The Gateshead International Jazz Festival is one of the important annual events on the calendar at The Sage, and has played host to a diverse range of artists who fly the flag for jazz over the years. My personal highlight was seeing Bill Bruford play one of his last gigs before retirement, improvising duets with Michiel Borstlap. I still live in hope that he will reconsider his decision not to play again.
When it comes to British Jazz, there are two names who have been standard bearers for the last quarter century; Andy Sheppard and Courtney Pine, and last night they shared the same stage, though not simultaneously. Though each is a virtuoso on both soprano and tenor sax that is pretty much where the similarities end. Pine is a giant of West Indian origin, with a greying goatee and immaculately conditioned dreads, he could easily pass for the audition for the next Predator movie.
He is gregarious and fun loving with a flamboyant playing style that reflects his personality. Recent gigs have seen him turn to the bass clarinet over his trademark saxes.
Sheppard is physically smaller, but no less a talent. He favours anonymous grey suits and shirts which blend with his trademark crew-cut, although these days this is predominantly silver. His playing style can be just as frenetic, but more often that note embodies a breathy, smoky, mellowness that matches his understated stage presence.
Each was on great form last night, but it was the remarkable musicians with them that drew my attention.
I’ve seen Seb Rochford playing with Sheppard before and he is a huge talent (and as a drummer perhaps an heir to Bruford’s crown), though he is visually as fascinating. He sports an incredible head of hair, like some oversized, lop sided afro, which barely moves in performance, such is the apparent effortlessness with which he produces his rhythmic interventions. He plays a minimal drum kit, yet with sticks, mallets, brushes and bare hands delivers more than many would believe possible.
If Seb’s hair is notable, then so is that of Zoe Rahman, pianist in Pine’s current line up as
well as leader of her own trio. Born of Bengali parents, she is an Oxford graduate who has only recently begun to explore her ethnic roots though her music. Seated at the piano this frail looking girl with finely sculpted features seems unremarkable until you notice her hair, a black cascade which falls beyond the piano stool supporting her. When she plays any thoughts of frailty are lost; she is a powerhouse of technique and seems completely at home in an otherwise Afro-Caribbean band.
When looking for someone to photograph today then I knew I must find someone with great hair to continue the theme. You have no idea how difficult that is on a Sunday in Sunderland. The early morning beachcombers generally care less for their appearance than for exercising their dogs, and as for the town centre shoppers… the less said the better I think. Even a stakeout at Marks and Spencer proved fruitless.
I gave up on the town and was returning to my car when I spotted Pam on the Wear Bridge and my prayers were answered. She is the third Nigerian to have featured in my portrait a day project and is a student in computer engineering at Sunderland University. Great hair, great smile, great personality – more Pine than Sheppard!
- Andy Sheppard/Michel Benita/Seb Rochford: Trio Libero – review (guardian.co.uk)