Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival

Neil McKim enjoys the line-up of jazz performers at Bristol’s new festival

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Ginger BakerPictured: drummer Ginger Baker

Last weekend Bristol’s Colston Hall was brimming with hundreds of visitors as it hosted the city’s inaugural Jazz and Blues Festival. And what particularly struck me was the focus on making people aware of the city’s phenomenal jazz heritage.

Introducing world-class jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval (who had just arrived from a sell-out stint at Ronnie Scott’s), artistic director Denny Ilett said: ‘This very stage has a history of presenting phenomenal trumpet players. On this stage at one time or another have stood Louis Armstrong, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, and Roy Eldridge.’ And the conversations in the packed foyer were full of reminiscences about past performers. As I came out of a magnificent 40th-anniversary tribute to the last of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Songs – featuring a huge 180-strong choir and big band, conducted by David Ogden – a lady told me that she’d seen Ellington himself performing at the Hall twice in the ’60s. And this tribute show was a sensation, as tap dancer Annette Walker danced through the audience, via a tabletop, then on to the stage, during ‘David Danced Before the Lord’. Meanwhile, the choir, the Big Buzzard Boogie Band and singer Yolanda Quartey, raised the rafters.

Chris BarberFittingly, British jazz veteran and trombonist Chris Barber, now 82 (pictured right), kicked off the festival, with his 11-piece band, mixing his ‘trad jazz’ hits such as ‘Petite Fleur’ with early Ellington tunes such as ‘Jungle Nights in Harlem’. For ‘Wild Cat Blues’ he proved his ongoing skill as a bassist. Barber first visited the city 60 years ago, playing at a small coffee house on College Green. At that time, he recalls, British youngsters were breaking loose from the ties of ballroom dancing. ‘Jazz was the first thing that got people out of that and got them going,’ he reflected after his set. ‘It was jazz that woke them up and got them alive’. He tells me that in the mid-1950s he was filling halls like the Colston Hall all around the country (and returning to them several times). ‘If there’d been a Simon Cowell alive, he’d have made us millionaires!’

By way of contrast, the local (BBC jazz Award-winning) band Get The Blessing did a set of top-rate contemporary jazz. Drawing from musicians associated with the 1990s’ ‘Bristol Sound’, their be-suited ranks were swelled by Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley. (Referring to his jeans, the band wryly noted that ‘his suit caught fire on the way here’.) Their effects-driven sonic assaults with trumpet and sax were stunning, as spiralling climaxes of sound engulfed the audience. Going back out into the afternoon sunshine was disorientating.

Another ‘local’, the Frome-based saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, (James Brown’s former music director), maintained a ubiquitous festival presence. He performed a set with vocalist (and Radio 2 broadcaster) Clare Teal and dropped in on New Orleans’s musical ambassador Lillian Boutté, to perform a wistful ‘Do You Know What It’s Like To Miss New Orleans’. And he performed an evening concert with Ginger Baker, the legendary drummer of Cream, which proved a festival highlight. With two drum kits (Baker was accompanied by Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo) they delivered thundering versions of ‘old ones’ such as Sonny Rollins’s ‘St Thomas’, and grinding Afro-jazz grooves. Coming back for an encore Baker barked at the audience: ‘You’re determined to see me die!’. (Fortunately the man once tipped as ‘least likely to survive the 1960s’ didn’t die on this occasion.)

Also among the billing was Bristol’s jazz hero Andy Sheppard’s Trio Libero, featuring the larger-than-life drumming (and hairstyle) of Sebastian Rochford, plus a set delivered by legendary jazz guitarist John Scofield with his Organic Trio. Meanwhile, on the foyer stage – playing to crowds of people lining the overlooking staircases – was a seemingly non-stop line-up of bands, including some current local jazz talent such as the Andy Hague Quintet, the Zen Hussies (who got the crowd dancing!) and the processing Brass Junkies – taking their lead from New Orleans’s Rebirth Brass Band.

As the festival began, Bristol’s mayor George Ferguson, triumphantly declared: ‘I’m sure that all the great acts that are coming to Bristol are going to make people realise that Bristol is the best city in England.’ And last weekend – from a jazz point of view – he was absolutely right. Bristol has successfully planted its international jazz festival firmly on the musical calendar.