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‘One of Britain’s finest jazz events’ - Alyn Shipton, The Times

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Programme notes by Simon Spillett


GEORGIE FAME WITH THE GUY BARKER BIG BAND


Back in 2013 the honour of closing the Herts Jazz Festival went to the legendary Georgie Fame, performing in an intimate trio setting. Tonight, to launch the 2017 weekend, he's back, this time in the company of an all-star big band headed by long-term collaborator (and regular member of his Blue Flames line-up) trumpeter and arranger Guy Barker.

Fame and big bands have been synonymous since the mid-1960s when, following his stunning success in the pop charts, he turned heads by recording the iconic album Sound Venture, in the company of Harry South. The gamble paid off as within a year of this (to some surprising) change of direction, he was on-stage with no lesser figure than Count Basie. Since then, Fame has appeared as a guest artist with big bands across the globe, framing his always eclectic but entertaining choice of material with arrangements by the very best in the business.

For this evening's performance, he'll be revisiting some classic hits scored in the jazz vein (Yeh, Yeh), material from Sound Venture and more recent originals, supported by a stellar line-up.


DAVE NEWTON TRIO


The multi award-winning Dave Newton is the ultimate jazz piano polymath: a peerless vocal accompanist, a hard-swinging asset to any rhythm section, a composer of ingeniously constructed original material, all these skills underpinned by an unerring dedication to the art of making jazz swing.

The trio is perhaps his best showcase, allowing ample room for dazzling displays of solo improvisation (Newton's unaccompanied introductions are performances all by themselves), as well as demonstrating his knack for finding harmonic paths that surprise and delight those fortunate to work with him.

For tonight's foyer appearance, he's joined by two of his closest musical accomplices, bassist Alec Dankworth and drummer Clark Tracey


JAY PHELPS QUARTET


Although he's received favourable comparisons to such American trumpet heavyweights as Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Freddie Hubbard, Jay Phelps is, in the words of Dave Gelly, “a player you could easily recognise after hearing him just once.”

Indeed, individuality is the watch-word with Phelps, and his latest project features material inspired by what he calls “a spiritual journey” of the world undertaken in the last two years.

His latest album – Free as the Birds – documents these ideas in a musical travelogue, and today he's in the company of three highly appropriate fellow explorers: pianist Rick Simpson, bassist Mark Lewandowski and drummer Jon Scott. This is contemporary British jazz at its finest.


CLARK TRACEY'S TRIBUTE TO HEXAD


2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of Stan Tracey, one of the founding fathers of modern jazz in the UK and a performer whose career stretched for an incredible 70-plus years. Among Stan's many and varied musical gifts was a skill at assembling bands which not only successfully amplified his own unique musical vision but which also gave the musicians within them all the scope they needed to express their individual take on the music. His sextet Hexad, a mainstay during the 1980s, was one such outfit, a unit contained enough to have all the intimate flexibility characteristic of the best small groups within the genre but with a formidable three-horn frontline enabling it to deliver the punch of a scaled-down big band.

To celebrate Stan's 90th, Clark Tracey has dusted down the Hexad repertoire and assembled a band of today's finest, showing that a new generation of players can still be inspired to new heights by the magical Tracey touch.


GUITARMAGEDDON


Forget the pun title - this is as serious a line-up of British jazz royalty as you could get. Uniting Nigel Price - one of the UK's busiest straight-ahead jazzmen – with Jim Mullen – perennial poll-winner and one of this countries most affectionately regarded jazz instrumentalists - Guitarmaggedon negates all those age-old criticisms that gathering together exponents of the same instrument has to end up in a cutting contest. In fact, there's an understanding between Mullen and Price that verges on the telepathic, each man spurring the other on to even greater creative heights. It's something of a cliché to describe a gig as unmissable, but in this instance it's true. It's also not at all far-fetched to describe this as the “musicians' choice” in among the festival's free-entry events. You may well find the foyer as packed with fellow players as eager jazz fans!


GARY HUSBAND TRIO


The label multi-talented is so often a misnomer, frequently appended to those who have to spread their mediocre gifts about so as to disguise how slender they really are. Not so Gary Husband, a musician whose curiosity seems never ending, and who remains dedicated to expanding his creative universe.

Not  just content to be one of the UK's finest drummers (able to fit in every context from fusion to free-form improvisation), he's also a stunningly lyrical jazz pianist, a composer and an arranger of note, and also a fine guitarist. This afternoon's performance features him offering up a programme of thoughtful original material delivered by what is one of the finest trio line-ups (including Sam Burgess and Ed Richardson) yet to grace the festival.


ART THEMEN'S NEW DIRECTIONS


There's a hint of irony to the title of veteran tenor man Themen's latest project. Indeed, one could argue that with his impossible-to-pigeon-hole approach to jazz, Themen has never ever been content to tread any one particular musical pathway. This afternoon's band is not, however, an exercise in expedient re-branding. Themen has brought together an especially glittering, cross-generational line-up with which to explore some of his current musical preoccupations, which, as anyone who has heard him in-person can attest, take in a wide-swathe of the jazz tradition, from Monk to Joe Lovano. As with all Art's many musical line-ups over the years, this one promises to fully capture the sense of adventure, wry wit and downright artistic subversion that make him one of our most treasured improvisers.


NIKKI ILES/STAN SULZMANN DUO


There's something of a duo tradition at the Herts Jazz Festival. Year on year, in among the quartets, sextets and big bands, the programme has always made room for musical twosomes, some of which have proved to be the most talked-of gigs of the weekend. This evening's meeting of two truly simpatico musical minds is sure to be another must see.

Iles and Sulzmann are old friends, well-versed in the art of the duo, and as such their dialogue dispenses with all the fripperies and flash that others might use to divert attention from the lack of bass and drums. Theirs is truly lyrical music – Sulzmann's tenor, one of the most distinctive voices within the British jazz saxophone realm, combines with Iles' ever-thoughtful piano to provide settings of original pieces and choice excerpts from the pens of other composers they both admire.


THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH BIG BANDS – THE PETE LONG ORCHESTRA


You could argue that this gig is one of the boldest and most ambitious in the history of Herts Jazz: a whistle-stop tour of the work of various British big bands from the 1930s to the 1960s, packing thirty or so years of stylistic reinvention into a couple of hours.

It takes a man with a personality as large as the concept to front such a proposition and in Pete Long – bandleader par excellence, reeds player extraordinaire and bon vivant  – it has just that.

Long will expertly traverse the twists and turns in the trajectory of the British jazz orchestra – from the sound of hot dance outfits like Jack Hylton's through the iconic work of such music industry titans as Ted Heath and onwards to the post-bop  innovations of Stan Tracey, Tubby Hayes and John Dankworth. For this catch-all programme, Long has brought together one of the most versatile British jazz line-ups yet assembled, the whole enterprise topped off with his own brand of anarchic humour. Who else could dare to presents an evening so culturally diverse that its play-list promises both George Formby and the theme from Tomorrow's World? Unmissable.


MARK EDWARDS TRIO


In a land that isn't exactly going short on jazz piano talent. Mark Edwards is something special.  Just ask those who've been fortunate to share a stage with him. For starters, there's his gift for lyrical improvisation – the kind that sounds as if its cut from the same high-grade musical cloth as that favoured by Keith Jarrett. Then there's his highly personal sense of harmony, which seems to hear its way through the clutter of even the densest sounding instrumental settings to establish its own place within the music. Finally, there's his compositional ability, which finds him able to come up with utterly personal themes that broker new ground between idioms without ever sounding like the dreaded “world music.” There's no doubt that the trio is the best format in which to hear him in action, and this foyer gig, featuring regular Edwards confreres Steve Watts and Spike Wells, promises to be a festival highlight.


ST. ALBANS MUSIC SCHOOL ENSEMBLE


Herts Jazz has never made a secret of its dedication to bringing jazz to a new, younger audience. Its regular programme of gigs always makes room for new stars as well as veterans and, as Clark Tracey himself has remarked, what better way is there of learning the art of the music than for a young fan to turn up week in, week out to watch the finest in action?

This morning's gig by the St. Albans Music School Ensemble is very much an extension of that mindset, affording young players an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of a dyed-in-the-wool festival audience – the kind of hands-on experience that must run alongside academic jazz education if the music is to prosper in the future. In fact, this may well be a chance to spot some of those who'll help uphold the jazz tradition in years to come. It's also a heartening example of of one of today's big buzz-words – outreach – extending from the jazz world into the local community.


HEXAGONAL


Every festival has its 'sleeper' gig – a performance by a band that might otherwise go unnoticed in among the many attractions on offer. Hexagonal provides just that. Indeed, this is a unit to make even the most jaded of jazz observers sit-up. Originally formed in 2016 to pay musical tribute to the late, great South African pianist and composer Bheki Mseleku, Hexagonal's line-up alone should raise some eyebrows, boasting as it does a highly eclectic union of British jazzmen from all corners of the business. The bands brief is simple: to expand its horizons while staying close to the spirit of Mseleku's approach to jazz, which now means an increasing amount of compositional input from the group's own members, as well as personal re-arrangements of works by other composers who inspired Mseleku, most notably McCoy Tyner. Expect surprises!


THE DEREK NASH QUARTET PLAYS GERRY MULLIGAN


It's now over sixty-five years since Gerry Mulligan's iconic pianoless quartet turned the jazz world on its head. Not only did the band help launch trumpeter Chet Baker's career, it fully confirmed Mulligan's status as one of the finest composers of the post-bop era, the quartet's repertoire representing the cutting edge of cool.

Revisiting both the instrumentation and repertoire of Mulligan's band is one of the UK's most popular jazzmen, saxophonist Derek Nash, a musician whose prodigious talents have enabled him to cross the globe in all sorts of settings. Playing Chet Baker to Nash's Mulligan is Martin Shaw, a performer whose ceaseless flow of lyrical ideas comes close to Baker's own. For those nostalgic about the jazz sounds of their youth, this gig will make a nice trip down memory lane. For those intrigued by the challenges of interactive improvisation, it's an intimate showcase for two of today's master horn players.


REMEMBERING GEORGE SHEARING – JAMES PEARSON QUINTET


George Shearing was the first great British jazz icon. A man who overcame not only physical disability, but racial and nationalistic prejudice.  In the late 1940s he did what had been hitherto impossible for British jazzmen – moving to the USA to work in among the finest talents of the era.

He even went one better: at a time when most UK jazz players were busy trying to emulate existing role models, Shearing forged his own style, forming a pace-setting quintet which, via hit records like Lullaby of Birdland, made his cool-yet-tricky brand of post-bop a worldwide sensation.

And he didn't just stop there: as the 1950s progressed he experimented with Latin music and  orchestral settings, as well as creating stunning collaborations with vocalists including Peggy Lee and Nat 'King' Cole.

This afternoon, celebrated pianist (and musical director of Ronnie Scott's club) James Pearson lovingly revisits the Shearing sound, delving deep into the repertoire of the original band, coming up with choice examples of Shearing's witty arrangements of standards, as well as his catchy original compositions. Jazz rarely sounds as charmingly hip as this.


ALAN BARNES OCTET – FISH TALES


Described as “a commission of new original music reflecting on the rich heritage of our fishing ports”, Alan Barnes' collaboration with guitarist Pat McCarthy and poet Josie Moon must surely count as one of the most unusual of all the marriages of jazz and external subject matter. Yet, as with all things Alan Barnes, it adds up to great, swingingly unpretentious, music, as well it might looking at the list of featured players, a veritable North-meets-South gathering of UK jazz greats.

The result is a project which manages to combine a heartfelt message (“a tribute to the contribution made by those in the fishing industry who were instrumental in feeding the nation and protecting it in times of war”) with its own feel-good aura. Publicity photos for A Fish Tale have shown Barnes entering the spirit of things by wearing a sou'wester. It's rumoured he may bring it with him for this performance...


LEON GREENING TRIO


The sight of pianist Leon Greening in full-flight is one of the most vivid visual spectacles in all of contemporary British jazz. Head-bobbing, a swathe of dark hair forever falling in front of his eyes, slender fingers a veritable blur over the keys, he looks for all the world like a young Horace Silver, driving the music from the piano chair of whatever band he's featured with. Tonight it's his own trio, a unit that never fails to deliver a programme reinstating the values of straight-ahead jazz. In fact, for those sceptics who may fear that the grand traditions of 1950s and 60s jazz may be in danger of falling out of favour, Greening is a one-man pick-me up. His approach mixes hard bop and soul jazz as if to the manner born and his choice of repertoire – always tipping its hat to his favourite composers and players – is a reminder that genuine love for this music is alive and well.


BOBBY WELLINS' CULLODEN MOOR SUITE featuring MORNINGTON LOCKETT


The late, great, saxophonist Bobby Wellins was a proud Scot through and through. Indeed, his heritage even helped shape his musical voice during an era when most “British” jazzmen were still trying desperately to sound as if they'd been born in Chicago or New Jersey. Not so Bobby. Even his earliest critiques commented on the plaintive, bagpipe-like quality to his tone, something he made no attempt to dismiss. In fact, in 1960, he composed a large-scale work, Culloden Moor, in honour of one of the bloodiest chapters in his nation's history. The concept was brave and ambitious, maybe even a tad too far ahead of its time, and after one disastrous airing at a concert in London he shelved the piece, later occasionally reprising excerpts from it with his own smaller outfits.

Tonight's gig presents the whole composition, an extended suite which shows Wellins' visionary skills as an orchestrator, his own solo part now being taken by Mornington Lockett, one of the UK's most accomplished jazz saxophonists. There's a nice personal touch to Lockett's involvement too: in his teens he had been a pupil of Wellins, transforming this performance into a fitting tribute, played from one saxophone giant to another.