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Gateshead International Jazz Festival: Putting jazz front and centre

The 10th anniversary of the Gateshead International Jazz Festival has been royally celebrated at the Sage this weekend. Paul Loraine reports back

GoGo Penguin

It is late on Friday night and Robert Glasper Experiment are melting the walls of Hall Two.

With the audience completely in thrall, Glasper asks how many of them own a particularly distant before-he-was-famous album. The oh-so-English unison call of ‘yes’ predictably follows but one brave soul decides to wait a few seconds and offer his own deadpan response: no. Glasper laughs. There is a lot to be said for honesty, he says.

I took this as a good lesson for this review. I know what follows will not necessarily be representative of the wider audience but I will try to maintain the spirit of honesty of our man in Hall Two nonetheless.

Glasper’s band, his Experiment to give them their proper name, blew me away. From Mark Colenburg’s rasping snare drum to the lush shifting harmonic progressions based around a common note – a hallmark of Glasper’s writing – this was awe-inspiring stuff.

Casey Benjamin’s vocoder vocals were the perfect compliment to Glasper’s warm piano and rhodes sounds. Colenburg was a powerhouse, moving between his kit and an electronic pad to add a dripping, new-soul snare sound to tunes like ‘Ah Yeah’.

Glasper has always drawn from a wide range of music and we were taken from Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit to a memorable version of Bill Withers’ Lovely Day before Glasper even dropped in a reference to Dream by Fleetwood Mac. For me, this is what makes him a great musician – the ability to distill what we love about popular music and set it in an entirely new context.

My highlight of the festival, however, was a Manchester piano trio called GoGo Penguin who played to a packed Foundation Hall on Saturday afternoon.

The writing is of the highest calibre – catchy and often hypnotic piano loops played by the superb Chris Illingworth over the driving bass of Nick Blacka and wonderful touch and feel of Rob Turner on drums.

Their music has a relentless energy about it, nowhere more exhilarating than in the title track from their debut album, Fanfares. Again, this is jazz as a sponge for all that is interesting and exciting in the wider world of music.

Saturday evening brought the Spring Quartet – a relatively new combination of four true heavyweights in Jack de Johnette, Esperanza Spalding, Leo Genovese and Joe Lovano.

I am positive that others in Hall One would entirely disagree with my take on this concert but it left me pretty cold. This may be a lack of sophistication on my part but while the technical mastery of the band was obvious, this was a case of head over heart for me.

One of the highlights was an astonishing vocal solo from bassist Esperanza Spalding who, along with Genovese, studied under Lovano at music college at Berklee. She displayed an incredible ear by singing strange intervals, hinting at a home key but never long settling within it, and finally doubling up the melody with Lovano’s sax to create an eerie and beautiful texture.

Those moments were all too rare. More commonly, the performance was a better parody of jazz than anything the Fast Show managed. On Genovese’s composition “Ethiopian Blues”, the piece started with the band making strange noises with their voices, Genovese himself half climbing into the open lid of his piano to clear his throat, wretch and wail in an uncanny echo of the burgeoning despair of anyone who paid money to watch him do it.

The support act, in stark contrast, were a captivating duo, Daniel Herskedal on tuba and Marius Neset on saxophones. Their set began with Neset weaving a simple melody on top of a Herskedal drone. Neset then launched into a phenomenal display of invention and control, the audience hanging on his every note.

Thanks to Herskedal’s playing, I will never look at a tuba in the same way again.

This is clearly just a snapshot of a much larger festival and i am reliably told that I missed some incredible performances.

What is clear, whatever you made it along to this weekend, is that the festival is in great health 10 years on and I think jazz is in an exciting period owing to the fact it has regained its connection with the rest of the music world.

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