Jazz Arena and Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Cheltenham UK
My day at Cheltenham wasn’t meant to begin this way. I had intended to see the French big band, Surnatural Orchestra, but was unable to get a ticket (my own fault for leaving it so late) but the alternative made for a strikingly contrasting couple of early Sunday gigs.
I realise this is only one way of looking at those contrasts, but I’ll go with it and see where it leads. Let’s view them as examples of what inspires young men and women these days (and please forgive me in advance for the ridiculous gender stereotyping that follows).
Natalie Williams operates in the vector where jazz overlaps with soul, R ‘n’ B and singer/songwriting, and she based her Jazz Arena performance on the original compositions which fill her recent album Where You Are. They are strongly constructed songs, with nicely developed moods building from verse to chorus with some middle eights along the way. The melodies were hooky on the album and though I haven’t heard them for a while they flood back in performance.
The band was tight, comprising sometime writing partner Robin Mullarkey on bass with James Maddren on drums, Phil Peskett on piano (and whistling), and Al Cherry on guitar. They all contributed backing vocals too.
Williams has a hugely adaptable voice. I’m not sure how much backing singing she has done, but she does remind me a little of that most celebrated of singers who once was “20 feet from stardom”, to quote that documentary film: Luther Vandross. Like him she has great range (with a particularly luscious, chocolatey timbre low down) but also the ability to vary her tone to match the moment, making it either strongly characterful or relatively transparent, whichever suits. (To extend the Vandross, comparison, I’d love to hear her sing some Bacharach/David).
Although the two covers were pleasant – Jobim’s Waters Of March and Lennon’s Jealous Guy – it was the original songs that stood out. They centre on the classic subjects of romantic song, the joys and tribulations of falling in and out of love, and the complications of relationships between human beings in general. Natalie’s tribute to her grandmother, the title song of Where You Are, was particularly affecting.
So, if that’s the kind of stuff that inspired this young woman’s music, what drives the young men?
In Bed With is the result of the Anglo-French JazzShuttle project which puts together musicians divided by the Channel to see what emerges. So French drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq and French guitarist Julien Desprez found common purpose with British keyboardist Kit Downes.
The titles are jokey – I think I heard Darrifourcq announce Stress Caramel, Chinese Reggae and Sexy Champagne – and the playing is strongly of the jump-cut, avant-rock kind. The contrasts between quiet and loud, noodling and thrashing, impossibly complex time and four to the floor rocking are all strong.
As a friend of mine is wont to say about certain things in life: “it’s a young man’s game.” All three of those descriptors are vital here. The experience – Darrifourcq as blisteringly fast silencing a cymbal as he is hitting it, Desprez pummelling the upper arm of the guitar for effect, Downes keeping bass pads and keyboards constantly and simultaneously manipulated – was for me a bit like watching three virtuoso computer gamers at play. Yes, there was virtuosic action here, there was violence, there was disjunction, there was alienation, there was the dystopian view, there was cleverness; but where was the humanity, where was the spirituality, where was the love, where was hope? I could admire the trio’s expertise but couldn’t really see the point of it at all.
I didn’t hate it; it was worse than that. It left me totally unmoved. I wrestled with my own inability to find anything worthwhile and abiding in In Bed With’s music, especially as I was surrounded by people who seemed to have enjoyed it, but only for a minute or two. At my age life’s too short to worry about the young man’s game. And there was John Scofield and Julian Argüelles’s Septet to look forward to…
- All photographs are © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk and cannot be used without permission. For John’s full gallery of Cheltenham pictures go here.
Categories: Live review