Gateshead Soup 1 – British Bands.

The four gigs I went to at the Gateshead jazz festival this year fell nearly into two: British bands, and U.S. and European bands.

The first gig was one of British bands, so I’ll start there.

First up were the Andrew McCormack-Jason Yarde duo, though they were joined for this gig by the Elysian string quartet. I really like Yarde and McCormack’s playing, either together in various combinations or solo – hearing McCormack’s solo work a while ago was enlightening. But I am sceptical of strings in jazz: for every project that works (Abdullah Ibrahim’s Africa Suite, say, or Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestral), there are many that I think don’t (Bird with strings, or Billie Holliday with strings, or various Ellington excursions, to start with the giants…).

This time, they worked. Sometimes taking the place that a bass would take in most ensembles, sometimes providing melodic, lyrical twists, the string quartet fitted in well with Yarde’s saxes and McCormack’s piano. The strings seemed to tie McCormack down a bit, though, whereas I had hoped they’d free him up and allow him more space to explore.

The strings didn’t dampen Yarde and McCormack’s improvising – indeed, they proved that classical players can improvise in a piece based on notes shouted out by the audience – four notes to start and four notes to finish, the musicians improvising a route between the two. Ok, this might have been a jazz sleight of hand – I have no idea if the notes at the beginning and end were those specified, but it was a lovely journey!

Andrew McCormack was back at the piano after the break, filling the piano stool for the Jean Toussaint Quartet. So Jean Toussaint might not be British, but he has been based in the UK a long time and is so much a part of the British jazz scene that he fits the bill. This was a set of very enjoyable post-bop, maybe less challenging than the set before it, but no less fun.

Toussaint has a warm, engaging tone. Shane Forbes was sitting in on drums, his first gig with the quartet. Coming straight after the duo-plus set, it was fascinating to hear how McCormack adapted to the quartet, the drums and bass giving him freer rein in the rhythmic side. Another lovely gig.

* * *

The following day in the same time slot saw another two British bands. First up was local guitarist Chris Sharkey with his band Shiver, with Andy Champion on bass and Joost Hendricks playing a mix of acoustic and electronic drums. I saw Champion play in an improvising quartet last year, and expected this to be similar. I was very wrong.

This was dark, heavy music. The closest reference point the came to mind, and stuck throughout the set, was King Crimson’s “Red” – in feel if not in substance. Rhythmically complex with a heavy bass sound – Champion playing chords on his electric bass – this sounded post-rock rather than nu-jazz. Indeed, I reckon there weren’t many jazz elements in the music, making the jazz festival – which had commissioned the music – a strange venue. But the sheer force of this band made it an exhilarating experience.

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The trio were joined by guest vocalists Zoe Gilby and John Turrell for a suite of songs about (I think) the de-industrialisation of the north east and the effects on its community. The singers took the music even further from jazz: lyrics of alienation made me think of Tricky (particularly the balance of the two vocalists’ range) and Portishead – again, not musically, but in the images they created and the feel of the music. Intriguing.

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The mood stayed dark for this show’s headliners, Polar Bear. The lights stayed low, too, the band playing in the shadows; saxophonist Pete Wareham had his hat pulled low over his eyes the whole gig, obscuring his face. Wareham and fellow saxophonist Mark Lockheart weaved complex melodic lines, sometimes pulling in the same direction, sometimes pitched against each other.

Behind the saxes, drummer Seb Rochford and bassist Tom Herbert set up a groove and “Leafcutter” John Burton added – well, noise. When I’ve seen Polar Bear before, Burton played a wide variety of instruments, from guitar to blow-up balloons, bringing levity and texture to the band’s sound. This time he stuck to electronics; in recent interviews (such as last week’s Jazz in 3) Rochford and “Leafcutter” John have said the move to a more electronic sound was an explicit decision and a change to the nature of the band.

Using noise as a tool is increasingly common, with Apple Macs making frequent appearances on stage (it always seems to be Macs), often doing little more than making a farting sound. I’m not sure that it adds to the music – personally I find it distracting, getting in the way of aspects that I prefer. (I’m happy to concede this is just a matter of personal taste!)

Polar Bear still create rich, moody, groove-laden soundscapes – had it not been a seated venue, there’d have been dancing. Indeed I think that would have made me enjoy the set even more!

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