Customarily on a Friday afternoon, my boss will ask me if I have any exiting plans at the weekend. Last week I had a good answer: ‘Yes’ I said. ‘I’m going to the International Jazz Festival at the Sage, I’m very much looking forward to it’. To which he replied, ‘Ah, then you’ll be expecting to see lots of interesting hats then?’ He was right. There was a fine array of hats on display at this year’s Festival. Fedoras, Trilbies, Pork Pies, you name it. But the festival wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t frequented by Jazz Stereotypes. And for the eighth year running, emblematic Jazzers from all over the world descended on the Sage, on the banks of The Tyne, to enjoy another selection of fantastic performances from some of the best contemporary Jazz artists.
I was lucky enough to get tickets for two of the opening shows on Friday night, the first of which was by trilby wearing Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca and his multicultural band. Fonseca has been writing and recording music since the age of eight and is widely regarded as one of the rising stars of the emergent new Cuban Jazz Scene. His music is a fusion of Latin Jazz and of Afro-Cuban rhythms. Over the last twelve years he has successfully built himself a reputation as a high energy performer, which even resulted in him being asked to tour with the iconic Buena Vista Social Club in 2001.
Fonseca took to the Stage in the low lit Hall One around 8:30pm and played a roaring ninety minute set, which included many tracks from his most recent album Yo, his seventh since 1999. On this most recent offering he concentrates on establishing the deep links between Cuba and Africa – band members Baba Sissoko and Sekou Kouyate take central stage, singing and playing traditional West African instruments the N’goni and Kora, respectively. The show also included some unexpected highlights: some well placed sampling and also a track with a stunning vocal performance from Fonseca himself, using a vocoder to manipulate his voice, while reaching behind his back to play the bass notes on the piano. Highly impressive, but that was just the start of the night.
After the encore, Fonseca and his group left the stage to a standing ovation and I was off to the more intimate setting of Hall Two, for the second performance of the night. Candle lit tables provided the ideal atmosphere for the fun and funky Porkchop, lead by cocky Bristol based Saxophonist James Morton. Morton is a young guy with a big agenda – to bring jazz back to the people. You can imagine many old school aficionados of the scene being a little uncomfortable with his testosterone fuelled performance, but that’s probably what Morton wants, claiming Jazz, for too long, has been ‘introspective and self indulgent’.
His performing style compliments the music very well. Taking great inspiration from soul legend James Brown, the songs in the main are groovy, rhythmic and dirty. There were some mellow moments however. The six-piece band was joined on stage by R&B backing singer Mary Pearce, who has recorded with Lionel Richie and Beverley Knight, for a great rendition ofBillie Holiday’s God Bless The Child. The group also played a new track called Hymn, another gospel inspired number with sweeping Hammond organ played by the long haired, bearded and bespeckled Dan “Pinstripe” Moore.
Another treat was the appearance of Jazz hero Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, who played Saxophone for James Brown in the 1960s. He joined Porkchop for a number of tracks including the grand-finale cover of the classic ‘I Feel Good’. Whatever your feelings are about Jazz, Porkchop are an exciting live spectacle worth seeing live. And all of this taking in place in Gateshead, which was once described by Art critic Brian Sewell as a ‘Self inflicted wound’ – but this was another night that reminded me why I’m back here in the North East and not in boring Auckland.
*Image of Pee Wee Ellis sourced from http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/news.php?id=54606
*Image of Roberto Fonseca sourced from http://www.thisisnorthumberland.com/newcastle-and-gateshead-news/cuban-pianist-roberto-fonseca-to-open-eighth-gateshead-international-jazz-festival/