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Friday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 04/05/2018.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Friday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 04/05/2018.

Ian Mann on a series of performances from British and European musicians including sets from the bands Empirical, Speak Low, Enemy and Dinosaur plus sound artists Dan Nicholls and Iain Chambers.

Photograph of Dinosaur by Tim Dickeson

FRIDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 04/05/2018

EMPIRICAL POP UP JAZZ LOUNGE

In addition to the to the ticketed events at numerous venues within the town Cheltenham also boasts a busy fringe programme at a variety of other locations.

One of the stand out aspects of this year’s free “Around Town” programme was the Empirical Pop Up Jazz Lounge which took place in vacant shop unit in the Montpellier Shopping Centre. The British quartet Empirical, who were due to perform a concert set in the Jazz Arena on the final day of the Festival, also delivered a number of less formal appearances in their temporary HQ over the course of the Festival weekend.

Empirical have been an important presence on the UK jazz scene for the best part of a decade with the current line up coming together in 2009. Always keen to bring their music to the people Empirical have staged successful ‘pop up’ events before, playing in public spaces such as Old Street Underground Station in London and New Street Station in Birmingham.  They also played a ‘pop up’ residency at Berlin Jazz Festival. This despite the band not having the most portable of instrumental configurations with double bass (Tom Farmer), vibraphone (Lewis Wright) and drum kit (Shane Forbes). Only alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey has a comparatively easy time of it in the transportation stakes.

Empirical’s temporary home was tastefully furnished with framed reproductions of the current line up’s four albums “Out ‘n’ In” (2009), “Elements of Truth (2012), the double set “Tabula Rasa” (2013) and “Connection” (2016) with all four available at the well presented merch desk.

Initially inspired by the music of Eric Dolphy, and particularly the classic “Out to Lunch” album, Empirical’s music is as sharp and angular as their trademark suits. The band have developed a distinctive identity, a key factor of which is their rigorous application of band democracy, they all write for the group and divide announcing duties up equally.

I caught the band’s early evening set at 5.00 pm, the classic ‘commuter jazz’ time, before going on to ticketed events at the nearby Parabola Arts Centre later on. With their chops honed by regular performance it was no surprise to find the band in excellent form as they presented their music, largely drawn from their most recent album “Connection”, over the course of two relatively concise sets, the whole event lasting around an hour.

First up was Facey’s “Stay The Course”, an agile, bebop flavoured piece that acted as the jumping off point for dazzling solos from the composer on alto and Wright on vibes, the latter deploying a mesmerising four mallet technique.

Empirical also used this residency as an opportunity to ‘road test’ new material including Wright’s “Persephone”, a richly atmospheric piece featuring Farmer’s bowed bass and Forbes’ mallet rumbles in its impressionistic early stages before gaining momentum and becoming truly anthemic thanks to Facey’s searing alto solo.

Forbes announced his own “Celestial Being”, a Coltrane-esque piece featuring Facey’s intense alto soloing and Wright’s vigorous vibes attack.

The first set concluded with another new tune, Farmer’s “Indifference Culture”, a kind of abstract ballad that was ushered in by a combination of bowed bass, shimmering vibes and gently piping alto with Forbes later joining in with softly brushed drums. The featured soloist was Facey, who probed gently, but purposefully.

Following a short break, during which they mingled with members of their appreciative audience, the quartet returned with Farmer’s “Card Clash”, a tune from the “Connection” album with something of an Ornette Coleman feel about it and the vehicle for powerful and fluent solos from Wright and Facey.

Also by Farmer, and from the same album, “Driving Force” was introduced by a passage of solo vibraphone from Wright, his ringing overtones subsequently complemented by pizzicato bass, brushed drums and reedy, oboe like alto. Facey’s subsequent solo included avant garde style atmospherics, the saxophonist digging deep before handing the soloist’s reins over to Wright.

Finally we heard Facey’s “Two Edged Sword”, a third selection from “Connection”. This offered a tricky, boppish theme with short, stop/start staccato passages, this providing the jumping off point for a mercurial solo from Wright, his mallets dancing across the bars in a blur of motion. The piece is one of the shortest on the album but was radically extended here as Facey launched into an intense, biting solo with only Forbes for company in a passage that rivalled the trademark energy of the youthful up and coming sax and drums duo Binker and Moses. Finally Forbes was left alone for a volcanic solo drum workout that helped to end a short, but dynamic, second set on a high note.

The audience had thinned out a little at half time as people moved on to other events but those who remained were delighted with this second taste of the Empirical sound.

My thanks to Lewis Wright for taking the time to speak with me afterwards. He has recently released his own album “Duets”, a series of musical dialogues with pianist Kit Downes and I hope to take a look at this recording shortly. In the meantime Downes was scheduled to be part of my next event at the Parabola Arts Centre, a double bill featuring Speak Low, the trio led by vocalist Lucia Cadotsch and Enemy, a collaborative piano trio featuring Downes.

LUCIA CADOTSCH SPEAK LOW / ENEMY, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

An innovative and high quality programme at the PAC commenced with this double bill featuring two international collaborations involving British and European musicians. Central to both groups was bassist and composer Petter Eldh, a Swedish musician now based in Berlin and a highly creative band leader and collaborator.

SPEAK LOW

First to take to the stage were Speak Low, a trio named after the Kurt Weill song, led by the Zurich born vocalist and songwriter Lydia Cadotsch. The singer is also part of the groups Yellow Bird and Schneeweiss, the latter also including Eldh, but it’s the critically acclaimed “Speak Low” album, released in 2016, that has brought her to the attention of British jazz audiences.

Cadotsch has been championed by Cheltenham’s Programme Advisor Tony Dudley-Evans who brought her to the UK in November 2016 and introduced tonight’s performance. The members of the trio first came together when they were studying at the Rhythmic Music Conservatoire in Copenhagen, where  Django Bates was once a professor.

Joining Cadotsch and Eldh was the Swedish tenor saxophonist Otis Sandsjo with Cadotsch promising us a programme of “standards and folk songs”. Many of these were extremely well known, but it was the way in which the trio approached them that was so interesting and innovative.

Essentially the trio approach these songs by placing them into an avant garde context. Eldh and Sandsjo are improvising musicians who adopt an adventurous uncompromising approach to their playing. It was the contrast with Cadotsch’s cool, elegant vocals that was so interesting and compelling. The singer isn’t an improviser in the way that Lauren Kinsella, Maggie Nicols, Julie Tippetts or even Norma Winstone are improvisers. There were none of the extended vocal techniques that these singers sometimes deploy and it was the contrast between Cadotsch’s straightforward treatment of the melodies and the instrumentalists’ relentless probing around that proved to be so fascinating. In the event the juxtaposition produced something that was consistently intriguing and compelling and often strangely beautiful.

This was evidenced by the trio’s opening song, “Wild Is The Wind” (sourced from the film) as the purity of Cadotsch’s was offset by Sandsjo’s guttural probings on tenor and his remarkable deployment of circular breathing techniques.

The threesome’s interpretation of the jazz standard “What’s New” was inspired by the instrumental version recorded by pianist Ahmad Jamal’s trio while their arrangement of “Don’t Explain”, a song indelibly associated with Billie Holiday brought out the full darkness of the lyrics. Introduced by a dialogue between Cadotsch’s voice and Eldh’s bass, with the latter adding percussive effects, the piece also included a breathy, plaintive tenor solo from Sandsjo, some his most emotive and affecting playing of the set.

The saxophonist also impressed on the trio’s arrangement of their signature song “Speak Low” before making a distinctive contribution to a rendition of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”, his layered harmolodics and the use of the tenor’s keypads as percussion giving the music a dark, unsettling eerie quality.

Downes was added on piano for the closing “Lilac Wine”, a song written in 1950 and much later a hit for Elkie Brooks who performed the song in the Big Top at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. I suspect that Speak Low’s arrangement was more likely inspired by Jeff Buckley’s 1994 version and it was certainly closer to Buckley than Brooks in spirit with Downes piano adding a welcome instrumental voice to the proceedings.

That said the addition of a piano on a permanent basis would perhaps destroy the very thing that makes Speak Low so unique, that mix of reserved art song vocals, restless, hectoring bass and needling avant garde sax. It’s a highly effective combination and the trio’s adventurous, noirish treatment of such familiar and popular material has cast many of their chosen songs in a whole new light.

ENEMY

After Speak Low had taken their bows Eldh and Downes rapidly returned to the boards as the stage crew effected a particularly rapid turnover. With James Maddren’s drum kit already set up Enemy were ready to go in almost no time at all as they delivered a selection of material from their forthcoming début album, due for release on Edition Records on May 25th 2018.

With time in short supply the trio didn’t waste too much time on tune announcements but just got on with playing the material, all of which was presumably sourced from their impending début.

The music was everything we have come to expect from musicians of this calibre, complex, dynamic and highly rhythmic but with plenty of light and shade as the trio moved up and down the gears guided by an increasingly animated Eldh.

Surprisingly Downes, at the keyboard of the venue’s splendid Fazioli grand piano, had his back to his bandmates but this didn’t prevent the trio from being a fiercely interactive and democratic unit. The trio’s second piece was introduced by a lyrical passage of solo piano from Downes, subsequently joined by Maddren wielding brushes, while the hitherto pugnacious Eldh delivered an unexpectedly melodic bass solo. However when Maddren finally picked up the sticks the music quickly segued into something far more aggressive and confrontational.

Eldh took up the mic to give a plug to the new album (available pre-release in the foyer, naturally) and announce the next tune “Faster Than Light”. This proved to be an appropriate title as the band delivered a performance that was reminiscent of label mates Phronesis with turn on a time dynamic changes that Jasper Hoiby and his crew would have been proud of. A series of rousing collective passages culminated in a colourful Maddren drum solo before slowing down to embrace a more reflective bass and piano duet.

The next item saw no let up in the complexity and intensity with Eldh’a busy bass in dialogue with Maddren’s sticks on rims and with Downes delivering arguably his best solo of the set, a dynamic and expansive excursion that prompted a terrific reception from the audience.

The pianist then took up the mic to inform us that he was playing his eighth Cheltenham Festival in a row, an impressive achievement and one that entails that this Festival is very special to him. I think they’ve all been indifferent line ups and I’ve probably seen and reviewed most of them. Let’s hope he’s back again next year.

Downes also announced “Children with Torches”, the last number of an all too short set. This saw Sandsjo returning to the stage to guest with the trio and soloing above Maddren’s skittering drum grooves as the saxophonist delivered some of his most straight-ahead playing of the evening.

Enemy were also very well received by the Festival audience and that début album will be very keenly anticipated. I hope to be able to take a fuller look at that in due course and would also like to witness a fuller performance from the trio. As a showcase this double bill format was fine but there’s nothing like getting to know a band over the course of two full length sets in a regular club environment.

RECOMPOSED – DAN NICHOLLS and IAIN CHAMBERS

In 2017 Cadotsch produced an alternative version of the Speak Low album entitled “Renditions” in which she invited musicians from all over Europe to remix the songs. Among those taking part was the British multi-instrumentalist and sound artist Dan Nicholls who together with electronic musician Iain Chambers was present tonight to present a remix of the performances by Speak Low and Enemy in the immediate aftermath of the event.

I believe that this concept of immediately presenting an alternative version of what the audience has just heard was pioneered at the Punkt Festival in Norway but it’s something that has also come into the Cheltenham programme on a regular basis in recent years.

Nicholls and Chambers commenced their performance in the PAC bar almost as soon as the audience had exited the theatre following Enemy’s set. Deploying lap tops and sundry other electronic devices plus a small Roland keyboard to provide additional colour and texture to the sampled soundcscapes.

I’ll admit to not listening attentively to the whole forty five minute performance (which was free to anybody wandering in off the street, not just the audience from the concert) but instead dipped in and out, noting how Nicholls and Chambers had brought both bands together to create a virtual ‘supergroup’ as Cadotsch’s voice was paired with Maddren’s drums despite the fact that the two hadn’t actually played on stage together.

Inevitably once the performances of both Speak Low and Enemy had been filtered through the various devices manipulated by Nicholls and Chambers the music sounded entirely different and totally new. This was genuinely creative new work, transformed from acoustic building blocks into almost ‘pure electronica’ at times - a genre in which I have only a passing interest but one which is part of the fabric of life for young contemporary jazz musicians, including both Nicholls and Chambers plus the five performers who actually trod the boards.

Recomposed was all a little outside my musical comfort zone but this was still an interesting and worthwhile project and in no way do I question its validity.

DINOSAUR

Electronics were also to play a major role in the music of Dinosaur, the quartet led by trumpeter, composer and occasional keyboard player Laura Jurd. Also featuring Elliot Galvin on keyboards, Conor Chaplin on electric bass and Corrie Dick at the drums the group started out as the Laura Jurd Quartet before adopting the band name Dinosaur just prior to the release of their 2016 début album “Together As One” (Edition Records).

That album attracted a good deal of critical acclaim and a Mercury Music Prize nomination. The ‘token’ jazz acts never actually win but every band that has ever been nominated has received an enormous publicity boost and Dinosaur were no exception. This event was only the second to sell out following soul singer Randy Crawford’s performance in the Big Top on the opening day of the Festival.

Dinosaur’s performance came on the very day of the release of their second album for Edition, “Wonder Trail”, which has also been very well received by the critics. Label owner Dave Stapleton was in the audience as the band gave us a run through the new album, filing onto the stage to the sound of sampled announcements and straight into their first number.

Dinosaur’s music is primarily influenced by “Bitches Brew” era Miles Davis, a sound that informs much of “Together As One”. With “Wonder Trail” the band broaden their reference points to include British folk, Canterbury style prog rock whimsy, 80s synth pop and contemporary indie and electronic music with the indie band Broen named as a particular reference point. It’s a more varied collection and even finds the band making their first foray into vocalising, the singing on two songs coming from Jurd and Dick.

As far as I could tell tonight’s performance represented a straight run through the new album, which had been officially launched the previous evening with a performance at Kings Place in London. With Jurd contributing additional keyboards as well as leading the band from the trumpet the opening segue of “Renewal (Part 1)” and “Quiet Thunder” embraced electronic synth-scapes, muscular electric bass grooves, stentorian trumpeting and dynamic drumming. But in a constantly evolving soundscape there was plenty of light and shade with Galvin’s brooding, Blade Runner like synth episodes punctuating the more combustible moments.

Galvin produced a variety of keyboard sounds on “Shine Your Light”, these ranging from trebly organ to rumbling synth, the music gradually gaining momentum courtesy of Dick’s martial style drums as Jurd soloed on breathy, echoed trumpet. The whole piece embraced a glitchy, spacey atmosphere, somewhere between Pink Floyd and contemporary electronica.

“Forgive And Forget” and “Old Times’ Sake” were segued together, the former commencing with a dialogue between Jurd’s trumpet and Dick’s drums, the trumpeter deploying a plunger mute to produce sounds reminiscent of an earlier jazz age, this contrasting with the bright melodies from Galvin’s keyboards that recalled the era of 80s synth pop. Galvin, also the leader of his own trio, is something of a maverick, a mad professor delivering a diverse range of quirky sounds from behind his bank of synths.

Jurd and Dick lifted their voices on “Set Free”, blending folk elements with avant pop in a way that harked back to the methodology of the Canterbury prog bands such as Soft Machine and Caravan who also blended quirkily eccentric – and very English – pop songs with extended instrumental work outs. It’s not the first time that Jurd has worked with words and music, the now seemingly sadly defunct, but very good, quartet Blue-Eyed Hawk teamed Jurd and Dick with vocalist Lauren Kinsella and guitarist Alex Roth. Besides the vocal section “Set Free” also embraced robust contemporary grooves plus a rousing trumpet solo from the leader.

The instrumental “Swimming” juxtaposed ethereal synth passages with punchy funk grooves and incorporated a first solo from the excellent Chaplin who had been a significant presence all night, his fluid, intuitive bass lines supporting the music well as he formed an excellent rhythmic alliance with the consistently inventive Dick.

Finally we heard the album’s second vocal item “And Still We Wonder” with Jurd and Dick again providing the singing – the drummer runs his own jazz/folk ensemble Impossible Things. With its optimistic message this was an excellent way to close both the album and the concert, a piece that drew many of Dinosaur’s influences together, Miles-ian trumpet, folk inspired melodies and exotic rhythms.

I’ve not always been 100% convinced by Dinosaur on disc but this performance was undeniably impressive and inventive and, above all, highly enjoyable. I’ve also heard “Wonder Trail” on CD and early listenings suggest that it’s a clear progression from the highly touted début.

Tonight’s performance was very well received by the Cheltenham audience. although one or two were not so convinced and there were a few dissenting voices afterwards. But on this evidence the quartet’s stock should continue to grow. Jurd and her fellow musicians have been working together for years since meeting at Trinity Laban College of Music and there’s a clear chemistry between them that continues to develop. These guys are skilled enough to cope with any musical challenge that Jurd throws at them.

And it’s not often at a jazz gig that you witness what is known in the trade as a ‘wardrobe malfunction’. Towards the end of the set Jurd jammed her trumpet between her knees as she played keyboards, only for the instrument to become snagged on her clothing. Clearly embarrassed she struggled for a couple of minutes to free it, eventually succeeding and avoiding having to leave the stage altogether. She remained admirably unphased, even joking about taking up an alternative career in comedy. The gig lost a bit of momentum as a result as band and audience were inevitably distracted but this hardly mattered in a performance of such quality and inventiveness.


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