Where The People Come To Dance…

It’s been over a month since I experienced one of the most exciting (particularly if you’re a jazzer) festivals the UK hosts, all due to a very good friend of mine who arranged an AAA pass for me. Thank you.

The Southport Weekender, based in Minehead, is criminally under-reported in both the mainstream and jazz press, yet this year it hosted jazzers Robert Glasper and Gregory Porter, jazz-drenched Soul/RnB artist Jill Scott, the legendary Patrice Rushen and groove vocalist/keyboardist Frank McComb.

Why the lack of press? I suspect many wannabe-über journalists deem it to lack edge, what with its Butlins resort location (the big tent on the right in the above photo, whilst I had the privilege of staying in the BlueSkies apartments on the left). Chalets over tents are always a no-no on the cool-o-meter, however the thousands who sold-out the festival months in advance don’t give a shit about such things, and the vibe throughout all the different venues reflected this: relaxed, chilled, ego-less, with a clear focus on solid-music. We were there to dance and not be seen.

This was a festival for all generations who appreciate great black dance music, and as a result the spectre of jazz was present everywhere. The weekend also demonstrated the power jazz still holds in gripping an audience, even a gathering of beer-swigging house-heads. I’m specifically talking about the packed Gregory Porter show. It was great to see chilled-out geezers really digging Porter and his band, an ensemble containing the cream of British jazz, including Ben Castle on sax and Neville Malcolm on bass.  Opening with 1960 What? the band never let-up for the full hour set, and the crowd lapped-up both the foot-tappers AND the ballads. Incredible.

Since the show I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to a highly respected British saxophonist, for completely unrelated reasons I hasten to add. Yet over the course of our conversation he riffed on the importance of “us” going to “them,” i.e. jazzers preaching, with our music, to the uninitiated. He believes, and I agree, that we all to often fall into the trap of working/playing/listening around jazz in our secure little bubbles with like minded people, resulting in our own credible language, thus giving the appearance of a cliquey and unapproachable set. Very off putting.

I link this because thanks to a fantastic blend of artists in the line-up (something Southport have been doing for 25 years no-less) I observed an audience tune-in to, for want of a better phrase, pure jazz. I’m not assuming the full crowd weren’t on to jazz as a genre beforehand, but I did witness the power of a classic, vocal-led, ACOUSTIC jazz ensemble, and it did convert many. Evidence A: The next day, whilst waiting by the bar for some final-day Prem nutrition, I got speaking to a dance-mag journalist. He rated Gregory Porter as the gig of the festival. “I’d never heard anything like it.” ‘Nuff said.

Despite Porter’s draw the band I’d actually been chomping at the bit to see was Robert Glasper’s Experiment. Obviously much of that excitement was for musical reasons but, and this is my ego coming in to play here, I realised this would be his first Experiment show in the UK, 4 days before his date at the Barbican in London, and I had originally planned to get a post up a lot sooner than I have. But hey, that’s life! Here is a cool review of the Barbican gig from MTV’s site. Soz!

The gig itself was nuts – riveting, intense and a thorough exploration of how far an artist can push jazz in to other forms of popular music yet still stay anchored in the “J” word. Utilising both instrumental and vocoder effects tunes intertwined and fused in to one another whilst Glasper often gave no clear indication a song had finished. Like so much modern jazz you, the audience, had to work, concentrate even, to truly extrapolate the melodic message Glasper was trying to convey.  Yet unlike most modern jazz there was a deep, funky groove.

Glasper’s playing was sick. As a pianist I was in awe of his post-Hancock slick licks yet, performed within a dance-hall setting, they were elevated to a whole other level of respectability.  I’d commented previously on another blog defending Glasper’s direction, in particular the Experiment’s use of non-jazz drumbeats. I can now state, from first-hand experience, that Chris Dave does interact with the ensemble, his peers do guide his direction and, most importantly, he’s a beast of a player!

After Glasper I went to see Frank McComb, an artist I hadn’t previously been aware of. It was a truly great gig that brimmed with solid soul and RnB tunes. Listening to McComb sing you can hear all of his influences, including Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. Top draw. Also in the audience was Robert Glasper (great minds think alike) whom McComb spotted and vocally encouraged to record a solo piano album, from the stage! Bellowing down the mic McComb announced, “I want to be like Robert Glasper when I grow up!” Don’t we all.

Another gig which tickled my fancy was Patrice Rushen’s, backed by an absolutely stellar band. Here is Rushen’s drummer, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, playing with Miles back in 1971 (crazy to think Chancler and Keith Jarrett have played together!) The whole weekend was a mass of good vibes yet Rushen’s gig was particularly joyous due to the warmth she exuded from the stage.  As well as newer numbers all the classics were played, including Forget Me Nots and Remind Me. I want to mention how fantastic Everette Harp was on sax. He is a true performer who’s able to hold the attention of a dance crowd with only his groove-driven sax lines and personality. Quality. Like Glasper Rushen had a date in London, at Ronnie’s specifically, 4 days later. I do like Ronnie’s but I suspect Rushen would have artistically derived more from performing to people dancing rather than sitting and eating. Just saying, like.

It was a great weekend, an absolute eye opener even. Jazz CAN draw the dance crowds. Big, enthusiastic, unpretentious crowds. Festival crowds who love the music and who don’t want to sit. It just takes a tad bit of genre fusing, some adventurous planning and a little bit of faith.


About Will Rodway

what you hear, what you read...
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