Jazz’s natural habitat is usually that of a subterranean club, back bar, cosy club or high-end concert hall, but rarely a field in the middle of the countryside. So it was with some relief, not least from the organisers, that the first Love Supreme festival last year was blessed with both exceptional weather and an equally warm reception from the 15,000 or so punters who supported its first run. With numbers 50% up this year, the inaugural run inspired far more to attend this time around and, like any festival worth its salt, Love Supreme proved its all-weather-worthiness too, shaking off some rain to eventually bask in hot sunshine.
The intelligently selected line-up’s canny mix of mainstream names such as Laura Mvula, Soul II Soul, Incognito and Jamie Cullum, once again reached out to the wider public, yet encircled these softer options with the cream of the current UK and US jazz artists performing all day and night in the Ronnie Scott’s Big Top and Arena tents. So while the core jazz audience could enjoy the edgy sounds of Polar Bear, Laura Jurd Quartet and Mammal Hands, less specialist listeners were able to discover something outside the main stage comfort zone too. To emphasise the event’s growing sense of confidence, the small garrison-like Matua Sessions Stage brought some of that fabled jazz club ambience to this idyllic greenfield setting, with its blend of cool jazz, funk and crossover jazz sounds on the Saturday and blues and rock on the Sunday.
Readers of this magazine were extremely well catered for too, as a slew of top-notch bassists either filled the ranks of the massed bands, or indeed led them across a wide spectrum of styles. The first of these to draw musical blood was Snarky Puppy – the US 10-piece fusion funksters – who, thanks to their complex yet catchy instrumental approach, continue to win a global following that would be the envy of most modern pop or rock bands. Having wowed the inaugural Love Supreme fest with a blasting set in the Big Top last year, they brought their über-hip Brooklyn sounds to the main stage this year, opening with their now anthemic tune ‘Thing Of Gold’. Bandleader and bassist Michael League has the knack of weaving together slippery bass-lines that move the booty as much as the brain. In a band full of potential stars, it was perhaps apt that League’s British keyboard wingman Bill Laurance – a fellow founding member of the 10-year-old band – was seated at the front of the stage, offering his classically-informed solos a chance to shine but also to deliver a tune from his recently-issued debut solo album, Flint. The tune in question, ‘Ready Wednesday’, is an urgent slab of Latin-infected funk-house that has League’s bass-lines leaping all over the shop. Elsewhere it was the powerful Arabic-rock of ‘Shofukan’ that had the crowd singing their hearts out.
An interesting sound clash began to boil up late on Saturday afternoon between the Arena and Big Top, as two left-field crews wound up their contrasting styles. In the US corner was bassist Derrick Hodge, best known as a long-serving sideman to Grammy-winning piano star Robert Glasper, but who is now emerging as a solo artist with his own electro-fusion quartet. In the UK corner, further down the field, were mad jazz moshers Melt Yourself Down, the latest band to be fronted by sax terroriser Pete Wareham, of Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear fame. Joined here by fellow sax don Shabaka Hutchings, their molten mix of post-Pigbag sax riffs, global grooves and punk-funk bass-lines – authoritatively served up by BGM writer Ruth Goller – this band are reaching the parts Wareham’s now defunct Acoustic Ladyland failed to reach. It’s hot, sweaty stuff offering, a welcome blast of power riffing in place of more considered stuff – perfect if you’re in the mood.
Hodge, meanwhile, proved that the slow burn can be as effective, as he wound up a set heavy on lead bass in a slightly more hip-hop fusion take on what a certain Mr Thundercat is doing right now. Hodge utilised some heavily phased and distorted sounds to cut through the layers of synths and sub bass, with some exceptional drumming from Mike Mitchell offering a dazzling rhythmic dimension to his heady sound world.
If UK and US bass players had been representing the fusion and rock-edged side of contemporary jazz so far, then it was the turn of Danish bass don Jasper Høiby and his unstoppable trio Phronesis to prove that more Eurocentric sounds can be just as intense. Joined by his two long-standing compadres – English pianist Ivo Neame and Swedish-Norwegian drummer Anton Eger – the acoustic power trio dug deep into rhythmically charged material from their latest album, Life To Everything. Høiby’s darting bass-lines often form the core of each tune, yet it’s the trio’s innate chemistry and near-telepathic interplay that make them so special as complex time signatures are devoured with breathtaking abandon. With the lightning reflexes of Eger’s beats chasing down Neame’s solo flights, Jasper hits the bass jugular with surgical precision. The feverish shouts for an encore left the band a little speechless, but it was well deserved.
If this wasn’t enough for bass lovers, the Love Supreme festival then featured former Miles Davis bass legend Dave Holland and his band Prism – who delivered a mesmerising set in the Big Top. Having been on the road for the last year, and with one self-titled album to their name, this is a super-charged four-piece hitting their stride, with three other big hitters from the New York jazz scene joining Holland. While Prism at times recalls the scorching improv-fuelled jazz-rock of Miles’ Bitches Brew, on which Holland famously played, there’s a heavy blues quota to the band’s sound too.
Sunday’s line-up pulled no punches either, as charismatic US bass boss Christian McBride and his modern jazz piano trio put on a show worthy of their penultimate billing in the Big Top, before soul-jazz vocal colossus Gregory Porter headlined the venue with a rip-roaring set played out to a now-overflowing tent.
With most mainstream festivals, including the once oh-so-alternative Glastonbury, shunning the vibrancy of today’s jazz, soul, funk and fusion scene with scarcely a jazz-related name included on their bills, Love Supreme is proof positive that this music has both depth of talent – and serious pulling power.