Monday, July 04, 2011
Mostly Jazz 2011
Day One – Friday 1st July 2011
Thankfully, having vented his spleen on the good folk at the Isle of Wight and Glastonbury Festivals recently, Mr Rain seems to have taken some time off for day one of the second annual Mostly Jazz Festival. I feel compelled to begin by defending the name again a little, just as I did last year, mainly because some people imagine it’ll be three days of cool cats in berets playing 6 hour sets of improvisational freeform noodling. In reality there’s a good mix of funk and soul in there too, but I guess ‘Mostly Jazz But With a Fair Bit of Funk and Soul Festival’ is a hell of a mouthful. If you’re looking for proof of the groove though, opening live act 9-piece Manchester based The Mouse Outfit, bought it by the bucket load. Imagine an i-Pod shuffle stuffed full of some of the best funk, hip hop and soul tracks ever recorded and that’s pretty much what you get from a Mouse Outfit show. Playing snatches of everything from Babe Ruth’s Mexican to Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft along with a whole bunch of self penned jazzily laid back hip hop (sung in French...I’m guessing the lead dude is French...didn’t sound it when he spoke though) they’re the perfect festival headliners...a little wasted perhaps in their opening slot. Still, plenty of people were there to see it and I’m betting that, for the early birds, this was the highlight of their day. Make ‘em headliners next year. Please. They’ll blow the place apart. Mighty, not Mickey.
Next up the legendary Shawn Lee introduced by his good buddy Gilles Peterson. Now twenty albums into his career he’s worked with everyone from St Jeff of Buckley to Money Mark and Princess Superstar. Right now he’s fronting his Ping Pong Orchestra, drawing on his love of soul, funk, jazz and psych.
This lot are a crate diggers wet dream, serving up one sample rich stew after another. The 70’s cop show Lalo Schifrin style funk workout of Dirty Birdy got even the laziest asses shaking before Kiss The Sky (introduced by Shawn as “that track you might’ve heard on a Clarks TV ad”) lulled them all back into a sun soaked reverie. Ahhhhhhh festival moments don’t get much better than that.
Next up...wow...local crew, Alternative Dubstep Orchestra. Where do you start? Dub, brass, dhol drumming, tabla, ska, reggae...it’s a mystical musical melting pot featuring, amongst many other fine musicians, a certain Mr Brian Travers (UB40’s sax man).
Pick of the set included a hauntingly dubbed up version of Walk On By, with vocalist Mish giving Dusty a run for her money.
Anyone for Jazzwerk? German trio Brandt Brauer Frick efficiently fused jazz and electronica before another of the day’s highlights, pocket soul rocket Alice Russell, transported Moseley Park to the other side of the Atlantic. Lordy this girl can whip up a tune. Anyone lucky enough to have seen her develop over the past decade or so (first as part of the Quantic Soul Orchestra, now out on her own) knows that she’s mellowing like a fine wine. Already great to begin with she’s now undeniably one of the UK’s best soul voices. Ever. She seems a lot more comfortable up there too. Happy tonight to chat in between tracks, a mix of Russell classics like Hurry On Now and newbies, like the wonky (her words) tune 2012. She couldn’t have picked a more appropriate track to end the set on, Hunger. Always leave ‘em wanting more eh? After a blockbusting performance from Russell day one closed in a suitably grand fashion soundtracked by The Cinematic Orchestra, with waves of chilled out orchestral jazz gently floating over an equally chilled out crowd (that’ll be the sun and cider for you).
Day Two – Saturday 2nd July
You come to a jazz festival you expect jazz right? Well that’s exactly what day two delivered, kicking off at the ungodly hour of 11.30 with jazz legend Andy Hamilton. He may be 198 but the dude can still play, gently coaxing sounds as warm as a Jamaican sunset from his sax. I was amazed to read in the festival programme that he was on death’s door in 1985 following a diabetic coma. Clearly the grim reaper’s a jazz man and decided to give him (and us) a few more decades. If I write less about the rest of the artists on offer today there’s a good reason for that. Jazz is...no, let’s temper that a bit...can be a challenging form of music for a lot of people. I’m talking about ‘true jazz’ here, not the Jamie Cullum or Tribe Called Quest kind of thing. PROPER jazz. The whole skipabbebopbopanbideeweeee-ness of it all and the clichéd Fast Show image of a laid back hepcat in a beret whispering “niiiiice” and “smooth” after a 10 minute discordant sax solo is arguably the reason why it’s such a divisive form of music. That’s a real shame. Sure, it can be challenging, but the sheer talent of the artists performing and...yes...even those sax solos...reward the effort. Think of jazz as a language, not just a form of music and it kind of helps get into it a bit more. Concentrate a little harder and, what can sometimes seem like four people playing totally different tunes, actually reveals complex interplays and subtle rhythms. Amongst the more out there jazz sounds on day two we were treated to one of the most well known albums of all time, Miles Davies’ Kind Of Blue. Everyone owns this right? Well, a lot of people do. And even if you don’t you’ll recognise So What from the first few notes. Milestones served up a faithful reproduction of the whole thing and I guess if that don’t get you to appreciate, for want of a better word, ‘true’ jazz, nothing will. Respect due to all the bands who played during the early part of day two though. I lack the jazz knowledge to say much else other than I was stimulated, confused, amused and amazed in equal measure.
Emerging from our mammoth jazz buffet, afrobeat legend Dele Sosemi (who began playing with Fela Kuti’s Egypt 80 band when he was just 16 years old) raised the crowd from their chilled out reverie with an ass shaking, hip thrusting, sweat soaked set. Showcasing stuff from his solo albums as well as his time with Fela his appearance coincided with a break in the clouds. Afrobeat and sun, what’s not to love about that?
He gave a brief Q & A session before the show and spoke about Fela’s ability to combine messages about social injustice and political corruption with stuff that gets you up and dancing like a loon. Dele’s carrying on this tradition with tracks like Turbulent Times, relocating the struggles of day to day existence in Nigeria to the slightly safer, but perhaps no less stressful, life in his new home, London. Funky bass lines, jazzy piano, punchy blasts of brass and Dele’s laid back but powerful vocals...catnip for the ass. Appropriately enough the set ended with a Fela tribute, Custom Checkpoint (or a bit of it least...I think the full version goes on for a while). “It’s a quick one” explained Dele “I don’t normally like quickies...but a quickie’s better than nothing”. Oooer missus. Coming soon, Carry on Dele. I wish he could’ve done.
After a slice of afrobeat how about a side order of gypsy jazz courtesy of Manouche eh? Like a number of bands over the weekend Manouche ramp up their accessibility with some fun covers and snatches of well known tunes, fusing gypsy jazz staple Caravan with the Bond theme was particularly effective.
One of their lady singers had a tattooed armpit too. You don’t see many tattooed armpits. She had a trail of roses going up her arm and into her armpit. Ouch. She, like the rest of the band looked - as well as sounded - the part though.
Right, nearly there for day two. Phew. Welcome to the night of the BIG BANDS. BIG. First up, and in a novel twist on the old ‘how many people can you cram into a mini’ routine, Beats and Pieces managed to shoehorn all 16 of their members onto the compact Birmingham Jazz Stage. Quite how they managed to play so well defies all explanation but play they did. Some furious tenor sax solos stole the show for me, along with that accessibility enhancing cover...this time Radiohead’s Just (or Mark Ronson’s version of it at least). Big band number two, Matthew Herbert’s lot, tore up the big band rules (and a dozen or so copies of The Sun) in a set that combined electronica, balloon sampling (yes, really) and sultry smooth sounds.
It’s an odd mix in places with Mr H acting as the deranged sonic scientist in amongst a traditional big band set up, twitching across the stage like a man possessed. The Sun tearing bit provided live samples...and a jolly excuse for some big band fun as various member s of the group lobbed rolled up balls of the ‘newspaper’ at each other and the audience. Best use for it I guess. The most intriguing track of the set though was One Life Is, in which Herbert uses sampled sounds from his son’s life support machine (he’s okay now) to create beeps, each one of which represents 100 lives lost in the Iraq war. I guess your feelings on the piece depend on your view of the conflict but, stripping all of that out, it provoked the kind of thoughtful chin stroking that’s all too rare in big band...or any other kind of music these days.
Day Three – Sunday 3rd July
Day Three and what’s that? Yep, it’s Craig Charles descending from space in his mothership of funk. As with the first Mostly Jazz Fest Dave Lister’s back and badder than ever, presenting more funk and soul than any right thinking person could possibly survive. Happily, after a couple of days in the sun, the Mostly Jazz crowd seems to feature very few right thinking people. That’ll probably be the cider again. God bless Hogan’s Cider. Who needs a liver anyway? Before tha funk (I’ll be writing in this style for a while now so brace yourselves) another festival highlight in the shape of the Paris 1940’s. Their party trick involves taking modern pop tunes and reimagining them as jazz classics. It’s not a new thing (The Puppini Sisters do something similar) but their song choices, vocalist (he’s a pretty boy too...I reckon you would given half the chance...yes...even you sir) and obvious love of performing won over every single one of the early birds (12.40 on a Sunday afternoon...jeez that’s practically dawn). The Lady Gaga medley (never thought I’d hear jazz versions of Poker Face and Paparazzi ) and Motorhead’s Ace Of Spades were worth the ticket price of day three on their own. Hell they even made Wonderwall sound cool.
Leeds’ The Moves have a powerful secret weapon in the shape of their lead singer Rae Rae.
As soulful as a plate of gumbo she belted out a collection of catchy self penned Latin tinged funk tracks and easily nudged herself into runner up spot for the weekend’s best soul voice (Alice holds the number one spot, naturally). More Leeds based loveliness next from the 8 piece Ariya Afrobeat Arkestra who hit da nail on da head with a groin thrusting retooling of Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic. Somewhere up there Jimi was lighting up a phat one and grinning his ass off.
Local legends Cantaloop well and truly kept the party vibe going before Craig Charles introduced the soundtrack to his 18th birthday party...Pigbag. Yes. They’re back! Back! Back! Kept off the number one spot by Bucks Fizz and Wonder and McCartney ( a fact that still clearly irks Craig) their big hit, Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag gets the crowd going...even if the trumpet sounded a little sick today. Probably a bit of funk in the spit valve. Next, and in need of some respite from all tha funk, we headed over to catch some spoken word. I’ve written about the lovely Jodi Anne Bickley and the burgeoning spoken word scene in Birmingham before now but it’s worth repeating. SHE AND A WHOLE BUNCH OF OTHERS ARE WRITING SOME OF THE MOST GORGEOUS POEMS IMAGINABLE. WRITE HEAR, WRITE NOW. Honest, funny, sad, touching, crazy, sexy, cool...you name it.
Today she was joined by Ray Antrobus from London, yet another new name to me but his poem about coping with deafness was profoundly moving. Like Jodi’s work there’s plenty of humour in there too and I can’t get my head around why spoken word ain’t as big as, say comedy. I’d rather sit and listen to this stuff than an hour and half of Michael McIntyre any day. Jodi’s set included I’m A Dickhead But I Love You...a wry take about her drunken attempt to woo back an ex boyfriend and, once again, I was transfixed by her words and performance from start to finish.
Jodi runs her own Spoken Word nights (Speak Up) at The Bull’s Head in Moseley. The next one’s on July 21st. Be there. There’ll be biscuits and bean bags...and possibly one of the best nights out you’ll have all year.
Pausing briefly to come back to reality a quick dash across the park put us right in the middle of a samba takeover courtesy of Oya Batacuda. Oh my ass. My poor shaken ass. I apologise to anyone who saw me shaking my ass this weekend. It’s not a pretty sight but, damn it, I defy anyone to stand still when this lot get going. It’s like that scene in Fantasia when the music just takes over. Cover time again and a Brazilian take on Dawn Penn’s No No No saw half the band melt into the crowd in a sweaty mass. Who knew Moseley could be so tropical eh? The music just didn’t stop. There was literally seconds between each act. If I was going to suggest an improvement to the festival I’d plump for less bands and little break here and there, if only to give you time to grab some food, drink or breath. Next up, all the way “from the toon” Smoove and Turrell. Described by Craig Charles as ‘funking fantastic’ (now why didn’t I think of that?) they’re one of those bands that take their music seriously, but not themselves. So, in amongst the ‘funking fantastic’ set there was a whole bunch on piss taking going on, reminiscent of that great clip of The Faces (you know, the one with John Peel pretending to play Mandolin).
A funky take on Yazoo’s Don’t Go was one of the more original covers of the weekend and recession anthem Money (replete with Average White Band style horns), coupled with Mate of Mine (about redundancy) showed that the band’s cleverly tapping into funk’s heritage as a music of the masses. The spirit of James Brown is alive and well and...er...living in Newcastle.
Right, my fingers are starting to bleed (is this the longest review ever...yep...could be...2,490 words and counting...I laugh in the face of brevity...whoooha ha ha) but there’s still time for more. Brassroots may be one of a dozen or so funked up brass bands around these days (see the Hot 8 Brass Band and The Hypnotic Brass Orchestra too) but they’re also one of the best. Check out this for a setlist of covers: Crazy In Love / Crazy (the Gnarls Berkley version), Forget You (the Cee Lo Green track), Around The World (Daft Punk), Karma Police, Miserlou, Hey Ya, Never Too Much (the Luther Vandross classic...this track was IMMENSE...one guy danced so hard he screwed himself into the ground), Sweet Dreams...all done with oodles of funky brass.
Oh my. Am I allowed to have a dozen festival highlights? Tough. This lot were yet another reason for making it over to Mostly Jazz this year and, if you’re within 5000 miles of the place you missed a treat. How do you top that?
Well, after Craig Charles blew a funk shaped hole in the sky with his DJ set (boy that dude can pick ‘em) there was only one man for the job. Booker T Jones. Living soul legends don’t get much bigger than this. Kicking off with a newbie The Harlem House (named after a joint he hung around after school in his hometown of Memphis) and then the track he wrote with William Bell, Albert King’s, Born Under a Bad Sign he had the crowd in the palm of his hands, even before laying down the mod anthem Green Onions, that cricket soundtrack Soul Limbo and a moving version of the Staple Singers I’ll Take You There.
Hold On I’m Coming perhaps suffered from a distinct lack of horns but that’s a minor gripe...this was a mastercraft in soul from one of the originators. Having just dropped a fresh album in cahoots with The Roots (The Road to Memphis) he shows no sign of slowing down and some of the new stuff is right up there with his very best, with Representing Memphis and Walking Papers deserving a special mention from tonight’s show. Hammond ecstasy.
So that’s that. Mostly Jazz Two, done... and I’m missing it already. I met a dude on a bus coming home who worked at the festival and he let slip who might be headlining next year. I can’t possibly say, but if it comes off the whole darn thing should sell out in seconds. You have been warned.
PS: In an entirely unrelated matter, probably, I spotted Robert Plant...yes...THE Robert Plant quietly munching a falafel over the weekend. Wonder what he was doing there...hmmmmm...