North-east finds its rhythm

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The north-east of England has a long jazz tradition, and Gateshead gives its headlining concerts all the trimmings of an international festival – visiting Americans, lots of free performances, workshops, talks and tributes. The festival packed all this into a single venue, the Sage, over a long weekend. Big bands and choirs, duos and DJs had most of the jazz spectrum covered. Byron Wallen’s world jazz and an orchestral bash with the US saxophonist Phil Woods guesting with the BBC Big Band opened the festival; Branford Marsalis’s acerbic modernism and a tribute to Louis Armstrong trombonist Jack Teagarden closed it. There were even jazzy chickens for the children.

The brightest northern jazz talents have often had to move to London to make a living. One such was the trumpeter Ian Carr, who with his pianist brother Mike left in 1962. Saturday’s event paid tribute, sandwiching a short illustrated talk by Ian’s biographer Alyn Shipton between two instrumental sets.

The film clips were a delight. Rare footage of Ian Carr’s first acoustic band, shot in a London pub with cigarette smoke swirling round a rickety microphone, was pure nostalgia. His later, moustachioed jazz-rock incarnation, filmed leading the band Nucleus in concert in the 1980s, was a stark contrast. In the opening set, Mike Carr’s boppish fluency and melancholic chordwork invigorated a recreation of the Carr brothers’ original 1960s band, the EmCee Five. Nucleus Revisited, led by ex-member Geoff Castle on keyboards, delivered the later band’s trademark jazz-rock beats and brassy horns to round off the homage.

One musician who stayed was the late percussionist Bruce Arthur, who ran a percussion workshop in the run-down Ouseburn district of Newcastle. A warm documentary showed him, welding torch in hand, enthusing over the sonic possibilities of bamboo and brass. His instruments were strange, eye-catching contraptions that could easily be mistaken for modern sculptures. He bequeathed them to a local percussion trio, who performed on them after the film screening – rarely have the sounds of mallets on metal and wood sounded so life-affirming.

Saturday’s headline concert was a double bill, with the funky free-form power trio led by UK alto saxophonist Chris Bowden supporting the Swedish piano trio EST. While Bowden was overshadowed by his drummer, EST, led by pianist Esbjörn Svensson, proved to be an eye-opener. I’d always found EST’s records a bit tinkly, but what I’d characterised as Nordic noodlings on record had a sharp focus and tightly argued linear development live.

Opening with Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You” – the theme barely stated in a final flourish – the trio delivered clear melodies and easy-to-follow harmonies. Magnus Ostrum, the drummer, supported the unfolding structures with fairly routine rock and pop rhythms, but bass and piano were the pivot, and their dialogue captured the imagination. A churningly fast-figured unison bass line was a highlight. Add in a fuzz-box bass solo complete with howling feedback – Dan Berglund’s acoustic tone was exemplary elsewhere – dramatic orchestrated endings, and sustained intensity and an ovation was assured.

The musical climax came with Sunday’s closing double bill. A solo spot by drummer Jack DeJohnette was followed by the Branford Marsalis Quartet with the pyrotechnic Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. De Johnette’s stadium-rock-sized drum-kit belied his understated control. Each of his seven precisely tuned cymbals had a smaller cymbal on top, looking rather like an upturned copper balti bowl. Once a gentle tap with a mallet had set them resonating he created mantra-like melodies by moving a mic from one cymbal to another. No thud and thump, just delicate press rolls gliding from drum to drum, and a finale conjuring the grooves and licks from the modern jazz drumming pantheon.

Marsalis and his band take role-swapping interactive jazz to a level that flirts with chaos, but never succumbs. Truly linear in their approach, they flit from pure-toned classicism – Purcell’s “Oh Solitude” is in their repertoire – to the hoedown hokum and yackety sax that introduced a paean to public drunkenness – a Watts original titled “Vodville”. Emotionally intense, exhilaratingly virtuosic and chock-full of detail, they even made something substantial out of “Dancing Cheek to Cheek”, which they played for an encore. DeJohnette sat in on the third number, an impromptu take on Monk’s “Rhythm’n’ing”, and after the heart-rending climax of the preceding “Hope”, a bittersweet gem from pianist Joey Calderazzo, it sounded almost jolly.

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