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Burton Agnes

Burton Agnes Jazz & Blues Festival, 5-7th July 2013.

Reviewers: David Wright, Paul Spencer, Samuel Barrington.  Photos by David Wright. 

Samuel Barrington - General Introduction, The Lemon Monkeys, Ben Beattie's Jazz Essentials.
 
We arrive early to the grandeur of Burton Agnes Hall which is playing host on a summer’s day to the renowned Burton Agnes Jazz and Blues Festival, now in its 7th year. Organised by the residents of Burton Agnes Hall themselves it offers 3 days of live Jazz and Blues across two stages. There is ample parking and camping available; the car park is well sign posted, with disabled access well-situated, and we are helped out and directed by friendly staff. There's also plenty to see and do in the grounds of this stately home, on top of the festival.  It's a short walk to the hall from our car with our picnic and folding chairs which means we arrive unflustered in the heat to the entrance of these breath-taking grounds and gardens.
In terms of the stages available, the second stage is inside in the Grand Hall, whilst the main stage is set in the idyllic gardens with the hall as a magnificent backdrop to what seemed set to be a fantastic sunny family day.
 
We set up our day’s base next to the water fountain, set in a large pond with water lilies, Greek statues and floating glass balls bobbing up and down in the sunshine, sunbeams bouncing off them causing them to glisten in the cool water. The grass is lush and green as we lay down near the water’s edge, directly facing the professional looking mainstage ahead. Everyone is relaxed on picnic blankets, folding chairs, they are happily sipping chilled wine and the local wold top beer, who have set up a beer tent behind me with a bar and seating. Many festival goers even have full picnic tables out. I instantly fall in love with the whole feel of the event; the atmosphere is perfect for an English summer’s day and I feel at ease with the world. 
 
Nice too, to see a few children running around, predictably they are keen on the water feature and chasing floating twigs. As we settle, there appears to be a friendly vibe, as everyone is keeping an eye on any kids playing near the pond. There is a feel of people looking out for each other. There was no ‘obvious’ uniformed security presence as such until the evening,but there were plenty of people in official blue festival t-shirts on hand to help if it was ever needed. It wasn’t. I have truly never felt more relaxed at an outdoor music event. I don’t think I could have felt more at home in the grounds of my own house. (Had I been born ‘Lord Barrington’, that is).
 
As I look around I notice a tea tent with locally roasted coffee, tea and home baked cakes, pastry and cold soft drinks. The tent has chandeliers and an English tea party theme, which is perfect for the venue.  A food tent serves delicious looking homemade food. The lamb tagine looked and smelled particularly appealing, but we have picnic food waiting in our basket so I head back. On the way I pass a stunning retro ice cream van, a 1963 vintage painstakingly restored over 2 years, I was told. Nice touch and great local ice cream on board too. There are also beautiful and very reasonably priced plants for sale in the courtyard as I nip to the gents, which are the cleanest of any festival I have attended. (Always a bonus. Nothing worse than stinky loos at a festival, or anywhere for that matter!)  I opt for a local wold top beer as I seat myself back down; I love that this festival is so independent and supporting local produce. It means a lot to a Yorkshire Coast bloke like me who is proud of where he comes from, to contribute to the local economy in this way.
 
burton-ground
 
The Lemon Monkeys, a London based jazz guitar duo are taking to the stage as I bite into my first chorizo and salad sandwich (thanks to my lovely wife). Bolivian Carlos Olmos and Londoner Matt Smith complement the summer breeze mood with a mix of soul, funk, jazz and blues. The lack of vocal warms up the atmosphere with the sound of ‘just guitars’. Organisers and staff smile as they pass you and say hello. This festival is for the love of jazz and blues and I am beginning to see why, if this is what crowd this music attracts. They love the ‘I shot the sheriff’ cover and give a big round of applause as the arena starts to fill up. Carlos of the Lemon Monkeys remarks on how he is “really enjoying this,” and so are his audience. He pipes up, “Sorry my mobile just beeped, to remind me I am playing at Burton Agnes Blues festival,” which receives chuckles. 
 
Wandering inside the Grand Hall I catch the end of Ben Beattie and the Jazz Essentials. Their audience are hugely excitable, absolutely engrossed and loving it, a huge contrast to the laid-back chill-out zone outside. This is electrifying alternations of jazz ballads with feel-good music. Saxophonist and pianist Ben is the driving force behind the performance. People are stomping and clapping to the beat. I hear Ben has been compared to Norwegian sax player Jan Garbarek, who I will be making a point to check out some more of on You Tube. 
 
As we are just here for the day I head back out into the sun.  I know our other reviewers have sections on some of the final acts I see, so I'll just say that as far as the Potter Ensemble go, I feel it is a really interesting and unique combination with both the jazz and string quartet. Certainly something I have not experienced before myself.  It actually works really well, especially around their own compositions which really stand out from the rest of the set. 
 
They are followed by the Gwyneth Herbert Quintet which will take us right up to tea time when we will be heading off.  A melodic lyric singing out across the grounds - “You are the Droid we are looking for” - an extract from a famous Star Wars line, confirmed this was no ordinary singer-songwriter.  Accompanying singer and pianist/guitarist in the band, Fiona Bevan co-wrote, with Ed Sheeran, the acoustic-based song ‘Little Things’ for global pop group ‘One Direction’.  Not something that Fiona referred to on stage, but it just shows you that there are many hidden facts to be unearthed at these events.  They constitute my favourite event of those I saw. 
 
Burton Agnes Jazz and Blues Festival really was a hidden gem until now for me, and I will certainly be returning for more next year. I would even recommend it to those who are unsure of their liking for jazz and blues, because it really is a great opportunity in this laid back environment to do experience it at its best. A top day in jazzy, bluesy, festivally stately homeliness.
 
Paul Spencer - Gwyneth Herbert 
 
The Elizabethan Manor of Burton Agnes is serene under an intoxicating blue sky. Though the heavily nostalgic likes of the Kenny Ball tribute will follow, for now the bohemian stylings of singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert represents a more folky departure from the jazz mainstream.

After an exhaustive soundcheck, the band kick off their generous set with a few numbers from their 2009 album 'All the Ghosts'. In tracks such as 'Annie’s Yellow Bag' and 'Perfect Fit', we are introduced to an artist with an ear for a powered-up melody. Clad in a Madonna-style pink stripy top, pleated peach skirt and polka-dotted headband, Herbert plies her trade on piano and ukulele, her voice lustrous, edgy and occasionally soaring.

Though a double bass hovers in the background, there are no jazz standards here, perhaps risking some restlessness from the hardcore jazz crowd; in fact their reception is a warm one. Herbert soon hands us over to fellow songstress Fiona Bevan, who cuts a striking figure with her Valley Girl sunglasses gleaming under a mass of permed blonde curls. Acoustic guitar flashing in the mid afternoon sun, she plays a couple of solo tracks, including one she dedicates to the insomniacs in the audience. Her vocal, though slightly less powerful in comparison, complements Gwyneth's well. We’re soon back with the full lineup, and Gwyneth launches into a live rendition of her entire recent album, 'The Sea Cabinet'.

Despite a whiff of self-indulgence slightly souring the recipe, Herbert must be admired for the strong sense of wild, imaginative storytelling in her music. Evidently written and recorded during a spell on the Suffolk coastline, the theme of the work is said to be a woman who “spends her days obsessively collecting each and every discarded and washed up object she finds and taking them home, cataloguing them with the care and rigour of a scientist.” Her songs are saturated with eccentric sounds. At one point, an amused crowd are called upon to provide hand-claps and finger-clicks to create the “sound of a rainstorm”, to which they gamely capitulate. The band revel in their percussive, decorative sound; there are liberal amounts of strange bird calls, bells, glockenspiel, and whistles. Herbert is often to be found striking tin cans, engaging in 'Deliverance'-style ‘duelling kazoos’ and warbling into the mic in the lulls between verses. Indeed, their nautical theme for the new album would be well suited for a stint at Scarborough Seafest.

The mournful storytelling of 'Alderney' is a standout, chronicling the Nazi occupation of the Channel Island with spells of military bombast on the drums and lush French lyrics, layered with elegiac piano. Both Gwyneth Herbert, and her audience, are beaming as she leaves the stage.

David Wright - The Potter Ensemble, Nick Rooke, A Celebration of Kenny Ball, Rob Law Quintet with Thom Whitworth, Resonance, Trudy Kerr, 24 Pesos, Ben Beattie's Jazz Essentials with Simon Cunliffe-Lister
 
It’s not until I spot the tall red chimneys of Burton Agnes Hall, that I can finally relax.  We are on the right road and haven’t driven past this charming old Elizabethan building; its beautiful grounds the perfect setting for this ever growing three day Jazz and Blues Festival.  As in all good festivals, there’s plenty to see hear and do and I already have a strong feeling this is going to be a festival I will remember fondly and return to year on year. 
 
The Potter Ensemble 
 
The first ensemble I hear on the Saturday turns out to be one of the most unusual. Comprising of drums, piano, bass and guitars, the standard jazz quartet is complimented with an additional string quartet of violins, viola and cello, which adds a quaint and sometimes discordant melodic backing to some of the arrangements.
 
I discover that the sweet soprano sax I heard on entering the site is that of Leo Aarons, who switches effortlessly to tenor sax, as group leader and bassist Paul Baxter enquires whether “there are any dancers in the audience?” 
A group of small children oblige giddily in front of the stage and the throng is enthralled by the infectious Latin American rhythm, which increases in momentum during an exciting piano solo from Rebecca Nash.  The repetition of the rhythm increases in dynamics and the charming string backing transports me to a Cuban dance hall, imagining the atmosphere thick with cigar smoke, cracked peeling paint on the walls and a packed and vibrant dance floor.
 
Some of the sunbathers in the audience are stirred as the ensemble embarks on 'Caravan' by Duke Ellington.  I’m beginning to expect the unexpected from this group and this arrangement is no exception, with its jagged rhythms and impressive dynamic range.  The strings take a breather during the middle section and the jazz quartet are finally released, led by the driving rhythm of drummer Peter Hill. It’s a fantastic contrasting section. Their closing number, 'Elevation Of Love,' is a more subtle jazz waltz, containing some gorgeous, intricate unison melody lines on the double bass and piano that wouldn’t sound of place on an album by renowed jazz bassist Charlie Moffat.  It’s still stuck in my head as I make my way to the Grand Hall stage for an acoustic performance by Nick Rooke. 
 
Nick Rooke  
 
One of the acts representing Beverly Folk Festival, it’s a pleasure to step into the cool hall and this acoustic act turns out to be one of my highlights of the day. Rooke’s heartfelt and sometimes humorous songs instantly connect with the audience - he’s an enthralling story teller and a genuinely great song writer.  This four piece have a Celtic-influenced sound, which at various times comprises of violin, flute, electric bass and guitar. Rooke switches from banjo and makes use of the halls grand old piano during 'Aberdeen', a true to life tale of a guy who ditches his girlfriend before going to college, then regrets it. Apart from the bass, no other amplification is required, his voice soars effortlessly above old framed pictures,  and his piano playing is tasteful and poignant as the song builds.  
 
Some visitors wander in and out during his set, whilst some stop and watch in bemusement, as he sits in his sawn off jeans playing the piano so beautifully. Rumours are that the skull of Katherine (Anne) Griffith, who died in 1620 at the hall, is built into one of the walls and she has haunted the premises at various times since her skull was removed. I couldn't help thinking of this as he played the slightly haunting tale about a lonely guy called Philip, his voice sounding rich and heart-warming on the chorus : "Just a soul, that nobody knows well”.  Also touching is 'Elizabeth', a tribute to his late godmother.  It closes with a jig and is more of a celebration of her life than being musically overly sentimental; the quality of a fine songwriter and something that Rooke achieves naturally throughout his set with catchy, proficiently played banjo and flute lines.
 
I suspect that to a lot of the audience, like myself, Rooke was an unfamiliar name on entering the hall.  An hour later however, I walked back out into the baking heat, feeling that I knew him quite a lot better and look forward to hearing him again and discovering more from these wonderful musicians and Rooke’s down to earth songs. 
 
nick-rooke
 
A Celebration Of Kenny Ball 
 
Many of the audience had been waiting all day to see these fantastic jazzmen and many had to wait nearly an hour longer than expected, as the running order was delayed.  Still, it was a small price to pay on this glorious summer evening, as Keith Ball and the jazzmen (looking like waiters in their crisp white suits) finally arrived onstage. Dixieland jazz may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the jazz waiters delighted the audience, the older members in particular.
 
Their colourful sound is a rousing pick-me-up and one that puts a big smile on my face as I listen to the rasping trombone of John Bennet, one of the original members of the Jazzmen, who founded the band with Kenny Ball 56 years ago. The latter was booked to appear with the band tonight, but sadly passed away in March of this year.  His son Keith Ball may not be the best singer in the word, but his wonderful charisma and cockney character shines through in the old Fats Waller Song 'Ain’t Misbehavin' and during a brave attempt on the Louis Armstrong song 'St James Infirmary'. No pun intended, but Keith is a ball on stage and his love of these musicians is clearly evident.  “This band became my family,” he affirms with affection, and referring to his father, notes that “he wanted me to continue his legacy”.
 
Tonight is certainly a fitting celebration of Kenny Ball and it seems only right that audiences should still have the opportunity to hear these wonderful musicians. Keith leaves the stage during the instrumental 'Dana', which features solos around the band, including the shrill tone of the superb clarinettist Julian Stringle and trumpeter Ben Cummings, who fill in Kenny’s place admirably, with a tone to match. Sporting cool shades, he adds a youthful vigour next to the older musicians and his silent hand gestures towards the sound desk are hilarious.
 
Despite fine piano playing from Hugh Ledigo, who has been with the band for twenty six years, Bach’s 'Toccata in D' with a rock beat comes across sounding  somewhat cheesy, but admittedly is quite funny.  There’s immense chemistry between all the musicians and the trickle of people dancing starts to become a flood during another Louis Armstrong favourite, 'Hello Dolly'.  This is feel good music, played marvellously by astonishing musicians and it’s perfect for a summer evening.  The jazzmen strike up their number seven hit, 'The Green Leaves Of Summer' and the older members of the audience are taken back to their youth and the traditional jazz boom of the sixties. Kenny would surely have approved tonight and one wonders if his spirit was dancing incognito with the ghost of Burton Hall’s Katherine Griffin, as his jazzmen played on. 
 
the-jazzmen
 
Rob Law Quintet With Thom Whitworth
 
Sunday feels even hotter than the Saturday, as I walk into the grounds for the midday start. The funky sound of this young modern quartet bounces off the red stoned walls of Burton Agnes Hall.  Members of the audience slowly drift in and choose their preferred seating area carefully; on the lawn grass in front of the stage, or to the side of the stage beneath the refreshing shade of trees.
 
“He’s so good on two instruments it makes you sick,” laughs pianist Rob Law, as guitarist Thom Whitworth switches to trumpet with apparent effortlessness on 'Manner'.  With Laws on Fender Rhodes piano, it recalls the early instrumental work of Level 42.  The groove develops in intensity, with some inspiring bass playing from Henry Guy, whose slapping would surely meet the approval of Mark King. The most satisfying quality about this quartet is that they don’t overplay their instruments and space is left in their arrangements, with enormous connection between the bass and drums of Sam Gardener in particular.
 
Written by guitarist Pat Matheny, 'When We Were Free' slows the pace as the heat intensifies and Whitworth (now back on guitar) plays Matheny’s melodies convincingly on this dreamy jazz waltz, with a tone which nearly matches.  There is the odd tuning issue here and there, but in this heat, guitars soon misbehave themselves. For these ears, it’s just what the doctor ordered, as he switches onto double bass and creates a different timbre to the quartet’s sound.
 
As I sit on the grass listening to these superb musicians, another mellow number, 'Blackberry Winter', with its affecting piano intro, reminds one of stepping across this same lawn in thick snow as mulled wine is served in the courtyard café at Christmas time. “Every time I play here, I run out of time,” comments Law; but for a set that has contained numbers which I am largely unfamiliar with, time has passed very quickly indeed.  The one I do recognise is the Herbie Hancock arrangement of 'Norwegian Wood'. It’s so much slower than the Beatles' original, but a beautiful arrangement.  The rich tone of the upright bass is almost mournful and taken up by the guitar, as the warm wind breezes through branches of the trees in the nearby wood where some of the audience take solace and reflect in the shade.
 
Resonance 
 
Hailing from London and primarily a rock band with blues influences, this first acoustic session of the afternoon is perhaps one of the more unusual venues Resonance have found themselves playing. 
The trio make a tentative start to their set and it’s no fault of their own.  Whereas Nick Rooke and his ensemble blossomed in this hall without microphones, Resonance initially struggle a little with them.  Drummer Pablo Veliz Pedro uses brushes, but Radhika’s vocals are sometimes lost as the dynamics increase.  
 
The sound settles as the set progresses and I’m enthralled by this three piece; their music shifts from calm to powerful in the blink of an eye and lyrically their songs make you think. 
'Release Me From The Dialogue' is sublime in its acoustic simplicity, as it questions the daily thoughts that sometimes plague all our minds.  Soothing and calming, it would have been lovely to have heard the cello featured on the original recording in this setting, but maybe I’ll hear this again, in another time and another place.  There’s great interplay between Radhika, who also plays acoustic guitar and Carlos Olmos who adds some fastidious textures and colours to the songs, with some thoughtful playing on electric guitar.  
 
Particularly successful is his riff on 'Something I Said' which perhaps borrows a little from The Beatles’ 'Eleanor Rigby', with added harmonics.  When the song suddenly leaps into the chorus, Radhika’s true vocal prowess and power comes to light as the melody grabs hold of you and refuses to let go.  Resonance’s songs draw you in slowly but never outstay their welcome. 
Another favourite in their set was the tender 'Ask It Slowly' which vaguely recalls Everything But The Girl's cover of 'Love Is Strange'.  Radhika is a mesmerizing singer and only ever uses the full power of her voice when necessary, endearing constraint which some X Factors could take guidance from.  
 
It will be interesting to hear Resonance in the future on a full stage and although Radhika announces that the band are looking for an additional guitarist, they seem to be doing pretty well developing as a trio at the moment.  Their debut EP 'If The Fires They Burn Too Bright' was released in November 2012 and is strongly recommended.
 
Trudy Kerr
 
Leaving the busy hall after Resonance’s inspiring set, I rejoin the sun worshippers halfway through Trudy Kerr’s set.  Her long blue dress matches the cloudless sky and she seems to be thoroughly enjoying herself. 
“It’s lovely to be performing in this wonderful setting” she smiles.  Maybe I’ve developed sun stroke, but the audience seems to have increased in size, and they’re loving her cover of 'Alfie'.  
 
“What’s it all about Alfie?”, I don’t really know, but I do know that the final half hour of her set is about fine jazz vocals and a sizzling hot trio of jazz musicians.  Kerr is such a natural jazz vocalist and she makes singing sound so easy.  'Jitterbug Waltz' by Fats Waller is lyrically and vocally challenging, but she makes light work of it.  Her well judged sense of timing and phrasing is also apparent on the Horace Silver number 'Come On Home', with some nimble piano playing from Tom Cawley and an excellent upright bass solo from her husband Geoff Gascoyne, who moves to electric bass on Chick Corea’s 'Spain'. It attracts the attention of an old man who dances happily at the front of the stage.  Children also clap along to the fast Latin shuffle whilst some of the audience dance in their seats, tapping their feet. Kerr’s vocals take on a smokey, husky edge and her scat-improvised singing is impressive.
“Drifts a melody so calm and sweet," sings Kerr during Duke Ellington’s 'In A Sentimental Mood".
 
Her voice calmly and sweetly drifts above the water lilies in the pond as a couple produce a bottle of rosé wine from an ice bucket beside me.  Some of the audience drift off to sleep during Kerr’s set, it's no reflection on her, just a combination of the heat and perhaps one too many glasses of wine or Pimms, it’s that kind of lazy jazzy afternoon.  Perhaps not wishing to leave the crowd too drowsy and to prepare them for the upcoming blues of  the following act, 'Cloudburst' is a winning tune and one hell of a swinging closer.  The crowd roars in approval, Kerr sings very, very fast indeed with perfect diction, it’s almost over before it’s begun. I don’t know how she’s had time to breathe, but it has resuscitated some of the audience. Kerr takes pictures and films the audience from onstage and seems to have had a ball of a time. One suspects she’ll remember her set today as much as her audience did.
 
24 Pesos
 
Curiously, of all the bands that I listened to before attending this event, 24 Pesos were the one that had left me most unexcited.  I downloaded a copy of 'Day Becomes Night' from their album, 'Busted, Broken And Blue'.  The recording had felt cold and sterile and I wasn’t sure if this was the best first impression.  I was right, for as soon as they hit the stage I knew that, performing live, they were going to be a different blues beast altogether.
 
Members of the audience rose from their seats and began to gather at the front of stage after some words of encouragement from guitarist/vocalist Julian Burdock: ”Put your Pimms down and throw some shapes at the front, let it all hang out," he chuckled after the band had ripped open with their only cover, 'Redhouse' by Jimi Hendrix.  I’ve seen many guitarists in my time, but to say Burdock is a virtuoso with a deep understanding of the blues would be an understatement .  'Do The Right Thing', with its greasy riffs and unexpected chord changes, threatened to shake the foundations of Burton Agnes and all those around.  Burdock grappled with his guitar as if it were a wild creature, causing it to scream and wail and make noises I have seldom heard from a guitar before - an intense experience for the performer and crowd. 
 
He also demonstrated amazing control on the slower blues of 'Give Some Blues To Me' and, as on other numbers, an ingenious vocal effort made him sound like Muddy Waters singing on a scratchy old piece of vinyl.  Praise must also go to keyboardist Moz Gamble, whose Hammond solos, like Burdock’s guitar, kept you on the edge of your seat throughout the set.  Perhaps the most exciting keyboardist I have witnessed live since seeing Deep Purple’s Don Airey.
 
Although the entire set was one mighty blues explosion to behold, another unforgettable moment was Burdock’s take on Robert Johnson’s 'Judgment Day'. Switching to a national steel guitar, he enticed onlookers with his technique; his slide playing would no doubt make Sea Sick Steve feel very sick indeed. 
 
In the space of an hour, 24 Pesos became one of my favourite acts on the main stage, indeed the entire festival, and represented the blues at Burton Agnes in the best way possible; a great coup for the festival this year.  It’s no surprise that of all the artists that played, 24 Pesos hung about at the side of the stage for the longest, to sign and sell their cds to newly acquired fans, none of whom seemed to have the blues after witnessing this high octane performance.
 
24-pesos
  
 
Ben Beattie’s Jazz Essentials plus Simon Cuncliffe-Lister/Closing Notes
 
The final act of the day and quiet calm descended on Burton Agnes after the electrifying set from 24 Pesos and news spreading around the site that Murray had finally won the men’s finals at Wimbledon. It was fitting that the festival finished with local musicians, featuring the Beattie Brothers.  Their light hearted set began with a French tinge. 'Les Etoiles', recently covered by Melody Gardot, featured  some burlesque and breathy vocals.  The female vocalist remains a mystery to me, it’s just a shame she didn’t reappear during their set; with the programme already running late, perhaps there wasn’t an opportunity.
 
“It’s nice to see the festival grow," smiled festival organiser Simon Cuncliffe-Lister as he appeared onstage with a saxophone and blew along on 'I Wish I Knew How' by Billy Taylor, once made famous by its use as the theme on Barry Norman’s film show.  A relaxed swing vibe on 'Ain't Misbehavin' showcased some nice alto and trumpet solos, as some of the crowd began to drift out of the grounds.  Another crowd-pleaser included 'Yakety Sax' - the theme tune from Benny Hill.  Thankfully his milk cart and scantily clad ladies in bikinis weren’t spotted running in-between the landscaped bushes.  
 
Horace Silver’s 'Song For My Father' featured some great ensemble playing and an exciting electric piano solo, backed by tight drums and bass.  On a deadline to return a borrowed car, I left the festival as I had begun, walking back down the sunny lane past the church, as the warm breeze carried the band’s final number, 'Pick Up The Pieces' by The Average White Band.  A great tune covered by a more than average ensemble, a perfect end to this glorious festival of jazz and blues.
 
 

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