Twenty years in and the Cheltenham Jazz Festival shows no sign of flagging as one of its most eclectic line-ups to date painted a picture of jazz’s increasingly broad reach and the fervently adventurous, envelope-pushing approach of many of its practitioners today. Maximalist and minimalist incarnations of this typified Saturday’s midday billings, with Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman creating a not-so-quiet storm with their duo at the Town Hall, while 40-plus musicians crammed onto the stage of Big Top for what’s rumoured to be the last performance of Jazz Jamaica’s Catch A Fire! Bob Marley tribute (top), which showed that choir, strings and feisty brass band can all seamlessly integrate – especially thanks to Jason Yarde’s exceptional arrangements and Brinsley Forde’s charismatic vocals tying it all together into a hugely enjoyable whole.
If Marley’s transcendent songs fuelled this epic sound and spectacle then it was down to saxophonist Marcus Strickland (above) to bring his vision of contemporary jazz bang up to date, echoing many of the stylistic traits of Robert Glasper’s Experiment band with both hip hop and electronic ingredients well to the fore – but not without echoes too of 1970s funk fusion. Yet their investigations into rhythm and harmony probed even deeper than Glasper’s – as his band of keyboardist Mitch Henry, electric bassist Kyle Miles, drummer Charles Haynes and guest singer Jean Baylor scorched on tributes to Mingus and Prince, with Strickland in soul-searching mode on soprano sax on the latter.
The interactive side of this year’s festival was in full swing – or should that be abstract soundscape? – with Alexander Hawkins’ Environment Music positioning 10 or more musicians in and around the Parabola Arts Centre’s auditorium, with the likes of Laura Jurd parping with abstract menace from the balcony and shadowy saxophonists, trumpeters and bassists lurking among the crowd and providing some distinctly disconcerting music. An apt intro then to the music of iconoclastic downtown New Yorker Tim Berne and his supercharged Snakeoil quintet (above), clearly keen to up the ante on stage. The presence of guitarist Ryan Ferreira supplies a subtle but distinct influence on the increased ferocity of the group’s attack, more often doubling sax, clarinet and piano lines to add some gritty distorted heft to the many intertwining parts. With two albums to their name, it was encouraging to hear new material unveiled, such as ‘Surface Noise’, which began sparsely before turning ugly beautiful as Berne and clarinetist Oscar Noriega generated some squealing simulated feedback as their reeds locked in a battle of quarter-toned dissonance. Pianist Matt Mitchell made up for the lack of a bassist by pummeling the lower keys on the piano, while layering ghostly chords on top. Drummer Ches Smith was the revelation of the day as he leapt between kit, vibes, gongs and hand percussion to create a viscerally virtuosic display. Another new one, ‘The Third Option’, once more built from a spaced-out elongated beginning before jagged riffs emerged, the guitar adding gnarly bite and dropping ambient reverberated goo into the cracks. As things drew to a close Berne wryly surmised as he introduced the last song of the set: "This may or may not be the end of the concert – it might be the end of the world... "
If it was apocalypse now at the Parabola then Lizz Wright (above) at the Town Hall made a fine case for the redemptive power of George and Ira Gershwin’s music with sensual and sophisticated arrangements played by the flawless Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Finding fresh things to do with the likes of ‘Slap That Bass’ (the world would be a better place if we all played the bass fiddle), ‘Summertime’, ‘I Don't Care’ (with prescient lyrics written in the 1930s), ‘I've Got A Crush On You’ and ‘They Can't Take That Away From Me’ all sounded sublime.
Sunday saw Chris Sharkey’s electronica power trio, Shiver (above), taking no prisoners at the ungodly hour of mid-day, blowing away the cobwebs of the morning after the night before with a set of artfully-controlled chaos. With bassist Andy Champion digging deep on five-string bass guitar and drummer Joost Hendrix layering up an unrelenting cavalcade of beats, Sharkey switched between hypnotic arpeggiated shimmers and explosive math-rock thrash on new tunes ‘Next Step’ and ‘Bounce’. Shiver are Sharkey’s first major project after the demise of his much-loved, but overtly challenging, band trioVD, the latter’s splintered often head-spinning rhythmic madness replaced here by immersive space rock electronica meshed with pile driving riffage, drawing equally on glitchy soundscapes, huge vistas of distorted bass, thundering drums and virtual guitar assaults. They deserve to be huge.
Julian Argüelles’ widescreen tribute to the exiled South African Blue Notes, who arrived in Britain in the 1960s, was equally evocative albeit in a far lusher and more expansive way. Taking music from his recent album Let It Be Told, Argüelles was joined by his brother Steve on drums and Django Bates on keyboard and piano, backed by the again impressed FDR Big Band, who brought his vibrant compositions and exceptionally well-arranged tunes to life, kicking out a surprisingly nimble groove for such a large ensemble, with numerous soloists stepping up to shine as well – not least the thrilling Brecker-esque sax playing of Tony Lakatos who unleashed a burning solo.
Trumpeter Christian Scott has made something of a comeback in the last year or so, with his previous passé-sounding Radiohead-influenced melancholy replaced by an electronic, beat-driven new agenda. Yet, as was the case with several other artists at this year’s festival, Scott used this opportunity to break in his new band, not least rising sax star Logan Richardson, who has just released his debut, Shift, on Blue Note. Backed by longtime friend and bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Corey Fonville and keyboardist/pianist Tony Tixier, they did play some music from his recent drum‘n’bass fuelled album, Stretch Music, but wanting to let this powerhouse quintet flex its not inconsiderable muscle, they also made a fist of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Eye Of The Hurricane’ and Coltrane’s ‘Equinox’. Infusing both with some post-hip hop vigour, the group devoured the open modality of both, launching into some incendiary soloing – not least from Scott himself, who sounded like a mix of Hubbard and Miles, his piercing tone and laser-guided note choices hitting the target every time. Richardson’s nonchalant demeanor disguises an equally virile intellect and attacking style. Most impressive all was the cohesion of this emergent ensemble’s interaction, Fonville firing sparks between soloists and bassist Curtis, who was exemplary in gelling harmony to rhythm. Every note sounded fresh and the crowd left on a high.
The political ructions taking place both here and in the US may not be at the heart of the culturally enlightened environs of a jazz festival but it was refreshing to hear soulful sax don David Sanborn (above) speaking out – apologising for the embarrassing state of the "clown car" presidential election – "we're getting, how do I put this delicately... fucked over." The ensuing 'Ordinary People' dedicated to the “folks that pay their taxes and raise their families”, built to a bluesy climax of impassioned playing. Equally arresting was Rom Schaerer Eberle's playful and precise Parabola set, with beatbox-opera-jazz vocal whirlwind Andreas Schaerer an instant hit with the hugely enthusiastic audience. Inventively mixing percussive trumpet and rippling guitar, theirs is a drumless, light-footed power trio – and, with a welcome guest appearance by Soweto Kinch, it all amounted to a magical festival moment. Contrasting these micro-detailed sounds with the artfully arranged soul pop of Corinne Bailey Rae (below) may be one of the trickier aspects of festival’s such as Cheltenham putting bums on seats and providing artistic depth but Rae's set inadvertently shone a light on veterans of Manchester's native jazz scene with drummer Myke Wilson and keyboardist Steve Brown (Rae's husband) pushing things rhythmically and harmonically – Rae herself charismatic and vocally impressive. While the festival’s core jazz fans thrilled to the finely-wrought virtuosity of rising Italian piano star Giovanni Guidi, who wrapped luminous classical technique into a dancing personal style that deserves wider attention over here.
If the busy weekend programme needed a sonic full stop then Pete Wareham's Melt Yourself Down slammed things into overdrive for a molten blast of punk funk dub that had the aptly-named Sub Tone club shaking. Manic vocalist Kushal Gaya was a one-man riot, rabble rousing with popping eyes, urging the crowd to lose themselves in their psychedelic laser-lit onslaught – at one point literally hanging off the ceiling, or rather a steel beam above the stage – at other points pogoing in the crowd. Wareham and Shabaka Hutchings' twin tenor assault is at times brutal, reaching thrash guitar levels of intensity while Ruth Goller's mean metallic bass lines are the driving force at the band's core. What MYD lack in subtlety they make up for with sheer unequivocal energy – an electrifying jolt of jabbing, stabbing sound that was lapped up by an audience hungry for pure primal thrills. They and others here this weekend speak volumes about today's increasingly bold, genre-busting jazz scene, its players, listeners and indeed festivals, exhibiting a renewed confidence, emboldening experimentation, risk taking and openness, underscoring that it's the vitality and strength of the music, not the category it's supposed to sit in that matters most. Unequivocally excellent.
– Mike Flynn
– Photos by Tim Dickeson