SEBASTIAN Rochford was still a schoolboy in Aberdeen when his mother took him to see the saxophonist Andy Sheppard perform there.
“It was the first time I actually got jazz,” Rochford, now 39, recalls from his present home in London. “It gave me a way into that music.”
Next week the drummer returns to his home town in the company of two very different jazz bands – one of them with Sheppard – in Aberdeen Jazz Festival. Not that he’s become a stranger to the place; he was back home for Christmas, he says: “I always love getting back up. There’s something very special about the countryside around Aberdeen, amazing skies.”
For the festival, however, he returns as one of the most highly regarded drummers on the British contemporary scene, leading his own rumbustious outfit, band, Polar Bear, and as a member of Trio Libero, with the aforementioned Sheppard and double-bassist Michel Benita.
The sounds of the two bands couldn’t be more different – Polar Bear with its twin tenor saxes and the intriguingly named Leafcutter John’s guitar and electronics sounding over Rochford’s hard-driving rhythms, with echoes of punk, ska and club beats, while Trio Libero has the kind of spare lyricism one associates with the ECM label that produced its eponymous album.
A quiet-spoken musician whose drumming influences range from Tony Williams to Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, with all manner of contemporary club, dub and grime influences in between, Rochford, who presides over his drums haloed by an immense cloud of hair, is not one to bother overly about labels. “Basically,” he says, “there’s music I like and music I don’t like.”
“I like exploring different sides to music, and to drumming. Polar Bear is all music that I’ve written, and I guess there’s more beat in it, and I have more things going on in my head, thinking about the music. With Trio Libero I’m playing more with space, trying to see how little I can play and still give the music momentum.”
Momentum seems not to be a problem when it comes to Rochford’s schedule, whether recording for club names such as MC Pace or the South African rapper Spoek Mathambo, or playing on the forthcoming album by the Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. He recently issued the last in a year-long series of online singles under the collective title of Days and Nights at the Takeaway (his home and studio are in a converted takeaway shop), with collaborators as diverse as Polar Bear co-members, ambient pioneer Brian Eno and Babyshambles bassist Drew McConnell (see www.thetakeaway.net).
Back in the Granite City, the six-day jazz festival presents a broad gamut of styles, from funk, R&B and soul to straight-ahead big band and cutting-edge contemporary sounds, with venues including the Blue Lamp, the Lemon Tree and the Beach Ballroom. Bill-toppers include Ruby Turner – dynamic vocalist with Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra – bluesman Mud Morganfield – carrying the torch for his legendary father, Muddy Waters – and saxophonist Courtney Pine brings his new band, House of Legends, which celebrates his Caribbean roots.
American fusioneers the Yellowjackets appear at the Music Hall, the German Trio Elf mixes classically accented piano with beats and will collaborate with another returning Aberdonian, guitarist Graeme Stephen, while the Hidden Orchestra throws jazz, hip-hop and electronics into the mix. Scottish names include pianist Brian Kellock playing Fats Waller and Colin Steele playing Miles Davis, and there’s emerging talent in the National Youth Jazz orchestra of Scotland.
Finally, the festival’s Jazz on the Green event returns to the Merchant City area for a second year, on 16 March, featuring some 20 shows in local pubs and cafes and on an outdoor stage.
• Polar Bear play the Blue Lamp on 16 March, Trio Libero the same venue on 17 March. Aberdeen Jazz Festival runs form 12-17 March. See www.aberdeenjazzfestival.com