REVIEW: Surnatural Orchestra, Rachael Cohen, Julian Argüelles at the 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Surnatural Orchestra at the 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival
Photo copyright: John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk

Surnatural Orchestra, Rachael Cohen, Julian Argüelles
(Cheltenham Jazz Festival. May 3rd 2015. Review by Jon Turney)

A good festival mixes old favourites with chances to be blown away by people you never heard of. The Surnatural Orchestra were this year’s Cheltenham example of the latter. And blow us away they did. This full-on French big band were an unknown quantity, but a glance at their website (with some, er, approximate help from Google translate) gave an idea what to expect: “Original compositions of the band members, twisted clear themes, jazz of all stripes, popular music with three and four jiffy, twaddle to dance, so close writing big band ... Each proposal open to the four winds of improvisation.”

Yes, that’s about right! They writing and playing were a conspectus of contemporary big band styles – hints of Carla Bley, Mike Westbrook, the Vienna Art Orchestra, and Loose Tubes, with a touch of Ellington when the band, arrayed around the auditorium, faced Fabrice Theuillon’s baritone sax on stage. The presentation was refreshingly different. The players constantly group and regroup as the music changes: there are no “sections” as such, but a cleverly choreographed slow dance in which combinations of horns coalesce and dissolve. One moment a flute and clarinet quartet are playing against three saxophones and a trombone trio while the sousaphone keeps the bass going; the next a quite different configuration appears. There are strong beats and crunchy electric keyboards, attractive themes and brilliantly varied sonority, a sense of a superbly integrated, good-humoured, ensemble having a whale of a time. It could be gimmicky, but in practice a little mild theatrics enhances things throughout. If we can’t have Loose Tubes every year, Cheltenham should definitely bring this fine outfit back instead. Quite a start to the day for a noontime full house in the Parabola Theatre, Cheltenham’s small venue where much of the most interesting stuff is heard.

An early evening set in the same space saw Rachael Cohen,’s trio made up to a quartet with guest guitarist (and CD bandmate) Phil Robson on guitar. Her alto style, a thoughtfully lyrical approach somewhere between Konitz and Coleman, was well displayed on a canny selection of her own tunes, pieces by Ornette and Monk, and a particularly beautiful treatment of Strayhorn’s A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.

And then back to the Parabola one more time for one of those eagerly awaited Cheltenham specials, a key figure given the chance to write for a different ensemble. Julian Argüelles’ current quartet has an ideal line-up: the leader on reeds, Sam Lasserson bass, James Maddren, drums and Kit Downes on piano, who plays Argüelles’ music as if it is his own. On Sunday evening they were joined by George Crowley on reeds, Percy Pursglove on trumpet and Kenny Wheelerish flugelhorn and Kieran McLeod on trombone.

The septet delivered an hour and half of brilliant new arrangements of the leader’s distinctive compositions. Crowley’s bass clarinet and Pursglove’s trumpet both worked wonders, but mentioning highlights does an injustice to a set that was one continuous highlight. The closing offering of this richly satisfying marathon, Triality, summed up its virtues, though. The punchy, hummable theme – the opener for Argüelles’ 2014 CD supergroup release Circularity - made a great quartet piece, but the joyful urgency of the septet in full cry took it to a new level. Fabulous stuff, and another programming gold star for Cheltenham.

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