Music interview: Glasgow Jazz Festival director Jill Rodger on her unusual programming methods

Rebecca Vasmant, Seonaid Aitken (with violin) and Tam Gallagher at the launch of the 2018 Glasgow Jazz Festival
Rebecca Vasmant, Seonaid Aitken (with violin) and Tam Gallagher at the launch of the 2018 Glasgow Jazz Festival
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Glasgow Jazz Festival director Jill Rodger may take an idiosyncratic approach when it comes to programming, but if the diversity of this year’s event, which opens on Wednesday, is anything to go by, her method seems highly effective. Acts skip blithely across genres and sub-genres, from former Bombay Bicycle Club singer Mr Jukes tapping into his inner jazz man to what promises to be a heartfelt and musically riveting concert in memory of the late, great Scots saxophonist Bobby Wellins.

The question of programming arises as we’re talking about the festival signing up for the Keychange project, a European initiative encouraging festivals to achieve a 50-50 gender balance by 2022.

In fact, as Rodger points out, the Glasgow event is more or less there already: “I think it should happen organically anyway, and it does with us. Last year I think we were 47 per cent female in the programme, this year we’re at 48 per cent, and of course we have a 75 per cent female team here.”

Which brings us round to what she describes as her “Blue Peter-ish” programming technique: “I actually programme quite visually. In front of me is a wall and I put colour photos of musicians on it. I make sure the pictures are of them with their instruments so I can say, ‘Oh no, I’ve programmed 20 guitarists, that’s not going to work.’

“That’s how I’ve done it for the last ten years. It uses a lot of toner ink in my printer, but it works.”

Rodger has certainly come up with an impressively diverse programme this year. There are plenty of women, too, and not just in the vocal role with which females tend to be identified in jazz, with instrumentalists including “psychedelic Arabic jazz” trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, award-winning young saxophonist Helena Kay, harpist Alina Bzhezhinska celebrating the music of Alice Coltrane and singer and swing violinist Seonaid Aitken leading her Rose Room Orchestra Fantastique with saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski and the Capella String Quartet.

Also aimed at demolishing stereotypes, bassist Emma Smith’s Bitches Brew project will feature saxophonist Rachel Cohen, Smith’s own Kikazaru improvising ensemble and singer-producer Alya Al-Sultani’s Collective X.

Singer Ian Shaw will perform from his open-hearted album Shine Sister Shine, while vocalist and broadcaster Claire Martin joins guitarist Jim Mullen to commemorate Wes Montgomery, who died 50 years ago. Contemporary Indo-jazz fusion clarinettist Arun Ghosh performs his wryly titled album, But Where Are You Really From? while Dinosaur features trumpeter Laura Jurd and, from Benin, the indomitable Orchestre Poly-Rythmo appear with DJ Nick Peacock.

High-profile acts include Mr Jukes at the Old Fruitmarket and smooth soul-jazz star George Benson at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, while Georgie Fame also takes the Fruitmarket stage with his Family Trio, supported by two rising young Scots artists, vocalist Luca Manning and pianist Fergus McCreadie.

Further high-calibre home-grown performers include the eclectic young outfit Mezcla performing a one-off collaboration with visual artist Jamie Johnson at Stereo, while the next generation competes for the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year title.

The winner of that competition in 2015, saxophonist Helena Kay, will be rushing from her Saturday night gig at the Blue Arrow to the Drygate for what should be a memorable tribute to the late Bobby Wellins. It will be fronted by Scottish National Jazz Orchestra trumpeter Tom MacNiven – who recorded the album Guess What with Wellins 20 years ago – and guitarist Nigel Clark, and will be preceded by a screening of the documentary Dreams Are Free about Bobby. His widow and daughter will also attend.

Kay’s presence is appropriate, explains Rodger, as Wellins was one of the judges at that 2015 competition. “Bobby raved about Helena’s playing and I thought she would make a nice addition to the bill. So there will be a taxi waiting to bring her down to the Drygate for the last couple of numbers.”

The Glasgow Jazz Festival runs from 20-24 June, for more details, visit www.jazzfest.co.uk