Second Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival

As Bristol is set to become a ‘cultural twin’ of New Orleans, Neil McKim visits its jazz festival

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The floor of the Colston Hall has been cleared of chairs and there are hundreds of people, many dressed in jive dresses and GI uniforms, dancing to sparkling 1940s-style big band hits. These include ‘Moten Swing’, ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and even an upbeat ‘By The Sleepy Lagoon’ – the Desert Island Discs theme. And among the line-up of local jazz talent, up on the stage, is saxophonist Andy Sheppard (above), taking his turn with spectacular solos. The first night of the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival is in full swing!

What is so exceptional about this Festival’s formula is the wide mix of music – from jazz saxophonist Alan Barnes, to a vocal ‘spectacular’ featuring the music of Gershwin with Jacqui Dankworth, to the Afrobeat of Osibisa, or the funky partnership of James Brown’s former sidemen Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley. But it is also the willingness of many of the musicians to play different genres. And this clearly comes from the top: artistic director, and guitarist, Denny Ilett was cropping up in many of the concerts, while Andy Sheppard was also appearing in several sets. A notable one, a stark contrast to his big band appearance, represented his recent compositions with effects-driven guitarist John Parricelli.

A Festival highlight was Bristol’s jazz success story Get The Blessing, who are anchored by the rhythm section from the band Portishead (with that outfit’s Adrian Utley guesting on guitar). They took over the main stage for this year’s appearance.

Outside in the packed multi-levelled Colton Hall foyer, where free concerts were taking place throughout the weekend, local saxophonist James Morton (below) was making a huge impact, as his rock-tinged jazz had people dancing on the stairs.

Also in attendance was the world-famous music photographer David Redfern who was taking photos at the Festival and hosting an exhibition of his iconic jazz shots, including those of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. He was happy to chat and said that he had been down to visit the Colston Hall many times from London, when jazz greats such as Woody Hermann, Buddy Rich and Duke Ellington had played here. ‘I used to come down out of town because no one else would come and you could get the shots,’ he explained.

From its outset, the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival has been keen to forge stronger links with New Orleans and this is something that Bristol’s mayor George Ferguson has been supporting. Before last year’s inaugural Festival, artistic director Denny Ilett was keen to point out that both were ‘Delta cities’. And this dream of the Festival organisers is now coming to fruition. It has been confirmed that by 2015 Bristol will become the ‘cultural twin’ of New Orleans. This is great news for the jazz scene in the city for many years to come!

Next year’s Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival will take place on 5-8 March 2015