Mid-afternoon on the first full day of this new jazz festival, a rat-a-tat drum introduced late-in-life soul vocal discovery Charles Bradley to the main stage. This was a strong statement that the ambitiously programmed Love Supreme – Britain’s first greenfield weekend jazz festival for more than 20 years – had an unabashedly wide take on the genre.
Until the polished yet puzzling Bryan Ferry and his orchestra, the first full day unfolded like an illustrated history of R&B. Big names were divvied up between the alfresco main stage and a big top, their sets overlapping by 15 minutes; there was a club-size arena tent and, tucked away in a corner, a bandstand presenting vibey bands from the nearby Brighton area.
Gravel-voiced Charles Bradley is a blues-laced southern soul authentic who brings to life lyrics about lost love, begging us in preacher mode to “change our evil ways”. Bradley is a master of the genre, and his band, The Extraordinaires, have the mournful horns, solid beats and sharp brass stabs down to T. Mid-set, Bradley reprised his days as a James Brown impersonator before returning to hard times, heartbreak and loss.
With Courtney Pine’s big-top gig overflowing, it was the local bands who delivered most uplift until Snarky Puppy’s mix-and-blend take on jazz-funk history. The riffs are familiar and the grooves well worn, but they come at angles and are sequenced to surprise.
Nothing surprising about Chic, whose music courses through recent pop history, but their performance confirmed how thoroughly their songs have stood the test of time. Superlative guitarist and frontman Nile Rodgers conducted, vocalists covered numbers he wrote for Diana Ross, David Bowie and Sister Sledge, and there was proper space for band members – they looked as disappointed as the audience when the set had to end.
Bryan Ferry’s headlining appearance suffered in comparison, and his mix of well-played back catalogue pieces, Bob Dylan covers and soul classics, albeit spliced with classic jazz and 1960s soul, hovered perilously close to a function band’s repertoire. A 1920s-style “Love is the Drug” was followed by a soulful “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” came as a calypso. The four backing vocalists had soul to spare and his orchestra was more jazz than jitterbug. But it didn’t go much further than that and, even with the big pop hits included, it took a late soul medley to lift off. Overall it managed to be both classy and bland, particularly sandwiched as it was between the rhythmic heft of Marcus Miller and Robert Glasper.
Miller entered with a body-shaking, slapped-bass crunch, left room for the rhythm to breathe and spun variations high into the upper register. His melodic gift transforms a back-room instrument to a front-of-house star, but once the horns kicked in, Miller settled on deep grooves and edge-of-scale brass. Long solos by alto saxophonist Alex Han and trumpeter Sean Jones added tension and Miller prowled and cajoled. A late-set ballad, inspired, he said, by a visit to the Slave House on Senegal’s Gorée Island, captured anger and rebirth with delicate solo piano and Miller’s bittersweet bass clarinet. The uplifting finale confirmed Miller as the day’s highlight.
Robert Glasper Experiment’s late-night set was fired up by double-clack beats and woofy bass, tricky hi-hat figures and swirling textures. The main focus was vocoder specialist and blistering saxophonist Casey Benjamin, whose spooky vocals soared over the beats to blend eerily with Glasper’s looped arpeggios and sampled layers. There were cross-rhythms aplenty, and a fusillade of rimshot rolls, but, with the emphasis on rhythm, free-flowing piano was in short supply.
Sunday was more eclectic. Vocalists came to the fore and acoustic jazz had its say. In the smaller arena tent the four horns of Brass Jaw sounded great, but an over-amplified Soweto Kinch mash-up of Coltrane jazz and hip-hop on the main stage became something of a noisy neighbour and it was a relief to move to the big top for trumpeter Terence Blanchard and what proved to be the day’s highlight.
Blanchard’s themes have strong moods, clear narratives and a cinematic sense of place. Once established, each soloist fleshed out the details, although, given the accompanying twists and turns, they were more lead voices in a gutsy conversation than hectoring monologues. The core style was contemporary modal jazz played by a classic quintet, but occasional electronics added ambience and drummer Kendrick Scott threw in rattles and time-bending beats. Blanchard and saxophonist Brice Winston blended beautifully, there was a profound ballad and the finale darted this way and that.
Later, another acoustic giant, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, brought his quartet to the same venue. The modal influence remained strong, but there was a greater sense of history and the narrative, fuelled by remarkable young drummer Justin Faulkner, came in broad strokes. Marsalis is always committed, but here he was upstaged by pianist Joey Calderazzo’s romantic ripples, rampant block chords, and, on “Cheek to Cheek”, chorus after chorus of blues-soaked invention. Earlier, Faulkner’s high-energy cross patterns, explosive full-force rolls and bish-bash fills also ran him close.
There was nothing so abandoned from Melody Gardot. The pianist’s husky, burlesque-inflected voice hovers close to parody and her world-referencing material borders on the eccentric. But she has a good band, a great all-round saxophonist and is much stronger live than on record. Earlier, Esperanza Spalding showed that her vocals have toughened up a notch too, but they needed to: she has swapped being a magnificent bassist with an OK voice for being a lead vocalist who also plays bass. Spalding is comfortable in the spotlight, but for all the clever arrangements and retro references, her material comes across as whimsical, and the long conversational asides lost my attention.
The vocal highlight came mid-afternoon with Gregory Porter. His rich baritone is full of power and, like all jazzers at heart, he shares the spoils with his excellent band – pianist Chip Crawford is a real box of tricks. They took the audience by the scruff of the neck and held it through a long set of mostly original material. “Free” was impassioned, “Hey Laura” a gentle love song and “1960 What?” palpably urgent.