Review: Teignmouth Jazz and Blues

Barry Witherden enjoyed a festival that might have lacked major international names but was still strong on blues and pukka jazz

If the Teignmouth Jazz and Blues Festival, now in its 29th year, is a little short on major international names, it is long and strong on pukka jazz, which is more than some more famous festivals can say. Organised by a dedicated team of volunteers, who also run the enterprising monthly TJ&B Club, it occupies four main and several fringe venues and covers a wide range of jazz - homages to Henry “Red” Allen and the Quintette du Hot Club de France rub shoulders with evocations of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk - as well as some strong blues presentations, this year including Kyla Brox, daughter of Victor Brox, one of the finest performers in the late-60s British blues boom. In addition, there were workshops for musicians of various ages and abilities.

Arguably the biggest name featured was Gilad Atzmon (pictured right by Brian Payne), whose Orient House Ensemble made a warmly welcomed return to the festival. Opening with a fine version of In A Sentimental Mood based on the arrangement featured on the Impulse album Duke Ellington And John Coltrane, the set was interspersed with Atzmon’s characteristic verbal schtick mixing mordant political humour with genial audience-teasing.

The humour sometimes coloured the music too, as when Atzmon and pianist Frank Harrison duelled wittily on Charlie Parker’s My Little Suede Shoes. Since its early configurations the OHE has moved into the mainstream, playing in a more straightforward, hard-driving manner, powered by pianist Frank Harrison, bassist Yaron Stavi and drummer Chris Harrison. The first set drew heavily on their 2017 album The Spirit Of Trane, whilst Parker was the dominant spirit after the interval. Featuring tunes such as Cherokee, Giant Steps and that old test-paper-for-tenors, Body And Soul, Atzmon evoked both saxophonists vividly without merely imitating them.

Leo Richardson was profiled in Jazz Journal’s July issue, but I’d not heard him play until his Saturday night appearance at the Pavilions Arts Centre. My loss. I’d call his quartet a well-oiled machine, but there’s nothing mechanical about their work: it’s just powerful and precise and gets the job done. The leader’s tenor is in the great tradition of late-50s Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and even a passing hint of the much-underrated Charlie Rouse. He also cited Joe Henderson as a hero in that JJ profile. He's incisive and exciting on hard bop and blues and his ballad playing was unsentimentally sensitive, especially tender on EFG, dedicated to his wife, and Amelia’s Song, written for his niece. This spotlighted pianist Rick Simpson, whose work has a lovely contemplative quality even when he’s digging in at faster tempi. Bassist Tim Thornton and drummer Ed Richardson gave tireless and resourceful support throughout.

Other highlights included the duo of Tori Freestone (flute and saxes, pictured above left) and Alcyona Mick (piano), the Andrea Vicari Trio and the Bassey Plays Massey Septet. The duo has been going since 2015, though the pair have played together in several other contexts, including the London Jazz Orchestra. Originally established to interpret Thelonious Monk compositions, the duo’s range extends from free playing to folk and folk-influenced music from around the world. Their Saturday lunchtime gig at the Pavilions included a tune in the vein of Monk (Strange Behaviour) and Monk’s own Criss Cross, which features on their current album, as well as some bluesy pieces with Freestone on tenor and Ladies With Mercedes, with Freestone switching to flute and Mick evoking Gershwin in her solo. Mrs. P. C. alluded wryly/slyly to Coltrane’s tune Mr. P.C. from Giant Steps and A Charmed Life paid a personal tribute to a family member.

Bassey Plays Massey brought together trombonist Mark Bassey (pictured right) with the band of local trumpeter Sam Massey - Jade Gall on saxes and alto flute, Julian Alenda (alto and tenor), Lewis Riley (piano), Jim Rintoul (bass) and Kevin O’Rourke (drums). All are fine ensemble players and soloists, with Gall adding nicely to the ensemble textures with, variously, soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. Lewis was a relatively late substitute and it was left to him to make the joke about having been practising Goldfinger and Hey Big Spender. Their programme included Snarky Puppy’s Song Of The Coelacanth (with a hint of the Peter Gunn Theme popping up), Waltz For Kenny Wheeler (graceful fluegelhorn by Massey and flute by Gall), Saludo Al Cielo and climaxed with some great “fours” by Bassey and Gall on baritone.

Trying to make the best of the flexibility of the festival’s stroller pass I only heard parts of some concerts. I caught just the last few tunes of Andrea Vicari’s session at the Teign Heritage Centre. With Dorian Lockett (bass) and Scott Vicari (drums) in a small and crowded space, she used electric piano, achieving a sparkling tone and spooling out fluid lines. Featured tunes included her own Fractions and a piece that ended up as Caravan. I wished I’d heard more, but had to content myself with bringing away her 2007 quintet album, Mango Tango.

When the trio finished I caught the end of the Ronnie Jones Quartet (Jones on drums, Gary Bayley on tenor, Joss Kidd on guitar and Davki George on bass) at the Teignmouth Social Club. This was the only gig I attended with a largely inattentive (i.e. constantly talking) audience, but zealously attacking tunes like Gil Evans’s Barracuda, Freddie Hubbard’s Red Cross and a surprising hard-bop reading of Ornette Coleman’s Turnaround the band managed to make itself felt.

On the Sunday morning Bassey had run an excellent workshop for young players, ranging from about seven to 14 or 15, incorporating three pianists (six hands, one keyboard), a couple of violins, guitar and various reeds and brass. With a fair wind no doubt some of these musicians will be starring in future festivals.

Next year the festival runs from 18-20th October rather than its traditional November slot. The hope is that lighter evenings and (hopefully) warmer days will enable more street music and encourage greater use of the festival’s good-value stroller tickets. You can get on the mailing list and/or join the club at the Teignmouth Jazz website.

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