be broadcast on Jazz on 3 on 10 August (today, as I write, and available on BBC iplayer as you read) – were Nerija, a young, feminine offshoot of Tomorrow’s Warriors, and the Ashley Henry Trio. Both Nerija, who offer groovy Afro-tinged jazz of great charm and warmth, and Ashley Henry are beneficiaries of good musical education: Sheila Maurice-Grey, Nerija’s trumpeter, studied with Chris Batchelor, and Ashley Henry was taught by Gwilym Simcock (see Friday 7, below). Henry is a rolling, rising, falling, blazing piano virtuoso and definitely a name to watch.  

Saturday 1
Pepe Rivero

Cuban pianist Pepe Rivero, making his UK debut on the MJF International platform, treats Thelonious Monk to a Latin makeover and spruces up Chopin’s ‘Minute Waltz’ with rumba rhythms. At one point Rivero essayed a beautiful intro, tranquil yet full of quivering portent, which drew on his training as a classical pianist in Havana. This somehow turns into a lovely, very cheesy bolero. Some join in singing “Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps” whilst others respond with "Quizás, quizás, quizás”, which says something about the globalism of present-day Manchester. Nat King Cole popularised both the English and Spanish-speaking versions. 

Pepe Rivero, dressed all in white and beaming like an angel, is clearly a lovely fellow and a natural entertainer. His Spanish-Cuban accompanists, bassist Tono Miguel and drummer Georvis Pico, are quietly outstanding.  


The high energy Balkan beats of Makanitza create quite a reaction in the crowd. Eleven-year-old Daniel gets on-stage to dance with cheerful arm-waving, leaping spasms, some which actually coincide with the intricate gypsy rhythms. Daniel, clearly overjoyed to be there, just won’t get off. The sight of the young lad lifts the spirits and others follow his lead and dance at the sides of the aisles. In the midst of the jollity, a figure rises from his seat and begins to circle the rows. There is something obsessive about his actions, with his slow, deliberate tread and  fixed, baleful stare. I recognise him: he performed a mesmerising set at the 2010 event. Manchester Jazz Festival, it seems. has its own Syd Barretts and Skip Spences. Makanitza remain unfazed by strange behaviour from the floor or Daniel’s on-stage antics. Oliver Dover, their charismatic clarinetist, actively encourages the mayhem and knows a few idiot dances himself. 

Sunday 2

Santiago Garzon 

The music made by Orquesta Timbala follows the archetypal pattern of a wake. Santiago Garzon leads with a lament and an invocation for Richie Silwa, a departed member of Timbala and a beloved companion. A small ensemble within the larger group – including MD Christian Weaver on sax – dig into the Cuban-inspired polyrhythms. The stage gradually fills with more players and singers until, by the end of the first set, some two dozen musicians are present. Life’s energies are reaffirmed with brio. Again, dancers are up on their feet. Tori Freestone impresses with her versatility on sax, flute and violin. To point out that many of the percussionists are supernumerary, or that the programme is top-heavy with mozambiques, or that the stripped down opening is the best music of the evening, would be to lay oneself in the path of an unstoppable Afro-Cuban dance juggernaut.

Monday 3

Monday is ‘northern line’ showcase day with twelve free gigs, each full to capacity. Though the packed conditions sometimes lead to the detriment of the music, as the luckless Manjula found out in the Central Library Performing Space. 

Grew Quartet

Whereas the overcrowding at St Ann’s Church is relieved by a steady stream of walk-outs, due not to musical quality but the rigour of the form – no holds barred improvisation – and the uncompromising nature of the musicians. Actually the Grew experience can be entertaining as well as edifying. Watch their drummer Phil Marks. His fellows certainly do, with a wary eye, like innocent wildlife animals frolicking with a big cat in their midst. Now he sits quietly with an inscrutable mien. But what’s this? Is he crouching in order to spring? A rub of the hands and a clatter of cymbals signals the onset of an assault of incredible ferocity. Matt Robinson the clarinetist, is awed into silence. The crescendo abates for a brief split-second, as Marks registers the sound of stick upon tin-lid with evident satisfaction, and then he redoubles his efforts as bits of old iron fly from his kit (there is always a slapstick element to his fearsome power). Stephen Grew, previously occupied with ineffectual tinkles in the upper register of his piano, takes recourse to rumbling arpeggios and strenuous splashes, before Seth Bennett, a bassist with fists of iron, and Matt Robinson come charging into the man-made tumult.

Phillip Marks

You can watch it as it happens here, thanks to Eva and the wonders of modern technology: – 

Chris Laurence and John Surman

John Surman is a skipping shape shifter on soprano, and his baritone is just as agile, albeit very dense. The Surman soprano and the Surman baritone are among the most distinctive sounds in British jazz, and naturally share the facility of a melody. After the restless questing activity – defining Jazz Britannica with John McLaughlin (Extrapolation) and Mike Westbrook (Marching Song), the trailblazing electronic work with SOS, his ‘hermit of Rainbow Studio, Oslo’ stuff for ECM – Surman has arrived at a realm of pure beauty: his music a distillation of the loftiest emotions in the human spirit. He’s also arrived at that happy state where pain and difficulty are non-existent, which might make him the ultimate MJF artist. 

It was an inspired decision to stage his concert in the reading room of Manchester Central Library. A space sacred to intellect and reason, its Victorian character preserved despite extensive refurbishment to the rest of the building, the reading room is blessed by natural reverb. In normal usage, the act of roughly placing a book on a table produces an echoing thunderclap, so percussion is unsuitable. Something smooth and legato is required: a string quartet is ideal. And the Surman baritone? Is there such a musical term as legatissimo colossi?

It’s a privilege to be here, with Surman, stalwart bassist Chris Laurence {their association was first documented on the 1973 album Morning Glory) and the Trans4mation String Quartet, collaborators on the 1999 ECM album Coruscating and its 2006 successor The Spaces In Between. It’s the standard practise of jazz-classical crossover, of course, for jazz players to range freely whilst classical players are confined to written music. The rule is strictly applied here. Classical and jazz fans disagree on whether interpretation or improvisation is the greater art (in truth, a lot depends on what is being interpreted and who is doing the improvising), but there is no doubt that John Surman and the Trans4mation Quartet are a match made in heaven. 

Surman and Strings panorama 

At times, as in ‘Dark Corners and Winding Passages’, the quartet are a flesh-and-blood equivalent of the electronics of Surman’s earlier work: they provide a strata of sound for Surman to improvise on top. This, you may think, is a thankless task, but the Quartet are rewarded with passages that realises their full romantic potential. ‘Lelek Geldi’, a tale of migratory storks, simulates the sensation of flight as successfully as a Pixar movie, with the strings providing momentum for Surman’s soaring soprano. 

There is often a literalness to the imagery evoked by Surman’s music. ‘Moonlesss Midnight’ is redolent of a sleeping English landscape under starry skies and places Surman in the English pastoral tradition of George Butterworth, not to say Samuel Palmer. Likewise the seagull cry of his soprano – it’s there in ‘Winter Wish’ – is surely a throwback to his Plymouth childhood. And the tour de force of circular breathing that introduces ‘Stone Flower’ resembles nothing so much as a leviathan of the deep surfacing among breaking waves amid a cauldron of bubble and hiss. ‘Stone Flower’ is ostensibly a tribute to Harry Carney, the baritone saxophonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. 

Tuesday 4  
Kirsty McGee 

Hobopop incorporates gospel, swing US folk, jug band, Tin Pan Alley, hokum: in fact, all the raw ingredients that went into early jazz, just before the music diverged into a serious art form. I mention this just in case anyone doubts the jazz bona fides of Kirsty McGee and the loose conglomerate she calls The Hobopop Collective, which, in any case, contains formidable jazz talents such as John Ellis on keys, Matt Owens on bass and Howard Jacobs on drums and reeds. And how lovely to see harmonica virtuoso Clive Mellor again.  

All these archaic and forgotten musical idioms – one might add Stephen Foster and Hoagy Carmichael to the list of ghostly familiars – provide McGee with her own dream soundscape, which she shapes according to her own desires. She can be sentimental (‘If I Had a Dollar’) subversive (‘Pray’), anxious (‘A Plague) and wistful (‘My Ohio Valentine’). But it would be a mistake to typecast McGee as comfortable and homespun. If MJF has a 9pm watershed, then McGee transgressed it with ‘I Burn For You’, whilst she described ‘Family Trait’ as a story of “vampire incest”, which raised a whoop from guitarist Ellis Davies. 

Kirsty McGee with Ellis Davies 

Her work has always been distinguished by a feeling intelligence, an understanding that insecurity and pain can be healed by the balm of song, and a generous instinct to go the extra mile. She didn’t have to open the second set with a showcase for musical saw, at great personal risk (the fear is that the saw will uncoil and spring out, and the suspense is heightened by the tremulous oooh-ooohing sound it makes), but she did.

The show ended with the “stalker lullaby” ‘Sandman’, complete with collective soloing in the New Orleans style. Hobopop, it seems, has a home at last.

John Ellis

Wednesday 5 

Lauren Kinsella

When Blue-Eyed Hawk essay a piece called ‘Strange Animal’ about some hybrid of lamb and kitten, it seems natural to remark that Blue-Eyed Hawk itself is a pretty strange animal, ranging from wordless vocals to literary sources like Yeats and Kafka (the begetter of ‘Strange Animal’), and abstraction to polemic. Musically they sound like nothing else. That is, nothing else except certain artefacts from the first era of prog-rock. I picked up on Soft Machine (Wyatt and Ayers era) and King Crimson, whilst the grafting of avant-garde vocal techniques onto rock structures recalled Michael Westbrook’s short-lived Solid Gold Cadillac. Irish-born singer Lauren Kinsella is a remarkable vocal performer: imagine a cross between Maggie Nicols and Grace Slick. Laura Jurd, a trumpeter capable of any technical feat, here favours beautiful chiming phrases and nursery-rhyme jingles on keyboards. Corrie Dick is a jazz-rock drummer from the Ginger Baker school, and Alex Roth eschews flamboyant solos for spartan riffs and wild concepts. 

Laura Jurd

Pretty soon heads were involuntary nodding. Could Blue-Eyed Hawk be a harbinger of the return of the good old freak-out? There were cries of “Amazing!” that turned to roars of delight when ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ was recognised through the radical reharmonisation. Unlike no other. Words fail. Amazing!

The Partisans

The Partisans have spent the last twenty years playing together, and their empathy is evident. More than most, they are a band of equals, with each constituent part integral to the whole. 

Phil Robson is an intense, no-nonsense guitar virtuoso who unleashes chromatic runs with deadeye accuracy. When he hits the fuzz pedal, Partisans resemble nothing more than the Jimi Hendrix Experience with a good drummer. That’s Gene Calderazzo, one of those fantastic rhythm-makers that only NY can produce. He whips up a storm, juggling polyrhythms and meshing time and space in a torrent of crosscurrents and assertive accents. It’s near impossibly to second-guess what he will do next, but whatever it is, it propels the music along and is just right. Calderazzo is terrific. 

And Julian Siegal is a consummate saxophonist. He can handle muscular post-bop with the best of them, but is full of surprise twists, and retains his natural elegance even when things turn ugly. These purposely ugly bits – as on ‘Swamp’, the title track of the Partisans’ new album – are usually Robson’s doing (pedals, you know), but they noticeably move Calderazzo to his stormiest efforts, so the effect is bracing rather than not.  

And then there’s Thaddeus Kelly, underpinning and all over the music at the same time. To hear him on ‘Sourpuss’ is to realise that Kelly and Calderazzo make the funkiest rhythm team since George Porter and Joseph Modeliste of The Meters. 

Phil Robson

The luxury of two sets encourages the group to stretch out, and interest never flags. The solos come in an endless stream, and the well-springs are constantly replenished. Never less than compelling and exhilarating, the Partisans are the closest the 2015 MJF has come to real jazz. What is real jazz? Oh, you’ll know it when you hear it.   

Thursday 6 
Norma Winstone, Glauci Venier and Klaus Gesing 

Norma Winstone opened her performance at St Ann’s Church with the Nick Drake song, ‘Time of No Reply’, which set the mood. ‘Wistful’ is too soft a word to describe it, whereas ‘regret’ is too hard, and misses the peculiar allure of the bittersweet. No, it’s more ‘impermanence’: an awareness of time melting away everything we hold dear. Song can’t halt the process, of course, but, with its capacity to express deep emotion and instantly summon memory, song is perhaps our best means to reawaken impressions and sensations of former times. You might even call it nostalgia, but it’s nostalgia in its most profound form. It's interesting to compare Winstone to Blue--Eyed Hawk's Lauren Kinsella, who shares some of her technique but not her depth of feeling, which is the gift of time. And, of course, radicalism and nostalgia are antithetical to each other. But Norma Winstone was once a very radical artist indeed, and she and Kinsella both acquired their early fame due to an ability to scat-sing. Ironically, Winstone has matured into our foremost interpreter of lyrical song. But still she captures shades of nuance that go beyond language. 

Known, as I say, for her scatting, she effortlessly moved to ‘vocalese’, an art-form pioneered by jazz singers such as Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross. Put simply, ‘vocalese’ involves singing along to great solos from jazz history, typically saxophone solos, and then putting your own words to them. With ‘Giant’s Gentle Stride’, Winstone boldly takes on Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’, and characteristically matches musical complexity with emotional complexity. “Every thought, every care, every song is a prayer,” she sings. (What did Tom Rapp say? “All of us are prayers of action, on our way to God.”) 

Norma Winstone 

I was deeply affected by a song that might be called (so I thought) ‘The Secret of My Heart’ until Eva leaned over and said, “This is a song by Madonna”. My shocked cry drew dirty looks from our nearest neighbours. I now know that the song is called ‘Live to Tell’. Either Winstone’s powers of interpretation are near miraculous, or I’ve been missing out on Madonna’s thoughtful insights into the human condition. It’s a lesson for life…  

It must be added that her accompanying players, Glauco Venier on piano and Klaus Gesing on reeds, are preternaturally capable and very sensitive: they illuminate Winstone’s performance with their own artistry. Venier, tender and assertive, gives her space to breath (on a technical level, Winstone’s voice is a marvel of breath control), while Gesing frames and counterpoints with his own starkly beautiful melodies. 


The world premiere of An Ape’s Progress at RNCM, featuring Iain Ballamy and other stellar talents, ultimately proves that attempts to fuse musical theatre and jazz are doomed to failure. I shall pass quickly on, mentioning only that the bald pianist at Matt and Phred’s mentioned in Matthew Sweeney’s text can only be Henry Botham, who appears at the same venue on Saturday as part of 52 Skidoo. 

Friday 7 

Gwilym Simcock and Mike Walker 

It’s a measure of their range that Mike Walker and Gwilym Simcock open their duo set at St Ann’s Church with Bach’s ’St Matthew Passion’ spliced with the jazz standard ‘Autumn Leaves’. They occupy a very rarified realm indeed. The distinction between improvisation and interpretation is meaningless for musicians of this calibre: no-one would try to tether Simcock to a music-stand. Marvelling at his boundless technique, I blush to recall my no-brainer questions the time I interviewed him for Metro. “Are you influenced by Keith Jarrett?” I asked. Simcock picks up where Jarrett leaves off, in terms of technique. You might complain of dazzle and worry that his hyperactive fingers weave a kind of divine clutter, but that exposes your limitations rather than Simcock’s. Fortunately, Mike Walker, a true guitar virtuoso,has a solution to virtuoso fatigue: he pars away everything inessential in his playing, Walker’s powerful singing grace instils the music with its humanity. 

What an odd couple they make, a generation apart and of contrasting backgrounds (Walker offers a hilarious anecdote about his deprived Salford upbringing), but how intimate the musical bond. 

Steve Mead, Gwilym Simcock and Mike Walker 

Rob Turner

The first sign that something out of the ordinary was happening with the GoGo Penguin gig was the increase in security. Eva’s press pass wasn’t sufficient: she needed to come get me to confirm her status as my plus one. The group had brought their own sound engineer, and the volume was twice as loud as anything else heard during the ten days. Half the seats in the Pavilion had been removed to accommodate more standing-room: clearly a high turn-out was expected. When the crowds duly materialised they were noticeably a breed apart from the other Festival-goers, being younger than the average and more excitable. As one, they were willing to sink into trance as the most suggestible volunteer in a show of stage hypnotism. 

Chris Illingworth, Nick Blacka and Rob Turner a.k.a. GoGo Penguin 

Just what is it that makes GoGo Penguin so modern and appealing? Well, the tunes are built on repetitive phrases, like much modern music, which predetermines a certain structure: from a soft start it gets louder, GETS LOUDER STILL AND THEN EVEN LOUDER and then STOPS! Luckily, no-one is better at stoking up a crescendo than drummer Rob Turner. The rhythms he favours with GoGo Penguin are drum ’n’ bass beats i.e. electronically predicated beats that didn’t exist in the natural world before the 1990s and the advent of Jungle. 

But whether the limited dynamic range is imposed by the outside engineer or GoGo Penguin’s own idea, the result is pure rock ’n’ roll, and the sound continually slams against the dB ceiling. This is possibly the chief factor that excludes GoGo Penguin from being jazz, despite a rich collective jazz pedigree. Of course, they’re running from the ghetto at full speed, and laughing all the way. The crowd are going crazy.        

I detect too a shift in the chemistry since Nick Blacka replaced Grant Russell on bass. Previously it was Chris Illingworth’s baby, aided by capable support and a genius drummer. Now it seems a more democratic team, with a strict demarcation of roles. Basically, Illingworth is the brain, Turner is the muscle and Blacka is the heart. Blacka does all the talking and is as surly as a Gallagher.  

Is this, I wondered, GoGo Penguin’s Oasis at Maine Road moment? (In 1996 I saw an endless procession, mostly male, scuffle past my vantage point outside the Salutation pub, where I was enjoying a drink with my Dad who was visiting. After three quarters of an hour and no end in sight, I wondered aloud what the occasion was.) Is this the zenith of a meteoric rise or merely a staging post to greater glory? On this showing, the lads could conquer America. My guiding reference to GoGo Penguin was previously EST. After tonight, it’s U2. How many Manchester piano trios can you say that about? 

The Great Hall with screens, musicians and audience 

Composition, sound and setting came together to move the senses in a rather wonderful way with John Ellis’ suite Evolution: Seeds and Stems. Antony Barkworth-Knight’s projections – linear abstraction or vaguely biological forms, or, at other times, evocative black and white landscape studies – are projected onto three large screens and still dwarfed by the Victorian splendour of the Great Hall in Manchester Town Hall. The diverse musicians include kora-players, cellists, reeds, a trombonist and a voice artist (not to be confused with a singer). I feel very happy. Serendipitously, my row is all my friends, old and new. I bask in the music and visuals without worrying too much about meaning or troubling to make notes, so what follows is an impression from memory. 

A sense of peace, and of great beauty. Spacious and delicate. A non-standard instrumentation produces non-standard sonorities, pitching kora and cello and trombone together against a backdrop of discreet electronics. Would the kora, now playing solo (Jason Haycock), represent an earlier phase of mankind? Let it go, let it go. And, thinking about profundities, how readily Jason Singh’s voice, apprenticed in beatbox, can be pressed into service as the sound of the cosmos. The reeds evoke haunts of ancient peace with Helena Jane Summerfield’s clarinet filling in the exquisite detail and Sam Healey’s alto sax contributing passages of frenetic energy. The cello underlines that the composition belongs to a broader musical continuum, and ‘jazz’ is an inadequate label for something so far-reaching.  

Ellis is unstinting as an accompanist, composer, producer and helpmate (there was a telling moment in Kirsty McGee’s concert when she faltered, unsure of the key, and Ellis unobtrusively and quietly guided her through by underlining the bass notes on his keyboard). He is central to the Manchester musical community, a community he did much to create. Not that you would know it from Ellis himself. Evolution was distinguished by a complete lack of ego, as if the players recognised that only Ellis had the right to grandstand, and if he wasn’t going to, they certainly weren’t. Selflessness is the Ellis watchword. 

Perhaps Evolution is less concerned with the cosmos, nature and the history of mankind, or even musical development (and it would be fascinating to explore Ellis’s many by-ways since he headlined the first Manchester Jazz Festival with the John Ellis Big Bang in 1996), so much as the growth of an individual as a spiritual being? I only ask.  

Saturday 8 

Tori Freestone, Neil Yates and Iain Ballamy 

A more low-key Saturday than intended meant returning to the Central Library Reading Room to see Neil Yates: Surroundings Revisited, a recasting of an earlier MJF commission for a small ensemble (Yates, trumpet; Tori Freestone, saxophones; Ian Ballamy, saxophones; Les Chisnall, piano). The three reeds meshed beautifully in the sensurround acoustics, and cast a delicate spell that ended too soon. Strange how the Manc jazz gunslingers have matured into lyrical spellbinders (there’s Yates, Mike Walker of course, and you could add Iain Dixon to the list). 

Neil Yates

Stevie Williams and The Most Wanted Band offer unalloyed, uncomplicated USA roots-rock pleasure, which surprised, because I remember Williams as a consummately funky bass plucker. There’s nothing wrong with it, and nothing wrong with great musicians communicating good times to a responsive crowd. Billy Buckley’s great guitar solo in ‘Drown in My Own Tears’ is still echoing in my brain.   
Stevie Williams with Clive Mellor

We missed Robert Glasper, alas, so keenly anticipated by our friend and dedicated jazz follower, Su Williams. And the prospect of Saturday night headline act Baked a la Ska rampaging through the Great American Songbook/Bowie catalogue, gleefully shovelling everything into the Bluebeat blender…: well, it was more than our fragile systems could handle. 

Sunday 9 
Trumpeter Airelle Besson is a little twig off the Miles tree, but the context is new. She works in tandem with singer Isabel Sorling, who has an extraordinary stage presence, and the two conspire to make the world a more beautiful place. 

Airelle Besson and Isabel Sorling 

Sorling has a very interesting microphone technique. Distant proximity seems to increase the volume, if anything, and sometimes a sound comes out without her lips moving. This, I suspect, is because of a box of tricks she keeps tinkering with, when she isn’t gracefully stretching or flouncing the leonine hair to some inner rhythm. If Sorling’s voice is electro-enhanced, then it’s the most damnably attractive electro-enhanced voice I’ve yet heard. 

And Besson’s trumpet is riveting in it’s blend of purity, intelligence and feeling. A little twig off the Miles tree, perhaps, but she delivers on Miles’ tendencies: Gallic magic (anticipated in Lift to the Scaffold) and the eternal feminine.  

Reference points: Miles Davis, Cocteau Twins, Sidsel Endresen, The Nice, Jacques Loussier. The last two are prompted by Benjamin Moussay’s contributions on keyboards, fastidious and freaky by turn, and drummer Fabrice Moreau, who calibrates the heat nicely. This is music from a place of enchantment. 

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