13 proved a lucky number for the closest jazz festival to Wexford, which happens to be in Wales and is also the best of its kind.
Aberjazz, which hosts up to 50 events, including gigs, workshops, busking and forays into blues and folk, in events sprinkled for five glorious late summer days throughout Fishguard, from the seated Theatr Gwaun to the charming and capacious Ffwrn, from the no frills Rugby Club to the epicurean’s favourite, Pepper’s restaurant and art gallery, is unique in Wales.
Part of its charm, which cannot be package and airlifted to somewhere else, is both the village itself – it couldn’t be any more laid back – and the team of volunteers, marshalled by Alice (CHECK), who are effortlessly courteous, enthusiastic and genuine lovers of music. And at a festival, where the vast majority of acts and most of the attendances are visitors, this helps enormously.
If you are arriving from Ireland on the Stena Line ferry, the charm offensive begins immediately: Fishguard has a plethora of good cafes and restaurants for the weary, and – on a clear day – offers some stunning seascapes, especially from Lower Fishguard.
The raison d’etre of the festival, unlike say Cork in October, is jazz: any not just mainstream jazz but a programme which is devoted to all its myriad manifestations. To this end, the exploration of jazz and the proliferation of its inimitable qualities, Aberjazz has been bringing well known acts (Polar Bear, Jacki Dankworth (CHECK)) and emerging acts (The Jasmine Power Quintet) to the village since its inception 13 years ago, is paramount.
There is the combination of the old and the new, the British and the international (Wexford’s Kevin Lawlor in 2015 and the Argentinian Tango Jazz Quartet in 2016), and a fearlessness in the programming: the collaboration between Israeli drummer Asaf Sirki and Polish vocalist Sylwia Bialas and an awareness of evolving trends far from home: Slowly Rolling Camera, with the much in demand musician-producer Dave Stapleton, had excelled at bigger festivals like Love Supreme and the London Jazz Festival. For many of the A-listed concerts, prices range from £5 to £15, but Aberjazz, in its desire to make the music accessible to all, does not have a cover charge for over half of the acts.
It is probable that this year’s headliner, Courtney Pine at Theatr Gwaun, could have sold out twice, or that Aberjazz could possibly have charged twice the admission price (£22.50), because the saxophonist is British jazz’s most restless and adventurous musical prodigy since he made his name with the revolutionary To The Eyes of Creation in 1992. He was not yet 30.
Pine, in concert, does not care to repeat the success of previous tours, perhaps a sensitivity to how his broad output has a tendency to polarise both critics and fans. Earlier this year he did a short tour with Zoe Rahman (who played a gig with her brother in the early days of the Wexford Opera House) of ballads, old and new, deploying his bass clarinet as lead solo instrument, something you will not happen across every day.
For Abejazz, it was the flip side of the coin, a raucous crowd pleaser or an old fashioned knees up, but he caught the mood of his audience perfectly, with Pine favouring soprano saxophone as he reached into the 2012 release, House of Legends, more compatible for the seven piece line he brought to Fishguard, including two great guitarists, Cameron Pierre and Chris Cobbson. Certainly, House of Legends is symptomatic of why Pine is often adjudged as controversial in contemporary jazz. The BBC’s Martin Longley dissed it for its ‘new depths in novelty dredging’ and ‘parping synthesiser abuse’. Is it really that bad? No, but the purists detested what Longley dismissed as Pine’s ‘virtuoso contortions.’
‘Is Courtney Pine still a jazzman?’ snarled the BBC’s man.
I don’t have the answer for that, nor am I sure it is relevant, but Pine is certainly a showman, and his demonstratively popular Aberjazz gig, almost all two hours of it, was joyous and adventurous, acknowledging the calypso swing of his Jamaican roots, switching gears from Kingstonian Swing to the infectious Ma-Di-Ba, although the stand out number, in which Pine’s brilliance is undoubted, is his homage to the founder of the Notting Hill carnival, Claudia Jones. If Courtney Pine has not been feeling the love from critics, he got it by the truck load in Theatr Gwaun.