One thing I love about the Norfolk & Norwich Festival is the sheer diversity of performances that the programme brings each year. Everybody remembers the wonderful free outdoor performances, and the big-name shows at the Theatre Royal, but the smaller venues also provide the chance to see some world-class acts in an intimate and atmospheric setting. Take, for example, Mercury Prize nominated experimental jazz combo Polar Bear, headed up by acclaimed Scottish drummer Sebastian Rochford. Where better to appreciate their infusion of African rhythms, electronic samples, drum and bass, and cool tenor sax? Soft lighting, smoky atmosphere, perfect acoustics, and a maximum capacity that allows everyone a great view. As Louis Balfour would have extolled in The Fast Show's 'Jazz Club', "....Mmmm. Nice!"
The big surprise with tonight's show was the half-hour solo set by Polar Bear's electronic wizard Leafcutter John (real name John Burton). In a masterclass preceded with introductory explanation of how his light-sensitive equipment worked, he explained how it was constructed and tuned to respond to hand-held flashing bicycle lights and torches. We were spellbound as the light wavered over the equipment, and the sounds distorted and soared entirely at the command of his hand movements, although an Apple Mac undoubtedly helped with some of the ambient rhythm. An enjoyable and informative introduction to the evening, and some beautiful ambient sounds.
Polar Bear's set was reassuringly sublime. A perfect fusion of ethnic rhythm, electronic soundtracking, wonderfully smooth saxophones and deft double bass playing produced an aura of trance throughout the assembled audience. Some tapped their feet, some swayed, and some indulged in some strange type of tribal hand gestures, but absolutely everyone was totally immersed in the union of the music and the space.
All introductions and announcements were handles by Rochford, although his voice was so laid back it was a surprise that he didn't fall off his drum stool. Long rambling messages about CD's and embossed leather dogtags for sale ended with an admission that he only had two or three of each on him. An invitation to contribute a message on the typewriter employed for the album artwork is thwarted by a confession that he doesn't actually know where it is.
After raptuous applause the band finally return to the stage for the anticipated encore. Instead, Rochford informs us that they do know another tune, but that he doesn't think that we would gain from it. And with that they are off, leaving me slightly bemused. Genius often displays itself in an eccentric manner.
There is some after-show poetry in the bar for which I hang around, although most of the audience depart, and those that remain seem more interested in their own voices than listening to the prose of guest poets Tom Chilvers and Ralph Dartford. Which is a shame, as they deserved at least the courtesy of being listened to. As is often the case with modern poets, the subject matter is often based on the unfairness of life, and a failure of governments and big business to redress the balance. The spectre of five years of Conservative government obviously plays on a lot of minds in the arts world, but poets seem to take it most to heart. Mind you, what would they have left to write about if Labour ever came to power, and managed to sort out all the world's problems and inequalities? Who knows?
Another brilliant evening at Norwich Arts Centre, and lovely to see some first-time visitors to the venue.
The rest of the programme for the Norfolk & Norwich Festival can be found at http://www.nnfestival.org.uk/
The Norwich Arts Centre has a wide range of events that can be searched at http://norwichartscentre.co.uk/