Now in its fourth year, LIVERPOOL INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL continues to cement its place in the local and national jazz calendar. Once again festival director and musical polymath Neil Campbell has brought to the Capstone a varied and mouthwatering line up, which he describes as “forging an eclectic route through the genre”.
In jazz (and pretty much everywhere else), the influence of Japanese culture has been hard to resist. The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Jazz Impressions Of Japan was inspired by the group’s experiences on tour in early 1964, but PASCAL SCHUMACHER’s take on the Nipponese musical heritage is refreshingly modern. Admittedly, splashing cymbals and heavy Taiko-esque drumming do appear on Left Tokyo Right, an album written on or inspired by frequent visits to the far East, but he presents Japan not as an alien nation but as a busy, contemporary society. It’s nearly a mirror image of our own country, so the little differences get the most attention. For example, Ichigaya is named for one of Tokyo’s rivers, where at 6am (when the clubs are only just chucking out), suited businessmen can be seen quietly fishing before heading to the office. It opens with a spacious solo for pianist Franz von Chossy, every chord sending ripples across the keyboard like a lure sitting on still water. Fast forward five minutes, and Pol Belardi (Bass), Jens Düppe (Drums) and Schumacher himself (Vibraphone) are pounding away too, engrossed in the business of their working life, four workers in four cubicles.
Theirs is a very modern, thoroughly composed version of jazz bearing the influence of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio and Steve Reich, underpinned by sophisticated rock drumming. But occasionally, such as in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, they break into something very 60s and very French, or allow the audience a blurry glimpse of lounge piano in their account of early-hours barhopping, Matcha Desire.
After a set of flawless playing, Schumacher introduces Wabi-Sabi with the following explanation, which is worth quoting in full: “It’s an idea in Japanese aesthetics of the beauty of imperfect things. For example, if a photographer takes a photograph of something ugly, when you see the picture, you might not recognise it and see it as beautiful, or find beauty in it. It does not work with people, but you get wabi-sabi in broken things, and often in nature.” The eponymous piece is full of “deliberate mistakes”, or so you’ve been led to believe. They say in improvisation, if you make a mistake you should repeat it until it doesn’t sound like a mistake. That’s wabi-sabi in music.
The sheer variety of the Saturday afternoon showcase, hosted in conjunction with Milapfest and Jazz North, proved irresistible. It kicks off with a leftfield offering from sarod player SUDESHNA BATTACHARYA, supported by tabla player Koustic Sen, which is held in the main theatre and draws a full house. A low platform decked in Indian rugs and cushions, several attendant brass statuettes and an atmospherically lit backdrop of pin point lights amidst swirling dry ice sets the scene.
The pair proceed through several improvisations on traditional afternoon Indian ragas. I confess to not having the knowledge to discern the jazz elements of these improvisations, the closest I got was to feeling some bluesy inflections as Battacharya’s fingers flows mesmerically up and down the neck of her resonant 19-stringed instrument.
The music moves between slow, contemplative phases where each note is allowed time to breathe, resonating and fading before the next is played, and furiously complex bursts of passion and delight. Some members of the audience spend the whole performance with eyes meditatively closed. There are constant outbursts of applause and knowing glances between the two performers as one or the other produces a particularly affecting, virtuoso passage. The applause is prolonged before the audience decant to the foyer for the rest of the afternoons performances.
Over the course of the afternoon individual members of the audience may come and go but the overall numbers are constant, resulting in standing room only throughout. Up on the mezzanine people relax and begin to take in the trumpet, guitar and piano solos as they float sinuously upwards when ARTEPHIS get into their set. A five-piece who met at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, their musicianship is as good as you would expect given that pedigree. They begin with an assured cover of Herbie Hancock’s Eye Of The Hurricane but the rest of the set is their own and it certainly stands up. There are hints of Polar Bear and Cinematic Orchestra before the beautifully melodic Changes features some lovely, mournful bass by Alasdair Simpson and drummer Matt Brown’s soft as silk brush work. Quinoa brings the set to a close with a soaring soundscape and a shuddering stop-start finale. Again, the applause is fulsome, with Artephis showing that the young guns have plenty to shout about.
The bass clarinet hasn’t exactly had its day in the sun. It’s unwieldy and barely audible; it’s just not on most people’s radar. But lately… If you’ve heard Down Here, one of the singles off John Grant’s latest release, you’ve listened to that solo. COURTNEY PINE, the sax player who stands astride the last 30 years of British jazz like a colossus, has done his bit too. Though he’s dabbled on the instrument since his 1986 debut Journey To The Urge Within, the last five years have seen regular shows of solo repertoire since 2011’s bass clarinet feature album Europa.
He’s joined by “master of the 88 keys” ZOE RAHMAN, whose dazzling pianism, almost classical at its octaves-in-both-hands extremes, obviously entertains him onstage as much as the audience with her ability to react and respond to Pine’s wilder playing no matter how deeply buried the pulse or hook might be. The opening number is a case in point: ask a punter to describe jazz and you might get something along the lines of this extended solo that positively burns, note after note fluttering up like sparks, key work crackling, its highest harmonics screaming all the way back to 1959.
After such an outré opening number, the rest of the set is much more accessible, riffing on spirituals like Go Down, Moses and Amazing Grace. Obviously, in a rich African-American tradition like jazz, those melodies carry a great deal of weight, but it’s interesting to hear them in the orchestral tones of a clarinet. Likewise, his interpretation of Michel Legrand’s Windmills Of Your Mind taps into the baggage of the Jewish diaspora in Europe, sobbing and sighing in the instrument’s upper register. For New Orleans, read Warsaw.
If there’s anything wrong with this gig it’s that, despite his obvious mastery of the instrument, it never quite feels like a bass clarinet performance. Pine plays it like a saxophone, the sound is more like a saxophone – despite being closer to a length of plumbing – and one suspects the project may have started out of a desire to challenge himself. That said, it’s impossible to deny his ability to express himself, best summed up in a modest rendition of the standard A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square that starts with the mimicry of birdsong and ends, wistfully, with Pine at the back of the stage, bathed in soft red light, leaving Rahman the applause.
The set gleefully overruns with A Child Is Born, and finishing with a passionate paean to jazz in the United Kingdom, a tactful putdown of an amateur cameraman (all it takes is a friendly “…is that an iPhone 6?” from someone who clearly takes the ephemeral nature of live music very seriously), and the following compliment: “Over years of coming to Liverpool, there’s always been a soulful, strong support for jazz. May it continue for many years. Goodnight.”
Once again Liverpool International Jazz Festival has produced the goods, on this showing the contemporary jazz scene is as vital and varied as its past.
Stuart Miles O’Hara / @ohasm1