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Friday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 28/04/2017.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Friday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 28/04/2017.

Ian Mann on two very different performances at the Parabola Arts Centre by bands led by saxophonist Marius Neset and drummer Seb Rochford.

Photograph of Marius Neset by Tim Dickeson

Friday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 28/04/2017

The Parabola Arts Centre, part of Cheltenham Ladies College, has become an integral part of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival experience. This intimate venue hosts the more contemporary or ‘cutting edge’ aspect of the Festival programme and 2017 saw the venue hosting a typically diverse and interesting line up featuring musicians hailing from several different countries.

First utilised by the Festival in 2012 the Parabola, is an intimate, but surprisingly capacious, performance space that is ideally suited for contemporary small group jazz, although larger ensembles, such as the Paris based Surnatural Orchestra at the 2015 Festival, have also graced the venue’s stage.

With its excellent acoustics the Parabola has become a favourite with musicians and audiences alike with many fans concentrating their Festival experience at the venue. In short the place has acquired something of a cult following, as Tony Dudley Evans, who both curated and presented the venue’s Festival programme pointed out.

The first two events of the 2017 programme at the Parabola featured groups led by musicians who have enjoyed previous appearances at the venue, Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset and British drummer Seb Rochford.


First to appear was Neset who had played a triumphant quartet gig here back in 2013 in the company of pianist Ivo Neame, drummer Anton Eger and bassist Petter Eldh.  I had been expecting Neame and Eger to be part of tonight’s line up but with the pair busy rehearsing for their own event with Phronesis the following day Neset presented a new all British quintet featuring the talents of vibraphonist Jim Hart, pianist Dan Nicholls, bassist Phil Donkin and drummer Joshua Blackmore - still a pretty phenomenal line up and one that responded brilliantly to the complexities of Neset’s music.

Neset made his international début, the aptly named “Golden Xplosion”, on the UK based Edition label before moving on to the Munich based ACT. He’s always worked with British musicians, among them Django Bates, and has also established a strong following in this country. The Parabola was therefore full to capacity as Neset sought to repeat his triumph of 2013.

Now based in Copenhagen Neset is a musician who just likes to play, tune announcements were therefore scarce, but I’m fairly certain that the majority of the material was sourced from his 2015 ACT release “Pinball”, which featured a quintet line up including Hart alongside Neame, Eger and Eldh.

The dense contours of Neset’s writing were evidenced not just by the playing but also by the screeds of sheet music that Nicholls’ unfolded and eventually managed to prop up on the piano. And it was the appositely named title track from “Pinball” that opened the show with the newcomers dealing admirably with the myriad twists and turns of Neset’s music with Hart alternating between vibes and marimba on a piece that juxtaposed a bustling quirkiness with passages of surprising lyricism. The versatile Nicholls, a musician equally at home in the world of electronic music, impressed with his opening solo on piano as Donkin and Blackmore grappled successfully with the dizzying rhythmic challenges of Neset’s writing.  Meanwhile the leader moved between tenor and soprano saxes as the music demanded.

From the same album “Theatre of Magic”, co-written by Neset and Eger, celebrated the long established musical bond between Neset and Hart in a series of dazzling soprano sax and vibes exchanges as Donkin and Blackmore navigated the complexities of the odd meter rhythms. 

After this tune announcements became more sporadic as Neset and his colleagues warmed to their task, the three British newcomers becoming increasingly more assured as the evening wore on. The next, brief, piece offered something of a pause for breath and was positively gentle by Neset’s standards with its soft piano arpeggios, warm toned tenor sax and shimmering vibes.

Hart introduced the next item with a passage of solo marimba before he and the rhythm section introduced something of a world music feel to the piece. Neset’s subsequent tenor solo brought a Coltrane-esque joyousness and intensity to the music as he delivered a powerful solo in sax trio mode accompanied by churning drums and bass. A passage of unaccompanied cymbal work from Blackmore seemed to offer a segue into another piece as the music continued to unfold and develop at an astonishing rate. This time it was Hart who was the featured soloist, swarming all over the vibraphone with four mallets a blur. The piece concluded with the sound of marimba and handclaps, suggesting that this had been a version of “World Song”, the piece that opens the “Pinball” album.

Neset has worked with large ensembles, including the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, and was recently commissioned to write for the Cologne Philharmonie, the subsequent work later being performed in New York. “Prag Ballet” appeared on the recent compilation album celebrating ACT’s silver jubilee and received an airing here. Unsurprisingly the piece had something of a semi classical, chamber jazz feel and was delightfully melodic. One could hear the proverbial pin drop in the Parabola as the audience delighted in a beautifully restrained performance, the very opposite to the harmonic and rhythmic ferment of much of Neset’s other music. The saxophonist himself, playing soprano, sounded at his most Garbarek-like on a piece that was performed in trio format with the leader accompanied only by Nicholls and Hart. At the end Donkin’s spontaneous applause said it all – and the audience absolutely loved it too.

The final item saw the quintet upping the energy levels once more and the piece began with a tour de force passage of unaccompanied tenor saxophone from Neset during which he demonstrated his virtuoso circular breathing technique. Marimba, drums, bass and piano eventually entered the fray to establish a vibrant mesh of interlocking rhythms behind the leader. A more impressionistic interlude mid tune featured the leader’s sax teamed with Donkin’s melodic bass followed by the sound of sparse, lyrical piano and bowed vibes. But this was just a breather, soon the momentum was building again and Nerset’s subsequent solo culminated in a jaw dropping sax and drum barrage.

As happened four years earlier the house at the Parabola rose as one to give the Neset band a standing ovation at this early contender for ‘Gig of the Festival’.  It’s not always easy to find words to capture the energy and brilliance of a Marius Neset performance. His music may be busy and complex but the sheer chutzpah and virtuosity of the man’s playing ensures that he is a huge favourite with audiences.

Neset remains a key figure on the European jazz scene and we in Britain are lucky that he seems to have such a strong affinity for the UK and for British musicians.

A great start to the Festival programme at the Parabola.


Drummer and composer Seb Rochford has been a frequent visitor to Cheltenham and I recall memorable Festival performances by the then astonishingly hirsute musician with the bands Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland and Fulborn Teversham and in a wonderful, but sadly never to be recorded duo, with pianist Kit Downes.

Now married to the American saxophonist Matana Roberts Rochford now spends an increasing amount of time in the US so his return to the UK with a new band was an event not to be missed.

Rochford is best known as the leader of Polar Bear, a wonderfully innovative group that remained at the forefront of British jazz for over a decade, continually developing artistically whilst building a genre defying cult following in the process. But, as Tony Dudley Evans informed us, Polar Bear is no more – sad news indeed , although the band have left a particularly rich back catalogue of recordings to dig into, along with a treasure trove of memories of wonderful gigs.

Fast forward to 2017 and Rochford’s famous barnet is also gone and for the Festival the newly shaven headed drummer had assembled a trio featuring British bassist Neil Charles and the American flautist Nicole Mitchell, a solo artist in her own right and a former member of the innovative Chicago based organisation AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). 

Even the mighty Polar Bear would have had their work cut out following Neset’s earlier pyrotechnics and this low key performance by the new trio was one that divided opinion. 
For me pretty much everything that Rochford gets involved with is going to be interesting, whether it be his work in a jazz or improvised music context or with more mainstream artists such as Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Beck, Pete Doherty and Brett Anderson.

But on the evidence of tonight’s performance this current trio is still something of a work in progress. Playing on a very dimly lit stage the threesome delivered an hour of uninterrupted music that included passages of written material interspersed with lengthy passages of free improvisation.

The brightest light on the stage was from Mitchell’s music stand and while the subdued lighting may have lent an air of atmosphere and mystery to the proceedings it did make it very difficult to see what was going on – and made it even more of a nightmare for my photographer friends TimDickeson and John Watson.

The performance began with an appealing written melody played by Mitchell on flute and underscored by Charles’ bowed bass and the patter of Rochford’s bare hands on the drums as he fulfilled the role of colourist, something that he continued to do almost throughout.  Only very sporadically did we glimpse a spark of Rochford’s nascent power.

The continuous, low key nature of the performance was superficially similar to The Necks, who were due to appear at the Festival the following day. However the subtle use of live looping and the periodic written interludes were significantly different. Nevertheless the overall feel was similar, this was a performance that was unhurried in nature with the smallest of gestures imbued with great significance.

Mitchell deployed a variety of flutes, with alto and bass presumably among them, but in the semi darkness it was frankly rather difficult to know exactly what was being played and what going on. She linked up particularly effectively with Charles who used the bow almost throughout, making judicious use of electronics to layer his sound in a spacey passage of solo bass. I was particularly impressed with Charles’ arco work, having previously thought of him as something of an electric bass specialist thanks to his work with the trio Zed U.  At times this evening his use of the bow and later deployment of extended techniques was reminiscent of the great Henry Grimes.

Rochford’s drumming was minimal, mostly combined to hand pattering and almost subliminal mallet rumbles, frequently he seemed happy to sit back and listen to the unfolding dialogue between Mitchell and Charles.  The music was highly atmospheric and impressionistic with a noirish, filmic quality. One could readily imagine it finding favour with the Late Junction audience. Interestingly the crowd at the Parabola included Kit Downes and Tom Challenger of the organ/sax duo Vyamanikal who were due to play the Festival the following day and who explore superficially similar musical areas.
An unaccompanied drum passage from Rochford combined atmospherics with glimpses of his latent power but only towards the end of the performance and a return to the written score did he finally cut loose.

This was a performance that divided opinion. I certainly found it interesting and absorbing in a ‘Necks’ like type of way but felt that the music could have used a greater degree of dynamic contrast. The lack of lighting also diminished my enjoyment of the music, it was very difficult to see what was happening on stage.  Reviewing the performance for London Jazz News Jon Turney described both the lighting and the music as ‘crepescular’, an adjective that perfectly encapsulated the performance. It’s perfectly understandable that some of the audience (not myself I should add) drifted off to sleep.

Anything that Seb Rochford get involved in with is going to be interesting, almost by definition, and I’m sure that there’s the potential for better things to come from this trio, assuming it’s not a purely one-off arrangement. That said I can’t deny that I was somewhat disappointed by tonight’s performance, I didn’t hate it, as some probably did, but given Rochford’s illustrious track record I was still expecting something more. Nevertheless Rochford is a musician who is never afraid to experiment, and as any scientist -or musician – will probably tell you experiments don’t always work, especially first time.

The trio also suffered by going on after Neset. Many of the people in another pleasingly large crowd had also been to the earlier gig and comparisons were inevitable. Rochford’s chilled out set might have been better appreciated if it hadn’t had to follow Neset’s incandescent fireworks. In retrospect it might have been better if this evening’s programme at the Parabola had been scheduled the other way round.


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