A jazz festival has to be broad in appeal, especially if it wants to take some artistic risks while still remaining on good terms with its bank and its backers. It’s always been the case – just think back to Newport in 1960, as immortalised in the film Jazz On A Summer’s Day, which featured Mahalia Jackson and Chuck Berry on the bill alongside Jimmy Giuffre and Thelonious Monk – and it’s possibly even more vital in the 21st century when jazz is no longer the popular music it once was.
Cheltenham Jazz Festival has had to broaden its range of jazz further in the last few years but, in the face of mutterings from the jazz police, it remains a festival of high quality across that range. In order to make some sense of its 2016 programme, which runs from Wednesday 27 April to Monday 2 May, I’ve divided my picks into two: a top ten of events mostly appearing within brick or concrete walls and therefore more like club or concert jazz, and a top five of those mostly appearing under canvas, with a bit more razzmatazz about them and often linked more loosely to the jazz central core – let’s call them circus jazz, shall we?
My top ten “club” jazz events
Friday 29 April
Soweto Kinch Trio: Recomposed – Parabola Arts Centre, 8pm: An event of two parts, the first being the saxophonist/hiphop MC making jazz in a trio that includes the U.S. drummer Gregory Hutchinson, with the second half what I guess is a remix session (though the posher “recomposed” has been chosen to describe what electronic Iain Chambers and Pascal Wyse will do with the trio’s music in the Parabola bar afterwards.
Saturday 30 April
Trondheim Jazz Exchange – Parabola Arts Centre, 12 noon: The annual showcase of bands formed by collaborating students from the jazz conservatories of Trondheim and Birmingham is always one of the treats of Cheltenham for me. It’s the fizz of youthful excitement and skills seemingly beyond their years heightened by the challenge of international collaboration.
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Parabola Arts Centre, 6pm: The New York band records for the ECM label and with alto player Berne are clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, drummer and percussionist Chez Smith and guitarist Ray Ferreira. Smith’s ability on vibes as well as drums gives this band an even wider soundscape.
Omar Sosa Quarteto Afrocubano – Jazz Arena, 7.30pm: The Cuban pianist’s infectious world-jazz has always had more of a following in Europe than in the UK, but his recordings are particular favourites of mine and I am looking forward to hearing his band in concert.
The Printmakers – Parabola Arts Centre, 9pm: All that should be treasured in the more mature UK jazz scene is to be found in this all-star band led by pianist Nikki Iles and vocalist Norma Winstone. Saxophonist Mark Lockheart, guitarist Mike Walker, bassist Steve Watts and drummer James “the kid” Maddren complete the dream team.
Sunday 1 May
Julian Argüelles’s Let It Be Told – Cheltenham Town Hall, 1pm: This is the one I’ve been waiting for! The saxophonist’s tribute to South African jazz with re-arrangements of tunes by Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza and Abdullah Ibrahim for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band along with his brother Steve on percussion and fellow Loose Tuber Django Bates on keyboards. I predict dancing in the aisles.
Meadow: A Tribute To John Taylor – Parabola Arts Centre, 3pm: The UK pianist who died suddenly last summer was a third of Meadow with the Norwegian pair of drummer Thomas Strønen and saxophonist Tore Brunborg. They have bassist Anders Jormin in to help them remember John.
Christian Scott aTunde Ajuah – Jazz Arena, 4.30pm: A trumpeter carrying the torch not just for New Orleans but for music from around the world that passed through that city and into an expansive 21st century world jazz.
Rom Schaerer Eberle – Parabola Arts Centre, 6pm: The Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer is the most astonishing singer I have heard since Bobby McFerrin. I can’t wait to hear him live in the company of trumpeter Martin Eberle and guitarist Peter Rom. Their eclectic mix of jazz, beatboxing and African music is both accessible and experimental.
Giovanni Guidi Trio – Parabola Arts Centre, 9pm: The Italian pianist and his band has proved itself in recordings and live performances to be worthy of carrying the ECM piano trio baton previously held by Tord Gustavsen and Marcin Wasilewski. They were superb at Jazz Ahead in Bremen last year and should be superb again in the intimate setting and good acoustics of the Parabola.
My top five “circus” jazz events
Saturday 30 April
José James – Jazz Arena, 12.15pm: The singer made the best tribute album to Billie Holiday in her centenary year and masters a mix of jazz and R’n’B styles without diminishing either.
Marcus Strickland’s Twi-Life – Jazz Arena, 4pm: The tenor player signed to Blue Note echoes hip-hop phrasing in his solos and has a powerful genre-hopping electric band in Twi-Life.
Lizz Wright and Frankfurt Radio Big Band – Cheltenham Town Hall, 7pm: Quite how the gospel-soul-jazz singer will sound amid a big band as opposed to the small, often acoustic guitar-led group ambience of her albums remains to be seen. There is one way to find out – and she is reportedly a charismatic performer.
Sunday 1 May
The Taj Mahal Trio – Cheltenham Town Hall, 6pm: The blues singer and guitarist has been a personal favourite ever since his early work with a young Ry Cooder. After some fine dabbling in world music he has returned to his blues roots.
Mulatu Astatke – Jazz Arena, 7.45pm: The vibraphonist, percussionist and sometimes keyboard player is the father of Ethio-jazz and his Afro-jazz-funk is much sampled. He went down a storm when I heard him at Womad a few years ago. Music to move to.
- There is a lot more in the programme, from one-man wonder Jacob Collier to Big Top roof-blowing David Sanborn. Find it all – and book for it – HERE.