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10th Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Cheltenham, England


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Quite aside from the annual jazz festival and several other related festivals, Cheltenham also lays claim to being located in some of the most beautiful countryside in England.
The Cheltenham Jazz Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. Running from April 27th to May 2nd in sunny Cheltenham in the south-west of England, the festival marked its first decade in some style. It scored two large coups in bringing Ornette Coleman, who celebrated his 75th birthday this year, and Herbie Hancock, each of whom performed a single bill at the Cheltenham Town Hall. The festival also featured the likes of Mina Agossi, Enrico Rava, Joshua Redman, English lasses Gwyneth Herbert and Clare Teal, German Markus Stockhausen and Brit-Jazz outfit Jazz Jamaica, performing in various venues over the town. There were also three 'Chill Out' chat sessions with Stockhausen, Ken Vandermark/ Bobby Previte and finally Yorkshire-girl Clare Teal to choose from. So some choices had to be made and at the end of the day, for me it was definitely Coleman and Hancock, Redman and a Chill-ed Out session with Teal.

Clare Teal: The 'Barbara Streisand of Harrogate'
Chill Out Lounge, Town Hall
Sunday 01 May, 5 p.m.

In her chat with broadcaster Christopher Cook, Claire Teal came across as a sincere, humorous and down-to-earth person. Quite unlike a person with 4 albums and critical acclaim to her credit already. The singer-songwriter grew up in Harrogate, Yorkshire where, like the story usually goes, she discovered big band music from a collection of her granny's records in the attic which introduced her to people like Glen Miller. From listening to these records, she started to sing along and from age seven knew that she loved the music. Early attempts at playing an instrument were limited to attempts on the organ her father bought that everyone in her family tried their hand at, and the clarinet. Her forays on the organ were apparently shortened by a "vicious" Yorkshire terrier that drove her to the clarinet. But later on in life she realised it was voice she wanted to do and left the instrument in peace.

As a young girl, Teal confessed, she was terribly afraid to reveal her love of jazz, going to the extreme of subscribing to the pop magazine Smash Hits in order to disguise it. So while she ended up being as well-versed in the pop charts as any other teenage girl, she scarcely knew the pop songs she talked about, preferring instead the music that would become her life - jazz. It was evident early on that her career was going to be a musical one, Teal said, and her parents were generally supportive of their daughter's chosen path; she went on to read a degree in music at university, but ended up selling advertising space to earn a living, continuing to write songs and sing in her spare time. Gigs were had to come by, and it was her love for performing that kept her searching. Somewhere along the way she placed second in a Billie Holiday competition, and went on to win some precious further exposure, although she realised early on that imitating Billie Holiday was not what she wanted to do, especially as she felt she could not compete with Holiday's emotional delivery.

That realisation may have been the point at which Teal felt she had to find her own voice. She describes herself as a song stylist, rather than a jazz singer, pointing out that it took her about seven years to develop her own distinct sound. She is a perfectionist, and loves the performing life. Teal's first album Nice Work came out on Candid records when she was 26, to which she was signed till last year when she came to the notice of Sony Music and Universal. She eventually signed to Sony after a bidding war between the two, and her Sony debut Don't Talk has been making waves here in Britain. With regard to this change, she appreciates the increased freedom and time that have come with having more money at her disposal to make an album, but found it hard initially to change bands as she had been through her early days with her previous band.

With a new album coming out in September and a busy touring schedule, Teal certainly has her best days ahead of her, despite her relatively late-found popularity. She acknowledges that many of Britain's younger pop-jazz acts like Jamie Cullum are really more jazz-y than jazz, but appreciates that they have shone the spotlight on British jazz, or perhaps more accurately, jazz in Britain; something which Teal herself is doing too.

Ornette Coleman: The Grand Old Man of Jazz
Town Hall Main Stage, Town Hall
Sunday 01 May, 8 p.m.

I was nearly shivering with excitement as I settled in my balcony seat in the 1000-seater Great Hall a few minutes to the Ornette Coleman gig. I mean, I was going to see a real live legend, someone who in jazz history ranks up there with the best of them; someone who was born around the time jazz and its offshoots were evolving and must have grown up absorbing these changes. It was clear that Coleman was the main attraction at this year's festival. Still, the audience took its time coming in, seemingly unhurried, but eventually the house was full to capacity. Coleman was introduced to long applause; he stood and acknowledged humbly, appearing rather frail on the large stage. Accompanying him were the two bassists Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga, together with his son and manager Denardo Coleman on drums.

For much of the show, Coleman straddled his stool in the centre of stage, looking straight down for the most part, and sometimes seeming rather detached from it all. Obviously at 75 his strength is not what it used to be, and he addressed the audience in a barely audible voice, but his age certainly did not show at all in his performance. Coleman, on alto sax and trumpet (and a fiddle once) constantly pushed the boundaries of free jazz and bebop; sometimes quirky and fast paced, at other times soft and contemplative. The solos were short and crisp, and most of the time the quartet just played on. Highlights included duets between Coleman's sax and the basses, as well as the bass duet itself, plus a highly energetic solo introduction of the night's last performance by drummer Denardo.

The excellent and ever-changing lighting heightened the enjoyment of the performance, though the acoustics of the hall weren't the best. Overall, it was an excellent ninety minutes, with a very professional and accomplished quartet. I was particularly impressed by the quiet way in which Coleman led, leaving enough room for each of the musicians to fit in comfortably. The group left the stage to a standing ovation.

Joshua Redman and the Elastic Band
Everyman Theatre
Monday 02 May, 4:30 p.m.

Originally entered in the programme as a trio, Joshua Redman's band ended up a quartet with saxophonist Redman, keyboardist Sam Yahel and drummer Jeff Ballard joined by guitarist Jeff Parker. As to why exactly they are called the Elastic Band, I am not sure, but it could be the concept that gives energy to their performances. Redman is excellent on his instrument and certainly doesn't limit himself to his solo sax performances, creating accompanying multi-layered audio effects with the EWI controller, seeming at times to be playing two saxophones at a go in perfect sync. His performance had a lot of energy to it, he proving highly excitable and blowing from deep within. Ballard (who has featured as a drummer for Brad Mehldau) was technically and stylistically excellent on the drums. Parker and Yahel were a little more subdued, but provided sufficient backup.

The performance started off with music from "an unlikely source", the Sheryl Crow-penned "River Wide", followed by "Greasy G", both off the new record Momentum. The night's repertoire included "Mantra #5", with its Indian influences and which saw a stellar performance from Ballard, "The Birthday Song" and "Swanky", which closed the afternoon's ninety minutes.

The music was firmly rooted in groove and funk, with lots of experimental electronic sounds introduced. The acoustics in the recently-refurbished, baroque-interior theatre were very good, but the let down was a very annoying hum that lasted all through the show. The lighting wasn't anything to write home about either, and made for a fairly dull setting.

Herbie Hancock
Town Hall Main Stage, Town Hall
Monday 02 May, 8 p.m.

Rounding off the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, for me at least, was this Herbie Hancock gig. Appearing with Lionel Loueke on guitar/vocals, Dave Carpenter on bass and the young-looking Ritchie Barsay on drums, Hancock proved the best value for money for me, performing non-stop for 150 minutes rather than the advertised ninety. Partly his fault, as he chose to play quite long compositions, on average over 15 minutes each. They kicked off with the keyboard-generated ambient/new age sounds of "Sonrisa", which proceeded to move into the classical realm before settling into a gentle jazz ballad. This was quickly followed by the equally long "Virgin Africa", composed and vocalised by Loueke, followed by "Coney Island", a Barsay composition, and "Benny's Tune".

Hancock made it a point to use both the piano and the synthesizer, sometimes seemingly just for the fun of it. Nevertheless, he was most inspired on piano and swung veritably when the occasion called for it; solid, mad, inspired and impromptu. Loueke was solid and adventurous on guitar, and doubly inspired when he combined it with Richard Bona-esque vocals. Carpenter was steady on the bass and the young Barsay more than impressive on the drums. I was a little miffed as I could not quite see him from where I sat.

The material played on the night was, as Hancock said, new and upcoming. Admittedly it was mildly disappointing not to hear some of his old favourites like Watermelon Man, or even the seminal Rockit, especially considering he had his synths set up. The night seemed to highlight more contemplative compositions for the quartet. The music was not the only new thing; Hancock pointed out that this was the first tour the quartet was playing as a group, having played Edinburgh the previous night.

The highlight of the night was the solo guitar/vocal piece by the talented Loueke. The full house was not disappointed and showed their gratitude to Hancock and his band.

Cheltenham Town: Something for Everybody

In between the performances, there was plenty to enjoy in Cheltenham. Quite aside from the annual jazz festival and several other related festivals, Cheltenham also lays claim to being located in some of the most beautiful countryside in England. The town itself is easy to explore on foot. It's known for being at its prettiest in the spring, when in full bloom. Spring therefore is a particularly good time to visit Cheltenham, when the trees are at their greenest and the flowers at their brightest and freshest. The weather on the two days I was there was excellent; sunny, warm and dry.

There's lots of shopping to do for those so inclined, with shops amply spread within the town centre catering for high fashion and glamour as well as antiques and gift items. A walk away from the outskirts provides glimpses into large, ornate houses, leafy winding driveways and expensive convertible cars, giving the impression that Cheltenham is home to lots of well-to-do folks. Certainly the presence of the large Cheltenham Racecourse at which the Cheltenham Horse Races are held in May and June confirms that reputation as a playground for the rich.

So what do the not-so-rich do in Cheltenham? Alive with pubs, clubs (Sub Tone, The Office), theatre (Everyman Theatre), a museum and art gallery and plenty of leafy parks and the beautiful Imperial and Montpellier Gardens, there are plenty of options for relaxation in Cheltenham. For those not inclined to jazz, Cheltenham hosts several other festivals including a science festival, music festival, literature and folk festivals. Details can be found on the website.

Getting to Cheltenham is easy enough by road and rail from all over the UK. There are several hotels and lodges dotted over the town, with budget charges ranging from ₤15 (4-beddormitory accommodation at the Cheltenham YMCA) to ₤30 at places like the Central Hotel. Booking can generally be done online, with a deposit required. However, one would be advised to book early as the demand can be high around festivals such as the jazz one.

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