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Joshua Redman (top), looking super svelte in suit and dicky bow, is in a mischievous mood. “This is where The Beatles are from, right?” he enquires before introducing his quartet to a near-1000 capacity audience at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) theatre. It’s a slightly awkward moment prompting more gasps than laughs, but it passes quickly as Redman’s Still Dreaming quartet hit the gears with a breath-taking, genuinely world-class performance. The band is a tribute to a tribute: the mid-1970/80s Old and New Dreams quartet celebrated Ornette Coleman with a line-up of his band alumni, among them Joshua’s father Dewey. This being their only UK performance, it was a scoop that entirely lived up to its promise. Redman Jr can sometimes come across as a little too slick in his effortless virtuosity and breezy persona, basically lacking that cutting edge. Not tonight though: there was a naked intensity and raw spontaneity about the playing, each band member navigating an inspired route through the open-ended harmonies, deep blues inflections and freed-up instrumental roles of early acoustic-era Ornette on memorable tunes written by the maestro himself, by Redman Sr, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell as well as the band’s originals. Redman and the cornetist Ron Blake‘s phenomenally quick-witted exchanges, the superlative drummer Brian Blade‘s sonically mouth-watering percussive orchestration and bassist Scott Colley‘s biting rhythmic phrasing were just a few of the highlights.

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The festival’s annual Irwin Mitchell mjf originals commission, now in its 20th year, went to the local keyboardist-composer Andy Stamatakis-Brown (above), who took on an intriguingly ambitious concept that drew together two of the city’s most pivotal working-class cultural epochs: the 1990s Madchester dance scene and its status as a pioneering industrialised city, over two centuries earlier. The scene perfectly set in Wellington Mill at a former cotton mill turned warehouse rave party venue near the Etihad, his episodic 80-minute suite ‘Cottonopolis’ (pictured below) connected up Balearic dance and St Germain-ish house with loops of the trance-like rattle of a loom machine sampled from the local Museum of Science and Industry and projected as images onto cotton sheets hanging from the walls. Stamatakis-Brown chucked in some smart-sounding ensemble jazz riffs, and if it was more an exercise in nostalgia than innovation for those old enough to remember, the newest generation of 24 Hour Party People lapped it up.

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Elsewhere, the 2017 #Jazz100 forward-looking centenary campaign that peaked here with a marathon 100 bands in 100 hours, was already in full swing with artistic director Steve Mead’s focus on programming new bands taking place in the main festival square, and for the first time in the charming ambience of the art deco Salon Perdu Spiegeltent. The rain in Manchester might be a well-worn cliché, but it bucketed down nearly all the first week leading to an inevitable drop in attendance and staff morale. The weather though thankfully picked up just previous to the last weekend for a Brexit-bashing Dutch contemporary jazz strand (that had earlier included the highly rated Kaja Draksler) with proggy fusion quartet Even Sanne, led by the Israeli guitarist Eran Har Even and the impressive singer-songwriter Sanne Huijbregts, whose animated folk-jazz scat-inflected vocal could have benefited from a more imposing presence at front-of-stage. One Million Faces Inwardness is a trio led by French percussionist Davy Sur, their subtly dynamic, ambient tone poems on themes selected by the audience interpreted entirely on-the-fly; a ‘Polar Bear’ was artfully illustrated by Polish guitarist Maciek Pysz‘s sliding bass growls and David Amar‘s haunting FX-laden, North African-influenced soprano sax. While the Nordic trio of Medbøe/Eriksen/Halle aurally decorated the towering spires of nearby St Ann’s Church with wistfully improvised mood music, the highly experienced North west chamber duo of Impossible Gentlemen reedsman Iain Dixon and pianist Les Chisnall took a more direct yet exquisite ‘classic’ chamber route in Salon Perdu. The pick of the bunch though was trio Sawa that highlighted the vocals of the Iraqi, London based Alya Al-Sultani and a gripping dialogue between cellist Shirley Smart and German pianist Clemens Christian Poetzsch, drawing passionately on elements from middle-eastern folk, minimalism, improv and classical music. It was a quirkily adventurous genre-mix that’s typical of this most untypical of UK-based jazz festivals.

– Selwyn Harris

– Photos by Matt Ahern (top) and David McLenachan (middle) and EJ Trivett (bottom)

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