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Adrian Riley reviews Sarah Moule with the Simon Wallace Trio / Anita Wardell with the Alan Barnes Septet / Henry Lowther and the Greens at Scarborough Jazz Festival

Some might say that jazz has a problem - it doesn't know what to do next. It's a genre of music that has always explored new ideas, often moving faster than some of its audience would like, sometimes resulting in a backlash favouring tradition or seeking to define for once and for all what jazz is. For a music focussed on improvisation and a search for the new there's the irony that it might easily become a heritage industry.

Scarborough Jazz Festival challenges this preconception with some contrasting programming this year: over the weekend musicians very much in the mainstream jazz tradition share the same stage as young groups inspired by contemporary electronica, the headline act is even a classical musician placed with a jazz group.

This makes the festival the ideal place to mull over what makes something 'jazz'? The line, if there is one, is most blurred with vocalists where the repertoire of cabaret, light entertainment and jazz singers can often be identical and where improvisation might not be an obvious element.

If being in touch with the heritage of jazz music is an essential ingredient, then Sarah Moule's set drips with authenticity. Many of the songs today feature lyrics by beat poet & lyricist Fran Landesman all set to music by Moule's husband, Simon Wallace, whose trio provides the backing. And what a trio - piano, bass and drums each eminently listenable in their own right but also generous in giving each other space. The backdrop they provide for Sarah's singing is always just enough, never threatening to swamp her vocals and yet endlessly fascinating, not least drummer Paul Robinson who is constantly inventive and rarely plays the obvious. Together the three musicians blend a sophisticated and fresh soundscape that ebbs and flows according to the needs of the songs.

Of the standards an unannounced 'I've Got You Under My Skin' really demonstrates what a jazz singer can bring to a song. Sung slow and drifting, at times haunted, it seems to freeze time in the venue. But the stand out number is a Landesman-Wallace original: 'Men Who Love Mermaids' - an observation on men who chase unobtainable women - which links smart and sensitive lyrics with a sublime melody, sung in such a way that the song and performance seem inseparable.


Anita Wardell's set celebrates songs by Johnny Mandel, all arranged for septet by Alan Barnes. The four man sax section is announced by Barnes as his three favourite saxophonists (he makes up the fourth man) and it's fun to watch the mutual appreciation that obviously exists between them. Sax solos from all four pepper the songs, adding something new each time, not least Dave O'Higgins whose lyrical phrases are splashed with dangerous sounding accents at times bringing a deliciously unexpected edginess. The arrangements themselves are considered and inventive, always gently swinging whilst at times having the delicacy of chamber music, they would make for good listening even without a vocal on top.

Arranger and singer clearly both realise that good songs don't need too heavy a touch and Anita sings as if gently guiding the melody and words into the right places for that particular moment. What appears to be effortless phrasing belies deep understanding of what makes lyrics and music work together in the moment, and this, aside from a little exuberant scatting, is where the 'jazz' really lies in her singing. A general deftness of touch from the whole ensemble ensures that -as they no doubt intended - it's the songs themselves that remain the stars of this performance.


Henry Lowther is a trumpeter who plays like a vocalist. When he dedicates one tune in the set to recently departed trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, one recognises a common plaintive vocal quality to their playing, despite having quite different styles. Today it's a mix of Lowther originals and standards that the trio of trumpet, piano and bass explore, creating introspective moods that play with the source material in sometimes unexpected ways. Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" is an obvious example of their approach which, in the hands of pianist Barry Green, quickly takes flight so far from its blues origins that, when the final chorus returns it home again, the bluesy piano flourishes come as something of a surprise.

Green constantly offers rich, unexpected chords behind his bandmate's improvisations but the fullness of sound occasionally prompts a desire for a little more space, particularly for Lowther's own solos which are often so enveloped by the backing they seem stifled. When Lowther repeats a joke about a good drummer needing to be very good before being better than no drummer at all, one wonders if he has considered paring it down even more and performing in a just trumpet and bass setting, or even taking his tradition and setting it against something more contemporary and ambient, allowing some mystery to open up his evocative written and improvised compositions.