When I was younger there was a popular TV series starring James Bolam and Barbara Flynn called The Beiderbecke Affair which dealt with a mystery relating to the theft of a collection of records by Bix Beiderbecke. I had no idea at that time that Beiderbecke was a real and very significant jazz cornetist and composer; I just know that I enjoyed the series. Whether this was down to the fruitiness of Barbara Flynn’s voice, which was always welcome, the jazz soundtrack (in the style of, rather than by Bix) or the quality of the writing I can’t remember. The series, and the two that followed were written by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter, Alan Plater.
Plater, who had studied at Newcastle University co-wrote the musical Close the Coalhouse Door, a political docudrama of the 1960’s based on the work of another northern writer; Sid Chaplin, born in a pit village but who went on to become an artist rather than artisan. Chaplin may be better known for another James Bolam series; When the boat comes in.
Another alumnus of Newcastle University was Ian Carr, who read English Literature there, becoming friends with Chaplin as he did so. Carr completes the loop, for as well as being a noted writer about jazz (his biographies of Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett are outstanding) was a trumpet player and composer, who wrote a suite of music dedicated to Chaplin entitled Northumbrian Sketches. I say closed the loop, but not quite. In his role as associate professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London he worked with a young man developing as a saxophonist and composer by the name of Tim Garland.
This weekend sees the Gateshead International Jazz Festival take place, and this evening the main hall played host to a fantastic concert. The first part featured the Northern Sinfonia, augmented by Tim Whitehead (who had played in Carr’s band Nucleus), Henry Lowther and Andy Champion in the first performance of Northumbrian Sketches to take place in the region.
After the interval this was mirrored by another suite of music for jazz musicians and strings when Tim Garland premiered his Songs to the North Sky, inspired by his love for the region which developed when he was commissioned to write for the Sinfonia some years ago. Although a “softy southerner” he put down roots here, and his family remain here while he travels. Both sets were outstanding, but Garland’s was given another veneer of quality by the inclusion of his colleagues from the Lighthouse Trio, Gwilym Simcock and Asaf Sirkis. For me the highlight of the evening was when these three played a 40 minute set in between the two orchestral pieces.
Simcock must be ranked amongst the top jazz pianists currently performing anywhere in the world and gives a virtuoso performance at the keys and under the lid, damping, plucking, beating and stroking the strings independently of the keyboard. Garland is similarly proficient, but it was Sirkis who fascinated me all evening. As a former pianist and singer, I am at a loss to explain what it is about creative drummers that fascinates me. Bill Bruford was the first to mesmerise me, and more recently Seb Rochford has done the same, both having the ability to work independently of the rhythm they provide to develop light and shade, humour and drama within their work. As former band mates of Bruford, it seem right that Garland and Simcock should have appointed Sirkis who also fits that mould. Looking like the love child of David Suchet and Brian Eno, he enjoys every exquisite touch of his colleagues, but then delivers his own contributions in equal measure ranging from moments of battery to passages of erratically ticking clocks. This included a one man tour de force centering around his virtuosity with the hang. Superb.
There were many present who were older than me. There may have been some younger than my daughter Holly, but regardless of the age of the audience everyone lapped it up. How could they not. Lighthouse left us beaming.