Photography: Glyn Akroyd / @glynakroyd

Liverpool International Jazz Festival 2019

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  • Vein ft. Andy Sheppard
  • Ancient Affinity Orchestra
  • Deep Cabaret
  • After The Flood
Capstone Theatre 3/3/19

The Sunday afternoon of LIVERPOOL INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL really shows the festival for what it does best: breaking new ground with music that asks questions and influences ideas that provoke thought and discussion. This particular triple bill spans all genres, all influences, and although each occupies its own definitive space, they share a sense of uniqueness, innovation and invention.

When we reach dystopia, with the seas poisoned, choking and churning with the detritus of uncaring humans; when war and greed have finally ravaged the earth until there’s nothing left to ravage; when civilisation, such as we call it, has finally crumbled, we’ll need to rebuild, to regroup and start again, constructing a new society with no boundaries, no borders. To find a future out of the ruins. The last remaining humans will gather together as one, AFTER THE FLOOD. Such is the concept behind Neil Campbell’s band and album of the same name. Built around a post-dystopian vision of the music which will need to carry the new society forward, it imagines music as one. A seamless, single entity, pan-global confluence, a celebration of the universal language, and a bedrock for the future. No boundaries, no borders.

After The Flood is, then, a journey of discovery through continents and the ages, traditions and structures, bringing together the varied elements of European folk music, prog, Afrobeat and the Middle East. Though built around the peerless fretwork of Campbell, each instrument takes its place as an integral part of the whole, weaving together, segueing the styles into a single and really quite glorious celebration. To Asia is a wonderful piece built around a deftly picked chiming guitar pattern, twisting and turning in its imagined colour, dancing almost. Similarly, From Africa brings the heat of that great continent, beginning with a mbira-sounding intro, before lifting us through more percussive celebration, both uplifting and soulful. After The Flood is a fascinating and enjoyable concept, an album well worth extensive further investigation, and a band of some of the finest musicians in the city.

“It’s engaging, romantic and dosed in the curious. Just the sort of brilliance of programming we’ve come to expect from this most unique and innovative festival”

In DEEP CABARET, we find multi-layered imaginings drawn from jazz, from Africa and melodic pop, from journalism and the landscape around Morecambe, from poetry, drones and Siberian throat singing; a conversation of bass clarinet and hurdy-gurdy, cello and guitar. It is a fascinating and compelling confluence of ideas – rich, pensive and, yes, deep. Bandleader Steve Lewis digs into his readings, selecting standout paragraphs and building a wonderfully leftfield musical backdrop around them through improvisation and free expression. The Blue, its central lyric taken from Wassily Kandinsky’s writings, is a compact and tender piece, with an edgy beauty. The forgotten tale of Sambo, its narrative hewn from a newspaper cutting from 1822, tells the tragic story of a former slave, buried without ceremony in Morecambe following a hunger strike. A slow looping guitar pattern, it is a haunting Arabian-flavoured death knell bound together by long droned notes and a skittish shuffling jazz drum pattern. Deep Cabaret’s music asks questions and makes suggestions. It’s engaging, romantic and dosed in the curious. Just the sort of brilliance of programming we’ve come to expect from this most unique and innovative festival.

The afternoon ends with the shimmering, cosmic wanderings of ANCIENT INFINITY ORCHESTRA. The Leeds-based collective, favoured by Gilles Peterson, find their genre-fluid roots held in the light of Sun Ra or Pharoah Sanders. Theirs is a worldly sound, heavy on evocation and imagery, peppered throughout with lustrous, celestial percussion. Psychedelia, jazz and the music of the world all take their place in these portraits, these sketches of nature and the universe. Space is given over between the grooves, broad cinematic freeform strokes of melody, undulating and twisting from free improv to the more structured moments with ease. There is an enormous sense of freedom to this band, and it’s not forced nor over studied. It just feels deeply expressive and natural. An immersive journey, cinematic and wide at one minute, hushed and devotional the next.

Closing another deliciously varied and very well supported Jazz Festival are Swiss trio VEIN, accompanied by British saxophone legend ANDY SHEPPARD. Vein are comprised of twins Michael and Florian Arbenz, on piano and drums respectively, and bassist Thomas Lahns. All are classically trained, meeting at Basel’s Academy of Music, and their mixture of European classical music and jazz improvisation has won many plaudits. They have a long history of collaborative work with notable soloists such as Greg Osby and Dave Liebman (saxophone) and Glenn Ferris (trombone). The Arbenz brothers compose most of their original material but they are also noted for their re-interpretations of jazz and classical standards, 2017’s Vein Plays Ravel with tonight’s accompanist Sheppard, being the latest example.

Sheppard has long been heralded as a cornerstone of British jazz and is an equally serial collaborator, having worked over the last three decades with an enviable list of musicians including Gil Evans, Carla Bley and Seb Rochford.

Liverpool International Jazz Festival 2019 Image 5

A double bass bowed in orchestral fashion is our introduction. Michael Arbenz counts it in and the band hit a smooth groove over a crisp, spare drum pattern. The piano beautifully discordant at times, a counterpoint to Sheppard’s lyrical, flowing saxophone on Michael’s Under Construction, from 2019 album Symphonic Bop (a title that neatly captures their oeuvre). The rubbery bounce of Lahns’ bass getting heads nodding. It’s an early indication that we are in the presence of some very fine musicians this evening.

They include several pieces from the Ravel album in tonight’s performance, the first being the delightful Mouvement De Minuet. Florian’s gently pattering drums underscore Michael’s delicate piano. They’re both played with absolute clarity, despite its pace. Sheppard bides his time, saxophone slung across his body, head nodding as he listens with intent. Michael’s solo drops quietly away as Lahns’ bass picks up the rhythm before Sheppard brings his thoughtful silence to an end with a delightfully light, airy solo. It meanders and spirals into the night air.

A 2017 Guardian review opined that “they can be too flawlessly polished for their own jazz good” (before labelling them “one of Europe’s most exciting ensembles”). And flawless the playing certainly is tonight – not once at the expense of expression or a calmly delivered passion.

Florian’s Fast Lane ups the tempo and swings at a merry pace. It is, frankly, funky as hell, the bass jumping, Michael’s fingers flying across the keys, Florian’s drumming loose in a tight groove. It’s a wicked solo drawing sustained applause.

Sheppard’s playing is wonderfully melodic, Lahns’ subtle, vibrant bass holds it all together. The twins seem as though they could riff off each other all night.

A cover of Duke Ellington’s Reflections In D really flies, the soloing hot, cool, exquisite, before Ravel’s Five O’Clock Foxtrot wraps it up, swinging us joyfully out into the sharp night air, the only hint of regret being that we wanted more. As a mightily impressed festival director Neil Campbell says, “Some people take it to another level.”

Paul Fitzgerald / @NothingvilleM

Glyn Akroyd / @glynakroyd


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