At its 2019 debut they promised this would be an annual event and, impressively, it reappeared in 2020, with another strong line-up of UK talent, much of it locally affiliated, operating once again as a profit-sharing cooperative. This year’s programme centred on a Yamaha grand piano, with three powerful solo performances being particularly memorable and a number of great players involved in other bands.
Friday night saw pianist Nikki Yeoh give the instrument its first workout with a strong set of self-composed tunes, ranging from the classical sounding 'This Kind' through the Nyman-esque 'Elderflower and Ivy' to the virtuoso riffing of 'Bebop'. It was a typically impassioned performance, culminating with her singing a fiercely political version of Nina Simone’s 'Four Women'.
By contrast The Westbrook Quartet established a witty cabaret atmosphere, with Kate Westbrook’s precise diction catching the lyrics of movie composer Frederick Hollander in Mike Westbrook’s typically intelligent arrangements. The big hits – 'Falling In Love Again' and 'See What The Boys In The Backroom Will Have' – got suitably disrespectful treatment, but there was genuine sensuality in 'You Leave Me Breathless' (with a subtle sax solo from Roz Harding) and the energetic breakdown of 'Black Market'’s stabbing piano and jumpy saxophone matched the provocation of the words.
Saturday was a long day, with five performances bookended by pianist Huw Warren and sax player Iain Ballamy. They opened things as a duo, their apparent playfulness disguising serious musical capabilities evident in a splendidly improvisatory version of ''Round Midnight' and a cryptic deconstruction of 'All The Things You Are'. They returned much later with Warren’s regular trio and a Latin-leaning set that included a brilliant Brazilian ragtime reading of 'Um A Zero', drummer Zoot Warren providing a one-man samba band to his father's crisply dancing piano, and the affecting Welsh gospel sound of Huw’s 'Everything In Between'.
There was much anticipation for Robert Mitchell’s True Think project but, sadly, this was a little disappointing due to the absence of a singer for what was essentially a set of songs. There was no lack of musicality in the set, of course, with Zayn Mohammed’s Indo-flavoured plectrum-shredding on guitar evoking a strong sense of Mahavishnu Orchestra on 'City of Sanctuary' and 'Epiphany'. While numbers like 'Unseen' had a fine balance of tightness and fluidity, the absence of vocals left some pieces characterless.
The Defective Comets were originally conceived in absentia, however, being two thirds of the trio Gas Giants who rejigged spontaneously when their colleague missed a gig through illness. Using haphazardly selected backing loops, electronically processed wind instruments and a drum kit percussionist Tony Orrell and multi-instrumentalist Ross Hughes wove quirky tunes out of seemingly random inspirations. The sense of whimsy was strongest in 'A Friendly Ghost' and 'Stupid Doctor', the former’s spiritual jazz modality and processed alto-flute actually sharply observed. A final unnamed Ethio-Afrobeat number gave Hughes the full run of his tableful of gizmos, resulting in a memorable bass clarinet sound that gripped the soul.
Anyone churlish enough to question the inclusion of a set of classical compositions in a jazz festival would have been overlooking the facts that (a) Joanna MacGregor’s name would ensure a sell-out gig; and (b) this was Joanna McGregor, for god’s sake. During her programme of South American music she hammered into Ginastera’s polyrhythmic 'Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy', swooned through Jobim’s 'Insensatez' and closed with a thrilling set of Piazzolla tangos. Each well-chosen piece was impeccably delivered, naturally, with a full dynamic range that was the biggest test of the long-suffering Yamaha grand, and her choice of encore (Fazil Say’s 'Black Earth') provided the perfect reflective resolution to an intense musical experience in so intimate a room.
Returning on Sunday afternoon there was a predictable sense of flagging energy levels that got a welcome wake-up call from the Sam Crockatt/Andrew Bain Quartet. Opening with Bain’s 'Hope' they established a fluid upbeat group improvisation reminiscent of Brotherhood of Breath, strong on rhythm. Particularly impressive was Crockatt’s 'Unicorns of the North', a floating ambient ballad with Sam’s tenor sax and Rebecca Nash’s piano gently teasing out the atmospheric melody, and the ebullient hard-bopping 'Happy' with Bain’s vigorous drumming catching the Blue Note vibe exactly.
If John Law knew how high the solo piano bar had been raised the night before he didn’t let on, and nor did he need to worry. His distinctive style of play and composition can be, on occasion, incomparable and this was such a day. Thus, he overlaid the dense arpeggio tapestry of his composition 'What The Wind Whispered' with an emergent melody, while underpinning it with a laconic bass part as it shifted through flamenco changes. His teasingly spellbinding arrangement of 'Over The Rainbow' was equally virtuosic, built from the distinctive intervals of the tune rather than the melody itself, elaborating through repetitions and loops until, finally, the tune floated in. Like his Coltrane inspired samba 'Giant Stabs' it was both respectful and revelatory.
Nothing respectful about Tony Orrell’s Big Top, however, as they closed the music for the weekend with a no-holds-barred assault on classics like 'Love In Outer Space' – desert rhythms and spaced out sax – as well as original spontaneous workouts. The band’s two drummers used their power judiciously, playing interactive percussion games and biding their time till a final blues devolved into a joyous frenzy, rippling Alice Coltrane piano and howling sax emerging from a din held together by Riaan Vosloo’s patient bass. It was a fittingly cathartic end to an excellent and ambitious programme brought together by promoter Nod Knowles that, hopefully, rewarded all concerned.