Burton Agnes Jazz & Blues Festival

Venue: Burton Agnes Hall
Town: East Yorkshire
Dates: 3-5/7/15
Website: http://www.burtonagnes.com

The Burton Agnes Jazz and Blues Festival is in good hands. Put together by Simon Cunliffe-Lister, who manages this magnificent Elizabethan pile in the middle of the glorious East Yorkshire countryside, this is a very English festival.

Nestled among the carefully manicured topiary and stately ponds, the festival kicked off on the Friday night, with Octopus - a talented eight-piece band who ran through a range of big band classics. They were followed by A Dread Supreme who blended American, British and Jamaican jazz. Quite a cocktail.

One of the features of this festival is the tie-up it has with Beverley Folk Festival. This sees musicians who are neither jazz nor blues inclined appearing in the Bar Tent in the later hours. On Friday it was Nick Rooke and Paul Blackburn who entertained with their brand of Irish/American folk. They were followed by Cadenas Vivaz, a lively Latin soul party band who kept the party going.

There was a full programme on Saturday - with performances on the main open air stage, in the Great Hall, the courtyard, and the Bar Tent.

There was a distinct jazz flavour to the line-up with only a smattering of blues to be found. That said, the acts who appeared on the main stage were top class.

The weather was on the cool side as the John Ellis Trio opened up in front of a growing audience, most sitting in a camping chairs with their picnics all carefully prepared.

I really enjoyed the John Ellis Trio, who played for around ninety minutes. They were never too fussy and most of their tunes were accessible.

Sam McKieOver in the Great Hall, which as the name suggests is rather grand, I managed to catch Saffron Byass, a Hull-based singer songwriter who played a lovely set of originals and covers on guitar and piano. Playing acoustically, it was an intimate performance which perfectly captured the festival spirit. Highlights included an excellent version of The Eurythmics' There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart) and Elton John's Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me.

Back on the main stage we had the Mahakasyapa Ensemble who performed a piece written specifically for the festival - Meditations on Burton Agnes. The music was expertly played but far too intense for me. Not really my cup of tea, but was appreciated by the growing crowd on the lawn.

This would be one of my criticisms of this fine festival - the main stage slots were ample at 90 minutes - which is fine is you like what is being played but a bit of downer if you don't.

That said, there was plenty of other activities around the festival, the Tea Tent was doing a roaring trade as was the ice cream van as the sun beat down.

Back in the Great Hall, I managed to catch a good chunk of Martin Peirson's set. Martin , who plays guitar with Henry Priestman, appeared with Peter Robinson on fretless bass. It was a set of enjoyable original songs, with the bass bringing the songs to life.

Later I caught a couple of sings from another artist who was appearing in association with Beverley, Sam McKie played original songs on guitar and had a decent audience. It was great to see young performers like Sam, being given a platform to perform.

A quartet from Newcastle were next on the main stage, The Slowlight Quartet were magnificent. Their brand of original contemporary jazz caught the mood perfectly, with some scorching sax.

What were the chances, with all this jazz, of a Beatles classic being covered not once, but twice? Norwegian Wood was given the jazz treatment by the Slowlight Quartet after earlier popping up in John Ellis's set. And quite superb it was too.

The Quartet comprises Paul Loraine (keyboards), Jonathan Marriott (drums), Ian Paterson (bass) and Tom Quilliam (saxophone). They have been working on their own brand of modern jazz, which has now emerged from a combined passion for great melodies, catchy chords and exciting rhythms.

Long queues formed after their magical set and they did brisk business with their live CD, recorded at Manchester Jazz Festival and their studio EP, In Flight.

As the swallows swooped overhead and youngsters danced to the music in front of the stage, singer Val Wiseman - twice winner of 'best singer' in the British Jazz Awards - took us through the life of Billie Holiday.

The Lady Sings the Blues set featured stalwarts from the British jazz scene, including Alan Barnes and Digby Fairweather. And this band could seriously swing!

And while there was no faulting the superb musicianship, it did at times felt like a cruise cabaret act.

The main act on Saturday night was Jo Harman and Company. First of all, a confession. I saw Jo a few years ago at another festival and was disappointed. Perhaps I'm hard to please.

But she came to Burton Agnes on the back of four nominations in the British Blues Awards last year, winning the female vocalist award.

She has obviously been working hard. From the moment she stepped on stage in an all-white outfit she was on fire.

Her powerful soulful voice was backed a white-hot band. On keyboards was Steve Watts, voted best keyboard players in the 2014 British Blues Awards. On guitar, we had Chris Newland, who is my kind of guitarist - lyrical, funky, and plays only when he needs to play.

Jo worked the crowd extremely well and by the end of storming set they were up and dancing and demand - and getting - a deserved encore.

Jo covered songs from her debut album Dirt on My Tongue and some superb covers. Cloudy by the Average White Band was stunning, with superb guitar.

And boy can this girl sing. Her powerful, confident vocals were tremendous, very soulful.

Ain't No Love In The Heart of The City was another stand-out moment with superb vocals.

And while it wasn't full-on blues, no-one seemed to care. This was a fantastic show.

The band moved up a couple of notches to really rock out. I Can't Stand the Rain was truly funky and there was time for a new song, Lend Me Your Love, a slow burner that sounded great.

It was a triumphant performance from Jo and her band, and I for one can't wait to see them again!

Sunday saw main stage performances by The Rob Law Quintet, Nicola Farnon, the New York Brass Band and, to wrap up the festival, Ben Beattie's After Midnight Band plus Simon Cunliffe-Lister on sax.

Yes, this is a wonderful English festival.

John Knighton

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Jo Harman and Company - Underneath The River


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