What musical advantage do Kirkcudbright, Tenby and Nantwich have over Liverpool? What is the seventh string which these and other towns have, which Liverpool doesn’t? A Fab Five, a Crucial Four, Three Tribes or Seventeen Tambourines? No. What they have is an annual jazz festival.
It has long been a source of discomfort for Liverpudlian jazz fans that their city, for all of its compendiously-documented musical history, just ain’t that great for jazz. It’s not totally jazzless – a few hardy souls of robust humour are still honking away in back rooms of pubs – but there’s not much focus to it all and it’s less than extravagantly promoted. This year, however, change is afoot. Neil Campbell at the Capstone Theatre has had a root through the very top drawer of modern jazz to bring us Liverpool’s first International Jazz Festival, with nightly events at that venue from February 28th to March 3rd. From the joyful avant-garderie of Led Bib, to the iron-smelting tenor tone of Denys Baptiste, from the prog-tinged three-man onslaught of the Roller Trio to the formidably imaginative young pianist Kit Downes and the incessantly questing soprano sax of Courtney Pine, the line-up reads like a class register of the A-stream of modern British jazz. Newcomers to the music will find something to turn their heads, no matter what other musical direction they’re approaching it from, old timers will be rubbing their hands with glee, and if there isn’t enough going on already, the brightest local lights will be playing real good for free at various points around the headliners’ sets. All you need to know – for now, at least – is here: http://www.thecapstonetheatre.com/index.php/jazz-festival-events
But isn’t jazz dead, you ask, flattened beneath the ample rump of its own history? Well, what do you think? Bear in mind that jazz has always been music of change and surprise, and its every evolutionary shift, from New Orleans to Swing to Bop and beyond, has prompted even its most staunch supporters to pop a couple of pennies over its eyes. Surely if you’ve got to give anything the last rites more than twice you need to ask some serious questions about its mortality, but instead of getting mired in existential debate, let’s just compare two records: “Tiger Rag” (1917) by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqU1TiNe_us) and “Deep Heat” (2012) by Roller Trio (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TD7HPZHD0p0). Think on it – both of these records were made by young men in their twenties in the grip of a collective muse, working totally in the moment and worrying unduly about neither the past nor the future; they echo slightly earlier musical idioms (ragtime and progressive rock respectively); they make occasional use of the “freak” sounds of their instruments, and they are both driven along by an infectiously unruly energy. Does that sound dead, or might we agree that, despite the great historical and stylistic gulfs between the two, they are basically the same record? How can modern jazz not be healthy if it sounds so fresh and so alien to new ears while still following the “rules?”
But meanwhile, back at the jazzfest… We’ve seen how events like this, properly supported, can grow and grow. So what is to stop it developing into a celebration of all music that pushes at its own boundaries? Who is to say that in a very few years time we won’t be spending a week in early spring wandering around venues big and small soaking up venturesome sounds, from the outer limits of improvised music and rock to the trouser-seat spontaneity of tight little combos weaving together any number of different musical strands. And Liverpool has never been short of music fans who cock a snook at talent shows and horsemeat homogeneity, who want more, who’d love to see a forum for some of their favourite mind-boggling oddballs, who delight in saying that they’ve never heard such sounds in their life! But above all, they want the city which sparked their inextinguishable curiosity, the city which spawned the Rutles, Sonia, Our Kid and so many others finally to step out from the shadow of Kirkcudbright! Liverpool, your time is now!