This year’s Liverpool International Jazz Festival concluded with two superb sell-out concerts.  On Saturday evening Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman showcased songs from their duet album, Song: The Ballad Book, and on Sunday Andy Sheppard brought Bristol Hotel, his quartet of Bristol-based musicians to close the Festival.For the Saturday show Courtney Pine, who is to say the least not a man of small stature, hefted on to the stage an instrument that almost outsized him: a bass clarinet. It’s a big instrument that covers the range of all the saxes from soprano down to baritone, but is fiendishly difficult to play: you must shift a humongous column of air to coax sounds from it. It’s so big it has a metal spike to stand it upon. If you can manage it, though, you are rewarded with a range of sounds and tone from earthy low-register purrs to thrilling cascades of notes at the top end.

The bass clarinet came to the fore during on the Europa album and tour, then on Song, the album of ballads he recorded last year with pianist Zoe Rahman, Courtney demonstrated his mastery of what, for the moment at least, seems to have become Courtney’s instrument of choice. The duo produced an album whose mood was lyrical and reflective, a beautiful conversation between Zoe’s virtuoso piano chords and the mellow sound of the bass clarinet.

Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman in the BBC Radio 3 studio
Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman in the BBC Radio 3 studio

And that is what we got in Saturday evening’s concert – though at first it seemed that we were in for an evening of Pine pyrotechnics. There’s a very short track on the CD – barely half a minute – called B Intro which takes the form of a brief and fierce cannonade of notes. I think that’s how Courtney began – but extending the workout over ten minutes or so.

He sat to play at first, with the clarinet’s spike resting on the floor. But soon he was on his feet, driving the music into abstract sonic patterns, Coltrane-like squalls of notes and sheets of sound, culminating in one of his renowned circular breathing workouts.  As an introduction it enabled Pine to demonstrate both the remarkable range of the bass clarinet – and, of course, his own formidable technique. All the while, Zoe Rahman was pushed into the shade a bit, complementing Pine’s wild odysseys with steady, stately piano chords.


After that, things settled down and we were treated to a more mellow and equal musical partnership which explored some of the lovely ballads from the album, including Sam Rivers’ ‘Beatrice’, Thad Jones’ ‘A Child Is Born’, Ellington’s ‘Come Sunday’, and a gorgeous take on ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ which opened with Courtney coaxing bird-like twittering from his instrument. Other highlights were ‘Amazing Grace’, the spiritual ‘Let My People Go’, and the only original on the album, Pine’s ‘Song’ (which sounds like an old standard).

Throughout, Zoe Rahman’s piano wove its magic with some inventive, virtuoso solo opportunities. The final number was sprinkled with tantalisingly brief quotes by Pine that ranged from ‘Morning Has Broken’ to ‘There’s No Place Like Home’. Then Courtney decided to scrap the usual encore ritual, asking us to imagine that he and Zoe had walked off and then returned to play a lovely interpretation of ‘A Child Is Born’.

It was a great evening, a celebration of timeless songs. I’ve never seen the Capstone so packed – deservedly.

A few days earlier Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman played ‘A Child is Born’ during a session for BBC Radio 3’s In Tune:

Here’s another YouTube clip of the duo playing ‘Amazing Grace’:

And this is the pair performing tracks from Song: The Ballad Book in Nottingham in 2015

We were back in the Capstone on Sunday evening for the closing concert by Andy Sheppard who appeared, not with his current ECM quartet, but with Hotel Bristol, a band that he formed in 2014 so as to have a Bristol based band to take to the Tbilisi International Jazz Festival in Georgia as part of an exchange programme with Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival. As well as Sheppard on saxophone, the band comprised Denny Illet on guitar, Percy Pursglove on double bass and trumpet (!), and Mark Whitlam on drums.

Andy Sheppard
Andy Sheppard

They gave us an evening of great music, ranging from moments of quiet lyricism to passages of dexterous interplay between the four musicians, and compositions that evoked the wit and sense of fun of the Lost Chords albums that Sheppard has recorded with Carla Bley.

I don’t think any of the numbers the group played have been recorded yet: in an interview Andy has said that for the Tbilisi gig he wrote an hours worth of music specially for the band. Some numbers were introduced by Andy with his characteristically dry humour, so I did catch a few titles. Commenting on a tune that began at a whisper and continued at the slowest tempo imaginable, he said that was why it was called ‘Forever and A Day’. Another number began with him chanting ‘Du Du’, and that turned out to be what it was called – a piece built around a repeated pattern that inspired variations of growing complexity from each of the musicians.

On two or three numbers Percy Pursglove, the man that Sheppard had described in his introductions as ‘our secret weapon’, lean on his double bass and, supporting it with his left arm, picked up his trumpet with his right hand to engage in a wonderful exchange with Sheppard’s sax.

While one tune was titled pretty straightforwardly ‘A Walk in The Park’, another  was introduced by Andy as ‘Rubbernecking Solid Jackson’. What the Solid Jackson  bit was about remains a mystery, though at one point the musicians stopped playing in order to do a bit of rubbernecking. Another tune – I think called ‘Smut’ – turned out to be inspired by one of Andy’s favourite writers, Alan Bennett.

This was an entertaining and highly enjoyable evening of joyous music, performed by a quartet of musicians on top form. I can’t wait for the album. In the meantime, here’s twenty minutes from that Tbilisi gig:

On Friday Andy Sheppard will be back in Liverpool – this time with Joanna MacGregor, the pianist with whom he recorded the brilliant album Deep River.  They have created a new live score for Sunrise, F.W. Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece of silent film. I’ll be there.

See also

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