Double Review from Cheltenham Jazz Festival - Georgie Fame ; Van Morrison

Georgie Fame at Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2013
Photo Credit: Ruth Butler. All Rights Reserved

Georgie Fame
Van Morrison 
(Cheltenham Jazz Festival. 3rd and 5th May. Double review by Luke Davidson)

Take two performers. Find a festival. Introduce one performer near the beginning of the festival and let the other bring us to its end. Put them both in a Big Top. Add a lifetime’s experience and outstanding musicianship. Result? An opportunity to reflect upon remarkable evenings of jazz and soul history, one starring Georgie Fame, celebrating his seventieth birthday with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the other starring Van Morrison.

Fame’s concert was an occasion. As he remarked with humour, it was the equivalent of a ‘gong' from Radio 2. The Van Morrison gig was an occasion, too, if only because every performance of Van’s is an occasion. Trite it may be, but both gigs exemplified so well the vitality of great artists. Part of this vitality comes from the fact both Fame and Morrison embrace jazz, not only in terms of their musical language, but in terms of their spirit: they never want to play the same thing in the same way. Performance is an opportunity to make it new. A lovely example of this was when Fame covered Willie Dixon’s ‘I’m the Seventh Son’ - in 7/8! Not content to demonstrate his mastery of blues set to Maximum Mojo, this witty refashioning showed Fame as a willing experimenter, a risk taker. Fame’s set, too, was more wide-ranging stylistically than Morrison’s. As a career retrospective, it covered Ray Charles, Country and Western, Be-Bop, as well as the blues, all of it powered by Guy Barker’s V8 big band and a wonderfully arranged orchestra.

Morrison’s set was more predictable but his performance exhibited his mercurial talent. Like Dylan, Morrison has an extraordinary deep well of songwriting achievement to draw from, but he is not content to sit back and watch the cheques for endless cover versions roll in. He is an artist. He must perform. On the night, he shared with us that urgency, that defiant assertiveness, that marks him. While he and Fame have mined equally deeply from the mine of Black American music, perhaps only Morrison has been comfortable studding his music with the riches of gospel.

Van Morrison gets the righteousness of the Baptists that is found in Jacky Wilson and Otis Redding. He is a preacher; he has something to say. And for me, who enjoys his peerless four-minute soul cuts as much as anyone, it was his ‘sermon’ mid-set uttered over a hypnotic 12/8 groove of repeated II/Vs that justified the entry ticket. ‘This is it!‘ he shouted. ‘This is it!’. He spoke without parody a message that has animated pulpits for centuries: time is running out and we need to get our house in order. Well, Amen to that.

But for all Morrison’s welcome mysticism, there is something slightly uncomfortable about his stage presence, something unsettling about his occasional barks at the band; his band, magnificent though it was, never looked especially at ease, never looked as if they too were in on Morrison’s message. They were workmanlike, perfect, but not happy. Perhaps they, like me (shh!), can’t stand Van Morrison’s saxophone sound and wished he would put the thing down. So, while I could have listened to the trombonist all night, since he never once gave a bar that was not perfectly shaped, it was not until Morrison had left the stage during the final valedictory rock-out, did the band as a whole appear visibly to relax, to allow themselves, and the music, a smile.

Which brings me back to Fame. Wearing an entirely unremarkable dark suit, he neither struts nor preaches. Yet he was enjoying himself. He has a relaxed presence on stage. His special guests, Alan Price, Zoot Money and Madeline Bell, seemed to be enjoying themselves quite as much as he was.

As for Morrison, for his special guest he had Gregory Porter on stage for one number, and as soon as that bass voice, rich and deep, was heard reverberating round the tent, there was an audible gasp of pleasure. Yet, when Porter left, something was lost. Not so with Fame; his fellow singers gave him the limelight, and that always felt right.

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