Cheltenham Jazz Festival – Review

Times Online May 4, 2010

This year’s festival was effectively two events running in parallel. The guest director, Jamie Cullum, oversaw an unashamedly populist programme with a tangential connection to jazz, featuring himself, Elaine Paige and Michael Parkinson’s tribute to Frank Sinatra. Hard-core jazz fans were well catered for by the long-established balance between international stars, rising talents and new commissions. An excellent free stage also featured local musicians.

A rousing set in the arena tent by John Scofield’s powerful quartet was ruined by an inadequate piano and poor amplification. The pianist, Michael Eckroth, struggled manfully with the instrument, and wrested some sparkling solos from it, not least on Charlie Parker’s Relaxing at Camarillo. This was taken at a gallop, but when the band throttled back to a slower tempo on I Want to Talk About You, the rapid decay of the sound made Scofield’s ballad lines sound as if they had been carved with a much blunter instrument than the one he was playing. A band of this stellar quality deserved a better setting.

Luckier by far were Carla Bley and the Lost Chords, whose guest trumpeter Paulo Fresu made the most of the Town Hall’s reverberant splendour. In the opening of Bley’s Banana Quintet his lyrical flugelhorn floated gloriously over the stately opening theme. Fresu lived every note, pointing his bell at the ceiling before swooping down towards his boots for some dense lower-register playing. The pace of Bley’s pieces was measured, but the internal energy generated by the drummer Billy Drummond and bassist Steve Swallow created variety, helped by some intense solos from Andy Sheppard. His tenor saxophone alternated wild wails and passionate growls with some dazzlingly fast fingering, culminating in a solo in which he kept two melody lines going simultaneously in different registers.

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John Surman also produced a spectacular command of the saxophone, both on soprano and baritone, in Nikki Yeoh’s suite Seven Deadly Sins. This Cheltenham commission was postponed from last year, but it included Yeoh’s most mature writing to date. The long, slow melody of Greed was a delight, and the raunchy blues of Lust connected her very contemporary ideas back to the great jazz tradition.

No set explored tradition more thoroughly than that of the bassist Dave Holland with the group of the flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela. Holland improvised brilliantly on flamenco forms, while the guitarist Josemi Carmona returned the compliment on Holland’s compositions. This band’s first appearance outside Spain promised great things for the future. Catch the group at the Barbican in July.

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