Cheltenham Round-Up (3)


Cheltenham Jazz Festival Round-Up (3)
Tord Gustavsen; Stian Westerhus; Overtone Quartet; Brass Jaw; Denys Baptiste; Sam Crockatt; Hugh Laurie (photo above).
(Various Venues in Cheltenham, May 1st and 2nd 2011, reviews by Chris Parker)


This is our third and final round-up from the 2011 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, by Chris Parker.

-In our first, Jeanie Barton wrote about Kyle Eastwood, and the Friday Night is Music Night.

-Then Tom Gray wrote about John Taylor/Julian Arguelles, Spin Marvel/John Paul Jones, Pharaoh Sanders, and Django Bates.

* * * * *

It seems to be a truth almost universally acknowledged that jazz's centre of gravity has shifted eastwards in the last decade or so, innovation and interesting musical developments being as likely to originate, these days, in Copenhagen, Berlin or London as in New York, Detroit or Chicago.

Reflecting this trend, Cheltenham's programming featured four times as many Europeans as Americans, and several gigs were aided by sponsorship from the Norwegian Embassy. Two of these last-mentioned concerts, Sunday-afternoon performances by pianist Tord Gustavsen and solo guitarist/electronics operator Stian Westerhus, neatly illustrated the range and depth of contemporary Scandinavian jazz, the former all moody lyricism and brooding power, the latter edgy, experimental, engagingly idiosyncratic.

Gustavsen has referred to his haunting compositions as 'wordless hymns' and describes his band as both 'very melodic' and impelled by a 'constant urge to unite "openness" with solid and sensuous foundations', and on this occasion, his core trio (completed by bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad) augmented by saxophonist Tore Brunborg, he interspersed
characteristically contemplative, spacy compositions, mostly taken from a specially commissioned suite, with more robust material. Propelled with graceful but insistent vigour by Vespestad, whose experience with electro-improv band Supersilent and with experimental rock outfits such as Farmer's Market and Motorpsycho enables him to
bring a surprising but welcome degree of bristling energy to the band sound, Gustavsen's was an entrancing set, its effectiveness due in large part to the beguiling contrast between the almost luxuriously rich tonal beauty of the three 'melody' players (Gustavsen himself limpid and spare, Brunborg ranging between ruminant breathiness and pleasantly strident Garbarek-isms as required, Eilertsen wonderfully full-bodied throughout), and the vibrant spikiness of the drumming
(percipiently summed up by Gustavsen as 'subtle funkiness').

Westerhus's take on 'tonal beauty' was a great deal more unorthodox. Standing on a darkened stage and eschewing lighting so that all the audience's attention was necessarily focused exclusively on the hour-long soundscape he sculpted instead of on the various methods employed to produce it, he used his guitar (often bowed rather than picked or strummed) mainly as a triggering device, forming densely
layered backgrounds which looped and repeated under further additional layers of space-sound, high-energy scrabbling, and industrial-strength noise. Not for the faint-hearted, but richly rewarding quiet submission to its uncompromising intensity (and there was the odd quieter moment, all the more effective for the contrast
with the rest), this was an intriguing, often downright mesmerising performance from a genuine original.

After all this deeply emotive, highly individual music, the set played by the Overtone Quartet, being relatively straightforward (if undeniably virtuosic) post-bop jazz, came as something of a shock. Saxophonist Chris Potter, unlike
Brunborg (who seems to imbue everything he plays with as much texture and nuance as it can reasonably bear), fired off volleys of notes with promiscuous abandon, riding the surging, pounding bass ofLarry Grenadier (Dave Holland unavailable because of family illness) and the classy, dexterous clatter of drummer Eric
Harland
with all the practised insouciance of a surfer at Malibu.

Pianist/electric keyboard player Jason Moran was a lot more unpredictable, bringing a wealth of sly but carefully considered eccentricity to his soloing on both instruments, but the quartet's overall effect was (perhaps partly because of this startling contrast with the preceding acts) of undeniable musicianly skill expressing … what? After an hour of hearing Gustavsen, it almost felt as if one
had been warmly confided in, told a great deal about the pianist/composer's mental and emotional make-up; after a similarperiod listening to Potter & Co., one knew merely that they were extremely competent, not to say world-class, musicians capable of producing a carefully calibrated festival set.

Bright and early on the Bank Holiday Monday, and aiming their set squarely at the numerous (dancing) children present, Brass Jaw ripped through a wholly accessible and thoroughly enjoyable programme of jaunty originals and lively arrangements of jazz/rock classics (Horace Silver's 'Señor Blues', 'It Ain't Necessarily So', Frank Zappa's 'Peaches en Regalia') with all the panache and wit customarily associated with a successful horn quartet.

In trumpeter Ryan Quigley they have a brilliant, flaring soloist capable of injecting life and zip into everything he plays; alto player Paul Towndrow and tenorman Konrad Wiszniewski are equally adept at performing both neat accompanying and unfettered improvisational duties; baritone player Allon Beauvoisin is the heartbeat of the band, selflessly providing the rhythmic
underpinnings for everything they play.

A particular highlight was Paul McCartney's 'Drive My Car', with its bouncy tune and 'beep-beep, beep-beep yeh!' climax perfectly suited to Brass Jaw's
approach, but the band's undoubted entertainment value and general festival-friendliness should not be allowed to obscure the fact that they are a skilful and polished quartet who might wear their virtuosity lightly, but are none the less classy for that.

If Tord Gustavsen provided a telling contrast to Chris Potter, fellow saxophonist Denys Baptiste could be said to be, in many respects, the American's polar opposite: warmth and engagement are his watchwords, his music avowedly an expression of his feelings about life experiences such as fatherhood (the touching 'Special
Times'
), his musical inspirations (Joe Harriott, Bheki Mseleku)and his involvement over the years with an extraordinary variety ofmusical forms, from reggae (celebrated with a piece of the music in six, just to keep us on our jazz toes) to funk and improvised music.

Indeed, his set was taken from a new album entitled Identity by Subtraction, thus emphasising the intensely personal nature of his music, and with longtime associate Gary Crosby providing rock-steady but suitably propulsive bass, the dazzling Andrew McCormack tearing into everything set in front of him as if he
feared he might never get a chance to play piano again, and drummer Rod Youngs both versatile and rousing, this was a highly enjoyable set, not least for the chance it provided of listening to a cultured but emotive tenor player making a series of utterly individual statements.

Much the same might be said of a man tipped by festival director Tony Dudley-Evans as a rising star, saxophonist Sam Crockatt. His debut album, Howeird, was a lyrical but occasionally surprisingly hard-edged affair featuring the mellifluous piano of Gwilym Simcock; Kit Downes is now the band's pianist, and he brings a slightly edgier feel to Crockatt's music, besides bringing
the odd composition (the set's opener, 'Sun and Moon', a typically intriguing tune) to the quartet's book. Briskly but sensitively propelled by bassist Oli Hayhurst and drummer Ben Reynolds, Crockatt mined his forthcoming album for much of his setlist, ringing the changes between a jaunty trio feature
('King Apple'), a driving, lightly funky piece with a pleasantly chattering theme ('The Ridgeway'), the (deceptively) self-explanatory 'Dark March' and a bustling closer, 'Happy' (this last from Howeird). Crockatt's is an affecting, carefully modulated saxophone sound with a grainy edge
where needed, and his compositions, though accessible, are just complex enough to put grit in the oyster.

'Did you really just do that?' was the characteristically self-effacing reaction of Hugh Laurie to the standing ovation he and his crack Copper-Bottomed Band received at the end of his ninety-minute set. He was clearly nervous at the outset, too, questioning his own credentials as a jazz festival's closing act (the
double meaning of which he gratefully seized on to diffuse the tension he felt), but once he launched himself into his first piano solo and heard the band close in tight around him, he visibly relaxed and moved engagingly through a skilfully selected set of New Orleans staples, blues classics and the odd arrangement by the likes of Allen
Toussaint (a duo 'Summertime' with reeds player Vincent Henry). Laurie wisely made no attempt to channel old blues legends, instead employing his pleasant light vocals and unfussy piano playing in a wholly unaffected manner to bring a number of his favourite songs to life, leaving the business end of the soloing to
two real masters: Canadian guitarist Kevin Breit and the aforementioned Henry. He also made a point of crediting all the songs' composers or main interpreters, so everyone from Scrapper Blackwell and J. B. Lenoir to Champion Jack Dupree, James Booker and Leadbelly got a namecheck and sometimes a little, clearly heartfelt, paean of praise from Laurie.

The overall effect was oddly reminiscent of a George Melly gig, which were also often occasions marked more by the performer's respect and proselytising love for his material than by any new personal slant he may have put on it. True, Laurie is never going to enable you to see such classics as 'Careless Love', 'Buddy Bolden's Blues' or 'St James Infirmary' in a totally new way (as some song interpreters such as Barb Jungr do), but that's hardly the point of his endeavour. Good luck to him!

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