Steve Bewick presents A VIRTUALLY REAL FESTIVAL
Reviewed by Norman Warwick
´I´ve got so many treats in store, I´m gonna leave you beggin´ for more´ would have sounded enticing even on a poster for the Ribble Jazz And Blues Festival that should have taken place in the UK over the May Bank Holiday, but when heard it being growled at me by Kyla Brox in a sultry, Earth Kitt kind of purrrr I was certainly left begging for more.
It was the first track I heard being played on Steve Bewick´s Hot Biscuits programme broadcast on FCUM Radio (I picked it up over here via t´internet) in a programme that brought home to me just how much jazz aficionados will have missed seeing the live line up. The cancellation of the event will have drained coffers and broken a few hearts but the organisers did their very best to offer a virtual alternative of which Steve´s show was an integral part. He selected the best recordings he could to represent the festival and added some of his own insights to the tracks.
When the Kyla Brox track came to a conclusion he left me again realising how much I think I know about music, and how little I actually do. I like to feel I have catholic tastes and will listen to anything and enjoy 99% of it, but because I rarely bother with the blues or jaunt with the jazz there are gaps as wide as the M1 tearing through the musical side-tracks and detours I usually take. So, the walking blues of this wonderful song was a great delight; the sassy, sexy vocals, and heavy bass section fully made sense of what Steve then told us about her.
´Kyla Brox´, said Steve, in his quietly studious tones that draws listeners just that bit closer to their radio, ¨´has a raw talent that has seen her described as the finest, female blues singer of her generation. In a huge nod to her stature in British blues the UK British Blues Federation made her and official ambassador of UK Blues. She would have been a great opener to the Festival.´
Steve then went on to tell us that the live fare for the Friday opening evening of the Festival was to have been served by the Nishia Smith Quintet set to be playing with The Mark Lewis Trio. This would have been a great double bill performance, starting with the classically trained jazz singer-songwriter, Nishia Smith and her Manchester based band followed by local favourites, the Mark Lewis Trio, with special guest Lyn Fairbanks. We weren´t quite able to hear that planned line up, so what Steve put together for his listeners was a piece by the Quintet and a subsequent track by the Mark Lewis Trio, which Steve hoped would fit the bill as he tried capture reality in the virtual, as it were.
Smith´s number was a slow and beautiful (I Live In A) Blue Dream , led by gorgeous piano with a very forties-fifties nightclub vocal delivery, that was eventually also accompanied by strings as she brought the song to a close. This was followed by a lively, brassy funky dance offering, with a great percussive drive, from The Martin Lewis Trio, that invited everybody to ´hit the floor´! The Song was the high-powered Funky Street that Steve told us was from the trio´s called Private Funk.
Steve asserted that this set between the Nishia Smith Quintet and The Mark Lewis Trio making an energetic opposite of her silky voice, with its echoes of Billie Holiday would have down well with the festival fans.
He then went on to tell us what the Saturday should have had to offer at The Ribble Valley jazz And Blues Festival would have brought us. I could hear the sadness in my mate´s voice as he announced that fans would have seen a line-up of a combination of Gwillym Symcock, Hermine Duerloo and ´guitar wizard´ Mike Walker, no less.
¨What a combination,´ drooled Steve. ¨Symcock is a British composer who works in both classical and jazz music, often blurring the boundaries of the two. He was to have been joined in this concert by Mike Walker and by a virtuoso harmonica player Hermine Duerloo a jazz chromatic harmonica player from Amsterdam. She has performed all over the world and has recorded several albums. Her album, released in 2019 features Steve Gadd, Kevin Hayes, and Tony Scherr. In 2018, she was awarded the Bernie Bray Harmonica Player Of The Year award.
We were then reminded by Steve that we were listening to a the sound of jazz and blues brought to us in partnership by FC Radio and The Ribble Valley Jazz And Blues Festival. What we were about to hear now, on what Steve further reminded us was a Hot Biscuits Production, was a piece he had been able to find in the archives of these musicians called Echoes.
Immediately on listening to this I could sense what Steve had spoken of about the blurring of boundaries. This was a piece of slow-jazz piano with very definite and very beautiful classical overtones. It was as haunting and just beyond our reach and as familiar and yet unidentifiable as echoes themselves.
Taking no prisoners, Steve made no comment as the piece played out to a gentle fade, but instead hit me a piece of percussion and brass that was an opening refrain, familiar from pop music to all of my generation of How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) that was a hug chart hit, and a lovely surprise album cover hit some years later for James Taylor.
The next track with a beautifully picked guitar introduction also came with no further preamble from Steve. It began as if were prefacing a rock song and then slowed to layered classical style, of the kind we hear a great deal of over here in our Spanish music concerts. This certainly had a continental feel.
Just when we feared that Stave had somehow escaped lockdown and gone for a jog we finally heard his voice again. He mused that the difficulty in presenting a virtual jazz festival is that the presenter can easily lose track of time. He had raced ahead of himself he said when he mentioned Saturday because he now felt that the particular combination of music and musicians he had just played would probably have been heard, had it actually happened, on the Friday evening.
He told us we had heard Gwillym Symcock playing a number called Beautiful Is Our Moment, written for Billy Childs and the cover of How Sweet It Is had come from Hermina Duerloo with the harmonicas behind her being played by Steve Gadd and Alan Clark. The wonderful guitar music that closed the three offerings Ste had run together was a track off an album recorded by Mike Walker a little while back with Stewart McCollum, who featured together on one of my very favourite Hot Biscuits programmes. The piece Steve had played, that brought together these two fine guitarists, was called Clockmaker.
Steve e told us that now, in reality, it was time to move on to the virtual Saturday we had thought we had already been to before Steve had brought us back to what was the virtual reality of the Friday if you see what I mean.
So now it was time, although time was becoming a stranger concept by the minute, to hear hip-harpist Alana Bzhezhinska, playing a piece that was called Afro Harping and was dedicated to a lady called Dorothy Ashby who had released her own recording of this work more than fifty years ago. You will know, of course that hip-harpist is not some groovy, hippy chick who plays the harp but is a lady who plays a harp that sits on her hip. Alena created an incredibly full sound with just a little percussion and spare other instrumentation behind her.
Steve came in after this performance and introduced music from Denis Rollins, who Steve said ´fresh from the school of funk that led James brown.´ Rollins, he said, is part of a long lineage of great trombone players who have changed people´s perceptions of what the trombone can achieve.´´
Steve introduced music that he said was by Rollins with Backbone and Company, a six piece electric group exploring funky grooves, fat bass and sumptuous melodies. He reminded his listeners that this was what was to have been on offer live at the festival but as an alternative he had been able to find a recorded track from the group actually playing music that lived up to this title of Funky Funk. The title chant might have been somewhat repetitive but there was nevertheless some fantastic and sinewy playing behind it.
Next up was Rafika Jazz who celebrated the start of this decade with their fourth album release called Saraba Suffiyana. Steve described this album as a magical and rich visionary songbook that critics say has blurred the lines between the sacred and the secular and has a filmic, panoramic beauty. It is music of the spirit, full of life, dance, emotion and joy.
´Just the thing,´ said Steve, ´for a virtual jazz and blues festival´.
Rafika Jazz is an eight piece ensemble, based in Sheffield, who began as collaboration between local musicians of migrant and refugee artists.
So Steve played a track called Soo Jamafatta that reflected all that.
This mixed strings, percussion and what sounded to be a kind of pan pipe. The vocals were female led with male harmonies in what might have been an Arabic language. There were faint traces of Graceland type of music that suddenly then mixed into what might have West Indian kettle drums. It was infectiously eclectic; a music of the world for the world.
Steve himself commented on the conclusion of the piece that we had heard a multi-cultural fusion of sound on Soo Jamafatta, there, by Rafika Jazz.
Coming up next on the Ribble Valley Jazz And Blues Virtual Festival being presented to us in partnership with FC Radio Steve previewed two final tracks on this Hot Biscuits Production. The first track we would hear would be of a band doing what Steve called ´nostalgia re-visited´. This was a track he had heard this band from the North East Of England playing at a visit to the Lancashire Jazz Festival.
The roots of this band might be set in the jazz world,´ said Steve, ´but the players were brought together by a mutual love of many other genres. The band fuses genres such as rock, soul, jazz and r&b so Steve warned listeners to not only expect the perfect mix of jazz harmonies, infectious grooves and memorable melodies but also to expect the unexpected, all topped off with the excitement of improvisation. Not Now Charlie was the name of the five piece band led by J.B. Tomlinson on saxophone. It was quite exquisite. We chased echoes and remnants of half-finished songs on a spring day. Or we would we have done had this not, in reality, been a lockdown.
It was time, now, though, for Steve to bring the show to a close and to release his captive audience. He thanked us for joining him and then said he was bringing everything to a superb finale with a track from an album by Issie Barratt´s Interchange. Steve gave us a brief background to this lady by telling us her band has been voted the most exciting dectet around, comprising as it does of ten of the country´s most innovative award-winning composers and improvisers. They are pushing at the boundaries and blurring all the edges and the Festival is delighted that its resident artist, Issie Barratt is bringing her all female ten piece band to the event,..virtuality. BBC Radio 4 has placed Issie on their list of the most influential women in the British music industry.
Steve had managed to obtain a copy of Issie´s new album on Fuzzy Moon Records, called Donna´s Secret and created a montage of three to four tracks from it. Issie´s ten piece band also had a number of other top female musicians adding even further weight.
Steve bowed out by saying he hoped to see us all ´live´ at next year’s Ribble Valley Jazz And Blues Festival, and I guess we all hoped so too. Nevertheless co-operation between the Festival organisers, its musical guests, Steve Bewick and FC Radio had surely brought us the best that was available.
You can regularly catch Steve’s jazz show Hot Biscuits, on www.fc-radio.co.uk on Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 9pm and Saturday night at 11pm (all UK times). He can also be found on www.facebook.com/stevebewick