A Night At The British Jazz Awards

THE BRITISH JAZZ AWARDS: CONCORDE CLUB, SOUTHAMPTON

The ‘Jazz Oscars’ have been around for 26 years, the Concorde Club at Eastleigh for over twice as long. How odd that it has taken so long for the two to get together!

In fact the two proved to be ideal partners. The British Jazz Awards, despite frequent changes of venue and in the format of the event, have consistently rewarded the best and most committed musicians in British jazz; the Concorde Club, under Cole Matheson, has consistently employed those same people, together with plenty of the top names from abroad. The 2012 occasion was a perfect marriage of venue, presentation and performance. The club’s ambience is just formal enough, the balance of Prize Day and all-star jazz session was just right and, despite a few absentees, there were plenty of major musical talents in fine form.

At the end of the evening, the encore reunited all the musicians and added singer Liane Carroll who clearly loved swinging in front of a high-octane eight-piece on Pennies from Heaven – a perfectly exuberant finale, but I’m not so sure that an entire 90-minute set of such frolics would have held the attention. Instead the evening, as planned by Jazz Awards organiser and Jazz Rag editor Jim Simpson, consisted of assorted smaller groups in much more disciplined performances.Prize winners present were Enrico Tomasso on trumpet, Alan Barnes on clarinet and alto sax, Karen Sharp on tenor sax, Dave Newton on piano, Alec Dankworth on bass and Steve Brown on drums, joined by Rising Star Jamie Brownfield (trumpet) and new CD leader/producer Derek Nash (baritone sax).

The opening Oh, Lady Be Good was typically loosely arranged, with a succession of fine solos, and left me with two main impressions. One was that Jamie Brownfield is a remarkably sensible and self-assured young man: not in the least over-awed, he also avoided the folly of being too competitive in the company of musicians who’ve been round the block a time or two. Also, apropos of nothing in particular, it struck me that how rich the vein of non-specialist baritone sax players is: Derek Nash’s solos had a joyful attack all night and there he was beside Alan Barnes (a close run thing on baritone for the Miscellaneous Instrument category) and Karen Sharp (a player I almost prefer on baritone).The balance, roughly speaking, was 3 to 1 in favour of music, just over half an hour of presentation and speeches, a good 90 minutes of jazz, which is about right, I reckon. Not that the presentation is unimportant. Local radio and television personality Michael Kurns carried off the proceedings with efficiency, affability, enough knowledge and no pretence of expertise, helped by Jazz Rag’s Yue Yang’s immaculately timed envelopes, awards and winning smiles. The speeches were brief, genuine and often amusing: for some reason Alan Barnes was the object of much of his colleagues’ humour, Alec Dankworth’s quip that he’d only won because Alan had given up double bass being followed by Alan receiving the guitar award on behalf of the missing Martin Taylor! It was particularly pleasing to find Courtney Pine’s award for miscellaneous instrument being collected by a very self-possessed student of his at Southampton University and, if Digby Fairweather’s typical mix of generosity of spirit and idiosyncrasy of style posed challenges to Cole Matheson (receiving on his behalf and reading his acceptance speech), it didn’t disturb the good humour of the evening.

I guess many readers will have in mind plenty of outstanding musicians who ‘should’ have won – I can think of several myself – but all the winners more than justified their awards on the night – and I don’t think there would be too much argument with Martin Taylor, Courtney Pine or Mark Nightingale, either. The welcome conclusion is that, whatever problems jazz has in this country (and the odd barbed comment about those was the only non-joyful note in the evening), a shortage of talent isn’t one of them.

A final impression of the evening is of equal enjoyment on and off stage, of a complementary rather than competitive atmosphere (though just competitive enough to add a certain piquancy) – and anyone who doubts that music can, of itself, be humorous hasn’t listened to Dave Newton, Alan Barnes or Steve Brown.Probably the stand-out crowd-pleaser of the evening came with a monster performance by the three saxes of Cottontail, with the supremely versatile rhythm section at their most exuberant. (Again credit to Jamie Brownfield who, given the unenviable task of following this, kept his cool with a boppish Sweet Georgia Brown). Liane Carroll’s two features, You’ve Changed and That Old Devil Moon, each with one sax and rhythm, drew on her full range from delicate balladry to uninhibited scatting. Karen Sharp’s trio version of Bye Bye Baby thrust attention onto Alec Dankworth and Steve Brown, the one all fierce concentration, the other all sunny insouciance, both immaculate and inventive throughout a varied and demanding set. Similarly with the Barnes/Newton duo reading of Blues in Thirds, Alan justifying his nomination for clarinet, while Dave was arguably the star turn of the evening, his playing, enhanced by the Concorde’s superb grand piano, moving from witty asides to adventurous flights to thunderous climaxes and always coming back to home base and swinging two-handed piano.

RON SIMPSON

Editor, The Jazz Rag