INTERVIEW: Newcastle Festival Of Jazz & Improvised Music | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Taupe

Festivals at all levels have obviously had a rough couple of years – some have been lost, others greatly diminished – and you have to tip your hat to those that are still doing things right. Like the Newcastle Festival Of Jazz & Improvised Music: born in 2017, there was a lockdown hiatus in 2020 (although this was an opportunity to set up a record label) and a necessarily slimmed down and UK-centric iteration last year. Producer Wesley Stephenson is the first to admit it’s been tough. “It’s hard at the moment, given the unpredictability of audiences and finance, but it’s always been hard since I started this line of work, so in some respects not much has changed, we remain resilient. You have to just improvise with the situation as it presents itself, do your very best, and what needs to transpire will inevitably do so.”

This year the festival is back to full strength and running across two weekends – the ‘warm-up’ weekend from Friday 23rd-Sunday 25th September and then the main event on the weekend following. The warm-up shows are shifting from the festival’s traditional base at The Lit & Phil up to Jesmond, with an evening in St George’s Church and then two in Bobik’s.

There are dozens of artists appearing across the two weekends, so I wondered if there was an organising ethos behind the bookings. “It’s all pretty much intuition,” Stephenson explains. “I tend to put a few artists I’m especially passionate about in place and then just start to build the events around them, the festival tells me what it wants to be, it’s probably more an oblique strategy than anything else.”

it’s always been hard since I started this line of work, so in some respects not much has changed, we remain resilient

Stephenson is particularly pleased to have booked artist, academic and activist Nicole Mitchell. “I think having Nicole Mitchell at the festival is the unmissable opportunity for audiences, the former first woman president of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). It’s deliberately positioning a brilliant creator within the wider context of the festival, to communicate the lineage of jazz and improvised music artistically, conceptually and geographically.” Mitchell will play twice – solo (Friday 30th) on a bill that also includes Emanuele Maniscalco, Francesco Bigoni and Mark Solborg playing as a trio and a quartet including Binker Golding, Alexander Hawkins, John Pope and Paul Hession, and then in a duo with Alexander Hawkins (Saturday 1st October).

It’s tough picking highlights from a programme this strong but the performance at St George’s Church on Friday 23rd sounds intriguing: Pendulums: Music for Bellringers, Improvisers & Electronics sees seven artists, live visuals and some local bellringers creating something very special. The following night at Bobik’s has a strong local showing – the magnificent Archipelago joined by improvising guitarist SA Malley (Crane, The Unit AMA) and Glasgow’s excellent Taupe. Thursday 29th sees a strong bill headed up by Anthropology, an eight-piece collective featuring absolute legends Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas (both of whom appear in other guises across the weekend, including as Black Top with our very own Mariam Rezaei on Saturday 1st October). There are so many more great artists appearing solo or in combination – Pete Wareham, Binker Golding, Dilutey Juice, Farida Amadou and Leafcutter John, to name just five – so check out the online digital programme for the full rundown.

The Newcastle Festival Of Jazz & Improvised Music takes place from Friday 23rd-Sunday 25th September and Thursday 29th September–Sunday 2nd October.

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