Cheltenham Jazz Festival
April 27-May 2, 2022
A prosperous Eighteenth Century spa town in the Cotswolds, chic Cheltenham is famed for its annual festivals, which now cover everything from horse racing to science. Taking place over six days leading up to the early May bank holiday weekend, its jazz festival is arguably the UK's biggest, outside London's gargantuan November shindig. Covid put paid to 2020 and 2021's in-person gigs, so it wasn't surprising that the organizers decided to err on the side of caution when it came to booking: this year's event featured some familiar (not to say over-familiar) names, including Gregory Porter
, Jamie Cullum
, Imelda May and Corinne Bailey Rae
. Porter, Cheltenham's artistic curator, is an active contributor, and could be seen around the site, wearing a broad grin as he posed for selfies with fans.
As is the case with so many jazz festivals, a lot of the acts had no discernible connection to jazz: the likes of Robert Plant, James Bay, Paloma Faith and Tom Odell were included to entice the uncommitted, and to provide some financial stability for the festival as a whole.
Most of this year's performers were British, along with a few big names from the USA. The festival operates across a variety of town centre venues, including the basement bar of the Hotel du Vin, which traditionally hosts the packed-to-overflowing late-night jam sessions, as festival-goers crane their necks in the hope of a visit from---yes---Gregory Porter, who has obliged in previous years. Cheltenham also offers important platforms for young and emerging musicians, of which more later.
LA's Lady Blackbird
patrols the boundaries of jazz, soul and rock, hence the comparisons often drawn between her and Nina Simone
, from whose song "Blackbird" she took her stage name. Lady B shares Simone's taste for the stark and dramatic, as well as the pointed lyrics about race and civil rights. Her band is musically diverse. Their distinctive sound is the result of combining Chris Seefried's country rock guitar with the cool, jazzy phrasing of pianist Kenneth Crouch
. Lady Blackbird leaves a lot of space in the slow-burning songs from her album Black Acid Soul
: among those with the biggest emotional punch at Cheltenham were "Five Feet Tall," "Nobody's Sweetheart" andmost of allthe dreamy "Peace Piece"-inspired "Fix It."
A little later on, avant-garde provocateurs Dave Douglas
and Joey Baron
hit the stage with their set for trumpet and drum kit. If one had stumbled across them performing on some funky street corner, one would probably have enjoyed the music more. But in a large marquee with seating for many hundreds, it sounded skeletal. When bands perform without a chord instrument, the audience can usually "hear" the harmony from the context. In this case, even more mental energy was required, because there was no bass either, and much of the time you had to imagine the rhythmic pulse too, as Baron was playing the drums like a melody instrument.
It was sometimes left to the younger performers to remind us where jazz came from. A product of London's influential Tomorrow's Warriors jazz education programme, the Amy Gadiaga Quartet played a refreshingly quiet and reflective set on the festival's busy Free Stage. There is something of fellow Francophone Cecile McLorin Salvant
in Gadiaga's sly re-interpretations of jazz standards. A double bassist and singer, Paris-born Gadiaga has an intimate, faux-naïve singing style, whether in English, French or Spanish, that belies her clear political consciousness. Highlights were versions of Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" and Betty Carter's sweetly swinging "30 Years." She was very ably supported by Joseph Oti on trumpet, Luke Bacchus on piano and Simon Lamb on drums. We will be hearing much more from them.
The festival makes a big commitment to musical education, with events for children and young people of all ages, giving school and college students the opportunity to perform in front of large and supportive crowds. Immediately after the Amy Gadiaga Quartet there followed an intensely enjoyable performance by the twenty members of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire AfroCuban Jazz Orchestra. These gifted music students delivered a blistering set whose energy, commitment and dazzling chops put them in contention for the best gig of the festival. Their twin aims were to kick ass and entertain, and in both they succeeded mightily, ending their set with a conga line around the tent.
Trumpeter, composer and and band-leader Laura Jurd
has become a festival regular over recent years, performing in 2019 with her jazz-rock quartet Dinosaur. This time, working in a distinctively modernist European tradition, she fronted a large ensemble in which all the members of Dinosaur were embedded, along with a string quartet, and players of trombone, euphonium and electric guitar. Jurd herself switched to cornet for this gig. Her music is often edgy, as in the case of pieces like "Jumping In" and "Ishtar"the latter written by pianist Elliot Galvin
. But it's always atmospheric, and mostly melodic. "Companion Species" in particular was a more relaxed, jazz-inflected tune, with lovely solos from Jurd and guitarist Rob Luft
, whose specialty is to enhance every tune with layers of cloudy ambience.
In his 82nd year, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz
shows no sign of slowing down. His young London-based band Maisha
, whose original members included Tomorrow's Warriors alumni Shirley Tetteh
and Nubya Garcia
(who had her own Cheltenham gig this year), are driven by their pursuit of the "spiritual jazz" path blazed by Sun Ra
, Pharoah Sanders
, John Coltrane
and Alice Coltrane
. Bartz and Maisha recorded an album together (Night Dreamer
) around the time the pandemic struck. At Cheltenham, Bartz sang several of the tunes in a voice a little cracked by age but all the more poignant for that. A long career in music gives performers a huge choice of material: the slow, bluesy opener "No More" was followed by "I've Known Rivers" from an album Bartz recorded in 1973, the song inspired by a Langston Hughes poem, while the gentle bossa nova "Precious Energy" was recorded with Leon Thomas in the late Eighties. This music is not about harmonic progression. Instead it relies on a few simple chords and a lot of blissed-out soloing. It floods the room with sunny, optimistic vibes at a time in which such feelings are in desperately short supply.
The next day's gig from drummer Moses Boyd
, playing material from his new Dark Matter
album, followed a somewhat similar modal trajectory. Again, the feeling was in the groove and the flow rather than the chords, but as the album title suggests, it was an altogether darker experience, much of it supplied by keyboard wizard and synth bassist Renato Paris
and guitarist Artie Zeitz
. Paris in particular poured out a wide variety of sounds, from deep growling bass to an echoing, haunted ballroom style of piano, while Zeitz teased spiky rejoinders from his guitar, some of it in the vein of Jimi Hendrix
in his quieter moments. Alto saxophonist Tyrone Isaac-Stuart
was a last-minute replacement for the unavailable Quinn Oulton, and added some edgy, passionate solosand dancing. All the while Moses Boyd supplied his trademark insistent grooves, sometimes unleashing a sequence of ever louder rolls around the kit. It was a controlled, masterful performance. Don't be surprised if, in a few years' time, Porter bequeathes Boyd the artistic curatorship.