Courtney, Kamasi, Frisell and Sheppard thrill the flock as VEIN hits rich seam at Cheltenham

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It's a small town, Cheltenham, and the jazz festival is a big deal both locally and nationally. So, thousands converged on the marquee-filled main site in baking hot weather for a programme combining crowd-pleasing big gigs – notably vocalists like Randy Crawford and Van Morrison – with jazz 'names' including Courtney Pine (above) and Jason Moran. Crucially, programmers Tony Dudley-Evans and Emily Jones ensured a strand of edgier, forward-looking music centred in the smaller Parabola Theatre, providing plenty for the jazz-minded to get their teeth into.

That venue's Friday-night programme had a pleasing unity, two concerts linked by a live 'remix' of the first which began with Swiss vocalist Lucia Cadotsch's Speak Low trio. Performing to some inner soundtrack, Cadotsch's unforced vocals coolly unfurled laconic standards and others while Otis Sandsjö's circular-breathing tenor sax and Petter Eldh's incessant bass followed their own paths around her. More unity of purpose fired ENEMY's powerful set, with drummer James Maddren's polyrhythms and the returning Eldh's unflinching bass providing proper foils to Kit Downes' increasingly complex piano visions. Numbers like 'Faster Than Light' became mini-suites, subliminal melodies emerging through pyrotechnic episodes and shifting moods. This was then excellently exploited by the remix team of Iain Chambers and Dan Nicholls, elements of both sets merging into a pulsing stream to create a virtual band-that-never-was.

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This all led nicely into Dinosaur's (above) preview of their imminent Wonder Trail album, an entertainingly post-pop set of tunes reflecting the band's four diverse musical personalities. The deft economy of Laura Jurd's trumpet being less foregrounded, quirky cuts like 'Set Free' and 'And Still We Wonder' evinced an old-school Canterbury feel, while other tunes recalled 1980s synth-pop. It was good, bright stuff, musical intelligence laced with whimsy. Other Parabola highlights over the weekend included the willful theatrics of Estonian singer Kadri Voorand, whose attentive band somehow managed to stay with her whooping, roaring, harmonising and looping vocals, while the relaunched Roller Trio, now with added Chris Sharkey, revisited 'The Nail That Stands Up' (the only 'old' tune they played) and revealed how their new material has a tighter feel, thanks to Sharkey's electronica. Yet the group retains the rawness that made their name. Their next album – due this summer – should be a corker.

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The increased use of electronica was a definite trend across the festival, with drummer Jim Black's deployment of the tactile Roli keyboard in his Malamute quartet somewhat of a revelation. Fortunately, it didn't wholly obscure his distinctively forceful drumming, but the band's brash sound was blunted by the oddly muted tone of Óskar Gudjónsson's tenor sax. It seemed an odd choice for Black's otherwise typically assertive project, and the contrast with Donny McCaslin's (below) crisp howl the next day was marked. McCaslin's similar line-up benefited from Zach Danziger's whip-tight energy on drums, precision bass-playing from Kevin Scott and Jason Lindner's imaginative electronics. The music pulsed and throbbed with rock energy, with the sax soaring at its centre.

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Seeing the Roller Trio had cost me Jason Moran – by all accounts a real class act – so I made sure to catch the last half of Christian McBride's Big Band (below) in the Town Hall. It didn't disappoint, the genial bandleader's impeccable bass with Quincy Phillips' drums the cucumber-cool foundation for excellent charts, including a joyfully funky setting of George Duke's 'The Black Messiah (Pt II)' that gave pianist Xavier Davis his well-deserved McCoy Tyner moment. Their rich, classic sound filled the room with a fine restatement of the jazz heritage.

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It may have been that reminder – or possibly the introductory announcement as "the greatest jazz musician in the world" – that made me less positive about Kamasi Washington's set. The band's sheer power is indisputably impressive, and there were fine solos from keyboard-player Brandon Coleman and Washington himself (below), but overall the brashness of sound and similarity of the pieces became wearing. I was in a tiny minority, though, in a massively approving sold-out big top crowd.

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By contrast what pushed my buttons the most were three sets epitomising the value of collaboration and restraint. The Andy Sheppard Quartet, as ever, revolved around the leader's highly distinctive sax voice and lyrical imagination as composer and player. His latest ECM release, Romaria, gives more space to his excellent collaborators, notably Eivind Aarset's guitar-driven electronica. Played live, 'They Came From The North' revealed a new, rockier sound arising from an icy ambience, Seb Rochford's usually diffident drumming even bursting out for a jazz-rock moment, before things ultimately resolved into more typical calmness. Like Sheppard, Swiss trio VEIN are 'serial collaborators'. Their own sound was a tight and tidy contemporary chamber jazz which generously opened to make space for guest saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, in a set featuring their arrangements of pieces by Ravel. It was a happy combination of meticulous group-playing fleshed out by the warmth and fluidity of the saxophone. The unity of playing suggested they had collaborated for years, but as far as I know this short tour was a first meeting.

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Finally, one of the ultimate collaborative players, Bill Frisell, showcased his artful partnership with bassist Thomas Morgan. The duo (above) provided an absolute masterclass in interactive improvisation. Somewhat dwarfed by the Town Hall's big auditorium, the two musicians began what would be over an hour of, more or less, continuous playing, standard tunes glimpsed as they evolved them onwards with absolute empathy. You had the sense, as they shared glances onstage, that they were oblivious to their audience, so wrapped up in listening and responding to what they were hearing. It was breathtaking stuff – Morgan's playing was a particular revelation – and an unshowy crystallisation of what jazz is all about.

– Tony Benjamin

Photographs by Tim Dickeson