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Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2016.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2016.

Ian Mann on a day of truly international music with performances by Trondheim Jazz Exchange, Jazz Jamaica, Marcus Strickland's Twi-Life, Tim Berne's Snakeoil and Omar Sosa's Quarteto AfroCubano.

Photograph of Gary Crosby of Jazz Jamaica by Tim Dickeson


“Today is International Jazz Day” said Tony Dudley Evans as he took to the stage at the Parabola Arts Centre to introduce the first concert of the day “the only music genre to have its own designated date on the calendar”.

It was therefore perhaps appropriate that during a very full day of excellent music I witnessed performances by musicians from the UK, Norway, Italy, Jamaica, the USA, Mozambique and Cuba.


It was totally fitting that International Jazz Day at Cheltenham should begin with the long running Trondheim Jazz Exchange concert, the annual collaboration between students of the Birmingham and Trondheim Conservatoires, a project supported by the Norwegian Embassy.

The Norwegian students travel to Birmingham in the week leading up to the festival and ‘woodshed’ intensively with their UK based counterparts. The fruits of their labours are normally premièred at a concert in Birmingham on the Friday evening before being showcased again at Cheltenham in the now traditional Saturday lunchtime slot at the PAC. This year the Birmingham students will be making the return trip to play at Trondheim Jazz Festival.

The usual format is for the concert to present three ensembles, usually comprised of two musicians from each country. First to appear was a quartet featuring the Norwegian front line of pianist Hogne Kleiberg and saxophonist Karl Nyberg plus the Birmingham rhythm team of bassist Aram Bahmie and drummer Gwilym Jones.

They began a little tentatively with an arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Friday the 13th” which included a tenor sax solo from Nyberg and a drum feature from Jones. If anything the group seemed more confident playing original material from within its ranks. “Jungle”, written by saxophonist Nyberg was lively and Latin-esque with Kleiberg’s piano vamp forming the basis for a melodic tenor solo from Nyberg that explored the instrument’s upper registers. The piece also included solos from Kleiberg on piano and Bahmie on bass.

Kleiberg announced his own tune “Cooler Than Anticipated”, no doubt written during the ‘woodshedding’ sessions, the title seeming to reference the unseasonably chill British weather. This began as a kind of abstract ballad with melodic tenor sax underscored by brushed drums but began to gather momentum during Kleiberg’s piano solo in which he utilised the entire range of the keyboard. Nyberg then dug in powerfully on his tenor solo and there was also an engrossing unaccompanied double bass interlude.

Ensemble One concluded their performance with a highly contemporary arrangement of McCoy Tyner’s classic “Passion Dance” with Kleiberg appropriately ‘Tyner-esque’ on a tumultuous piano solo lashed forward by Jones’ crisp, hard driving drumming and Bahmie’s energetic bass work. Nyberg matched the fire of his compatriot with a suitably impassioned Coltrane inspired tenor solo and the piece also included a well constructed drum feature from the irrepressible Jones. After a slightly hesitant start the quartet had certainly delivered the goods and they were afforded an excellent reception by the appreciative Parabola audience.

The next ensemble couldn’t have been more different. This drummer-less quartet featured the Norwegian pair of Sondre Ferstad on harmonica and Simon Ovinge on guitar plus the Birmingham students Ben Muirhead (double bass) and the Italian born Vittorio Mura (tenor saxophone).

This was a unique combination of instruments for these series of Jazz Exchanges and certainly the first time that a harmonica had featured at one of these concerts. Indeed I’d go as far to say that I’d never seen or heard this particular instrumental configuration before anywhere.

The music that these four young musicians produced during the course of a single twenty minute performance was extraordinary - haunting and impressionistic with Ferstad’s harmonica right at the centre of the group’s sound. This was music with a strong cinematic quality with a real element of ‘Scandi Noir’ about it. Not that it was in any way bloodless, Muirhead’s powerful double bass playing ensured that the music was surprisingly rhythmic. Conventional solos were rare - apart from one passage of guitar from Ovinge that reminded me of John Abercrombie the focus was very much on the ensemble sound but with one’s ear inevitably drawn to the distinctive sound of Ferstad’s harmonica. 

At least one full time collaboration has come out of these series of exchanges, the group ELDA featuring British pianist Andrew Woodhead and Norwegian vocalist Kari Eskild Havenstrom who first performed together at the 2013 Trondheim Jazz Exchange. ELDA were playing elsewhere on the festival site at the Free Stage over the course of the weekend but it wasn’t a performance that I was able to see.

I’d also like to think that Ensemble Two might think about making their collaboration more permanent. I thought that they were really on to something and that this was a unique line up with the potential to do something really different. Today’s performance was extremely well received by the discerning audience and this tantalising taster made me want to hear more from this thoroughly distinctive quartet.

The third ensemble was more obviously a ‘jazz’ group but featured the relatively unusual combination of alto sax (Trondheim’s Signe Emmeluth) and trombone (Birmingham’s David Sear).
Also featured were Norwegian bassist Bjorn Marius Hegge and British pianist Elliott Sansom, a finalist in the forthcoming BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition. At the drums was the slightly older Jonathan Silk, an alumnus of Birmingham Conservatoire who has gone on to become a bandleader in his own right.

They commenced with a tune written by Emmeluth that began with an opening trombone salvo from Sear followed by a more conventional alto sax solo from the composer. Sansom’s piano solo included the kind of hammered clusters most commonly associated with the avant garde and the following dialogue between bass and drums saw Hegge utilising both pizzicato and arco techniques as Silk accompanied him with a series of cymbal scrapes. The tune then mutated in to a playful march which emphasised the unusual alto sax/ trombone combination and ended with a fruitily rasping trombone solo from Sear. Unsettling and humorous by turns this was an intriguing piece of writing that peter Slavid, writing for London Jazz News, compared to that of Carla Bley. I an see where he’s coming from with that one - and I was reminded of our own Django Bates, too.

The second piece was written by bassist Hegge who also acted as the band’s spokesman. The Ornette-ish opening theme again exploited the possibilities of the alto/trombone pairing and Emmeluth’s McLean like alto was also featured in dialogue with the composer’s bass in the aftermath of Sansom’s solo. The piece included an extended drum feature for the excellent Silk before storming out with a rousing Mingus like passage featuring the squalling of the horns and Hegge’s vigorously slapped bass.

This was another excellent group performance that ensured that the 2016 Trondheim Jazz Exchange ended on a high note. I’ve grown to love this event and for several years now it’s been a ‘must see’ on my Cheltenham calendar. The standard of the musicianship is always excellent and the quality of the original writing is also highly impressive, with this year being no exception. 

As Peter Slavid pointed out most of the audience here today would gladly have watched a full set from any of today’s featured bands. Keep an eye on these talented young musicians in the future. There will surely be much more to come from all of them.


It’s been nearly sixteen years since I last saw Jazz Jamaica at a joyous open air show in the streets of Dolgellau at the 2000 Sesiwn Fawr Festival. That was a thoroughly enjoyable occasion and I was hoping to recapture something of that spirit at this performance in Cheltenham Jazz Festival’s Big Top.

Jazz Jamaica have been touring with their “Catch A Fire” project which represents a celebration of the 1973 album of the same name by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The band played at the first ever Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 1996 and today’s visit represented a very welcome return in the year in which they celebrate their 25th anniversary.

Led by bassist Gary Crosby OBE the Jazz Jamaica ranks included some of the UK’s leading jazz musicians including trombonist Dennis Rollins and saxophonists Denys Baptiste and Jason Yarde, the latter responsible for today’s arrangements. There were younger faces too including tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia from the group Nerija and others who have progressed through the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme. I suspect that Garcia’s Nerija colleagues Cassie Kinoshi (alto sax) and Sheila Maurice-Grey (trumpet) were also present and correct in the All Stars line up.

On a crowded stage it was difficult to see everybody but the line up appeared to include five reeds, four trumpets and four trombones plus piano, guitar, double bass, drums and percussion. This classic big band line up was augmented by between eight to ten string players ( I couldn’t see them all), the Urban Soul Orchestra led by violinist Stephen Hussey. There were also three backing vocalists playing the role of the I-Threes from Marley’s extended line-up. The ensemble was directed by Kevin Robinson, himself a talented trumpeter, and fronted by vocalist/guitarist Brinsley Forde in the Bob Marley role.

Forde is best known as a member of the British reggae group Aswad and those of us of a certain age may also remember him as a child actor in the 1970s kids series “Here Come The Double Deckers” ! I was certainly impressed with his contribution here, his assured vocals and dapper, confident demeanour made him an ideal front man and naturally he got terrific support from an absolutely stellar band. 

Forde’s Marley-esque vocals combined with Crosby’s unstoppable reggae grooves were a delight in themselves but having the arrangements enhanced by some of the finest jazz soloists around made for an absolutely unbeatable package. And, of course there are Marley’s marvellous songs, as relevant and topical now as when they were written. In short, what’s not to like?

The monster ensemble kicked off with album opener “Concrete Jungle” which included features for piano and percussion alongside Forde’s vocals. Forde was at his most Marley-esque on “Catch A Fire” itself which included features for baritone and alto saxes, the latter played by Jason Yarde. The rousing arrangement concluded in a conflagration of squalling horns, sawing strings and the incantatory vocals of the three female singers.

“Stop That Train” introduced the familiar organ sound that graced many of the Wailers best records while “Baby We’ve Got A Date” saw the music edging closer to ‘Lovers Rock’ territory as Forde celebrated the gentler, less politicised side of Marley’s output in an arrangement featuring the trombone section.

“Kinky Reggae” saw Forde exhorting the audience to get on their feet. They needed no second bidding as Crosby and his colleagues slammed out an irresistibility groove garnished by an alto solo played (I think) by Cassie Kinoshi and a trumpet solo by Sheila Maurice -Grey. 

The “Catch A Fire” project is one that has toured widely and Crosby has habitually augmented the already large ensemble with a local gospel choir. Today it was the turn of the Birmingham Town Hall Gospel Choir who had made the short journey down the M5 to join the band on stage for “No More Trouble” which included an incendiary tenor solo from (again I’m guessing) Denys Baptiste. 

The choir’s soaring voices lifted “400 Years” to another level working in tandem with the strings to provide a lush backdrop for the trumpet and tenor sax solos, the latter definitely delivered by Nubya Garcia.

Trumpet and piano featured on the closing “One Love”, an audience sing along well marshalled by the charismatic Forde who shared announcing duties with bandleader Gary Crosby.

The deserved encore was a joyously bouncing take on “Lively Up Yourself” with Forde again conducting the audience as the instrumental honours went to the band’s other guitarist.

This had been a brilliant performance, the combination of reggae grooves and jazz soloing working supremely well thanks to Yarde’s skilful and colourful arrangements and the superb musicianship and singing of all the performers with Forde acquitting himself particularly well. Considering the size of the ensemble the sound was also excellent so hats off once again to the Big Top sound engineers.


Following Jazz Jamaica’s hugely successful fusion of different genres of black music it was across to the Jazz Arena to see the American saxophonist Marcus Strickland attempt to do something similar, albeit in a very different context and on a much smaller scale.

Strickland’s latest album for the Blue Note label, “Nihil Novi” (a Latin phrase meaning ‘nothing new’) brings together various strands of black American music including jazz, soul and hip hop with the late J Dilla named as a significant influence.

Born out of Strickland’s love of DJ beat making “Nihil Novi” has a very contemporary, street wise sound that incorporates elements of electronica alongside the more conventional jazz components. It was produced by Meshell Ndegeocello and features the voice and songs of Jean Baylor who appeared at Cheltenham as a guest alongside Strickland on tenor and soprano saxes, Chad Selph on keyboards, Kyle Miles on electric bass and Charles Haynes at the drums.

The album makes frequent use of sampled sounds and the opening piece featured Strickland on soprano soloing above a sampled speech reflecting on the vicissitudes of life and the power of art. Selph produced a varied array of sounds from his bank of keyboards which included electric piano, a couple of synths and a mighty Hammond C3 complete with its own immaculately veneered Leslie cabinet. Miles and Haynes provided tight, subtly funky support but ultimately I found the sample, which persisted throughout the piece, unnecessary and distracting.

A number of the songs on “Nihil Novi” were co-written by Strickland and Jean Baylor and she joined the band on stage to perform “Talking Loud”, her soulful voice blending well with the sounds of Selph’s Hammond and Strickland’s tenor sax..  The song then segued into an extended instrumental section including crunching passages of unison funk grooves, fiery bass and keyboard exchanges and further powerful incisive solos from Selph on Rhodes and Strickland on bug miked tenor.

“Mingus” began appropriately enough with a passage of solo five string electric bass before expanding to incorporate solos from Strickland on tenor and Selph on keyboards, the latter again conjuring up a fascinating variety of sounds from his battery of instruments.

Baylor returned to sing “Alive”, another jointly written song from the new album with its r’n'b and hip hop style grooves, this again evolving into a lengthy instrumental section featuring Strickland’s declamatory tenor over Selph’s churning Hammond, the latter then taking over to solo dramatically above Miles’ underpinning bass groove.

The charismatic shades wearing Strickland switched to soprano for “Truth”, a dedication to the recently departed Prince, one of several over the course of the Festival week. Again the interplay between sax and keyboards impressed.

The next piece introduced another vocal sample, this one featuring a man asking to be judged “not by the colour of my skin, but by the quality of my work”. Strickland is a politicised musician and the album includes a vocal sample referencing the recent racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri. At this point the music took something of a more African turn on a tune that I’m pretty sure was “Sissoko’s Voyage” from the new album, the West African bass and drum grooves combining well with the sounds of tenor and Hammond.

Baylor then returned to join the group for the final number “Inevitable”, a jointly written love song that also appears on the album and which hinted at a gentler side to Strickland’s musical persona.

Despite minor cavils about the use of samples I thoroughly enjoyed this performance overall. Strickland proved to be a charismatic and technically accomplished performer and I also enjoyed the contribution of Selph, particularly his work on the C3. Miles and Haynes were a solid and dependable rhythm team totally in tune with Strickland’s aesthetic while Baylor’s contributions added a welcome change of pace, mood and attitude on three well written original songs. 

“Nihil Novi” brings the various strands of Strickland’s music together in a beguiling, convincing and highly enjoyable manner.


The British pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins ad been commissioned by the Festival to write a piece initially designed to be played outside in Montpellier Gardens with small groups of musicians playing in various corners of the Gardens in a kind of ‘pop up’ situation before slowly converging to meet at the Victorian bandstand.

The inclement weather prevented this from actually occurring and instead Hawkin’s ensemble, which included trumpeters Laura Jurd, Percy Pursglove and Nick Malcolm plus students from both the Jazz and Classical course at Birmingham Conservatoire played to entering audiences in both the Big Top, prior to Jazz Jamaica, and the PAC prior to a performance by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil group.

At the Big Top Hawkins’ musicians were pretty much ignored as the incoming crowd chatted among themselves but the Berne audience actually took the trouble to listen to the floating sonorities, the mood of which ranged from the ethereal to the unsettling. An interesting exercise then, and it was unfortunate that it was unable to take place in the initially intended location.


Alto saxophonist Tim Berne has been a key figure at the cutting edge of the New York jazz scene since the early 1980s and has released an extensive catalogue of albums, some of them entirely improvised, on a variety of record labels including his own Screwgun imprint.

Initially inspired by fellow saxophonist Julius Hemphill Berne has fronted a variety of different groups during the course of a long and illustrious musical career.

In 2012 he recorded “Snakeoil”, his first album for the influential German label ECM. “Snakeoil” subsequently became the name of the band featuring Berne on alto sax, Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano and electronics and Ches Smith on drums, vibraphone and percussion. The group’s ECM follow up “Shadow Man” (2013) was even better and in 2015 a third release for the label appeared titled “You’ve Been Watching Me”. This latest album saw the expansion of the group to a quintet with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira and it was the five piece edition of Snakeoil that appeared at the PAC this evening. 

Berne’s intention for Snakeoil is for the group to operate at the boundaries of composition and improvisation. Thanks in part to the influence of ECM producer Manfred Eicher there’s a greater emphasis on the composed with Snakeoil than there has been with some of Berne’s previous bands. His often complex music has never exactly been an easy listen but Snakeoil’s sound offers plenty to reward the discerning listener and the group is certainly more accessible than some of Berne’s earlier ensembles.

The programme at the PAC was comprised of four lengthy pieces beginning with “Surface Noise” which opened with a piano and percussion dialogue between Mitchell and Smith these later joined by the complex, coalescent unison lines of alto sax, bass clarinet and guitar. This was uncompromising music with Berne’s astringent alto tone at its heart. Meanwhile Noriega impressed with his inventive bass clarinet soloing as did Smith with his frequently explosive drumming.

The composition “Spare Parts” was sourced from the début Snakeoil album and was again introduced by Mitchell at the piano subsequently joined by Noriega on clarinet and Smith on a combination of drums, vibraphones and gongs. A duo conversation between Ferreira on guitar and Noriega on clarinet was conducted with the utmost delicacy. It was good to be able to hear the guitarist properly, as too often his contribution was lost within the overall sound of the ensemble with his role seeming to be primarily textural. Maybe Berne will begin to cut him more slack as the five piece group develops. After the prettiness Berne’s own alto solo signalled a return to grittier, more challenging territory as normal service was rapidly restored.

The leader’s alto and Noriega’s bass clarinet introduced “The Third Option” with Noriega reaching deep into the depths of his instrument’s range with some startlingly low register sonorities as he and Berne stalked round each other, their dialogue periodically punctuated by Smith’s cymbal scratches. Finally coming together the two horn men delivered some fiendishly complex high speed unison passages before the more reflective dialogue of Mitchell’s piano and Smith’s vibes provided a brief oasis of calm. Once the horn men had regathered their breath the piece climaxed with an impressive combined display of overblowing and multiphonics above Mitchell’s hammered high register piano arpeggios. Stunning stuff.   

Noriega’s bass clarinet was also to the fore on the closing “The Imperfect Ten”, his probing solo followed by the gentler sounds of Ferreira’s guitar. Again this was just the calm before the storm and the harsh multiphonics of Berne’s unaccompanied solo followed by a blistering closing band passage with alto, clarinet and guitar fully in sync, locked in together and working as one.

This had been a challenging, sometimes baffling, but ultimately rewarding and uplifting listen. Berne’s music may be uncompromising but he’s a performer who has gained something of a cult following in Britain, due in part to his frequent visits to these shores . Following their Cheltenham appearance Snakeoil were about to undertake a two night residency at London’s Vortex Jazz Club, a venue that is very much Berne’s spiritual home in the UK.

A partisan but knowledgeable audience at a packed PAC gave Snakeoil a rousing reception. This was my first live sighting of Berne, aside from a very brief cameo with Django Bares’ Delightful Precipice at an earlier Cheltenham Jazz Fest, and overall I was very impressed if occasionally confused. For a man whose music can be somewhat austere Berne presented the performance with a wry, dry New York wit that was almost laugh out loud funny at times.

Snakeoil’s performance was recorded for future transmission on BBC Radio 3’s new Monday night jazz programme “Jazz Now” and I’m already looking forward to taking the opportunity of revisiting this music.


I’ll confess to knowing precious little about the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa prior to witnessing his group’s exciting performance in front of a full house at The Jazz Arena. Sosa now lives in Barcelona but his touring group, the aptly named Quarteto AfroCubano includes a mixture of Cuban and African musicians including Sosa’s compatriots Leandro Saint-Hill (reeds, vocals) and Lukmil Perez (drums) plus the Mozambique born Childo Tomas on electric bass and vocals.

Like Jazz Jamaica and Marcus Strickland earlier in the day Sosa brings together different musical elements of the African diaspora but this time with the sound rooted in the traditional music of his native Cuba. Sosa has been exploring the musical links between Africa, Cuba and beyond through a series of albums dating back to the turn of the century and culminating in his latest release “Ile” (meaning “Earth”) from 2015.

Sosa is a charismatic and energetic live performer, a genuine showman, and he and Tomas took to the stage first, colourfully and elaborately dressed in garb that emphasised their African roots, something reinforced by Tomas playing a kalimba and singing before finally picking up his five string electric bass. These two were subsequently joined by Perez and Saint-Hill, the latter gradually steering the music more firmly in the direction of jazz with a fluent alto sax solo. Sosa’s own solo was more obviously ‘Cuban’ and the high energy exchanges between the two front line instrumentalists were exciting and exhilarating.

Writing for the Jazz Breakfast Peter Bacon bemoaned the poor sound balance at this concert and there were certainly moments when Sosa’s acoustic piano sounded seriously distorted. Sosa also deployed electric keyboards and even samplers and occasionally there was just a bit too much going on but unlike Peter I preferred to try to ignore the technical shortcomings and just concentrate on the energy, joyousness and vitality of this often spiritual music.

Sosa introduced the next tune with a passage of solo piano before combining with Saint-Hill who had moved to flute. Tomas’ voice doubled on the melody line before Sosa’s opening piano solo diverted the music into pure salsa territory with Saint-Hill taking over on vocals and encouraging the audience to sing along with the “sha sha sha” refrain. 

Saint-Hill proved to be a more than capable vocalist, singing in Spanish as well as delivering high quality solos on alto, soprano or flute as the music required. At other times the vocal responsibility passed to Tomas whose combination of electric bass and vocals occasionally reminded me of the Cameroonian musician Richard Bona.

In the main this was a high energy and very flamboyant performance that quickly drew in the majority of the audience who were more than happy to clap along with the hard driving Afro-Cuban rhythms. Sosa and Saint-Hill continued to deliver wildly exciting solos and were consistently pushed to new heights by the propulsive rhythm team of Tomas and Perez, both of whom enjoyed their own features along the way. 

There were occasional pauses for reflection too, including the gentle introduction to the final number, a combination of acoustic piano, feathery soprano and delicately brushed drums, this followed by an equally subtle dialogue between Sosa on piano and Tomas on electric bass. But Sosa’s showman spirit was not to be denied as his insistent piano vamping triggered an ecstatically anthemic closure to the tune.

This was music to immerse oneself in, to sing and clap along to while simultaneously admiring the high standard of musicianship and the sheer energy of the performers, for make no mistake this was a ‘show’.

But for all the flamboyance there was plenty of subtlety and sophistication behind the bluster and a very clever synthesis of the various styles that have fed into Cuban music. Sosa’s pan-cultural approach was very reminiscent of his compatriot and fellow pianist Roberto Fonseca who played this same venue at the 2012 Festival. I’m not going to be drawn into an argument speculating upon which of them adopted this approach first, it may well have been Sosa, but I’ve got a lot of time for both of them.

Technical misgivings aside I thoroughly enjoyed this exciting performance from Omar Sosa and his band, as did many others. This was a satisfying end to a day of truly international music. 


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