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Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2010-Sunday 2nd May

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2010-Sunday 2nd May

Musically the strongest day of the festival with Ian enjoying six excellent but very different performances. Photograph of Carla Bley by Tim Dickeson.

Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2010

Sunday 2nd May

EMPIRICAL

The young British band Empirical attracted great critical acclaim with the release of their eponymous début album in 2007. After a series of line up changes the group re-emerged in 2009 with “Out ‘n’ In” , an equally lauded album inspired by the music of the late Eric Dolphy, particularly Dolphy’s landmark 1964 release “Out To Lunch”.

Now comprised of original members Nathaniel Facey (alto sax) and Shaney Forbes (drums) plus newcomers Tom Farmer (double bass) and Lewis Wright (vibes) the group opened Sunday’s Pillar Room programme with an enjoyable run through of material from the new album. Empirical are a group with a firm grasp of the tradition as is evidenced by their stage attire of shirts, ties and razor sharp suits. They also embrace more contemporary jazz trends such as the growth of greater band democracy and all four members of the band share the announcements thus emphasising the democratic nature of the group.

“Out To Lunch”, although an acknowledged jazz classic is hardly the easiest of listens but Empirical update Dolphy’s ideas in a wholly accessible fashion without ever diluting his ideas. Today’s music comprised of Dolphy inspired originals by Facey and Farmer plus arrangements of two Dolphy classics from “Out To Lunch” in the form of “Hat And Beard” and “Gazzelloni”.

Farmer’s “Out But In” began the proceedings, it’s boppish, Dolphy flavoured runs framing excellent solos from Facey, Wright and Farmer. Equally impressive was the colourful drumming of Forbes, his playing a throughout a superlative mix of clever detail and a subtle propulsiveness that inspired but never overwhelmed his colleagues.

Facey’s “So He Left” referenced Dolphy’s on/off tenure with the notoriously difficult bassist Charles Mingus’ band. This was primarily a vehicle for the composer with its solo alto sax opening and with Facey dominant throughout. There was even a touch of humour with the stop/start nature of the music seeming to reflect the story behind it.

The saxophonist was also prominent on the group’s enjoyable arrangement of “Hat And Beard”, a tune written by Dolphy in honour of Thelonious Monk. Facey and Wright were the featured soloists here but the version on “Out ‘N’ In” also features the wonderful bass clarinet playing of guest Julian Siegel. It was a shame Siegel wasn’t here today, his presence would have been the icing on what was already a very tasty cake.

The title of Facey’s “A Bitter End For A Tender Giant” made reference to the tragic circumstances of Dolphy’s premature and unnecessary death. The piece was actually played at Cheltenham last year when Facey was part of the Jerwood Allstars group who played with drummer Jack DeJohnette at the Everyman Theatre. Facey’s lament was suitably sombre in tone with a brooding intro for alto and arco bass. Wright and Facey showed suitable sensitivity in their solos but a certain anger crept in to the saxophonist’s playing in the closing stages of the tune, a reflection of his feelings regarding the sad and needless nature of Dolphy’s demise.

When I spoke to Facey only the week before at his solo gig in Abergavenny (see review elsewhere on this site) he spoke of his admiration for young vibes wizard Wright. “Lewis is a monster, man” he said. Wright’s Musser vibes had been too low in the mix at the start but once that problem had been rectified he was flying and he showed his “monster” credentials here with a dazzling, four mallet solo, mallet heads a blur of mesmerising activity. Wright’s solo had been driven by Farmer’s insistent bass pulse and the bassist also featured as a soloist before Facey took the tune storming out. Great stuff.

The lengthy “Dolphyus Morphyus” was Facey’s distillation of all of Dolphy’s ideas in ten minute tour de force. The piece opened with a dialogue between Facey on alto and the imaginative Forbes at the drums. There was then some incredible interplay between Forbes and Wright anchored by Farmer’s bass before Wright took off with another stunning solo.

Farmer’s reflective ensemble piece “Bowden Out” brought the first gig of a hugely enjoyable first gig of the day to a close. The standard of the musicianship had been uniformly high and the group’s pithy, literate, democratically shared announcements helped shed light on the stories behind the music. Empirical’s star continues to rise and we should hear a lot more from this talented set of young musicians.

CARLA BLEY AND THE LOST CHORDS FIND PAOLO FRESU

From up and coming youngsters to a bona fide legend of the music. Pianist and composer Carla Bley has been writing and playing since the 1960’s and has introduced some classic but idiosyncratic tunes to the jazz canon. She has worked in every context from duo to “Very Big Band” (her description and the name of one of her touring units) and is probably best known for her work with large ensembles. In recent years however she has increasingly written for smaller groups and has grown in stature as a pianist and performer as opposed to just a composer.

The group Bley brought to Cheltenham was the Lost Chords a quartet comprising of herself on piano, long term associate (and life partner) Steve Swallow on electric bass, UK saxophonist Andy Sheppard on tenor (he’s worked with Bley on and off since 1989) and Billy Drummond on drums.
This line up first worked together in 2003 and in 2007 Bley added Sicilian trumpeter Paolo Fresu to the line up resulting in a quintet recording “The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu”. Thus it was that The Lost Chords came to Cheltenham augmented by Fresu and proceeded to play the majority of the material from this disc.

Having stayed until the end of the Empirical performance I found myself at the back of the cavernous and very full Main Hall. I positioned myself near the mixing desk figuring the sound would be pretty good there and was delighted to be proved right. The band sounded simply sumptuous, particularly Fresu’s rich, rounded flugel tones.

Bley’s surreal sense of humour is legendary and this was reflected in her wry stage announcements. The group commenced with Bley’s “The Banana Quintet”, actually a six movement composition which makes up the majority of the “The Lost Chords Find..” album.

At first it seemed as if each movement was going to feature an individual member of the band. “One Banana” began with a dialogue between Fresu on flugel and Sheppard on tenor, the pair of them trading phrases before Sheppard dropped out leaving Fresu to play a beautiful, velvet textured solo that immediately captivated all those present.

Swallow is one of the world’s greatest bass players, indeed I was to three such this weekend-Swallow, Holland and later Larry Grenadier of Fly. Swallow though is an electric bass specialist and he coaxed a singing, almost guitar like tone from his custom made five string instrument. An awful lot of bassists have a fifth string these days but Swallow was the pioneer and remains unparalleled in the sheer musicality and lyricism of his playing. “Two Banana” was for him.
The piece also featured Sheppard’s tenor, warm and slightly querulous but building in intensity as the tune progressed. Bley’s gospel chording ( so much of her music seems to have roots in the church) and Drummond’s firm,deft, quietly swinging drumming provided the springboard for excellent solos from Sheppard and Fresu on flugel, an instrument he played pretty much throughout the gig.   

Bley and Sheppard featured on “Three Banana”, the composer allowing herself a rare moment in the spotlight. She’s normally happy to function as a member of the ensemble and certainly doesn’t regard herself as a virtuoso soloist despite generally playing more in recent years.

“Four Banana” was perhaps the highlight of this section of the programme with some wonderful ensemble playing before Sheppard and Fresu traded lines in inspired fashion prior to a drum feature for the hitherto unobtrusive Drummond above Bley’s dense chording. Her piano solo then paved the way for another masterful statement from Fresu on flugel.

“Five Banana” featured Fresu on breezy trumpet and Sheppard at his most lyrical plus some characteristically excellent ensemble passages. “One Banana More” was a brief coda played solo by Fresu on mournful, muted trumpet.

Bley’s masterful suite was followed by “Rut” featuring characteristically rich horn voicings alongside Swallow’s articulate bass. Bley loves writing for horns and some of her whimsical humour came out as Sheppard and Fresu gleefully traded phrases and ideas.

The attractive"Ad Infinitum” crowned a superlative group performance and featured Fresu (flugel) and Sheppard’s best solos yet and drew an ecstatic response from a large and attentive crowd.

The inevitable encore was a thing of fragile beauty with Sheppard beginning on soprano before moving to tenor for his solo. The other soloist was Fresu showing his lyrical qualities on trumpet this time with Bley’s sparse piano chording as a backdrop. 

I was hugely impressed by the Lost Chords Quintet. It was the first time I’d seen Bley live since I saw the Big Band in Birmingham many years ago. I’ve not always been convinced by her small group work but this was writing and playing of the first order. Inevitably the two horn men took the bulk of the plaudits (it was my first sighting of Fresu, what a wonderful player) and Bley seemed happy for them to do so but the support offered by Bley, Swallow and Drummond fitted the frontliners like a glove. This was a show that just about held on to gig of the day status despite some very strong competition to follow.

FLY

There was a palpable sense of anticipation in a sold out Pillar room as fans waited for the acclaimed American trio Fly to hit the stage. Originally the Jeff Ballard Trio the group consists of pianist Brad Mehldau’s regular rhythm section of Ballard (drums) and Larry Grenadier (double bass) plus tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. Composing duties are shared equally among the trio and the group’s 2009 ECM release “Sky And Country” has attracted considerable critical acclaim(see Tim Owen’s review elsewhere on this site). Last November the trio played an outstanding gig at a rammed Charlie Wright’s in London, a performance subsequently transmitted on Jazz On Three. I heard the radio broadcast and found it very impressive hence my determination to see the group at Cheltenham. If today’s show perhaps lacked the visceral excitement of the group’s London performance there was still some excellent music to be heard with Grenadier particularly impressive.

I’ll admit that I’m not always a huge fan of Ballard’s playing. On the two previous occasions I’d seen him, with the Mehldau trio and subsequently the Metheny/Mehldau quintet, I’d found his drumming to be too loud and dominant, frequently drowning out the other members of the group. As this occurred at two separate venues (Bristol St.George’s and London Barbican respectively) I’d put this down to the musician rather than the sound technicians but I’m pleased to say that in his own band there was no way that Ballard was overpowering. In fact it was almost quite the opposite with Ballard being content to drum economically and to subtly provide the pulse that acted as the jumping off point for the inspired playing of Grenadier and Turner. He’s still the de facto leader though, handling the bulk of the tune announcements.

The trio began with Ballard’s “Lady B” sourced from the “Sky And Country” album. Fly pay compositions rather than improvising off the cuff as their name might suggest. Both Turner and Grenadier perform with music stands in front of them with only Ballard playing by pure memory/intuition. Nonetheless in the skeletal framework of the saxophone trio there is still plenty of room for improvisation.

Turner is a highly distinctive player making the tenor sax sound cool and lyrical. His effortlessly fluent tone and long melodic lines, often in the instrument’s upper (or altissimo) registers, combine to give him a unique approach to his instrument. He has commented that his chief influence is the late Warne Marsh who superseded the young Turner’s early fascination with John Coltrane.

Grenadier meanwhile is a phenomenally gifted player, simultaneously melodic and propulsive and an absolutely brilliant soloist. Over the course of the set he seemed to cover every inch of his bass in a display of physical resourcefulness that undermined his rather bookish appearance.

Following a couple of Turner tunes, the as yet unrecorded “Stark” and the from the album “Dharma Days”, the trio really caught fire with Grenadier’s “Emergence Resurgence”. Here the bassist introduced the tune giving it both it’s melodic motif and it’s deep underlying groove. Turner delivered his most full on playing thus far and Ballard’s drums were featured extensively.

The next tune (unannounced) saw Turner switch to soprano as the trio got almost funky, propelled by Grenadier’s deep,fat bass grooves. As the trio have stated, they try to share the carrying of the melody between them and nowhere was this better demonstrated than on the next unannounced piece which was bookended by Ballard’s drums with both Grenadier and Turner taking turns in the driving seat in between.

To close Turner’s “Supersister” offered perhaps the strongest theme of the set and climaxed with a volcanic drum solo from Ballard.

The saxophone trio isn’t always the most accessible line up in jazz but Fly’s combination of strong, melodic themes and virtuoso instrumental improvising has won them a considerable following. Their blend of adventure and accessibility should ensure that the group is around for a while yet. Despite Ballard and Grenadier’s commitment to Mehldau their side project has deservedly developed a life of it’s own. Grenadier’s contribution was little short of astonishing, he’s pretty much worth the price of admission on his own.

FRINGE MAGNETIC

The nine piece Fringe Magnetic are led by Jamie Cullum’s trumpet player Rory Simmons and it was Cullum in his role as guest director who was responsible for bringing the group to the festival.

The band feature many of the leading players from London’s Loop Collective and released their début CD on the Loop label in 2009. (See review elsewhere on this site). Originally convened for a commission from University College , London in 2006 “Empty Spaces” is a fascinating blend of jazz, folk and classical music that mixes both instrumental and vocal elements into a fascinating whole. I enjoyed the singular qualities of the group’s album and was particularly looking forward to their appearance at Cheltenham.

Playing in the Jazz Arena the group rose to the occasion and delivered a memorable performances that contained more than a few surprises. Amazingly Simmons had managed to convene the entire album line up and the band consisted of himself on trumpet and flugel, Tori Freestone (flute), Robin Fincker (clarinet), James Allsopp (bass clarinet), Kit Massey (violin), Natalie Rozario (cello), Ivo Neame (piano), Jasper Hoiby (bass) and Ben Reynolds (drums). They were later joined by guest vocalists Elisabeth Nygaard, who wrote much of the material with Simmons, and the singular Andrew Plummer, also of World Sanguine Report.

The group began with “Eyeball”, the album’s jaunty opener and the ensemble quickly found it’s feet. Massey and Rozario integrated superbly with their more jazz orientated colleagues as Simmons’ odd meter but catchy melodies and grooves quickly captured the hearts and minds of the crowd. Allsopp and Fincker were featured in a breezy clarinet duet before Neame soloed expansively over Reynolds’ drum groove.

“Empty Spaces” introduced Elisabeth Nygaard to the stage with the young Norwegian singer delivering her lyrics winningly in conjunction with Rozario’s cello and Allsopp’s bass clarinet. Later the group spread out a little more than on the record with Nygaard improvising wordlessly and Simmons delivering a fine flugel horn solo.

Despite his generally low key presence the conductor/leader then featured on trumpet on the instrumental “Little Boban”, a charming, typically whimsical dedication to a Serbian trumpeter of Simmons’ acquaintance. Simmons entered into a delightful dialogue with Fincker’s clarinet before Massey’s violin temporarily assumed the lead. In a fine ensemble piece both Fincker on clarinet and Simmons, this time on flugel, both featured again before the end.

The success of the “Empty Spaces” album has encouraged Simmons and Nygaard to write further material for Fringe Magnetic with a view to recording a second album in due course. “Awake Like This” was a new song making it’s début today, convincingly sung by Nygaard and featuring an excellent solo from Allsopp on bass clarinet.

Also new was the William Burroughs inspired “A Simple Matter” which introduced vocalist Andrew Plummer to the stage. Black clad, hat wearing Plummer is a singular, bohemian figure who sings like a cross between Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart with a touch of Phil Minton thrown in for good measure. He sang with his customary intensity and no little theatricality but he’s something of an acquired taste. Here he also duetted with Nygaard their extreme vocal sounds reminiscent of Minton (Plummer) and Julie Tippetts/Maggie Nichols (Nygaard).

Plummer stuck around to deliver “Fire In The Galley”, a new composition by himself and Simmons that drew heavily on Waitsian imagery. After an instrumental interlude which featured a fine ensemble reading of the album track “Short Stories” Plummer was back to roar his way through “Ish”, one of the focal points of the album. Here Simmons sets Charles Bukowski’s poem “Unblinking Grief” to music. Plummer’s howling of the line “the worst thing about life is finding it gone” is genuinely moving but in general most listeners tended to agree that a little of Andrew Plummer went an awfully long way.

Simmons had kept one final surprise up his sleeve until last, introducing his boss Jamie Cullum to duet with Nygaard on “Play It Once More”, a new number co-written by Simmons, Nygaard and Cullum. Nygaard and Cullum clearly enjoyed themselves on this arresting item, batting back and forth vocal lines in counterpoint. Instrumental honours went to flautist Freestone and Simmons himself on flugel.

Fringe Magnetic’s exotic mix of jazz and art song went down extremely well with the Jazz Arena crowd. Like the Downes trio the previous day this was a group that had risen to the occasion and seized the day. Simmons and his colleagues should be greatly heartened by the success of this performance and economics permitting the group should get the chance to record and perform again before too long. And although he was in a strictly supportive role today Hoiby’s name can be added to the weekend’s roll call of master bassists. 

CUONG VU
Born in Vietnam but raised in the US trumpeter Cuong Vu first came to mass attention as a member of the Pat Metheny Group on the latter’s 2002 “Speaking Of Now” album and tour. Left to his own devices Vu’s career has explored rather edgier territory and his current trio of electric bassist Luke Bergman and drummer Ted Poor made a big impression at the Pillar Room with their dynamic, high energy set.

I’d seen Vu with the Metheny Group back in the day and was curious to see him as a solo artist. I missed the start of his set as Fringe Magnetic overran and was initially surprised at the sheer volume the trio created. With Vu playing electronically hooked Yamaha trumpet and manipulating his sound through an effects unit plus Bergman’s heavily amplified and sometimes treated bass and Poor’s dynamic, rock influenced drumming the threesome kicked up a hell of a noise. They were even louder than Trio VD a couple of nights before.

The Guardian’s John Fordham clearly enjoyed their set immensely. I wasn’t quite so convinced, at times I found it rather too rock influenced and sometimes lacking in subtlety. I preferred Vu in his quieter moments, particularly those in which he artfully re-invented pop tunes and jazz standards. A spookily slowed down version of George Harrison’s “Something” with Vu on ethereally breathy trumpet was particularly effective. ” I know it’s not a standard, but it deserves to be” observed the trumpeter. Equally fine was the trio’s version of Jackson Browne’s beautiful song “Opening Farewell”.

Elsewhere the trio’s post rock improvisations were loud and visceral with Vu sometimes utilising echo effects on his trumpet. Maybe I missed out by not seeing the set from the start. Nobody else seemed to have any reservations and the trio were rapturously received by those present although admittedly numbers were down compared with earlier in the day. Certainly Mr Vu was never less than interesting and I might check out his contemporary take on “Bitches Brew” again sometime.

JOHN SCOFIELD

Scheduled opposite Jamie Cullum John Scofield was the “serious” jazz option for Sunday evening. His performance in the Jazz Arena was a total sell out and the one time Miles Davis guitarist and his group turned in an impressive show despite a less than perfect sound balance. Again hopefully things will have been cleaned up before Jazz On Three transmits the concert on 7th June.

Appropriately tonight’s show concentrated on Scofield’s jazzier side, his flirtation with the blues in the form of his recent Blues Project for the moment forgotten. Not that there was a total absence of the blues in his playing. Schofield clearly loves the form and even in this context a certain bluesiness always pervaded his playing.

Joining Scofield were a quartet of pianist/organist Michael Eckroth, double bassist Ben Street and the great Bill Stewart at the drums. For the opening (unannounced) number Eckroth began on organ but after Scofield’s blazing opening solo he switched to piano to make a rollicking contribution of his own. However it was clear that the piano sound wasn’t as good as it could be and this was a problem that was to persist throughout the set and one which couldn’t help but detract from the listener’s enjoyment of Eckroth’s excellent playing. The organ sound wasn’t perfect either come to that.

If the use of organ hinted at Scofield’s love of the blues this was confirmed by the next tune, a fiercely swinging blues with powerful solos from Scofield and Eckroth at the piano. Despite the technical problems the keyboard man proved to to be a strong soloist and a fine accompanist.

Some of Scofield’s best performances came on the ballad material, none more so than on “My Foolish Heart” where Scofield and Eckroth soloed beautifully above Stewart’s delicately brushed accompaniment.

By contrast Charlie Parker’s bebop classic “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” was taken at a furious clip and included dazzling solos from Scofield and Eckroth. Next up was an unannounced piece that opened with Scofield’s looped, layered guitars before opening out to offer solos to each member of the quartet.“Ten Taken” then offered solos from Scofield, Eckroth (his best so far) and the solidly dependable Street.

Scofield’s way with a ballad was exemplified by the quartet’s version of John Coltrane’s “I Want To Talk About You”. After an opening feature for Eckroth Scofield soloed with a slow burning intensity that held everybody spellbound.

A spirited dash through yet another unannounced tune (Scofield prefers to let his guitar do the talking) closed the set and yielded perhaps the best playing of the night with Eckroth switching between piano and organ. Eckroth is a good foil for Scofield and in a well balanced group the solid, reliable Street is an equally good counter to the colourful drumming of the masterful Stewart. An encore of “The Guinness Spot”, Scofield’s tribute to a Belfast jazz club sent the audience away happy.

Despite the quibbles about the sound this had been an excellent set full of colourful and often powerful playing. Scofield’s playing was crisp and incisive on the faster tunes, intense and emotive on the ballads and always with an underlying blues feel. He confirmed just why he’s rated among the “Big Three” of jazz guitarists with Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell although he sounds quite different to either of them. The effortless swing and colour of Stewart was also a delight and these two big names of the group received sterling support from their colleagues.

As Tony Dudley Evans had earlier observed in purely musical terms Sunday was probably the strongest day of the festival. The half dozen concerts I’d seen certainly confirmed this with Carla Bley just about shading the honours for gig of the day. Marvellous.

Ian’s Star Ratings

Empirical 4 Stars

Carla Bley 4.5 Stars

Fly 4 Stars

Fringe Magnetic 4 Stars

Cuong Vu 3.5 Stars

John Scofield 4 Stars

Overall 4.5 Stars

   


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