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Review: Gateshead International Jazz Festival, Sage Gateshead

Aspiring young arts journalists got the chance to sharpen their critical faculties as top jazz musicians descended on Gateshead

Saxophonist David Sanborn
Saxophonist David Sanborn

Gateshead International Jazz Festival brought musicians from all over the world to Tyneside at the weekend, delighting fans and providing an exciting opportunity for some sharp-eared young critics.

The group of young writers, aged 17 to 21, are taking part in a special Reviewers in Residence programme organised by New Writing North and Sage Gateshead.

It is part of the Cuckoo Young Writers programme for aspiring arts journalists.

Ahead of the festival the participants visited the Gateshead venue to take part in a masterclass with award-winning jazz journalist Kevin Le Gendre.

As well as talking to the group, Kevin worked individually with the writers over the weekend.

Matilda Neill, one of the Cuckoo Young Writers, said: “Kevin talked about how crucial it is to hold and respect your own opinion and he advised us on how to fine-tune our writing.

“The atmosphere at Sage Gateshead was super exciting and it opened my eyes to a brand new realm of music.”

The budding critics were also given access to the full programme of events at the festival.

Jazz reviewing presented an exciting challenge to the writers, partly because it was a genre they may not have known a great deal about before enrolling on the scheme.

Laura Brewis, the young people’s programme manager at New Writing North, said: “We are thrilled to have our Reviewers in Residence programme expanding with an exciting new opportunity for our Cuckoo Young Writers to work on this project.

“It’s wonderful to be working with such an amazing venue as Sage Gateshead and to see our writers flourishing under Kevin’s mentorship.”

Ros Rigby, the Sage’s performance programme director, said: “At Sage Gateshead we are very keen to develop a younger audience for jazz, folk and classical music and also to help the development of new reviewers for music based in this region.

“The opportunity to collaborate with New Writing North through their Cuckoo Young Reviewers programme helps us work towards both these aims.”

Cuckoo Young Writers invites more young people to get involved in its growing programme of workshops, residencies and reviewing opportunities.

Visit www.cuckooreview.com to read a range of arts reviews and to find out more about reviewing the arts in the North East. Email laura@newwritingnorth.com for more information.


Beats and Pieces, Northern Rock Foundation Hall

The first thing you notice is the haze; it’s what most of the punters arranged around their tables are talking about.

The room is a picture of a 70s jazz bar: through the dry ice a fluorescent light show begins. The whole room lights up with a soothing glow like an underwater lava lamp, creating a false sense of calm, which is soon shattered as the band bursts into its first two numbers without so much as hitting the down beat.

After that it’s not just the tech guys lighting up the room. The 14-piece Beats and Pieces hit the first song like a steam train and the cacophonous mix of a rock drum beat and a 9 strong woodwind and brass section really becomes something new.

The director Ben Cottrell shimmies with his back to the audience for the first number but comes in loud on the electric guitar on the second, adding another contrasting yet complimentary vibe to this contemporary big band’s unique style.

Once credited with demonstrating and perhaps renewing the large ensemble’s place within modern jazz, tonight’s performance certainly delivers all that and more.

Vivacious in their energy, Beats and Pieces slam from one tempo to another and then back again in the glowing fog.

The fourth song sticks out as one where you really get to know the band.

Patrick Hurley switches from an acoustic piano to a Rhodes electric model and moves delicately into Havmann - at first a haunting exploration of how non-rhythmic timing can be melodic, and then, as the three heavily muted trombones slip and shudder in, it shifts gear and dances around the cusp of a crescendo.

As it nears it’s zenith we’re treated to a subtly beautiful solo on the flugelhorn by Graham South and the whole thing becomes another fantastically raucous big band explosion ending abruptly and followed by a short abstract reprieve on the piano.

There are moments of humour when Ben talks to the audience, but for the most part we are invited to just sit back and let it crash around our heads.

In the ever changing arrangement of instruments being played, Sam Healey on soprano sax stands out as particularly stellar, and Anton Hunter’s electric guitar solo turns the genre on its head and gives it a spin.

As the final song tumbles to a stop it can truly be said of Beats and Pieces that their creativity and varied musical style is only surpassed by their obvious expertise in basically every instrument that belongs to jazz and quite a few others.

Leo Smith

Jazz vs Opera – a Tenor Battle: Håkon Kornstad, Northern Rock Foundation Hall

To hold a room in impressed silence for an hour and a quarter is no easy feat, but, for Håkon Kornstad with his Jazz vs Opera event, such a feat was not only achieved with ease, but left the audience eagerly wanting more.

Throughout the event, Kornstad impressed on so many levels that one could not help being spellbound by him.

His expertly played tenor saxophone combined traditional and unconventional methods to create percussion, and used unique phrasing to give the songs their own touch.

Playing a flute with a clarinet mouthpiece resulted in a very different sound, while his operatic tenor singing voice sounded surprisingly mature for a man in his late 30s.

The impressive part is how he managed to bring it all together to sound like music instead of a mere collection of instruments: utilising a looping machine live in front of the audience, Kornstad looped every instrument he had line by line. By the time the final piece came together, you would struggle to believe that it had all been performed by one man live in front of you.

His material covered a range of emotions, ranging from the soft and delicate, the mournful and the beautifully atmospheric, and were linked to both jazz and opera, with each side of the two genres that have influenced him being given the appropriate respect that they deserved.

All were delivered with impressive skill on every instrument Kornstad had at his disposal, but this wasn’t just an opportunity for Kornstad to show off his talents: rather, it all coalesced together into a final form that, had you not known it had all come from one man, would have sounded like a group of musicians working together. That the final result sounded so good is no small feat and truly a testament to Kornstad’s abilities.

That such an incredible talent has not reached the ears of a wider audience is truly astonishing. To anyone with even the slightest interest in jazz and opera, Kornstad is a musician who simply must be heard, for there is no one else like him! A modern legend in jazz? No doubt about it!

William Brown

Loose Tubes, Hall One

Allan Titmuss The Loose Tubes big band
The Loose Tubes big band

“So, will Loose Tubes finish?” asked my dad before the band’s highly anticipated and climactic set of the festival. My brother and I laughed. “What do you mean? Will they finish... ever?”

I imagined the chaotic 21-piece permanently fixed on stage until the end of time, creating and composing endlessly, with solos extending tens of years just because they could.

Of course, my dad was referring to the open question of whether the group will continue performing together after the festival. There were few signs that the band’s cohesion (or beautiful mess) had suffered from spending 24 years apart prior to their reunion in 2014.

Following a captivating set by Andy Sheppard and Rita Marcotulli, who painted a series of diverse landscapes with their altered piano and tenor/soprano sax duet, the headliners screeched into some big-band jazz with neurotic Frank Zappa energy and Mahavishnu Orchestra guitar solos.

19 tunes in total were unwrapped in front of an expectant Hall One, new and old, never settling on a sound but nudging at everything from sea shanties to 80s cop dramas.

Flautist and keyboardist Eddie Parker summed the band’s music up best when, introducing his composition to the audience, he spoke of igniting a “transformative revelatory moment”.

As for my dad’s question, Loose Tubes consistently gave the answer: “You gotta live in the moment, man.”

Will Lawrence

Ruby Turner and James Taylor Quartet, Hall One

Ruby Turner
Ruby Turner

As the hall began to fill with an audience fit for a mid-century jazz club, the James Taylor Quartet filed onto stage in true smooth jazz fashion.

The quartet was effortlessly led in by drummer Adam Betts’ slick beats that reminded us of a 70s TV show. But it wasn’t long before the limelight was stolen by frontman organ player James Taylor. His funk-infused sound generated a sea of bobbing heads which swiftly turned into an eruption of applause.

The quartet worked together to create a velvety sound throughout the performance, only occasionally battling it out with one another to see which instrument solo was the finest.

Unfortunately, it was a four-way draw.

As the bravura act drew to a close, the crowd were treated with a ten minute-long rendition of the theme from Starsky and Hutch, which no doubt was helped along by an eager-to-participate audience. There was no abundance of humming in the hall, for sure.

After the interval, Ruby Turner, the queen of soul herself, walked on stage in a room filled with anticipation. And, oh my, didn’t she just live up to that title… the room was stunned. She empowered the whole audience with a stage presence louder than her voice.

Turner’s last song, I’d Rather go Blind, was something else. With the lights barely lit over the band, she sang the words “I would rather go blind than to see you walk away from me” and with each word uttered, the lights dimmed further and the band grew ever quieter until there was utter silence throughout the whole room.

Only Ruby Turner stood there in the celestial glow of a single light. The room was in complete silence, until her voice began to sing alone with so much power it filled the hall and lingered in the air until seconds after the note was sung.

As her voice grew even tenser, the lights became brighter and the band became louder until the audience were up on their feet giving a standing ovation to the most emotional performance I have ever witnessed.

Katie-Jo Watson

The Cookers, Hall Two

Few bands can claim to have more than 250 years’ worth of experience in performing music of any sort in them. Fewer still can claim this while still delivering performances that have the incredible energy and passion of a far younger band.

The Cookers, an acoustic septet of veteran jazz performers, left the audience in awe.

From the very start they knew when to tastefully restrain themselves to support the music and when to let one of them lead with an exceptional solo.

Whether it was tenor saxophonist Billy Harper on finisher The Core or double bassist Cecil McBee on Peacemaker, not a single solo was anything less than impressive, combining technical skill with tasteful phrasing to make every solo an masterpiece in its own right.

This would carry for the entire show, which gave everyone a chance to shine. Even drummer Billy Hart provided a technical showcase on The Core that would confirm that he is far more capable and energetic at 74 than many a drummer in their 20s.

Every track was brilliantly written and all had their own moments that were particularly interesting, to the extent that it would be nigh on impossible to credit any song as the show’s highlight.

With that said, a minor issue was the sound in the venue. With a brass quartet comprising two trumpets, an alto saxophone and a tenor saxophone in the band, its sound was very brass heavy and, unfortunately, pianist George Cables found himself struggling to be audible whenever the brass came roaring in.

Cables did make his presence noticed in his solo parts and shone brilliantly whenever he was given room to make himself heard, but he generally was a bit too quiet to make the impact he should have done.

Ultimately, beyond the minor sound issue, it was an absolutely wonderful gig that showcased the excellence of jazz veterans working together to create something that lived up to every year of jazz history the band had at their disposal. Highly recommended for fans of jazz.

William Brown

The Necks, Hall Two

At around midnight in Hall Two, Gateshead International Jazz Festival morphed into Gateshead International Space Program. Passers-by, on hearing repetitive metallic clanks and trembling drones escape through the door, must have asked each other: “What are they building in there?”

The Necks, an internationally-renowned Australian piano trio, demonstrated their skills as master-craftsmen, taking simple sub-phrases initiated by Chris Abrahams at the piano and encoding them into two separate hours of music.

By replaying or ‘rereading’ particles of melody and rhythm in this way, the band did not create an easy sell. Certainly, there were audience members looking at their watches. But for those who followed the trio – completed by Tony Buck on drums/percussion and Lloyd Swanton on double bass – down the rabbit hole, the rewards were abundant.

From jungle to factory, East to West, the listener could be transported to a thousand different worlds. Intergalactic travel was eased, too, by the show’s incredible lighting. At one point, the musicians were turned into flashing outlines of themselves, skeletons with Pac-Man mazes for bones.

For all those listener-critics who had strapped in by this stage, the Gateshead converted concert venue/space-station had lift-off.

Will Lawrence


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