As regular readers of this blog ought to know, I’m really more of a rock fan than a jazz expert. So this isn’t going to be an in-depth review, more a series of impressions.
The Swansea Jazz Festival takes place across multiple venues around the waterfront area area of the city, with the Dylan Thomas centre hosting the highest-profile events. Unlike a typical rock festival you buy tickets for individual events; headliners Monsters on a Leash and Hamish Stuart had already sold out well in advance, but there were still tickets available for many other bands.
As well as the high-profile ticketed acts, there was an extensive fringe of free gigs, mostly in bars and cafés. Here’s the gypsy jazz of Hot Club Gallois playing outside Garbo’s Cafe Bar at lunchtime on Sunday.
Saturday saw virtuoso acoustic guitarist Garry Potter leading a quartet that also included Riverdance’s Noreen Cullen on violin, who rather stole the show when it came to stagecraft. They kept throwing in musical quotes, I’m sure there were a few bars of “Smoke on the Water” at one point, and the Postman Pat theme was unmistakable.
Later in the day was was another guitar-led quartet, Radio Londra, featuring guitarists Jim Mullen and Luca Boscagin. This was either a gig that got better as it went on after a slow start, or it was a case of appreciating it more once you’d got into the headspace of what they were doing.
But perhaps the most enjoyable set on the Saturday was the Jean-Paul Gard Trio playing in The Pump House. Consisting of organ, sax and drums, they played with enormous energy for a trio. John-Paul Gard was fascinating to watch, doing four different things with four limbs; bassline on pedals with one foot and the swell pedal with the other, complicated jazz chords with the left hand and a melody line with the right.
One of the most interesting fringe acts was Duski, enigmatically billed as “an eccentric mix of original and popular music”. A quartet consisting of sax, keys, bass and drums, they were one of the new generation of bands exploring the blurred boundary between jazz and the more experimental end of progressive rock, with a greater emphasis on composition and atmospherics than on individual soloing. Though there was one remarkable bass solo played though an echoplex and sounding like Hawkwind. Peforming in the unusual venue of Swansea Museum, they played to a disappointingly small crowd, several of whom were small children. But they were still one of the highlights of the weekend.
New Orleans-based The Session had to be the best of the ticketed gigs. A modern jazz quintet of trumpet, sax, piano, upright bass and drums, they played with a tremendous amount of energy. Unlike some other bands over the weekend, their numbers came over as compositions rather than vehicles for soloing, with good use of harmonies between the trumpet and sax lines.
When they did solo, the virtuosity could be jaw-dropping, and trumpeter Steven Land’s playing in particular was exceptional. His solo in the opening number made a very strong early impression, and one later solo showed just what could be done using just one note.
As well as a virtuoso frontline, they gained their energy from a very strong rhythm section, with bassist Jasen Weaver particularly impressive. This was a band for whom the whole was far more than the sum of the parts; they’ve played together for quite a few years, and it shows.
The old joke goes “.. and when the drumming stops, the bass solo“. The bass solo has been largely banished from the world of rock nowadays, but some jazz acts still have room for many, many bass solos. Here’s former Panic Room bassist Alun Vaughan playing as part of a quartet starring trumpeter Steve Waterman.
There was one a time when I found jazz almost unlistenable, because I couldn’t get past the scratchy recordings from the genre’s early years. More recently I’ve listened to more contemporary artists like Polar Bear, Gilad Atzmon and Troika, which is another thing altogether. But seeing jazz performed live is a very different experience. One thing I found was having spent years listening to many of the greats of rock guitar was that jazz guitar doesn’t do it for me; saxophone and trumpet (or indeed violin!) are more powerful in a jazz context.
As a rock fan, sometimes it’s good to get out of you comfort zone and explore something different, and a festival such as this makes a good opportunity to do just that. Jazz is every bit as broad a genre as rock, and for everything that might not be for you there may be something else that hits the spot.