Monday, July 05, 2010

Mostly Jazz @ Moseley Park, Saturday 3rd July and Sunday 4th July 2010

From the good people who bring you the annual ‘Moseley Folk’ shindig here’s a brand new festival, ‘Mostly Jazz’ (see what they did there?). Dedicated to ‘contemporary jazz, funk and soul’ and compared on its first day by Red Dwarf’s Dave Lister, aka 6 Music’s Craig Charles, the bill featured some pretty impressive names from ‘free jazz’ legends The Sun Ra Arkestra through to Courtney Pine, Cymande and Birmingham’s very own Andy Hamilton (now a mere 92 years old). Much like folk and country jazz is one of those ‘marmite’ genres. Without wishing to disappear up my own arse it actually does have its own language, with the instruments replacing the vocals as a mmfmfmm... (sound gets muffled as I vanish up my own sphincter). Okay, you’re right, enough muso bullshit. Day one had a funky vibe kicking off perfectly with Groove Cartel’s summer time sounds (shades of Curtis Mayfield in the mix) and The Getup’s Hammond heavy set, which featured the funkiest version of the Rainbow TV theme of all time. Rumours that Rod, Jane and Freddy were backstage lighting up a phat one couldn’t be confirmed, although I did see Bungle and Zippy downing pints of Hogan’s cider like there was no tomorrow.

Taking a wee break from the funk I tootled over to the spoken word tent and heard some cracking poem’s/raps from Jodi Anne Bickley and Matt Windle. With Gil Scott Heron’s proto-raps of the 70’s clearing hooking up the worlds of jazz and hip hop the addition of a spoken word tent was an inspired idea and it’s a pity more people didn’t get up off their arses to see it. I’m a big admirer of anyone who can put words together well and all of the spoken word artists I saw over the two days had a real talent. If I was in the suggestion making mood, which I am, I’d have liked perhaps some subtle musical accompaniment...a little sax perhaps, but that’s a minor quibble. Birmingham is clearly home to some pretty remarkable street poets and it’s a scene we’re not proud enough of.

Returning to the main stage I caught most of Led Bib’s free jazz/Krautrock crossover (they’d make a great Supersonic band), which well and truly woke up the masses chilling out in the summer sun (good work on the weather there chaps). Led Bib straddle that divide between the all out mentalism of free jazz (which can sound like a bunch of maniacs randomly playing their instruments with no thought to the resulting cacophony) and the more beat reliant rock world. Surprisingly it all works rather well.

Back to the funk with Nick Pride and the Pimptones who cheekily mashed up ODB and Aretha Franklin (not literally, that’s illegal) in the funkiest workout of the weekend. A true match for the Dap Kings. And that’s high praise indeed.

The award for strangest instrument of the weekend goes to one of the guys from Polar Bear who ‘played’ a balloon. It was that kind of set. Formed around the frankly planet sized afro of drummer Seb Roachford (seriously, it looks like an enormous ball of hair is eating his head...brilliant) Polar Bear are billed as ‘post jazz’, which inevitably means an experimental approach to the genre that veers from the distressing to the quite marvellous. Highlight of the set was Drunken Pharoah, which, to be fair sounded exactly like a drunken pharoah.

Back on planet earth James Taylor Quartet are pure Hammond heaven. JT is one of the best Hammond players in the world and he delivered the goods with sizzling versions of Green Onions, Love TKO and the theme from Starsky and Hutch. Being a miserable git I did find the “put your hands in the air”, playing off one side of the crowd against the other routine a little bit wearing and getting the good people of Moseley to sing “Living in the ghetto” convincingly was a little odd, but that’s probably just me.

Having nailed the whole soul thing Quantic (aka Will Holland) upped sticks and relocated to Columbia to try his hand at Latin music. Unsurprisingly he’s mastered that too. As Ian Dury put it, “there ain’t ‘alf been some clever bastards”. With Quantic and his Combo Barbaro, Will Holland’s assembled what amount to a Latin supergroup with legendary keyboard player Alfredo Linares adding that real touch of authenticity. When vocalist Nidia Gongora came on the joy was complete. I defy anyone to stand still when this band gets going. Over a one and a half hour set many of the crowd attempted the salsa (with varying degrees of success) as the sun continued to blaze well into the evening and, for just a brief moment, Mosley Park seemed like some kind of tropical paradise.

Last up, and despite Sun Ra himself retiring to Saturn in 1993 (as you do) his Arkestra’s still going strong. Now under the leadership of Marshall Allen (who’s been with the group since 1958) they play a head spinning form of free jazz. As I’ve already postulated free jazz can sound like nutter strangling a bag full of cats but somehow the Arkestra avoids all out chaos whilst still allowing the individual musicians the chance to...ahem...blow their own trumpets. Dressed in a variety of space age sparkly outfits the band continue to boldly go where no band has gone before (or since) offering up a brain melting mix of cosmic jazz, funk, rap and pure theatre (the break dancing bit at the end was magic). Out front is Marshall himself, now 86 but still able to blow up a storm. Space clearly is THE place.

After a night filled with dreams of aliens wearing tin foil y-fronts (that’s what listening to Sun Ra does for you) day two was a much more chilled out affair. The legend that is Andy Hamilton (92 years young!) eased us all into another remarkably clement afternoon (what no rain...what’s going on?). His performance still retains that sense of playfulness and joy in the music that should give us all hope and the addition of some lovely rich, warm vocals from one of his band, The Blue Notes, made it another memorable set. Then the afternoon went all gypsy jazz for a while, the highlight being The Bright Size Gypsy’s fronted by Simon Harris. In a joyous performance the band invoked the spirit of the great Django Reinhardt , displaying some truly jaw dropping guitar playing. Vocalists Bev Lee and Esther added instant sassiness (think a sexier Puppini Sisters).

Still with me? Good, because next up was the highlight of the weekend , the return of Cymande! Arguably the only truly great British funk band Cymande formed way back in 1971 and disbanded in 1974 after releasing a trio of albums and hitting the charts both here and (in a coals to Newcastle scenario) the US. I picked up a compilation album of theirs on the basis of one track ‘Brothers on the Slide’ (which I’d always assumed was by an American band) and was blown sideways by the quality of the rest of the stuff. Much sampled in the 80’s and 90’s by the likes of De La Soul and The Fugees a new version of the band has now come together (Cymande II), featuring two original members (Sam and Jimmy). They were simply breathtakingly good. As funky as Sly Stone and as tight and driven as James Brown they tore the sky off Moseley raising the slumbering crowd from their Sunday afternoon nap and uniting one and all in a grand funkathon. ‘Bra’ and ‘Brothers on the Slide’ (a menacingly deep funk classic) were worth the ticket price for the entire festival on their own. Both Sam and Jimmy seemed genuinely touched by the reception and noted ruefully that they’d never played Birmingham back in the day, a situation that they were more than happy to rectify today. As Jimmy urged us at the end of the set, “Spread the word”. I’m more than happy to.

Next up Portico Quartet’s chilled out (if sometimes slightly psychotic according to Lady B)grooves took the crowd nicely into the evening as the sun slowly set. Then Sara Colman sang her heart out in a gutsy set featuring a niiiice jazzy version of ‘Stuck In The Middle’ and some of her own self penned songs, pick of the bunch being a cracking track called ‘Get You Gone’.

Finally it’s the Sax Machine himself, Mr Courtney Pine. He’s a legend in the jazz world and you can hear and see why. Peppering the set with positive good vibes chat he performed an astounding continuous three or four minute solo (he seemed to be using that technique that didgeridoo players use where you breath in and out at the same time...yes, I know, a neat trick if you can do it). Piano player Zoe Rahman’s solo during a drum n’bass infused ‘Au Revoir’ was also stunningly good. Putting aside his sax Courtney then picked up a flute and covered Jacko’s ‘Feed the World’ as one or two members of the audience attempted to release those fire balloon thingies. The balloons were obviously enjoying the music too much as most of them stubbornly refused to take flight, preferring instead to nest in people’s hair or a nearby tree. Can’t blame them really. I didn’t want to leave either. Hearty congratulations to Carl, Gerv and the rest of the team for a memorable first, of hopefully many, Mostly Jazz's. Now how about Carmel, Robert Wyatt, Soweto Kinch and Gil Scott Heron for 2011 eh?

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