Cheltenham – what will you be going to hear?

So, Cheltenham is upon us, and it’s time to plan what to do. In many ways this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival is going to be a very different experience.

Of course, jazz is always different, always new, with the musicians playing this music having a pathological fear of repeating themselves. So, even if bassist Dave Holland or guitarist John Scofield, or pianist and composer Carla Bley has played Cheltenham before, the performances this weekend will be fresh and original. And even if you’ve seen a band like Polar Bear or Trio VD fairly recently, the way in which every band ups its game for a festival means nothing can be predicted with certainty.

But this year Cheltenham will also feel different outside of the music. Regular festival-goers will be familiar with that well-trodden route between the major venues of the Town Hall and Everyman Theatre. But no more. The organisers have chosen to consolidate the festival around the Town Hall and the adjoining Imperial Gardens, erecting a large Jazz Arena marquee in addition to the usual outdoor stage. There will be food and jazz market stalls in the gardens as well, and they hope to create a really concentrated festival feel in this area. They are calling it Jazz On The Square. Another new venue is the nearby Playhouse Theatre.

Why no Everyman? Well, I guess it’s a matter of plain economics, a bullet we will all just have to bite stoically upon, while trying to ignore the memory that the Everyman was one of the finest places in the land in which to hear jazz music.

So, how is the weekend going to pan out? Well, the festival actually started last night with an intimate evening with musical star Elaine Paige at the Daffodil restaurant. And it continues this evening with more of Elaine, this time in the Town Hall, plus a Funk & Soul Night with DJ Craig Charles at the University of Gloucester’s Park Bar, and rockabilly singer Imelda May inaugurating the Jazz Arena programme.

Friday night is always Music Night, courtesy of one of the festival’s big supporters, BBC Radio 2, and this year Ol’ Blue Eyes is the man being celebrated. Elsewhere, there is some blues from Eric Bibb in the Jazz Arena and Trio VD doing their damnedest to shake up your late night at the Town Hall Pillar Room.

Meanwhile, over at The Playhouse Theatre, there is the first of three sessions dedicated to free improvisation called Stewart Lee’s Freehouse, hosted by comedian Stewart Lee. He will also be talking about his interest in avant garde jazz on Sunday.

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Saturday and Sunday are the really jam-packed days with 14 or so events apiece.

There is a strong Norwegian theme running through these days – Norway being a hugely important and vibrant jazz centre in the 21st century. So, we have the Norwegian/UK duo Food, the attractive jazz-pop of Beady Belle, and the weirdly wonderful Bulgarian-tinged folk-jazz of Farmers Market. The students of Norway’s Trondheim Conservatory and Birmingham’s Conservatoire will come together in the Trondheim Jazz Project.

The big international names over the weekend include US band leader Carla Bley and her Lost Chords group which includes British saxophonist Andy Sheppard and Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu; US guitarist John Scofield, who hasn’t played over here much in recent years but has always proved a favourite with rock as well as jazz fans; the much-admired reeds player John Surman; and the Wolverhampton boy made good, bassist Dave Holland, who has a really interesting jazz/world project with flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela.

Look out, too, for the Kit Downes Trio, for trumpeter Cuong Vu, and for Empirical.

On the relatively quieter Bank Holiday Monday, the festival’s accent is on the family with the always-packed Breakfast Show in the Town Hall, fun events on the Square, and a big Town Hall finale featuring retro soul singer Paloma Faith with the Guy Barker Orchestra. Paloma will be singing some Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald numbers as well as her own songs.

There is grown-up jazz on Monday, too, with Polar Bear as well as pianist Liam Noble and singer Christine Tobin interpreting Carole King’s Tapestry album in a jazz manner. There’s also a strong Birmingham showing on Monday with Sid Peacock taking his big band into The Playhouse Theatre, and the Lluis Mather Quartet – winners of the Dave Holland Prize for best band to come out of the current Birmingham Conservatoire jazz course – in the Town Hall Pillar Room.

Of course, the festival will extend into the rest of Cheltenham with a very healthy Fringe programme which has been going from the start of the week.

And, finally, let’s not forget guest director Jamie Cullum, who has helped programme the festival this year and gets to strut his stuff in the Cheltenham Town Hall on Sunday evening. Jamie’s picks of the festival include Beady Belle and a London-based biggish band called Fringe Magnetic.


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