Festival review: Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Photo © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Various venues, Cheltenham UK

One of the great things about a festival like Cheltenham is that it gives both us, the great British jazz fans, and the great British jazz musicians, who we get to hear the rest of the year, a chance to place British jazz in an international context. How are developments in British jazz measuring up against those in the US or in other countries in Europe? And how are the ideas in one country affecting those in another? The fans get to hear stuff they might not otherwise come across; the musicians get to form new alliances, maybe even rethink what they are doing and develop in new and exciting ways.

Physically, the big change at Cheltenham this year was the absence of the Everyman Theatre as a venue. So, I restricted my visit mainly to the Town Hall itself and its two rooms.

The small Pillar Room has built a much-deserved reputation for strong performances in intimate surroundings. It is also where some of the more challenging music can be explored.

The US trio Fly had quickly sold out the room and drummer Jeff Ballard paid gallant tribute to the energy of the audience (excitement and anticipation was what fuelled it) but this was not a band that needed energising from outside. Ballard brings such a great groove to even the most complex arrangements – and Fly, in keeping with many of the new bands, likes to change time and feel frequently, covering a number of different grooves and feels within one piece. Larry Grenadier is an extraordinarily fluent bass player, getting all over the instrument, and a real master of adding lithe glissandi into his precise note placings.

And what can one say about saxophonist Mark Turner? Clearly one of the really distinctive and fresh voices on his instrument over the last decade, one really gets the impression his time in the spotlight has come. His evergreen composition Dharma Days was a stand-out of this absorbing and thrilling concert, and his sound and style have the kind of unmistakeable character that can only come with intense focus and the determined following of a very specific path. Clearly a Warne Marsh fan, he also reminds me, not so much in his tone or style, but in his distinctiveness and very specific mood, of Wayne Shorter.

Fly’s music can feel at little intellectual to the uninitiated, but its performance was something of a master class in how to bring fresh ideas and three distinctive musical personalities into play in a jazz conversation. And if you couldn’t get to hear them at Cheltenham, you don’t need to miss out. Fly are at the Adrian Boult Hall in Birmingham tomorrow night.

On the surface more conventional, but for me the Festival highlight, albeit of the limited gigs I was able to attend, was the Sunday lunchtime performance in the main hall of Carla Bley’s Lost Chords with Paolo Fresu. Pianist Bley is a composer who mixes head and heart in just perfectly, and her band – Steve Swallow on bass, Billy Drummond on drums, Andy Sheppard on saxophone along with trumpeter Fresu – know just how to get the most out of it. Fresu was especially fine, but this band is also about the sum of its superb parts.

The way the band subtly built behind each solo, the way Bley has incorporated the improvisational spaces into her compositions, the nuance each player is able to achieve, and most important of all, the gorgeous group sound the band has – all made this a pinnacle of music-making, irrespective of genre.

The Anglo-Norwegian group Food had brought an electrifying brand of new European jazz to the Pillar Room on Saturday. Some thought it inappropriately dominated by guest guitarist Christian Fennesz, but what is a festival is there can’t be some risky experimentation. The subtle art Thomas Stronen brought to the proceedings as he manipulated drums and live electronics certainly enriched my afternoon. It’s also great to hear a band really incorporating the latest technology into their music and still maintaining its strong natural character.

The double bass master Dave Holland shone in a new light as he played flamenco with the band of Pepe Habichuela. The music was, naturally, full of fire and passion, and beautifully played, but the real thrill for me was hearing the way in which Holland engaged so thoroughly with it, and seeing how thoroughly he was enjoying challenging himself.

The only gig I was able to get to in the new venue, the Jazz Arena (a smart marquee in the Festival Gardens) was Farmers Market, the madcap melange of Bulgarian folk music, pop, and soul, and jazz fusion conjured up by multi-instrumentalist leader Stian Carstensen and his cohorts. Carstensen has a Zappa-ish attitude to music, alighting like  a magpie in whatever genre takes his fancy, and then subverting it from the inside. Ferry Cross The Mersey sung in what I assume was Norwegian has never sounded better.

The festival’s attempt to create a more focussed feel in the Imperial Gardens behind the Town Hall was somewhat sabotaged by the English weather, but in time, and in sunshine, it should work. But a tent like the Jazz Arena will never really replace the hallowed jazz concert ground that the Everyman had become.

Categories: Live review

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