FESTIVAL ROUND-UP: 2017 Cheltenham Jazz Festival (Part One – Thurs-Sat)

Dee Dee Bridgewater at Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2017
Photo credit: John Watson /  jazzcamera.co.uk


Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2017
(Thursday 27th-Saturday 29th April 2017. Part One of a two-part Round-Up Review by Jon Turney)

Cheltenham offered the now customary six-day extravaganza of blues and soul stars who can fill a couple of thousand seats, with shrewdly-chosen jazz acts filling out a programme with something for everyone.

Dee Dee Bridgewater on Thursday night had moved herself firmly into the blues and soul category, showcasing a new project woven around songs from Memphis, where she was born (though she conceded the family left town when she was three-and-a-half). Maybe her lack of history in the genre accounted for the town hall being only half full, but she took the songs - from Goin’ Down Slow through I Can’t Stand the Rain to The Thrill is Gone - by the scruff of the neck and made them her own. It was a superb vocal performance, unhampered by having to perform seated because of a recent tour-induced leg injury. If some of us might have preferred to hear her offer a wider-ranging jazz set, Dee Dee as late-blossoming soul diva was pretty convincing.

Friday evening saw the start of programming at the jewel in Cheltenham’s crown, the Parabola Theatre - a superb venue that not only allows you to get out of the April cold and is immune to the poor acoustics (Town Hall) or irritating sound creep from other stages (Jazz Arena) experienced elsewhere but has Tony Dudley-Evans presiding benignly over the music choices.

This produced an immediate jackpot, with Marius Neset delivering a stunning early evening hour in his typical style, storming and lyrical by turns. A new band for the festival featured Dan Nicholls on keys, Joshua Blackmore on drums and Phil Donkin on bass, all facing well-stocked music stands but dealing with Neset’s knottier writing - he has a knack for rhythmically fiendish ostinati - with aplomb. Longer-time associate Jim Hart, like the leader, needed no written music. His rapport with Neset on vibes and marimba is wonderful to behold, and he, Neset and Nicholls turned a new piece, written for New Year celebrations in Cologne and commissioned by the Philharmonie, into a thing of glowing beauty. An exhilarating set, with the leader conveying his customary feeling that he gives 100 per cent with every note he plays because he doesn’t know how to do any less, and a instant candidate for gig of the festival.

Seb Rochford’s later set with US visitor Nicole Mitchell on flutes and Neil Charles on bass was altogether more low-key. Dimmed lighting here went with crepuscular music-making, often involving small gestures and subtle shifts of emphasis. Mitchell has a beautiful sound on all her flutes. Rochford, captivated, laid out entirely on drums for long stretches, with Charles offering mainly gentle thoughts on arco bass. The effect of this unbroken, largely improvised session was a little tentative at times, with a seeming reluctance to change direction when a particular idea had run its course, but it built briefly to a full trio flourish at the close.

Anton Eger at Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2017
Photo credit: John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk


Changes of direction, often bracingly abrupt, are piano trio Phronesis’ speciality, and were richly in evidence in the first half of their performance with an eight strong ensemble drawn from the Engines Orchestra on Saturday afternoon (but only just) in the Town Hall. The opening sequence were familiar Phronesis numbers adorned with very brief orchestral intros. Just when you began to wonder why the eager youngsters had come all that way, the point of the occasion became clear, with conductor Phil Meadows returning to the podium to navigate everyone through the premiere of a new composition for trio and orchestra by Dave Maric. The piece, Decade Zero, was an entirely absorbing 35 minute, multi-movement affair, making good use of the combined forces at Maric’s disposal. He has a real feel for Phronesis’ music, and achieved a rare balance between conventionally scored orchestral elements - bassoon and cello contributing especially nicely to the sound - and the trio’s jazz energy. Anton Eger on drums modulated perfectly from subtle orchestral accompanist to his trademark volcanic effusions as the score dictated. The piece will repay repeated listening, which will be on offer at both Manchester and London jazz festivals for this jointly-commissioned work.

Lionel Loueke at Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2017
Photo credit: John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk


Two afternoon sets offered powerful takes on contemporary jazz. Lionel Loueke, whose sound and technique can make you fall in love with electric guitar all over again, brought his power trio to the jazz arena, with long-time cohorts Massimo Biolcati on electric bass and Ferenc Nemeth on drums showing the value of shared understanding when it comes to high-energy rhythm.


Logan Richardson at Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2017
Photo credit:John Watson/  jazzcamera.co.uk


Alto saxophone exponent Logan Richardson, making a welcome return with his own band after a Cheltenham debut last year with Christian Scott, was another impressive visitor to the Parabola. He floated a stream of ear-catching melodic lines over a band driven by the beats-derived propulsion of most current American music rather than old-fashioned swing. It’s a happy combination of old and new, with the leader steeped in now-classic saxophone styles, from Ornette Coleman to Arthur Blythe, but working to find his own synthesis.

Which just left time to reach a new jazz space, Dean Close school’s Chapel, where Kit Downes - returning to playing after a lay-off from a tendon injury - addressed a magnificent new organ. His duo with Tom Challenger on tenor sax, now christened Vyamanikal, produce a fascinating blend between a horn player tied to one sonority and an organist who can use hands, feet, and stops to produce pretty well any sound he wants. Together, they mused, mourned, and exulted. There was plenty more music to be had back at the Festival site, but this was a perfect way to end a day.

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