This year, we are proud to announce a very special collaboration with Matt & Phreds, as part of the festival. Fancy listening to one of the North West’s most revered 20 piece big bands, whilst tucking into a slice of pizza from a very special brunch menu? Well, now you can as the Tom Sharp Jazz Orchestra’s Big Band Brunch comes to mjf2024! And there may even be chance for you to control the setlist… Read on to learn more about this large jazz ensemble, as we sat down with leader, Tom Sharp, for an exclusive interview.

Even more exciting: for this performance, TSJO invites you to play BIG BAND BINGO with them! Pick a number between 1 and 200 (yes 200) when you arrive, and it will be entered into a draw which aligns that number with a song the band can play. That means YOU get the chance to influence a portion of the band’s setlist; and there’s some pretty fun tunes in that list of 200…

1.) You started life as a rehearsal big band – what does that mean and how did the band transform into one of West Yorkshire’s most in-demand jazz ensembles? 

When I moved to Yorkshire in 2012, it struck me instantly that the students at the Leeds Conservatoire (then the College of Music), University, and other establishments, had ample opportunity to practise the art of big band playing while they were within education, but there was nothing for them as soon as they were ejected out of the system, only a handful of professional-level jazz orchestras whose members were holding onto their seats until they were fired or died. I don’t know why I felt like I should be the person to provide such an opportunity – perhaps coming from the Midlands where such institutions exist more readily and having experience of them, or simply because I had a drive to enlarge my own musical circles – but I invited the few players I knew, they invited the players they knew, and fairly swiftly we had a group of us meeting fortnightly with the sole aim of challenging ourselves with increasingly difficult repertoire. It was baffling to me at the time, as it still is now, why people kept on turning up, but they did, and we found ourselves after a couple of years in command of a pad of tunes that were picked almost because of their esotericism. As to being in-demand, it wasn’t long after that that people began to want to hear them played. Fundamentally, when you set a group up with no intention of it ever performing, the sole focus becomes on the quality of the music, rather than anything else, and, in a somewhat backwards way, this is the group that people want to hear play more than any other!

2.) Any highlights from this past year touring together? 

After recording our upcoming album ‘Daybreak Express’, which functions somewhat as a celebration of the type of music in which the ensemble has specialised for its first decade, we’ve taken some time to focus on some lesser known bodies of work, and engrossing ourselves in the soundworld of a particular composer or arranger for half a year or so. My highlight of the last year was almost certainly performing Johnny Richards’ epic Cuban Fire Suite in its entirety (which is as sweaty as it sounds) replete with bass saxophone, tuba and auxiliary percussion on the hottest day of the year last summer to close an outdoor festival in Leeds.

3.) We know that your band seamlessly blends big band repertoire of the 20th century alongside arrangements from members of the orchestra. Could you tell us what inspires you so much about these classics 

When most people think of big band ‘classics’, their minds drift to Ellington and Basie in the thirties and forties. Personally, the canon on which I was brought up was a slightly later school of arrangers like Bill Holman, Bob Florence and Rob McConnell. These charts all swing, hit hard and fast, and are what the majority of the players in the band would term ‘a roast’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting chops on a pedestal, far from it, but very often the difficulty of these arrangements dissuades most ensembles from bothering with them, so it’s a delight to be able to give them some air time.

4.) And what can audiences expect from those newer arrangements of yours 

We’re blessed to count amongst our personnel past and present some incredibly gifted arrangers. Again, the way the band was formed has something to do with this – when you have an ensemble who meet religiously to do nothing other than rehearse, it provides a perfect opportunity for people not only to workshop large ensemble ideas in the flesh, but also to know exactly for whom they are writing, as opposed to perhaps writing a piece for an ensemble that meets less frequently, or is put together for a specific concert. The outcome of this is that the arrangements can be carefully and especially prepared for the group, and can be workshopped over a longer period. And of course, our members have changed over time – but this just makes the development of these charts all the more fun as time goes on.

5.) What is the best part of leading/playing in such a big band?  

When the band began, as a result of being short of players, and of wanting to direct the sound most easily from within the ensemble, I was playing lead trumpet, and couldn’t take the opportunity to direct the group from without. Consequently (and again, because the majority of our experience is rehearsing in a square where we can all hear one another, rather than on a bandstand where you might all be able to follow a conductor), and perhaps in part because of the fast and hard-swinging repertoire we began life playing, one of our core musical priorities was on developing a good sense of time and ensemble expression without the need to have someone waving their arms. The sense of ownership of the sound that every individual player needs to take, because of this, is enormous, and I am incredibly grateful to all the players in every section who willingly burden themselves with this mantle. As the band grew, I was able to take more of a back seat from playing, which only led me to discover my favourite thing about leading this band – it directs itself! Medical mishaps meant I was unable to be present at the first day of recording our most recent album, but I didn’t even need to be. I have immense confidence and respect for each individual player to take care of themselves, their section, and the sound of the group as a whole – and that very firmly constitutes the ethos of the group.

6.) And, finally, can you give a short phrase to sum up what our audiences might expect from your Matt & Phreds Big Band Brunch featuring, ‘The Tom Sharp Jazz Orchestra

Big. Band. Bingo: YOU CHOOSE THE SETLIST (watch and learn…)

The Tom Sharp Jazz Orchestra will play Matt & Phreds as part of their Big Band Brunch, Sunday 19th May, 12-3PM. Tickets can be found here. Click here to view the rest of our lineup for the festival.

To mark International Women’s Day this year, we sat down with two established and widely respected composer-musicians from the mjf2024 programme, Nikki Iles and Carole Nelson, to celebrate their biggest achievements in the sector and, most vitally, to discuss what it means to them, to be a woman in jazz today. The two also took a moment to share their wisdom obtained from a lengthy and varied career. 

As the UK’s first festival signatory to Keychange, mjf has a long history of gender balance and representation throughout its work: not just in each festival line-up, but in our talent programmes, teams, board, and in our approach to making the jazz sector a fairer place to work and enjoy music. We are proud to programme some of the best contemporary femaleidentifying stars spanning all ages across the jazz industry. View our full lineup here. 

Carole Nelson Trio  

Pianist, Carole Nelson “a rare and undervalued talent” (The Irish Times) will take to the stage at mjf to present her trio’s latest work, ‘The Last Song’. Commissioned by the BAN BAM scheme in Dublin (a development opportunity for female and gender-minority artists from across Ireland),. Nelson and her trio will present the story of the Hawiian Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird, which became extinct in the 1980s.  

Throughout Nelson’s work, she strikes a balance between composed and improvised pieces. When asked about her background, upbringing and musical influences, Nelson noted I grew up in South London and learned piano as a child. I kept up classical music up to the ARCM Performers Diploma but was always more interested in playing by ear, improvising and being creative. In my early 20s I started playing in bands and doing gigs. Back in the late 70s it was a great time for emerging women musicians, and we formed all-female groups and supported each other.  I made a decision to be a musician and do whatever it took to keep body and soul together. So, as well as composing and songwriting, I played for children’s dance classes – my first free improvisations!” 

After a debut performance at the 2015 Dublin Piano Trio Festival, Nelson and her Trio recorded their first album ‘One Day in Winter’, inspired by the South Carlow landscape of Nelson’s home. Her proudest achievement, in jazz? Nelson naturally affirmed It is to have found my own voice as a pianist and composer with the Carole Nelson Trio. We have recorded three albums, with another on the way this year – all since I entered my sixties. In older age I finally found a confidence and ease in myself in performance. I’m also very proud of having a choral piece I wrote included in a publication of women choral composers from the Baroque to the present day. My aim now is to continue creating and performing as long as I can!” 

And, when asked, if she felt there had been a positive change in opportunity for and attitude towards women in the music industry, Nelson went on to divulge that “I do think there is change in the air for women… It hasn’t been easy for women to participate fully for a great number of reasons. I’ll single out the boy’s club atmosphere…I’ve been the only woman in so many bands over the years. There are so many initiatives now to support women and girls in music, far more scrutiny of festival programming, radio air play and any other musical territory where women have long been underrepresented. Initiatives like the Ban Bam award for women jazz composers is a huge support and I hope encouragement for aspiring female creatives.” 

Nikki Iles  

After her enchanting performance with Stan Sulzmann at St Ann’s Church last year, we’re delighted to welcome Nikki Iles back to mjf2024, where she will take the stage, with her 20+ piece orchestra at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). Gathering commissions from over the years, new orchestrations of her own small band tunes and new compositions, the depth and range of her exhilarating writing and arranging will illustrate Iles’ seasoned hand and distinctive voice. 

Much like Nelson, Iles too has always been drawn to the improvised world of jazz, noting that what excites her most about the genre is, The spontaneous nature of improvisation… composition in the moment. Being in the middle of a great feeling of a groove and generating that energy and feeling with others also excites me. I also love the danger of improvisation and the empathy and trust between musicians whilst speaking the same language, musically.” 

When asked of the change in attitudes towards females in the music industry, Iles, confirmed that she felt “Women still remain underrepresented in jazz performance and education and have struggled to get ahead .”  

Hopeful for the future, she went on to say: “This is not because of a lack of female talent. As long as there has been a jazz scene, there have been women trailblazers helping to set the standard for great jazz musicianship. Now, a new generation of jazz teachers are facilitating a space that creates more enthusiasm and encouragement between girls trying to pursue jazz and make it an equal opportunity art form – and they’re gaining ground. I think more opportunities have definitely opened up for women, now that organisations are more accountable and must book a broader profile of artists, which is a good thing. Girls need to see other girls/women succeed in order to envision themselves doing what they want to do.” 

Iles’ has cited her greatest jazz achievement as a dream come true” artist residency with the NDR Big Band in Hamburg that opened up “so many more avenues” for her to tour in Europe. She remarked that it was “A real rollercoaster for me, but so worth it when I finally got to the studio and the music came to life.” She now hopes to encourage the next generation of young female musicians,and left us with a final piece of advice for aspiring artists: If you stay consistently curious and open-minded about all kinds of music and keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities, you’ll grow as a musician your entire life. Practice hard and be great at your instrument. Music has no gender.” 

The Carole Nelson Trio will play the Band on the Wall Bar Stage on Sunday 26 May (free admission, no ticket required) and the Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra will play the RNCM Theatre on Saturday 18 May, 8PM (£22). Tickets and further information about the full mjf lineup can be found here.