With a stymied and shifted programme due to ongoing development at Albert Square and the Town Hall, late-May long-weekend Manchester Jazz Festival goers had a shorter timeframe in which to soak up the sounds.

Day two of the annual event saw a laconic lunchtime linger at the St Ann’s Square Stage for Flightless Birds. Each perched atop a stool, the trio dabbled in a range between facially emotionless, afternoon-friendly jazz and fast-paced math rock dexterity.

They were followed on the Acoustic Stage by the contrastingly energetic and expressive Aeon Fitch, who was initially joined by performance poet collaborator, Marco Woolf. Once into the stride of his concept EP and face etched with concentration, Fitch’s percussive arsenal of drum kit and xylophone, samples and loops, endeared an audience lazing on the stage’s pop-up synthetic grass. A hiccup towards the end of his set couldn’t undermine support for his complex electronic-acoustic one-man show.

Into the evening, Manchester-based vocal sculptor Jason Singh lined up alongside an all-star band of Arun Ghosh (clarinet), John Ellis (keys), Alan Keary (bass/cello) and Myke Wilson (drums) for his latest project in the basement at YES. Wearing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Quiet Life Art Shit’, Singh’s breadth of harmonic palette was verified through nuanced whalesong, rattlesnakes and mechanical soundscapes. The more traditional beat-boxing bouts are refrenced, but Singh’s path through music has regularly sought distance from the ordinary. Instead, his hallmark is tunes like ‘Trees’, inspired by leaving a mic in a plant pot to sample its aural response.

While the first half saw some moments of hesitancy in the ranks as timing went awry, the second saw the quintet united in a jazz masterclass. From mellow classical serenity to a mostly captivated crowd, to a charismatic “conversation” between Wilson’s drums and Singh’s microphone and subtle whispers between John Ellis’ acoustic guitar, Ghosh’s clarinet and Singh’s mic once more. Their sense of improvisation in the penultimate flourish was an experience to behold, leading to a widely requested encore of upbeat blues.

Sunday evening saw Leeds-based Mercury nominees Roller Trio opening up at The Bread Shed. Despite it being their first show together in a while, the sax/bass/drums combo showed that class is permanent, by racing into songs from last year’s New Devices album – ‘Decline of Northern Civilisation’ and ‘Milligrammar’ – with unrelenting bombast, before following up with an airier section of solo sax flutters and hints of Philip Glass from their debut, including ‘R-O-R’.

A return to New Devices navigated ‘Nobody Wants to Run the World’ and ‘Mad Dryad’, preceded by an exquisite drum solo to build momentum into the break.

Next up, Werkha ringleader Tom Leah took a seat at his desk of gadgets to launch into their headlining set with sax cuts, percussive frenzies and a slow piano backdrop. “What the fuck’s this guy doing, just hitting samples?” he asked rhetorically after a few minutes. A promise that, “We’re going somewhere…” soon segued into ‘Fall Through the Wall’ and welcomed comrades on keyboards (Fergus McCreadie) and kit (Graham Costello) to add to the fills, rolls and musical tangents, which continued through the Flying Lotus-a-like ‘Highwaves’.

As a trio or duos therein, Leah, McCreadie and Costello were free to take a turn down free jazz street, winding precarious mountain paths that then spiral downhill with brake-free abandon.

Whereas the presence of singer Bryony Jarman-Pinto, whose own LP is set to drop via Tru Thoughts in August, offered a sense of calm for ‘Shakedown Radio’, ‘City Shuffle’ and regular set-closer ‘Sidesteppin’’ by tethering the songs to less free-wheelin’ structures.

Planning has started for MJF 2020, so pencil it in.

Manchester Jazz Festival 2019 took place at various venues across the city from 23-27 May.

manchesterjazz.com

Ian Pennington