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Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2011: April 27-May 2, 2011

Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2011: April 27-May 2, 2011
Bruce Lindsay By

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Cheltenham Jazz Festival
Cheltenham, England
April 27-May 2, 2011
The Cheltenham Jazz Festival, now in its sixteenth year, is one of the more eclectic of British jazz festivals, this year featuring major jazz figures such as vocalist Dame Cleo Laine and singer/pianist Jamie Cullum, cutting-edge bands like Outhouse and Curios, and throwing in a few surprises along the way. Its working definition of "jazz" is an inclusive one, finding space for R&B, blues and hip-hop as well. Cullum's role as guest director for the second year also helped to ensure a diverse program, as did a link with the Norwegian Embassy that helped to enable the presence of players such as pianist Tord Gustavsen.

The festival takes place in a range of venues around Cheltenham, a spa town in the west of England, including an outdoor free stage and the jazz arena—a large and well-appointed marquee—both of which were set up in the Imperial Gardens. The Cheltenham Town Hall provided two venues, while the nearby Hotel Du Vin played host to three lively and energetic jam sessions into the early hours. The Gardens also housed a range of bars, food stalls and shops, including a well-stocked record and CD tent with a classy selection of jazz on vinyl.

Cheltenham's place in the top division of jazz festivals has been assured for some years and means that it gains sponsorship from Arts Council England, BBC Radio 2 (the UK's most popular national radio station) and The Times, among others. The BBC's involvement meant that the festival received widespread coverage, with the Friday night Town Hall concert featuring guitarist Martin Taylor and singer/keyboardist Georgie Fame being broadcast live as an edition of the Radio 2 show Friday Night Is Music Night. Another media link meant that Cullum's Sunday night concert was shown live in over 75 cinemas across the UK and Europe. This is the kind of media coverage that most jazz festivals would envy. Cheltenham deserves it, for it is one of the most innovative of British jazz festivals, as well as one of the best-organized and friendliest.

With almost 50 concerts, plus jam sessions and free stage performances, it's a busy festival with many events taking place in parallel—most evenings saw three or even four events taking place at one time—decisions had to be made. Would it be the big names, the newcomers, the improvisers, the combined dinner and concert evenings, the jazz-and-science or the jazz-and-comedy? The mix of old, new, familiar and unfamiliar, paid off with some memorable gigs.

James Hunter opened the Jazz Arena with a sold-out show to an enthusiastic audience of R&B fans. Hunter has been a popular draw on the European festival and club circuit for two or three decades—originally performing as Howlin' Wilf. This is good-natured, good time R&B with the occasional hint of reggae, delivered by a slick sextet. Hunter was a great front-man, assured, funny and with an authentic vocal sound that is ideally suited to his band's '50s and '60s inspirations. Most of the tunes were Hunter's own compositions, but there were also a few covers, including a shuffle-beat version of "Think"—made famous by James Brown—and a Bo Diddley number, "Dearest," originally recorded by Mickey and Sylvia.



Kyle Eastwood also took to the Jazz Arena stage, delivering a stylish set that was well-paced and immediately accessible. Most of the set was devoted to the bassist's 2011 album Songs From The Chateau (Candid Records), including "Marciac," "Soul Captain" and "Tonic." Eastwood, who switches between electric and acoustic instruments with ease, has a confident and friendly stage presence. The highlight of the set was his duo performance with pianist Andrew McCormack 99, of the theme from Clint Eastwood's 2006 film Letters From Iwo Jima, a beautifully controlled display of musicianship from both men that kept the audience hushed.

Not to be outdone by these (relatively) young players, the old guard made some emphatic musical statements themselves. The Friday night performance by Pharoah Sanders was eagerly awaited by many festival goers, and despite a shaky start, he didn't disappoint. The veteran tenor player was resplendent in a sparkling gold shirt and played a brightly-shining gold saxophone. Initially there were problems with the monitors and he was seemingly uncomfortable with the quality of the on-stage sound. He played only a few bars of "Giant Steps" before wandering off stage, leaving his superb trio—Jonathan Gee on piano, Mark Hodgson on bass and expatriate American Gene Calderazzo on drums—to carry on without him. Thankfully the problems were temporary and his confident performance on "Naima" highlighted his famous tone, feeling and control.

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