Sunday, 9 October 2011

Gateshead Namaste...

Quite a lazy summer for live music - since Glasgow we've only been to see three gigs. It's not that there hasn't been plenty happening on the vibrant Tyneside scene, but more to do with the fact that so little of it is music that I can genuinely get excited about. That said, I read Paul Bream's frank commentaries on the current arts funding crisis with a great deal of concern. I sincerely hope that the resurgence of interest in contemporary styles that I played a small part in kickstarting - remember Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, Jemeel Moondoc and the Vandermark 5? - won't be allowed to wither in the face of the lethal combo of savage cuts to the arts and the sometimes blasé apathy of people like myself. Newcastle is now an established international hub, although this present crisis is a reminder of just how reliant on the endeavours of a few activists (and an annual pot of grant subsidy) it still remains.

In the current financial climate the message from the top seems to be one of 'sink or swim' - if you can't self-finance, why should the taxpayer bail you out? That's a whole essay in its self, but needless to say there are very few places in the world where the complicated set of factors peculiar to the promotion of a minority music can be truly left to market forces. Upfront costs to the promoter of instrument and venue hire, cautious ticket pricing, the capacity of local venues themselves - breaking even is virtually impossible in the provinces, underlning the need to subsidise minority arts so that culturally valuable traditions can both survive and grow.

Of course this is all highly subjective, and some would argue that subsidising 'improv', a music for which audiences still barely scrape into double figures despite lots of local exposure, is the duty of any responsible and culturally 'switched on' Government The enduring value of jazz in its broadest sense is surely inarguable by now, making its subsidy as essential as that of ballet or opera, but perhaps it is part of the overall master plan for 'improv' that it will be enthusiastically picked up by an evangelical army of Big Society volunteers? All joking aside, I do fear that talented guys like Mark Sanders, John Edwards and Steve Noble will find it increasingly difficult to perform the music they love in front of audiences outside of London.

It all seems somehow different in our capitol city, but if gigs in the provinces start to dry up then the impact will surely be felt by London based artists too Two of the three gigs we've seen since the Glasgow trip were at the South Bank Centre, prototype for The Sage. The first gig formed part of the summer of Festival of Britain commemorations, one of a series of four gigs celebrating different aspects of British jazz. Soweto Kinch led a brilliant quintet (which included Byron Wallen and Jim Hart) through a programme of Joe Harriott's music, largely drawn from the 'Abstract' LP. Really getting under the skin of the man and his music (and from a contemporary perspective), this was as successful a tribute as you could ever hope to hear, and I have to say that it was also much more stimulating than Vandermark's relatively conservative 'Straight Lines' project of a few years back. Proof also that in the right place (i.e. London), otherwise neglected corners of British jazz can still be celebrated in front of packed houses.

The main event which had first drawn us to London took place the following evening. Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack De Johnette wowed a packed Royal Festival Hall, where punters had paid around £75/head for the privilege. But a privilege it certainly was, with the trio in relaxed but expansive mood. Any hangovers of Jarrett's debilitating viral illness seem long gone, the trio storming through two sets and four encores. Artistry of the very highest level, it was one of those rare experiences (just like Stanko's Glasgow show) which seem almost perfect.

Last night we were back to the rather less glamorous provincial scene, travelling through the cold and the rain to Gateshead Old Town Hall to hear Arun Ghosh's quintet. A very different line-up to the one billed - no Idris Rahman or Shabaka Hutchings, but Corey Mwamba popped up on vibes to temper the slight disappointment. Ghosh's energy was infectious, but only a disappointingly small crowd turned out to see one of the most refreshing voices on the UK scene (making this a highly subsidised event, to return to this by now rather obvious thread). Playing material from his soon to be released second album, it was evident just how naturally Ghosh fuses collective improvisation with the Eastern influences of Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, the energy of rock, and the formal disciplines of European music.

I couldn't help but notice that an upcoming performance by Julian Siegel for Jazz North East clashes with Christian Wallumrød's show at The Sage. With such a small local audience for promoters to scrapple over, this dilution of impact and lack of local co-ordination doesn't really make a lot of sense. I'm sure that many would potentially go to both gigs, but I know from my time at Jazz North East that these things do happen from time to time, and that once the bookings are made there's very little that can be done but to hope that your event is the more attractive of the two. Faced with this choice it'll be the Norwegian visitor who'll be getting our dollar, but how about a joining of forces to present the two groups as a double bill?

London Jazz Festival is not far away, and for the second year running we'll be combining some Christmas shopping with my birthday. I'm already excited about seeing Joachim Kühn (with Archie Shepp), Marcin Wasilewski with Stefano Bollani and Martial Solal, Bill Frisell, and Roy Haynes. We may even check out Henry Threadgill, although the inclination to wade in his rather strange but fascinating musical treacle isn't really there at the moment. So good to have the option, though...

Fred Grand

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