After last year’s swelter, Cheltenham Festival offered a more temperate climate for 2019’s week of jazz – a genre where cool is always welcome. There was a cool new venue too – a Gilles Peterson curated pop-up (pop-down?) nightclub in a department store basement offering a hipster counterpoint to mainstage big names including Gregory Porter, Incognito and Jamie Cullum. Overall it seemed that, along with a wider UK jazz audience, the town was turning out for the occasion. 

Three jazz big guns featured on Saturday to slightly mixed results, with John Surman’s appearance with the Brass Project disappointingly light on the saxophonist’s own playing. John Warren’s hour-long composition ‘Traveller’s Tale’ felt monochromatic, lacking in variety of tone, though Chris Laurence’s bass made a notably lively contribution. Over in the Big Top Abdullah Ibrahim once again proved that, like a skilled homeopath, he dispenses the minimum of his own playing needed to satisfy an audience. Apart from occasional interjections and an occasional linking segue, he left his band Ekaya to carry the gig.

By contrast the opening witty deconstruction of ‘Mack The Knife’ established that Joshua Redman (top) was out to enjoy himself. He powered through a set that ranged from smoking funk-bopper ‘Tailchase’ to the lusher balladry of ‘Never Let Me Go’ before welcoming Soweto Kinch for an unannounced guest spot. The two ripped into some hard-bopping blues, trading solos with proper competitive vigour to the great amusement of impressive bass man Reuben Rogers.

TD Soweto Kinch 10

The festival’s ‘Trios With A Twist’ theme also included Kinch’s own gig opening things at the Parabola Theatre, associate curator Tony Dudley-Evans’ favoured venue for more adventurous music. SUNLIGHT (above) pitched the saxophonist and MC together with astounding Swiss vocal artist Andreas Schaerer and Finnish guitarist Kalle Kalima. What ensued was remarkable: a largely improvised stream of musical consciousness loosely woven around Kinch’s rap-style lyrics, musically shifting from free jazz to hip-hop and prog to schmaltz. What unified it was the vocalist’s phenomenal range, incorporating scat, vocal experimentation and beatboxing into a flexible sonic vocabulary that shapeshifted into whatever the music called for.

Hermia Ceccaldi Darrifourcq gave a third impressive ‘twisted trio’ gig with the additional curveball that illness brought dep saxophonist Quentin Biardeau into the band’s strongly original (and highly combative) set. Slamming into the relentlessly physical monotone of ‘Someone Burned The Pie’, drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq and cellist Valentin Ceccaldi created a furious post-industrial onslaught that rarely let up. One number even included an alarm clock, and by the end half the audience were exhilarated, half exasperated… but all were wide awake.

TD Julia Campiche 05

More subtle, yet equally impressive, Swiss harpist Julie Campiche’s (above) UK debut revealed a unique voice both in her electronically processed instrument and the style of her playing. Her quartet steered their way through the lengthy ‘Onkalo/To The Holy Land’ suite with remarkable empathy, managing extended electronic spells and shifting rhythmic forms with seamless precision.

Anticipation for the Rymden (below) concert in the Jazz Arena had been high and not disappointed by the Scandinavian supertrio of EST rhythm section Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström with Norwegian renegade Bugge Wesseltoft. Their music was highly textured, rarely sounding like a conventional piano trio, with effortless shifts of gear and mood that fed moments of coordinated technical brilliance few others could hope to emulate.

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But for sheer entertainment Cuban pianist Omar Sosa’s tireless grin and exuberant exploration of Afro-Cuban style with singer/violinist Yilian Cañizares and percussionist Gustavo Palacios was incomparable. Whether pounding rich montuno, sweeping a romantic ballad or even dancing energetically with the vocalist his music lifted the spirits and brought the audience to their feet long before their triumphant finish was drowned in huge applause.

Tony Benjamin

Photos by Tim Dickeson

 JazzArt Katowice

If many contemporary jazz festivals opt for maximum numbers, gigs-wise, then this well curated event in Katowice, an elegant city in the Silesian region of Poland, keeps the figures under control. Over its four-day term, there are no more than five concerts every 24 hours, which means that timetable clashes and the general audience fatigue that can afflict bigger events are not to be feared. JazzArt breathes. The use of venues such as bookshops and museums, as well as concert halls, such as the large scale Miasta Ogrodow, adds to the overall negotiability within the excitement generated by a programme of national and international artists.

The performance that sums this up more than any other is Erik Friedlander’s imaginative project Block Ice & Propane. Known for his work with John Zorn and Fred Hersch, and solo albums such as 1998’s Topaz, Friedlander appears solo in a calm yet stimulating context. He tells the story of his family’s road trips across America during his childhood that were captured by a series of captivating black-and-white portraits by his father Lee, a professional photographer who packed wife and children into a camper van for the epic journeys. The result is a charming, often candid evocation of a memorable ritual that is vividly brought to life by the images, and Friedlander’s jaunty storytelling and articulate composing. His melodies move from languorous whole notes to agitated eighth-note flurries that capture the intimacy and tension of life at close quarters on the freeways.

Though contending with recurrent tuning issues Friedlander gives a good narrative arc to the set that concludes with a reprise of Eric Dolphy’s ‘Serene’. On the previous evening he was heard as part of the Franco-American quartet Reverso, an interesting band that largely fulfils its mission statement of blending jazz and classical music. Trombonist Ryan Keberle and pianist Frank Woeste prove to be good soloists in a programme of understated harmonies and hard rhythmic edges that also highlights Friedlander’s comping skills in the company of a small group that often punches above its weight.

Spanish double-bassist Giulia Valle, a mainstay of the Barcelona scene for over two decades, more or less accomplishes the same with a trio comprising younger players, pianist Tom Amat and drummer Adri Claremunt, who also feature in her septet. A writer who is able to combine a populist touch with artistic finesse, Valle has a firm grip on the music of the Americas in the widest sense, from jazz to tango to calypso, and the danceable themes are enhanced by her own potent improvisations and smart exchanges with Amat, who also creates ghostly effects on a keyboard. Sadly, Claremunt’s drumming is crash-bang-loud on occasion, drowning out the finer points of the arrangements, which, in the exposed setting of a trio, is problematic, to say the least.

Austria’s Zsamm, on the other hand, is more than happy to bring the noise. Maija Osojnik’s active volcano of electronics and vocals and Patrick Wurzwallner’s equally seismic drums are a culture shock for seated punters who are nonetheless mostly responsive. Punkish, brutish and banshee-like in resonance they have a touch of The Creatures about them, though there is much more improvisation in their aesthetic. As for Norwegian singer Marja Mortensson she has a bracing, at times tempestuous energy that is deeply rooted in the Sami tradition of ‘joik’, a kind of praise song to a person, place or animal. The singer’s nasal timbre is striking, especially as it cast against the soft folds of Daniel Herskedal’s tuba and bass trumpet. The music often has a quality of poignant lament that finds favour with an audience for whom the language barrier is no obstacle at all. Without an avalanche of gigs for listeners to contend with maybe concentration levels are that much higher.

Kevin Le Gendre 
– Photo by Radosław Kaźmierczak

Progressive jazz five-piece Bonsai – formerly known as Jam Experiment – are hitting the road for an extensive UK tour in support of the debut album, Bonsai Club, which is released on the Ubuntu Music label on 31 May. Featuring trombonist Rory Ingham, violinist/vocalist Dominic Ingham, keyboardist Toby Comeau, electric bassist Joe Lee and drummer Jonny Mansfield, the band explore a mix of hook-laden melodies, contemporary grooves and improvisation.

See a taster of the band’s album below – tour dates are: Ribble Valley Jazz Festival, Clitheroe (4 May); Stratford Jazz, Stratford-upon-Avon (8 May); Wakefield Jazz, Yorkshire (10 May); North Devon Jazz Club, Appledore (13 May); St. Ives Jazz Club, Cornwall (14 May); Jazzlines, Birmingham (24 May); Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho, London - ALBUM LAUNCH (28 May); Teignmouth Jazz, Devon (24 July); Soundcellar, Poole (25 July); The Verdict, Brighton (26 July); Fleece Jazz, Colchester (13 Sept); Hermon Chapel Arts Centre, Oswestry (15 Sept); The Whiskey Jar, Manchester (16 Sept); PARRJAZZ, Liverpool (17 Sept); The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh (18 Sept); The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen (19 Sept); The Blue Arrow, Glasgow (20 Sept); Scarborough Jazz Festival, Yorkshire (22 Sept); Seven Jazz, Leeds (6 Oct); The Stables, Milton Keynes (8 Oct) and
Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall, London (31 Oct).

Mike Flynn

For more info visit www.bonsaibanduk.com

Savannah DafnisPrietoBigBand FrankStewart

This 30th edition of the Savannah Music Festival featured a strong jazz presence, though spread throughout its extended run rather than dominating just one week, as has previously been the case. Balmy Savannah boasts many verdant squares, seemingly on almost every street intersection, with its festival venues all easily walkable, from east to west of this historically-preserved town centre in Georgia state.

The festival’s first Saturday presented a notably fine roster, each combo playing a pair of sets, from the afternoon into the evening. The Dafnis Prieto Big Band now seems to be its leader’s main vehicle, following his early-career emergence within a powerhouse smaller combo. Now, that energy has multiplied, but the Cuban sticksman, composer and arranger Prieto (pictured above) has also ensured that subtle colouration illuminates his big band charts, besides any expected forcefulness.

Prieto played in the medium-sized Charles H. Morris Center, the festival’s core venue, perfectly balancing the jazz and latin elements of his sound, the latter strong in the hands of percussionist Roberto Quintero and salsa-shaper pianist Alex Brown. The bond between Prieto and Quintero is tight, the leader playing his kit with a timbales ring. The opening salvo of 'Una Vez Mas' was followed by the lusty propulsion of 'So Long Ago', twinned flutes contrasting with tenor and baritone saxophone depth, not to mention the soft mass of the bass trombone. 'Song For Chico' held an elaborate power, with alto solos at key points, while 'Two For One' pushed forward a forceful percussion lattice. All of these Prieto pieces resounded with a bassy push throughout the ranks. Michael Blake delivered a rough-edged tenor solo of twining thought, whereas Román Filiu and Joel Frahm were underused, at least during the second set. It was Prieto himself who crowned this later sequence, his kit sounding quite dry, all the better to make blows with a no-reverbed staccato power.

Savanah JohnMedeski 2 2 ElizabethLeitzell

Just right for the afternoon, there was an inspired double-bill at the Ships Of The Sea Museum, a garden space with an all-spanning canopy, leaving its sides open to the sun-beaming elements. John Medeski’s Mad Skillet and Jon Cleary’s Absolute Monster Gentlemen brought the New Orleans vibe a bit further north, alternating two sets apiece, to extend into the evening. Mad Skillet allows Medeski to attach his full-on prowess to a parade band base, as Kirk Joseph (pictured above) takes the tough attitude towards his breath-bluster on sousaphone, creating a buoyant foundation for his leader’s Hammond organ eruptions. Medeski opened the floodgates early, pausing only for a sensitive melodica dapple, his head otherwise down deep in the Leslie speaker’s whirr. Old Dirty Dozen Brass Band member Joseph literally took it out onto the floor, parading through the crowd by the second number, before 'Blister' burst its skin, his big horn electronically tweaked for a cosmic gumbo-flatulence solo, close to the set’s climax.

Jon Cleary’s keyboard trio displayed a more conventional love for New Orleans tradition, though the leader’s vocals sometimes smoothed out a number or two, taking a poppier, or balladeering path. Cleary is actually an Englishman, but has been living in the Crescent City for around 40 years. His 'Unnecessarily Mercenary' grabbed our lugholes straight away, piano cavorting over an earthy bassline. All three band members sang choruses in unison, and when Cleary solos, it’s invariably a racing scamper of expressive notes. On 'Been And Gone', he delivers verses like he’s in a tiny saloon, naturally expanding into this larger setting. Around half way through the set, Cleary slung a guitar around his neck and the resulting solos were given a different incarnation. Professor Longhair’s 'Tipitina' opened gently, getting into a flouncing step, with hollerin’ vocals, then moving towards a salsa cowbell zone, the set concluding with the stutter funk of 'Just Kissed My Baby' (by The Meters), bringing in an a capella section. By this time, the two bands had jointly covered just about every possible variation on the sound of New Orleans.

Martin Longley
– Photos by Frank Stewart (Dafnis Prieto) and Elizabeth Leitzell (Kirk Joseph)

With Cheltenham Jazz Festival set for a busy six days and nights of music running from 1 to 6 May across the Bank Holiday weekend, it’s been confirmed that an all-star revival of iconic 1960s BBC TV show, Jazz 625, will be broadcast live from the festival on BBC4 on Friday 3 May. Combining live music, archive clips, features and interviews, and a house band led by pianist Robert Mitchell, guests will include Gregory Porter, Joshua RedmanJean ToussaintShirley Tetteh (above left) and Jacqui Dankworth (above centre). 

There will also be an exclusive pre-recorded live performance from Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts (above right with bassist Dave Green) on a hard-swinging set with top US saxophonist Scott Hamilton, plus a new interview with Dame Cleo Laine reflecting on her performance on an original Jazz 625 episode. Those wishing to attend can apply for tickets at www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz625.

The full festival programme is now available online and includes headliners such as Abdullah Ibrahim, The Bad Plus, Joshua Redman Trio, Nubya Garcia, Yazz Ahmed, plus dynamic duos Nikki Yeoh/Zoe Rahman and Omar Sosa/Yilian Canizares. Alongside these shows the festival’s Freestage and ‘around town’ programme will spread the music beyond the dedicated site in Montpellier Gardens, with 90 free gigs at street stages and venues around the town.

The Yamaha Discovery Space also hosts plenty of workshops aimed at getting kids (and their parents) into the music, with sessions including Jazz Babies, Evelyn and the Yellow Birds with Cherise Adams-Burnett, Sound Discoveries with Jason Singh and Family Sing with Alice Zawadzki among many others.

The Henry Westons stage also presents acoustic performances from a wide range of artists throughout the weekend, while there’s jamming until the small hours at the Hotel Du Vin, plus aftershow parties and late night DJ sets. Birmingham-based Stoney Lane Records will once again run the on-site record store that will also host numerous post-gig signing sessions with the stars of this year’s event. Jazzwise is the festival’s media partner.

– Mike Flynn

For full details and tickets visit www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz/

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