The Return of Loose Tubes Seals Vintage Cheltenham Weekend

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With optimistic weather firmly in place and the Montpellier Gardens site festooned with flags, the Cheltenham Jazz Festival kicked off its weekend programme with a circus swagger as the massed pomp of the Guy Barker Big Band and the BBC Concert Orchestra pitched up at the Big Top venue for a special broadcast of BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night. This now traditional festival opener upped the ante this year with a triumvirate of three of the hottest contemporary jazz singers, Kurt Elling, Liane Carroll and Curtis Stigers, who tore into the prohibition era Hoods, Horns and Hooch theme with spirited individual and collective performances of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, ‘Stormy Weather’, ‘Someday You’ll Be Sorry’, ‘Minnie The Moocher’ and a rumbustious Louis Prima medley, suggesting that these three should step out again rather soon.

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The
talking point of the weekend was of course the return of Loose Tubes, marking 30 years since their formation and more pertinently 24 years since their last gig together. What could have been one almighty disappointment was soon all too obviously a triumph, with the multi-coloured maverick monstrosity back in force. The 21 members sauntered on to the vast Big Top stage to be greeted by a 1,000-strong crowd, and proceeded to deliver in spades. Old favourites ‘Yellow Hill’, ‘Säd Afrika’ and ‘Exeter, King of Cities’ all sounded as resplendent and brightly hued as the band’s shirts, Ashley Slater’s disco-ball style shoes and Eddie Parker’s black and white striped trousers which must have been visible across most of the Cotswolds. Yet it was the new Radio 3 commissioned material that showed how the band have moved with the times as spiky themes, such as Parker’s cool-toned ‘Bright Smoke, Cold Fire’ and Bates’ ‘As I Was Saying…’ shimmered and darted with a steely modern edge. Still playing with an irreverence and self-confidence that fuelled much of the British jazz boom of the 1980s, Loose Tubes sealed things with a simply superb take on ‘The Last Word’, its militant reggae hits stamped with a ripping trombone blast from Richard Pywell. Long may they stay reunited.

TD-Michael-Wollny-04If Loose Tubes did complexity on a grand scale then German piano star Michael Wollny’s trio delved into the dark and enticing corners of his imagination on a thrilling set that was the weekend’s other outstanding performance. Playing music from his new album, Weltentraum, Wollny conjured wonders from the microtonal to the moving, magical and outright mesmerising as he and drummer Eric Schaefer set up a telepathic maelstrom. Viennese choral music never sounded so hip, given a pensively lyrical twist here by the trio on Alban Berg’s ‘Nacht’. Bassist Christian Weber did more than fill Tim Lefebvre’s absence (he’s on the album, but not on the tour) by corralling the white hot spikes of energy that were soon boiling up between piano and drums, Wollny often doubling and quadrupling rhythms over Schaefer’s blitzkrieg of beats. This performance echoed an early Cheltenham appearance by EST in 2002, that augured great things for the Swedish trio; surely bigger stages and much bigger audiences beckon now for Wollny whose trio is arguably one of the very best in the world today.

Cheltenham makes a virtue of diversity so it was Kurt Elling’s suave and swinging Hammond and guitar-fuelled band that found him exploring far more soul-rock directions in one of several gigs in the reinstated Town Hall venue. Denys Baptiste also played to a full house earlier in the afternoon with his Now Is The Time, a gospel inflected wide-screen prequel to Let Freedom Ring, that combines an impressive large ensemble, strings and choir conducted by Harry Brown and sharpened by polemical poetry projections from Lemn Sissay. Brooklyn funk fusioneers Snarky Puppy burnt the midnight oil with a blasting set that felt a little rushed and initially suffered from a harsh sound mix. Not that the largely twentysomething audience seemed to care – this was their gig and they loved it.

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The star of Sunday’s programme was Oakland trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire – who linked in Blue Note Records’ 75th anniversary, along with fellow labelmate Gregory Porter, with whom he appeared as a very welcome guest in the Big Top later on. Akinmusire’s archly complex, slightly oblique composing style is sometimes a little too dense on record, but playing to a packed Jazz Arena his music was pushed along by the heavyweight grooves of bassist Harish Raghaven and outstanding young drummer Justin Brown, who added elasticity and great feel to the labyrinthine tunes. Yet it was new piece, ‘Milky Pete’, with its propulsive ostinato melody and densely packed structure that saw Sam Harris dig deep into his Rhodes and had the trumpeter weaving more golden threads on top with another eye and ear opening solo.

The Parabola Arts Centre is such a valuable space away from the headline grabbing artists and perfect for Iain Balamy’s Anorak XL to showcase his outstandingly whimsical themes – ‘Lobster Upgrade Mondays’ and ‘Chompin’ at the Saveloy’ among the highlights – all capped with some excellent solos from himself, Nathaniel Facey, Freddie Gavita and Kieron McLeod, while Dan Nicholls’ Strobes and Thomas Strønen’s Time is a Blind Guide, featuring Kit Downes, were vital components to this outer limits strand.

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Back in the Big Top, drum demigod Billy Cobham made being 70 look easy, as he whipped up a fusion tornado with his Tales From The Skeleton Coast band – flashing around his kit like a man half his age.

Gregory Porter’s strutting soul-jazz love-in at a sold-out Big Top was given some welcome gravitas with the presence of trumpeter Akinmusire. He joined fiery altoist Yohsuke Satoh to create some sublime horn parts, while also stepping up for ‘Song For My Father’, Porter recalling the Horace Silver classic as a formative moment in his early introduction to Blue Note, the label that he’s now signed to. ‘Liquid Spirit’ was rattled off like the hit single it is, but Wayne Shorter’s ‘Black Nile’ from his 1964 Blue Note album Night Dreamer, was as dark and dangerous as you could wish for – Porter scatting with venom, Satoh and Akinmusire following suit on their solos.

In what could well be considered a vintage year the abiding memory will be the return of Loose Tubes, who emphatically seized the moment and made this theirs, and many others, jazz weekend of the year so far.

– Mike Flynn and Jon Newey
– Photos © Tim Dickeson