Liverpool International Jazz Festival: Capstone Theatre, Liverpool

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Neil Cowley Trio

Finding the contemporary jazz scene to be in rude health, Getintothis’ Glyn Akroyd enjoys another eclectic jazz festival at Liverpool’s Capstone Theatre.

The fifth Liverpool International Jazz Festival once again draws an eclectic and interesting range of performers to the Capstone Theatre featuring the traditional and the experimental. We thought we’d dip our toes in the waters and bring you a flavour of what’s on offer.

After the disappointment of Thursday’s Storm Doris related postponement of the Sons of Kemet gig, Friday night sees Mammal Hands headlining. Formed in 2012 the trio (brothers Nick and Jordan Smart, piano and sax/clarinet respectively and Jesse Barrett, drums) have quickly established a reputation for their fusion of jazz, folk and electronica, both on record and in the live arena.

Before they take the stage we are treated to a set by Wandering Monster, hailing from Leeds and winners of Jazz North’s Introducing scheme. It’s not hard to see why they won that award as they proceed to draw huge applause for a tight, punchy set featuring great hooks and free flowing soloing.

Tom Higham’s cross stick precision is the perfect bedrock for a scorching Ben Powling tenor solo on Hotrod. Higham and bassist Sam Quintana can get lowdown and funky allowing fluid guitar licks from Calvin Travers and alternately melodic/discordant piano excursions by Aleks Podraza.

Mammal Hands

Mammal Hands

Mammal Hands have drawn an almost full house. They quickly hit their stride on Quiet Fire, a title which could be used to describe their style as the piece builds around Nick Smart’s delicate piano repetition, a lovely, light motif, which dances along while brother Jordan’s saxophone solo, broodingly intensifies over Jesse Barrett’s snapping woodblock rhythms.

This building of intensity, the lyricism of the melodies which ensures that each song has a clear identity and the other worldly rhythms typify the set, no more so than on an outstanding version of Hourglass (from recent album Floa). Lovely, delicate brushwork from Barrett underpins a repeated clarinet coda which suddenly bursts into the light, as though clouds had parted, and floats over sparsely punctuating piano chords.

There’s a good deal of eye contact between the band as they feed off each other, Nick Smart laughing with pleasure at a particularly elaborate passage of Barrett stickwork. There’s a delicate, floating, drifting The Eyes That Saw The Mountain, and a kind of bluesy vibe to Think Anything featuring some outstanding Smart piano flourishes. Kudu sees Barrett playing toms with his right hand while his left deftly flutters from snare to cymbal as they showcase their love of African rhythms and they leave after a well deserved encore to sustained applause.

Saturday sees the return of the free afternoon session featuring bands from across the north of England but this year starting with a twist – a joint promotion by Capstone regulars Milapfest and the Jazz Festival in the shape of Maya Jazz, the hybrid brainchild of Southern Indian violinist Jyotsna Srikanth and Israeli-born double bassist Daphna Sadeh. Both prove themselves to be absolute masters of their instruments yet play with a passion and intensity that lifts their performance above mere technical expertise.

Maya Jazz

Maya Jazz

There is a strong middle Eastern flavour to the music but the influences are far ranging. Elements of Jean Luc Ponty emerge in Srikanth’s fiery playing during the superb Sprint, Indian ragas feature throughout, the encore sees a delightful Celtic Reel twisted through the filter of the colonial Raj to come flying westwards again. The two are joined by Stewart Curtis (sax/flute), Mark Smulian (guitar) and Myke Vince (drums) and, again, the playing is exemplary and heartfelt.

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There is a real sense of discovery and the audience are quite clearly willing participants in that journey. The superb Queen of Sheba features a memorable motif that has ‘jazz standard’ stamped all over it, there are funky grooves aplenty, bluesy inflections, Eastern European folk melodies and Sadeh’s exhilarating bass-lines adorn and embellish each track quite beautifully. The standing ovation is well earned.

The rest of the afternoon sees the Capstone’s foyer pressed into service as a performance area, which makes for a slightly askew viewing experience as half the players, i.e. the drummers and bassists, are hidden in the stairwell while the others do their best to face the audience, who nevertheless are once again at full capacity. A trio of quartets are about to perform for us. The Firebird Quartet change the pace with a spacious, airy piece entitled Lights, floating trumpet and contemplative keys to the fore, which sees the audience rapt, eyes closed, heads nodding in appreciation. They proceed to provide a fine set encompassing Hancock-esque funk and Spanish-inflected blues.

Pat McCarthy Quartet, feat. Shannon Reilly, take us in yet another direction, and a more traditional, chilled, speakeasy vibe envelops the foyer. Reilly’s cool delivery on standards such as Lullaby of Birdland, I Love Paris and I Got Rhythm is impeccable, the playing elegant and fresh. To round off the afternoon the Johnny Hunter Quartet blow up a storm of trumpet and sax led exploration.

And so to Sunday evening and a date with the Neil Cowley Trio. Collaborator with, amongst others, Emile Sandé, Adele, Zero 7 and Gabrielle, Cowley, along with Rex Horan (bass) and Evan Jenkins (drums) is touring recent album Spacebound Ape, which they play in its entirety. For the first set the trio are actually a quartet, being joined by their producer due to the complexity and electronic content of the work. A repeated electronic pulse starts proceedings, joined by a sawing bass, Cowley’s single note piano chime and some delicate brushwork by Jenkins builds in intensity before fractured piano chords shatter the sense of calm.

Neil Cowley Trio

Neil Cowley Trio

Cowley is an animated figure, rocking back and forth and pounding away at the keys with controlled aggression for much of a dynamic set, the intensity of which at times seems a little maddening. City In The Stars has a forceful, meaty hook and the drums drive it along like a full-on rock track. On the ballad-like Grace it’s easy to see why Cowley is the go-to guy for the aforementioned pop acts.

It is on the more experimental Echo Nebula that things get really interesting, Jenkins placing what looks like a biscuit tin on top of a snare and tapping and probing it with two metal rods, creating skittish little noises that play off Cowley and Horan’s acoustic/electronic keyboard exchanges.

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The timing throughout is impeccable and the audience are clearly died-in-the-wool fans. The encore sees the trio at full throttle, Cowley out of his seat like Jerry Lee Lewis on speed and Horan and Jenkins continually upping the ante in a frenzied barrage of sound. Standing ovation time once more.

Hats off to the Capstone once again, this year’s eclectic programming has been rewarded with full houses throughout, proving the contemporary jazz scene to be in rude good health.

Photos by Getintothis’ Glyn Akroyd.

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