A personal review from one of our attendees
Our attendance at this weekend’s Upton-upon-Severn Jazz Festival was my third year at this event, and it maintained the standard of excellence set by previous festivals.
With thirty bands appearing, over two days, at nine venues, ranging through traditional New Orleans, Ragtime, Dixieland, small band Mainstream and Swing, Gypsy Jazz, European Revivalism, etc., and many of them playing simultaneously at different venues, it was impossible to see everyone, but I managed to catch eleven performances. It would have been more but for the exceptionally hot weather, which necessitated a couple of breaks from activities on either day.
Sarah Spencer’s Transatlantic Band opened proceedings at the Memorial Hall, playing energetic, relentlessly swinging 1920s/30s New Orleans Traditional Jazz, with Sarah herself being the outstanding soloist on alto and tenor saxophone, but run close by trumpeter ‘Magic’ Mike Henry and trombonist Mike Owen. Sarah’s vocals were also impressively powerful. This was the first encounter with the ubiquitous Thomas ‘Spats’ Langham, playing banjo and guitar in the rhythm section, and he was to appear later in two other performances.
Next, a brief visit to the Ben Holder Hot Club Quartet in the spectacular setting of the Parish Church. Violinist Ben Holder fronts a quartet containing two guitarists and a double bass, playing Django Reinhardt/ Stefan Grappelli style jazz. Holder has a prodigious technique and his fast and furious style is of course impressive, but for me, there’s too little ‘light and shade’, and I moved on to
Hotsy Totsy at Bar 7, an all-female 5 piece 30s swing and Boswell Sisters vocal style combo, entertaining and instrumentally impressive on the one number I managed to catch, due to the venue being crowded to overflowing, and uncomfortably hot.
Next, back at the Memorial Hall, Thomas ‘Spats’ Langham with his history of 1920s/30s blues and jazz guitar and banjo, accompanied by his own technically flawless and stylistically empathetic guitar and banjo accompaniments, this in addition to his own equally impressive vocal contributions to illustrate the songs, many from the ‘Great American Songbook’, that some of the most influential guitarists, Eddie Lang in particular, accompanied on recordings from the era. The whole performance being solo apart from some help from Danny Blyth on rhythm guitar on a few numbers. The real bonus however of this fascinating two and a half hour musical journey through the Twenties and Thirties musical landscape was the inter-song chat, at which he so excels, interspersing the factual detail with a host of stories (many humorous) about the musicians and vocalists concerned, including Bing Crosby and Al Bowlly.
Alligator Gumbo played in the Parish Church, a six-piece band featuring the roots of the New Orleans 1920s Swing Band era, from the traditional 20s, through to the Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey Rhythm ‘n’ Blues influence. A heady brew of up-tempo rhythmic energy and drive.
Back once again to the Memorial Hall for the Jake Leg Jug Band, featuring possibly the most under-rated strand of 1920s/30s American music. The music of the dispossessed, those without the means to afford the instruments that were the prerogative of the fully fledged jazz and blues groups, in particular the bass, for which the substitute was the earthenware jug, producing a passable imitation of the low bass notes when blowing forcefully into the open neck. The most notable Jug Bands of the time were the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, both essentially displaying their rural roots in the nature of their music. The Jake Leg ensemble, whilst granting a nod in the direction of this rural tradition, applied their talents primarily to the more urban strand of vaudeville and novelty material, reminiscent of such as Tampa Red.
Back down my well-trodden path to the Church once more for Edinburgh’s own Tenement Jazz Band, in demand for backing visiting American musicians, and well qualified via their accomplished ensemble work, and individual solo contributions. Possibly the closest to the original New Orleans tradition of the bands I saw over the weekend, with a straight forward, no nonsense approach to the genre.
On my only visit to the Boathouse this year I saw the Debbie Arthurs Quartet, a mellow, gently swinging group with a front line of Debbie Arthurs on vocals, alto and tenor saxophones and Dave Deakin on trombone. DB possesses a fine voice, applied to a number of jazz standard songs, and a fluid, melodic style on her alto and tenor sax solo excursions. Rachel Hayward and Tony Sharp supplied an appropriately empathetic rhythmic accompaniment on guitar and bass.
The Memorial Hall again for what proved to be a really surprising revelation. I very nearly skipped Moscow Drug Club for the Vintage Jazz Collective, who I thought to be the ‘safer’ bet. But I struck lucky, as MDC were refreshingly original and adventurous in their interpretation of some very unusual material. ‘Istanbul (not Constantinople)’ was a 1953 novelty hit song written by Jimmy Kennedy, which they’ve reworked into a vibrant and dynamic arrangement, featuring some stunning trumpet, guitar and accordion solo excursions and vocal harmonies. They don’t fit, strictly speaking, into any jazz ‘pigeon hole’ that I can bring to mind, but infuse their disparate influences (prewar European Cabaret and Gypsy music, ‘World’ Folk, songs by Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Earths Kitt) with the spirit and instrumental finesse of an accomplished (modern?) jazz outfit. Add to this the versatile vocal range of Katya Gorrie, and some excellent original songs, the individual instrumental versatility of Denny Hett on guitar, Mirek Salmon on accordion, Andy Crowdy on double bass, and Jonny Bruce on trumpet. The latter contributing some Louis Armstrong/Cat Anderson stratospheric sorties into ‘outer space’ trumpet territory! In summary, uncategorizable, but probably on course for more success and critical recognition.
One last visit to the church for ‘Hot Fingers with Emily Campbell’, the hot fingers in question belonging to Thomas ‘Spats’ Langham. As with his earlier session, this was yet another demonstration, via his guitar, his banjo and his vocals, of certain styles of 1920s/30s jazz and gospel, aided and abetted by his fellow ‘Whitley Bay Party’ rhythm section popular favourite Malcolm Sked on double bass and tuba, Danny Blyth on rhythm guitar, and the impressive vocal contribution of Emily Campbell. An effortless and relaxing session from three accomplished musicians and two vocalists taking us on a journey through some rare small group early jazz and the gospel songs of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson. Once again, the history and stories shared by Thomas Langham were an integral element in the performance, adding substance and context to this important strand of early jazz history.
Up the road one last time to the Memorial Hall for the finale, and the increasingly popular Washington Whirligig, half of the personnel coming from my birthplace of Chesterfield. Their style differs slightly from the other New Orleans/Traditional Jazz participants, veering more in the mainstream Alex Welch direction. Philip Lucas has replaced Will Robinson on trumpet since last year, and, despite Will’s talent and former contribution to their success the change has been seamless, the only noticeable change being a slight stylistic difference in their respective styles.
I had to leave half an hour early, and the tune they were playing as I exited the hall was Duke Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing’, one of my favourite Duke/Irving Mills compositions, a fitting comment on the most essential ingredient of the weekend, the echoes of the melody remaining in my head long after we had departed our campsite later that evening.