Aberjazz

 

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.

Aberjazz

 

The closest festival of jazz in the South East of Ireland is not Cork but, in fact, 45 miles to the east, at the small but inestimably hospitable port of Fishguard, which annually hosts Abjerjazz, now entering its second decade.

Courtesy of Stena Line at Rosslare, you can be in Fishguard within three and a half hours, time enough to catch the first of many gigs which kick off at lunch, and zigzag through the afternoon and night in various venues.

The Wexford party (myself, Senan O’Reilly and Jackie Hayden) were there for two and a half days of the five day programme, which comprised almost 60 gigs in a scattering of venues, some of whose names – The Ship, Yacht Club, Skirmisher, Railwayman’s Club, Hope & Anchor – reference the village’s relationship with the sea.

Lower Fishguard, as beautiful an inlet as you will find anywhere along this sumptuous coastline, was the location for the first film adaptation of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, whose house and writing shed is under an hour away by car, and which starred the most famous trinity of actors in the world at the time: Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

As Fishguard hugs the west coast of Britain, it has to be the most isolated festival of its kind, and yet some of the most revered jazz acts will travel several times the distance of Wexford to Fishguard to play at Aberjazz.

So, it is not unusual to see bands, which may have been on the road for seven hours, scrambling their instruments and amplifiers moments before they are due on stage.

However, the atmosphere at an average Aberjazz concert is distinctly relaxed, an ambience encouraged by the hard working and very visible committee. Our first evening concert, by the excellent Emily Saunders ESB, featuring Courtney Pine session trumpeter Byron Wallen, in Theatr Gwaun, was delayed by 45 minutes, but the audience was unfazed.

You have to pinch yourself that artists of the calibre of Emily Saunders and Wallen are giving it their all just feet away in a quaint venue, which also doubles as a busy cinema, and it was in Theatr Gwaun that we also saw the rather serious and experimental jazz band, Polar Bear, led by Seb Rochford. Because their songs are lengthy, Polar Bear perform only about four or five, but they are magnetically cryptic, with two excellent sax players, Pete Wareham (baritone) and Mark Lockheart (tenor).

An average day at Aberjazz is bookended by a workshop at 11 a.m. and a gig at 9.30 p.m., or later, with the music still ringing in your ears just short of midnight. The prices for the more mainstream jazz bands are very reasonable (£15 for Polar Bear, £8 for the Nicola Farnon Trio) but the majority of gigs are bucketed, which means a voluntary donation, though the soliciting is never in your face. It is not the Aberjazz way.

Aberjazz is also a light blues festival: the majority of the blues gigs are scheduled for the capacious hall in Ffwrn, which has a communal feel to it, and the jazz, which has an eclectic appeal, is largely confined to Theatr Gwaun and Pepper’s, one of the best restuarants-cum jazz venues anywhere in the western world: with a five day turnaround, it hosted the Huw Warren Trio, Pete Oxley and Nicolas Meier, the Coltrane Dedication Quintet, the Dave Jones Quartet etc.

Wexford’s Kevin Lawlor was the only musician, a testament to his versatility and pedigree, to guest with three different acts in a 24 hour period: Seven Steps – a Miles Davis Tribute, the Dave Jones Quartet and the irrepressible Rusty McCarthy. Besides the music, Lawlor is drawn to technically adept musicians, and his gigs at Aberjazz were with front men with whom he has guested in Wexford: Tomos Williams, Dave Jones and Rusty McCarthy. Jazz followers will remember Williams and Jones’ many fine sets at Wexford Arts Centre.

Highlights, of which there were many, included Oxley and Meir duetting with two acoustic 12 string guitars (Meir’s was fretless), glissandi flying left, right and centre; double bassist and vocalist Nicola Farnon plucking her way through songs from American musicals with verve and elan; spine tingling horn playing from Byron Wallen and then, echoing the intensity of Coltrane and Saunders, Polar Bear’s sax duo Wareham and Lockhart, and finally, in the soft August sun pouring through Peppers, four musicians on top of their game – Kevin Lawlor, Tomas Williams, Dave Jones and Aidan Thorne – revisiting early Miles Davis. Critic Jessica Duchen, who wrote that ‘the music world’s most creative thinking often occurs in unlikely spots far from the madding crowd,’ would approve of Aberjazz.