Cross Currents: Jazz Re:Fest 2019 Reviewed

The Jazz Re:Freshed crew celebrate another year of progress for their movement and their music with their seventh one-day festival in Brighton. Angus Batey goes coastal

Picture from Jazz Re:Freshed

Musical movements are rarely just about music. If new ideas, new approaches, new musical forms are going to gain traction sufficient to get out and start the long and tricky business of changing the world, there needs to be an infrastructure and a support system put in place to help them take hold. As a new wave of British jazz has willed itself into being over the past decade, a hefty chunk of that unglamorous below-the-surface work has been put in by the estimable Jazz Re:Freshed organsation, whose record label, regular live residencies, advocacy and support have helped ensure that there’s somewhere for this emerging new generation to play, and an audience ready to hear them.

The seventh Jazz Re:Fest, then, is yet another example of the ongoing hard work required to build and maintain a vibrant scene, but it’s also – just as obviously – a celebration of the gains already made. Taking a brief but central position in the slide deck that cycles above the Brighton Dome stage between the day’s live sets is a congratulatory image of the sleeve of the Jazz Re:Freshed-released SEED Ensemble’s Driftglass, acknowledging its nomination for this year’s Mercury Prize. SEED and their leader, Cassie Kinoshi, may not be performing here, but several of those who helped make the record are.

One of them is Sarah Tandy, an irrepressible, energetic classical pianist reborn in the world of jazz. She can’t stop moving, arms shaking to an internal rhythm even before she’s taken a seat at the piano to begin an all-too-brief three-track, 30-minute set. The performance takes the idea of improvisation up a couple of notches: as becomes evident from her between-song explanations, today’s is something of a scratch band – another artist whose debut album is out on Jazz Re:Freshed, trombonist Rosie Turton, whose earlier set melds bop with electronica and recalls the hazy atmospherics of early ’70s Billy Cobham, is part of a group who’ve never played together before. Not that you can tell; each instrument takes its cue from Tandy, whose propulsive playing gives both direction and drive.

Kevin Haynes Grupo Elegua fuse African folk idioms with Haynes’ ferocious alto-sax improvisations to at once meditative and preconception-confounding effect. Three bata drummers provide a complicated, shifting soundbed within which piano, sax and vocals reside. Like vocalist Zara McFarlane – a fellow guest on Moses Boyd Exodus’ Displaced Diaspora album; more wheels within wheels – they shine brightest when working at the edges of what established tradition normally encompasses. McFarlane’s set sparks most vividly to life when her drummer samples her and replays the note to form part of a rhythm track, or when leading the crowd through a wordless melodic chant.

The event reaches its climax with the headline set from Theon Cross. The tuba player has worked with more or less everyone else on the bill, and appears on Driftglass as well as on last year’s Mercury-nominated Sons of Kemet album, Your Queen Is A Reptile, so some of that celebratory shine is his. Yet it seems an unforgivable omission from the judging panel that his own debut – the exceptional Fyah, easily the best record of 2019 thus far, at least according to your correspondent’s doubtless fallible ears – hasn’t made it onto the list. The record moves between – and absorbs elements from – pretty much every genre you can think of; so while it’s always going to filed under "jazz", to allow one’s perceptions of what Cross is doing to be limited to any one stylistic box would be tantamount to ignoring the sense of possibility that courses like oxygen through his music’s respiratory system.

In a set constructed as two slab-like medleys of Fyah‘s tracks, Cross turns the day’s predominant vibe from polite excellence to ferocious exuberance. It’s to his inestimable credit that you’re forced to go a long way back to find precedent for what he does and how he does it. The last time anyone was using a bass instrument so frequently to drive melody – and performing front and centre of the stage, adopting the charged persona more usually associated with a lead guitarist – was probably Peter Hook in New Order’s late-’80s heyday. It’s more than the fact that they both led from the bottom end that puts you in mind of Charles Mingus when immersing yourself in Cross’s rich and enveloping compositions. And it’s no less a figure than Miles Davis that you’re forced to reach for when looking for a possible antecedent to Cross’s approach to performing his music live.

Chelsea Carmichael is more than a capable replacement on tenor sax for the parts played on record by Nubya Garcia and Wayne Francis, giving the lines her own sense of selfless urgency; Benjamin Appiah is energised and plays with explosive power beind the drum kit. But it’s the way guitarist Nikos Ziarkas is integrated into the line-up that feels key. Of Fyah‘s eight tracks, guitar features only on two, yet Ziarkas is involved throughout; what could have been potentially a distracting or overpowering addition ends up adding spice without dominating or distorting the flavours that make the recorded versions of the songs so compelling.

For all that he’s able to let fly with Reggie Lucas/Pete Cosey-style fretboard pyrotechnics when the moment and mood dictate, Ziarkas is also happy to lay back in percussive mode, taking his cue from the hi-hat one minute, snare rim the next. As a result, the pulsing detonations of ‘Activate’ flicker like high-intensity heartbeats and ‘Candace Of Mero’s ticking lines shimmer, yet the middle ground of ‘The Offerings’ retains its necessary sense of space. And in ‘Radiation’ it’s his guitar that echoes and shadows Carmichael’s blasts and smears of sound, as all four instruments manage to perform both rhythmic and melodic roles at once. Throughout, Cross prowls and stomps, his tuba simultaneously generating portentous rumble, lucid tunefulness and what, in an entirely different yet inescapably apt cross-genre context, E-40 once called "humongous throb". At the end of a day of great music presented painstakingly, his group’s punk-rock power proves particularly invigorating.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today