Corea Crowns Host Of Cheltenham Charms

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A successful jazz festival is made in the mix: the weave of established players (maybe even a couple of icons) with new ones on the way up; the incorporation of names that tick the jazz credibility box, and others that help to pay the festival bills; the geographical sweep that when it comes to jazz means, crucially, the transatlantic balance – all these are important. And then there are the cherry-on-the-top mixes: the unpredictable intermingling of musicians that the organisers hope will happen. And pitfalls, too: the infiltrations that would have been best avoided. Cheltenham Jazz Festival has been fine-honing this mix for years and, looking back on 2017, I think it can be considered a good, if not great, year.

If Chick Corea is a jazz icon he certainly doesn't behave like one. He began and ended by leading an audience sing-along. I can't imagine that happening at a Keith Jarrett concert. With his cross-generational trio partners, Eddie Gomez and Brian Blade, he treated a delighted Big Top crowd to '500 Miles High', 'Spanish Song' and 'Spain', nodded to Gomez's time with the Bill Evans Trio with 'Alice In Wonderland', and explored an obscure Monk tune called 'Work'. Corea's playing achieved the extraordinary twin distinction of being both virtuosic and also immediately comprehensible. The trio had the same flexibility that one hears in Wayne Shorter's quartet, stretching out far and wide from the pieces, all three pushing themselves towards that ultimate jazz prize that risk brings.

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"Leaving the comfort zone," was very much Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke's stated objective. He goes back a long way with bassist Massimo Biocalti and drummer Ferenc Nemeth, so a three-way leap into the unknown proved as exhilarating to listen to as I am sure it was to perform. The juxtaposition of a meditative bass solo against a Dixieland accompaniment, the result of the sound ingress into the Jazz Arena from the free stage, was one of many unwelcome infiltrations in this particular tent. Not so much risk-taking with the Steve Gadd Band, a group which moves the rhythm section into the spotlight, but another kind of delight. The sound was exemplary, the playing of bassist Jimmy Johnson, guitarist Michael Landau and pianist Kevin Hays just as fine, and the treat of hearing in the flesh the sound of a drum icon who is on so many of our records was reflected not only in the cheers but in the snaking line to where Gadd was signing afterwards.

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Saxophonist Chris Potter is surely on his way to iconic status. His Quartet's performance took the energy level many bands would consider the climax of their set as its starting point and moved up from there. Then Potter nipped to the Town Hall to guest with Snarky Puppy. In a masterclass the next morning pianist Bill Laurance called Potter's playing "next level improvisation" to nods of similarly awed agreement from bassist Michael League and drummer Larnell Lewis. There was another unexpected – and most welcome – guest with Denys Baptiste's Late Trane band when the rarely-heard Steve Williamson joined on tenor for Coltrane's 'Transition' and 'Vigil'. Previous subsidiary Cheltenham visitors, Kandace Springs and Logan Richardson were each given their own concert this year. Springs has all the qualities to make her a star of the future though, for my money, bassist/singer Meshell Ndegeocello packed more meaning and listener reward into one song – Leonard Cohen's 'Suzanne' – than the young Nashville singer/pianist could convey in a whole set. Richardson and his band Shift played a highly focused set which centred on the leader's hard-blown, richly pure alto. A fresh exposition of Kansas City's ongoing contribution jazz's development.

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Phronesis's collaboration with composer Dave Maric and the Engines Orchestra was a valuable co-commission, and another example of a mix where the sum of the parts really does add up. If the transatlantic mix was a little States-biased this year, the strongest European contribution, according to many I spoke to, came from Marius Neset. His talent, already near to overwhelming the listener, seems to grow stronger with each outing.

Peter Bacon
– Photos by Tim Dickeson

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