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Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 05/05/2019.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 05/05/2019.

Ian Mann on performances by Vula Viel, Yazz Ahmed, David Sanborn, Hanna Paulsberg, Madeleine Peyroux and two exceptional 'Trios With A Twist', one from Cuba, the other from France.

Photograph of Yilian Canizares by Tim Dickeson


SUNDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 05/05/2019


VULA VIEL, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

Another early start start at the PAC for this 11.00 am show, featuring Vula Viel, the unique trio led by percussionist and composer Bex Burch.

Burch specialises in playing the gyil, the ceremonial xylophone of the Dagaare tribe from Upper West Ghana.
She spent several years living and working in Ghana where she learnt to both build and play the instrument and on returning to the UK set about constructing a band around it, utilising the skills of the finest musicians on London’s jazz scene.

In 2016 she released her début album “Good Is Good”, the English meaning meaning of the Dagaare phrase Vula Viel, the latter becoming the collective name of a quintet featuring Burch, saxophonist George Crowley, keyboard player Dan Nicholls and twin drummers Simon Roth and Dave De Rose.

I saw this version of the band give an exciting performance at the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath, Birmingham in May 2016. My review of that event also contains a more substantial account of the background behind Vula Viel’s music and the remarkable story of how Burch became one of the few Europeans to master the gyil and it can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/vula-viel-dan-wilkins-hare-hounds-kings-heath-birmingham-25-02-2016/

Vula Viel’s début was mainly comprised of Burch’s arrangements of traditional Dagaare ceremonial music, often pieces played at funerals. Nevertheless this was vibrant, colourful, highly rhythmic music that celebrated life rather than mourning death, a tradition that migrated from West Africa to New Orleans and the ‘second line’ tradition. At around the same time as that first album an EP of remixes of the tune “Yes Yaa Yaa” was also issued, casting a modern slant on this ancient music.

Fast forward to 2019 and the release of Vula Viel’s second album “Do Not Be Afraid”, a recording featuring a brand new edition of the band, this being the trio that Burch brought to Cheltenham. Only the leader remains from the first edition of the group with Burch now joined by Jim Hart at the drum kit and Ruth Goller on electric bass.

This time round the music is comprised entirely of original compositions by Burch, albeit based around traditional Dagaare structures. The new record sees the group putting a more contemporary slant on the music with Burch adding a range of FX pedals to the gyil, these complementing the propulsive sounds of Goller’s electric bass.

Despite the change of line up the music remains intensely rhythmic and this was a highly energetic performance that quickly blew away any Sunday morning ‘cobwebs’. I suspect that the trio played everything from the new album, albeit in a slightly different running order, as well as including the old favourite “Yes Yaa Yaa” and a number of newer, as yet unrecorded, pieces.

They played in front of a visual display, a light show if you will,  achieved by placing a light in a water tank, a simple but effective trick that helped to generate patterns that pulsed in time with the rhythms generated by the band.

I’m fairly certain that they commenced with “Well Come”, the rousing call to arms that kicks off the new album and features Burch blowing a conch as well as playing the gyil. I think that today was the first time that I’ve seen Hart playing the drum kit, as opposed to his more usual vibraphone, and I was highly impressed with his contribution at the ‘traps’. There was a real energy and vibrancy about the music as the band tackled the fiercely interlocking rhythms, bringing something of a punk attitude and spirit to the proceedings. Goller’s electric bass was a forceful and muscular presence as she brought a real drive to the music, echoing the propulsion that she once brought to the Pete Wareham led bands Acoustic Ladyland and Melt Yourself Down.

The new recording also includes vocals and lyrics for the first time, with a number of guest singers appearing on the album. Here the vocals were tackled by the band members with Goller taking the lead on “Do Not Be Afraid”, augmented by the voices of Burch and Hart. The lyrics are mantra likes pearls of wisdom, presumably sourced and translated from Dagaare teachings. Addressing the audience between numbers Burch spoke of “the necessity and joy of music”, qualities that were embodied in this set as the leader encouraged the audience to try to clap along with the infectious, but unfamiliar rhythms.

This was music that was constantly evolving and possessed of a free-wheeling energy even in its occasional reflective moments. There was little soloing in the conventional jazz sense, although the lead changed hands fairly frequently and the set was littered with set pieces such as bursts of unaccompanied gyil, percussive ‘battles’ between Butch and Hart and powerful, virtuosic, fuzzed up bass solos from the impressive Goller whose role was far more than just rhythmic.

From the new album the lyrics of “We Are” appeared to pay homage to the Dagaare funeral traditions that inspired the band’s début while “Yes Yaa Yaa” became a celebratory audience sing-along.

This was great way to start the day, the only cavil being that Burch’s gyil was sometimes a little too low in the mix and overwhelmed by the bass and drums during the ensemble passages. The ‘light show’ element worked well and helped to enhance the performance of what is already a very visual band, the sight of Burch playing the gyil with such skill and energy already representing a mesmerising sight.

It was good to be able to see everything in the comfortable environment of the PAC but such was the rhythmic drive and energy of this band that they’d have been equally at home in the club atmosphere of the House Of Fraser Basement. Indeed I’m sure that they probably play gigs to standing audiences on a regular basis in London and have no difficulties in getting crowds to respond physically.

There’s a growing buzz about Vula Viel at the moment that transcends the conventional jazz audience. Expect their star to continue to rise.


YAZZ AHMED; POLYHYMNIA, JAZZ ARENA

Over at the Jazz Arena audience were treated to the first performance outside London of “Polyhymnia”, a new suite by the trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed that will form the basis of her forthcoming album recording, scheduled for release in October 2019.

The suite was commissioned in 2015 by the Tomorrow’s Warriors organisation with support from the PRS Women Make Music scheme. Inspired by six courageous and influential women “Polyhymnia” was premièred at the Purcell Room on the South Bank as part of the 2015 Women Of The World Festival and was performed by an all female ensemble.


The twelve piece ‘Hafla Ensemble’ that Ahmed brought to Cheltenham was a mixed sex group that was centred around the members of the trumpeter’s regular working septet, the Hafla Band and lined up as follows;

Yazz Ahmed – trumpet, flugelhorn, electronics
Alex Ridout – trumpet & flugel
Noel Langley – trumpet & flugel
Carol Jarvis – trombone
Josie Simmons – baritone sax
Nathaniel Facey – alto sax
George Crowley – tenor sax, bass clarinet
Naadia Sheriff – piano, keyboards
Ralph Wyld – vibraphone
Dudley Phillips – electric and acoustic bass
Corinne Sylvester - percussion
Sophie Alloway – drums

The opening piece of the suite was dedicated to the women of the Suffragette movement and was based on the movement’s theme song “Shoulder To Shoulder”, itself in turn modelled on the Welsh tune “Men Of Harlech”, the familiar melody of which could be detected towards the close. Sylvester and Alloway introduced the piece percussively before the addition of the horns helped to give the music more of a conventional big band feel. Solos here came from Jarvis, Ridout and Facey and from Ahmed herself, processing the sound of her horn electronically via the Kaoss pad that has become an essential component of her sound.

“Ruby Bridges” was dedicated to the civil rights activist who was the first Afro-American pupil to attend a previously segregated school in Louisiana. As the music commenced Sylvester’s percussion simulated the ringing of a school bell while Alloway’s military style drumming approximated the rhythms of a protest march. The sounds of the American south were also reflected in the gospel stylings of the music, which sometimes sounded like one of Keith Jarrett’s ‘country blues’ numbers. Solos here came from Ridout on trumpet and Sheriff on acoustic piano.

The next movement was a dedication to the female Saudi film director Halfaa al Mansour and emerged out of an atmospheric intro featuring the eerie sound of Wyld’s bowed vibes. Sylvester’s use of Arabic percussion allied to Ahmed’s electronically enhanced trumpet gave the music a distinctive Middle Eastern feel, the leader’s use of Arabic scales a reflection of her Bahraini heritage. The other featured musician was Wyld with a more conventional vibraphone solo that saw him deploying the four mallet technique.

“One Girl Too Many” celebrated  Malala Yousafzai and incorporated phrases from her 2013 speech to the United Nations. Some of these were sung or spoken by Ahmed and her fellow band members while others were turned into melodies or rhythms, an inventive and effective compositional device. The leader was the featured soloist on electronically treated flugelhorn.

The title of “2857” was sourced from the number of the bus famously ridden on by Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Introduced by the sounds of electric bass and percussion the mood of this piece was initially sombre and reflective but gradually gained momentum through a bellicose tenor solo from Crowley that seemed designed to mirror the growing Afro-American discontent in the American South of the 1950s and 60s. The final section of the tune featured an unstoppable groove fuelled by drums, percussion and vibes that now seemed to reflect the ultimate success of the civil rights movement, with Simmons rasping baritone solo cutting a swathe through the buoyant rhythms.

The final movement of the suite honoured a figure closer to home. The British saxophonist and composer Barbara Thompson (born 1944) helped to forge the path that Ahmed and the numerous other female band leaders at this year’s Cheltenham have followed, breaking down the barriers and succeeding in the previously male dominated world of jazz. A true pioneer and an indomitable spirit Thompson was diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease in 1997 and was recently widowed following the death of her husband, the drummer Jon Hiseman, yet she still continues to compose and record music.
It was appropriate that Ahmed’s piece should include a saxophone solo, this being an expansive and incisive outing from Facey on alto with further solos coming from Wyld on vibes and Ahmed on flugel.

The Hafla Ensemble concluded their set with a tune that did not actually form part of the set. Nevertheless Ahmed dedicated “A Shoal Of Souls” to the Bristol based artist and illustrator Sophie Bass, who produced the distinctive artwork for Ahmed’s most recent album “La Saboteuse”. As befits its title the tune was also dedicated to the North African and Syrian refugees currently attempting to cross the Mediterranean in the hope of finding a better life in Europe. Appropriately the music incorporated Middle Eastern and North African elements with the leader on electronically enhanced trumpet and Wyld on bowed vibes making particularly notable contributions.

Today’s performance at a sold out Jazz Arena was a triumph for Ahmed with the music getting a terrific audience reaction plus a pretty unequivocal ‘thumbs up’ from the critics. The playing from a well drilled ensemble was exceptional and “Polyhymnia” looks set to be one of the most anticipated jazz releases of the year.

The quality of the writing was excellent and overall this was more successful than Ahmed’s other (very good) large ensemble work “Alhaan Al Siduri”, commissioned in 2015 by the Birmingham based Jazzlines association. My only cavil about today’s performance would be that Ahmed was perhaps overly reliant on electronic wizardry during the course of her own solos. It would have been nice to have heard some more ‘straight ahead’ playing from her rather than leaving that to Ridout and Langley.
Nevertheless this was a set that ranked as one of the Festival highlights.


DAVID SANBORN ACOUSTIC BAND, TOWN HALL

This represented a return visit to Cheltenham for alto saxophonist David Sanborn who played the Big Top in 2016 with a quintet that he dubbed his Electric Band. I also covered that event and largely enjoyed it, but it was a show that divided audience and critical opinion.

For this performance in the marginally more intimate environs of the Town Hall the saxophonist had brought along his Acoustic Band, with only drummer Billy Kilson remaining from the previous line up. Today’s group also included Michael Dease on trombone, Geoffrey Keezer on piano and keyboard and Ben Williams on double bass. It wasn’t all strictly acoustic but it was far more obviously a ‘jazz’ performance than 2016’s had been, with Keezer a big improvement on keyboard player Ricky Peterson, whose playing I really didn’t take to at all.

The material this time round was more rooted in the jazz tradition as opposed to the funk and fusion of two years ago. Williams and Kilson established a driving groove as the quintet launched into the Michael Brecker tune “Tumbleweed” with Sanborn soloing incisively on alto followed by Dease on trombone and Keezer at the piano with the ebullient Kilson also enjoying something of a drum feature.

Sanborn described the late Brecker as one of the greatest saxophone players of his generation and followed up the opener with a second Brecker tune, “Half Moon Lane”. Introduced by Keezer at the piano this was a slower tune that again featured the leader’s Jackie McLean styled alto plus a stand out solo from Williams, once the bass player with guitarist Pat Metheny’s Unity Band. Further solos came from Keezer on piano and Dease on trombone, the latter also entering into a series of exchanges with the leader.

The Marcus Miller composition “Maputo”, named for the capital of Mozambique, was also played at Sanborn’s 2016 Cheltenham concert. Today the thirty five year old composition was performed in a new “Pan African” arrangement with Keezer moving to an electric keyboard, a Yamaha Motif XF8, to supply the percolating kalimba style motif motif that underpins the song. Solos here came from the leader on alto and Dease on trombone, the latter delivering his best solo of the afternoon and producing an impressive range of sounds from the trombone, sometimes utilising the services of a plunger mute. Meanwhile Keezer mixed acoustic and electric keyboard sounds during his feature.

A change in direction for an arrangement of a pop song that Sanborn remembered from his youth. The tune was “It’s All In The Game”, a hit for Tommy Edwards and later for the Four Tops. Sanborn slipped us the interesting snippet of information that the melody was written as far back as 1911 by Charles Dawes, who later became Vice President to Calvin Coolidge! Carl Sigman’s lyrics came much later. Trivia aside this was classic Sanborn as he soloed at length on alto, bringing a wealth of emotion to the song and almost ‘crying’ on the instrument. There were also features for Williams on double bass and Keezer on piano prior to an unaccompanied closing sax cadenza from the leader.

Kilson’s drums introduced the slyly funky “Spanish Joint”, co-composed by the late jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and the soul singer D’Angelo. With Keezer on electric piano this was a more energetic work out featuring the joint melody lines of Sanborn and Dease and with the leader soloing incisively.

The impressive Williams introduced the next, unannounced, piece with an extended solo bass feature that had Sanborn muttering his approval. The saxophonist continued to sit back as the group went into piano trio mode with Keezer delivering a sparkling acoustic piano solo peppered with Latin-esque flourishes. Dease followed on trombone before handing over to Sanborn, the two horn men also entering into a lively series of exchanges with the pair quoting liberally from Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia.

There were no doubts about the identity of the final piece, an arrangement of “On The Spot”, a tune composed by the trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. This high energy closer saw Sanborn and Dease playing the catchy melodic hook in unison before the leader stretched out with a wailing, bluesy alto solo, the trombonist following. But the tune was essentially a showcase for the energetic Kilson, a busy and galvanising presence throughout, who enjoyed himself in an exuberant and theatrical drum feature.

This was the third time that I’ve seen Sanborn and although I know that he has his detractors I’ve generally enjoyed all of them. Today’s acoustic show was definitely a step up from the Electric Band gig of three years ago with Sanborn reminding us of his fluency as a jazz soloist and doing so in the company of a highly competent all star band with each member impressing individually and collectively. For me it was a first live sighting of Keezer, Williams and Dease and I was impressed with all of them.

It wasn’t quite up to the standard of the Redman gig in the same venue the night before but this was still a pretty strong showing from another leading figure of American jazz. Radio listeners will get the chance to judge for themselves when the Sanborn concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now programme on the evening of Monday May 13th 2019 at 11.00 pm.


HANNA PAULSBERG CONCEPT, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

On to another saxophonist, this time a young European musician playing the tenor.

The Norwegian saxophonist, composer and bandleader Hanna Paulsberg appeared at the very first Birmingham / Trondheim Jazz Exchange event some ten years ago and subsequently returned to Cheltenham to lead her Concept quartet at a successful appearance on the Festival’s Freestage in 2012

This year Paulsberg was invited back for a rather more formal concert performance at the PAC. In the years since her very first Cheltenham appearance she has established herself as saxophonist, composer and bandleader of some stature, releasing a total of four albums as a leader including “Waltz For Lilli” (2012), “Song For Josia” (2014) and “Eastern Smiles” (2016). In 2018 her latest recording “Daughter Of The Sun” included a guest appearance from the celebrated Swedish trumpeter Magnus Broo and garnered some very favourable reviews.

Today Paulsberg brought along her long running Concept quartet featuring pianist Oscar Gronberg, bassist Trygve Waldemar Fiske and drummer Erik Nylander, the latter having taken over from previous drummer Hans Hulbaekmo. Both Gronberg and Fiske had also been part of the Birmingham-Trondheim Exchanges, emphasising the importance of these ventures, and I seem to recall Hulbaekmo being part of it too.

The Concept group sound is less obviously experimental than much contemporary Norwegian jazz and more rooted in the American jazz tradition with the influence of musicians such as Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Stan Getz evident in Paulsberg’s sound.

She also impresses as a composer, her pieces often evolving out of simple, repeated melodic phrases, but with Paulsberg and the quartet developing them in consistently interesting and inventive ways.

Not all of the tunes were announced but the opening piece showcased Paulsberg’s fluency as a tenor sax soloist as she shared the spotlight with the impressive Gronberg as Nylander provided the necessary propulsion via his rapidly brushed grooves.

Paulsberg’s musical career has allowed her to travel widely and she like to write tunes inspired on her experiences and by people she has met. Hence we learned that the title track of the “Song For Josia” was written for a musician that she worked with in Madagascar. This was another excellent example of Paulsberg’s melodic writing style and began in piano trio mode with Gronberg taking the first solo. Fiske’s bass was also featured before the music gathered greater momentum, building up a considerable head of steam as Paulsberg stretched out on tenor.

The next piece demonstrated Paulsberg’s skills as a ballad player, her sound now soft and breathy. Meanwhile Gronberg’s lyrical solo was embellished by Nylander’s drum colourations. The quartet then increased the energy levels once more as the piece progressed with Paulberg now adopting a harder edged tone and probing more deeply.

“Catalan Boy” was sourced from the “Eastern Smiles” album and was written for a fellow saxophonist on an international jazz course. “He was a very flirty boy”, explained Paulsberg, who, despite being tempted, eventually dismissed him as a potential suitor. The tune was suitably playful and a good example of Paulsberg’s abilities to create rewarding compositions from initially simple sources. The first solo came from the composer as she extemporised around the repeated staccato phrases that formed the basis of the tune. We also heard from Grunborg at the piano and from Nylander at the drums, the latter’s colourful playing being a major factor throughout the tune as a whole.

Next a true ballad that featured Nylander playing brushed drums throughout and with solos coming from Gronberg and Paulsberg, the saxophonist exploiting the higher registers of her instrument and neatly sidestepping the usual jazz ballad clichés.

“Little Big Saxophone”, the last of half a dozen fairly lengthy and substantial compositions, was a tribute to the Swedish saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist and exhibited a similar quirky playfulness as the earlier “Catalan Boy”. The piece opened with a good natured series of sax and drum exchanges before progressing to move seamlessly up and down the gears, changing the pace and dynamics without any obvious signalling of the tempo changes. Along the way we got to enjoy solos from Paulsberg, Gronberg and Fiske as the quartet brought a consistently enjoyable performance to a close.

This was one of the more low key performances of this year’s PAC programme and one of the most ‘straight ahead’. Nevertheless it was still hugely satisfying and included some impressively mature writing and some excellent playing from a highly talented quartet with a well established rapport. Paulsberg presided over the proceedings with an easy charm and the performance has sent me back to the recordings once more. Four albums in and Paulsberg has already amassed an impressive body work, with all of her output making for rewarding listening.


MADELEINE PEYROUX, THE BIG TOP

The American born singer and songwriter Madeleine Peyroux has accrued a large following for her work and made a return visit to Cheltenham, filling the 2000 seater Big Top.

I first discovered Peyroux’s work around fifteen years ago on albums such as “Careless Love” and “Half The Perfect World”. My wife was a big fan at the time as was one of her work colleagues and I remember us all attending a Peyroux live show at Warwick Arts Centre but ultimately coming away feeling disappointed. The presentation was all very laid back and low key with Peyroux lacking any real stage presence. Somehow the live experience didn’t live up to the promise of those two very good albums.

I’ll admit to having paid little regard to Peyroux in the meantime as I’ve dug deeper into the recesses of contemporary jazz but having a vacant slot in my Festival programme I thought I’d check out how the singer has progressed with regard to live performance in the intervening years.

Fifteen years on and with Peyroux touring in support of her ninth and latest album “Anthem” I was interested to see how she had honed her stage craft in the interim. Certainly there were more jokes than previously as she attempted to get the audience onside in the cavernous venue but these sounded rather forced and often feel flat.

Things started well enough with “Don’t Wait Too Long”, a self penned song that has become something of a signature tune for her, but Peyroux didn’t rally build on her success. Her song selections, whether self penned or by others, tend to be somewhat gloomy and downbeat and there was insufficient emotional variety in her set, something that even she tried to joke about. Even though Peyroux’s repertoire embraces various genres of American music, ranging from jazz to blues to folk to country there’s still a tendency for them to all start to sound the same after a while. However her one attempt to liven things up, the cringe-worthy “Honey Party” just sounded banal and out of place.

Peyroux accompanied herself on acoustic guitar for the majority of the set which restricted her mobility about the stage. Also I felt that she was singing just a few too inches far away from the mic and the intimacy and meaning of the lyrics was often crucially lost.

Peyroux made here name as an interpreter of other peoples’ songs and her repertoire has included Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and other great North American songwriters. She has a particular affinity for the music of Cohen and her interpretations of his “Dance Mr To The End Of Love” and “Anthem” were particularly successful and well received.

Elsewhere another attempt at humour by way of Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” was more successful while the original song “Brand New Deal”, from the “Anthem” album, added some sharp and pertinent political commentary. Other items from the new record included “All My Heroes” and “We Might As Well Dance”. More familiar fare came in the shapes of “Careless Love” and “As Far As I’m Concerned It’s A Lovely Day”.

Peyroux was supported by a highly skilled but ultimately rather faceless backing band of veteran session men including Andy Ezrin (keyboards, melodica), Paul Frazier (electric bass) and Graham Hawthorne (drums). I didn’t catch the name of the guitarist, but he added some nice Wes Montgomery style melodic flourishes as he shared the majority of the instrumental solos with Ezrin. Is it possible for a band too be too ‘tasteful’? Because that what these guys were, their solos were skilful, succinct and neatly constructed, totally professional but lacking the spontaneity that defines the best jazz.

Ultimately I’m afraid I found it all rather dull, something not helped by being a long way from the stage in an uncomfortable seat in a giant tent – not that the location had affected my enjoyment of the Abdullah Ibrahim gig the day before, although admittedly I did have a much better vantage point for that.

Peyroux’s performance was received politely but not particularly enthusiastically by the audience and I noticed that there wasn’t much of a rush to the record store afterwards, which suggested that others shared my reservations. The “Careless Love” album was playing in the record shop and actually sounded much better than the real thing had done, leading me to conclude that Peyroux is ultimately the kind of artist who is more at home in the studio than on the concert stage. There’s plenty of precedent for that, the rock band Blur for instance, as well as plenty of counter-examples who were dynamic live acts that have never really cut it on disc, the Edgar Broughton Band, Mott The Hoople and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin to give three such names from my rock past.

West Country based music fans might have been better advised to have checked out Peyroux’s performances at St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol the following night. It would be interesting to know how this show went down in the kind of smaller, more intimate venue that I’m sure would have suited Peyroux’s music more.


OMAR SOSA, YILIAN CANIZARES, GUSTAVO OVALLES PALACIOS, JAZZ ARENA

Next up a complete contrast at the Jazz Arena. There was nothing remotely dull about this stunning performance in the ‘Trios With A Twist’ series featuring pianist Omar Sosa, vocalist and violinist Yilian Canizares and percussionist Gustavo Ovalles Palacios. It was dynamic, exciting and colourful, both musically and visually.

The Cuban pianist and composer Omar Sosa had previously visited Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 2016 with his Quarteto AfroCubana, playing a hugely exciting show in this same venue, albeit one hampered by technical difficulties. I preferred to try and ignore the sound problems and just concentrated on the joyousness of the music.

Mercifully there were no such issues today as Sosa unveiled his new project, a collaboration with the Swiss based vocalist and violinist Yilian Canizares.  Canizares may be based in Switzerland, hence the sponsorship from Pro-Helvetia and the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation, but she is of Cuban descent and the music of the island is deep in her soul, she is totally immersed in it.

Sosa and Canizares recently released the album “Aguas”  (meaning “waters”) on the OTA record label, a recording that also includes the talents of percussionist Inor Sotolongo. Tonight Palacios performed quite brilliantly in the percussionist’s chair, the quality of his performance more than matched by the dazzling contributions of Sosa and Canizares.

The partnership of Sosa, these days based in Barcelona, and Canizares is a cross-generational one, Sosa, the senior partner, has been investigating the music of the Afro-Cuban diaspora for many years, releasing a string of highly regarded albums in the process. He’s a real showman, taking to the stage in white robes that emphasise his African heritage, but he’s also bang up to date musically, his instrumental set up incorporating grand piano and electric keyboards plus a range of programming and sampling equipment. He may be flamboyant but his piano technique is exceptional, his deployment of the various electronic devices at his disposal skilled and pertinent and his sheer musicality unquestionable.

These are qualities that also apply to the younger Canizares who represented a compelling centre stage presence as well as singing and playing brilliantly. And while the album may be credited to Sosa and Canizares Palacios’ contribution on a wide variety of percussive implements was also vital and exceptional, this truly was a ‘Trio With A Twist’.

Compared to Peyroux, who had struggled to project in the vastness of the Big Top, there was the sense that this was genuinely a ‘show’ something enhanced by the bright clothing of the participants and the imaginative use of lighting and other effects. Dry ice swirled as Sosa’s piano and electronics set the mood with Palacios reciting words in Spanish while playing Cuban style drums.

Canizares then made her entrance, playing pizzicato violin, before singing the first song of the evening, her emotive vocals complemented by some fiery violin bowing.

I’m assuming that the majority of the music came from the “Aguas” album, the title of which references the Yoruban deity Oshun, the Goddess of Love and Mistress of Rivers, and the life and energy that she brings. The title also references the ocean that separates these two emigres in Europe from the land of their birth.

Thus there was plenty of emotional depth in this music, flamboyant though much of it was, helping the trio to avoid the usual Afro-Cuban salsa clichés. Canizares’ soulful singing of the Spanish lyrics mirrored the sorrow and profundity of corresponding genres such as flamenco, fado and even the blues, a real sense of what the Spanish call ‘duende’.

But this wasn’t just an exercise in longing and nostalgia, this was a celebration too, of all things Cuban and of life itself. These qualities were reflected in Sosa’s dazzling, technically brilliant piano soloing and his intelligent deployment of synthesised bass lines and sampled vocals. The use of modern technology contrasted with Palacios’ exuberant playing of a veritable battery of percussive devices ranging from kit drums to congas to smaller devices that were sometimes difficult to identify from my vantage point. He always had the right sound or rhythm for any given musical situation.

Meanwhile Canizares was a revelation, a fiery, soulful and technically accomplished vocalist, a superb violinist and a charismatic stage presence. And make no mistake this was a show with Sosa periodically abandoning his piano stool to dance with Canizares as Palacios continued to supply the infectious rhythms. The lights also played their part, at one point Canizares was bathed in swirling blue and yellow light, a striking image brilliantly captured by the Tim Dickeson photograph that accompanies this feature. Even the audience were totally involved, a bout of spontaneous clapping along breaking out without any prior encouragement for the band.

Nothing seemed overly contrived, the chemistry between Sosa and Canizares seemed far too natural to have been manufactured, with the excellent Palacios also buying right in to the co-leaders’s concept and integrating with his band mates perfectly. The playing of both Sosa and Canizares combined the precision of Western classicism with the passion and energy of Cuba and Africa, and an innate musicality was apparent throughout, even in something as superficially banal as Palacios’ maraca feature. Other set pieces included a piano/violin duet followed by a vigorous discourse featuring all three musicians.

I have no tune titles for you, naturally these were all in Spanish, but the language barrier didn’t matter in a performance as dynamic, exciting and downright brilliant as this. The trio had the whole arena on their feet long before the close and were one of the few acts of the weekend to be afforded an encore. Yes, they were the last act of the day in this venue so no time restraints but such was the overwhelming enthusiasm of the audience reaction that defying the wishes of the audience wasn’t really an option. The lines at the record store were rather longer than they had been for Ms. Peyroux!

This gig was a bit of a late addition to my Festival schedule, the memory of Sosa’s 2016 performance swinging the vote over the solo piano performance at the PAC by Fred Hersch, who was subsequently replaced by Marc Copland.

The Copland performance also drew favourable views and was obviously a very different performance to this. But I don’t think anything could have topped Sosa, Canizares and Palacios, a collective force of nature, who surprised everybody (in a good way) with this barnstorming ‘Gig of the Festival’.


SYLVAIN DARRIFOURCQ / VALENTIN CECCALDI / QUENTIN BIARDEAU,
PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

The final gig at the PAC, and the last in the ‘Trios In A Twist’ series featured the French trio of drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq, cellist Valentin Ceccaldi and tenor saxophonist Quentin Biardeau. The last named was a replacement for the previously advertised Manuel Hermia, who was unable to travel due to illness.

The trio of Hermia, Ceccaldi and Darrifourcq appear on the album “God At The Casino”, a selection of original compositions from the members of the band and from which all of tonight’s material was sourced.

Darrifourcq was the only member of the trio whose playing I was previously familiar with, having seen him perform at this Festival and in this venue on two previous occasions. In 2013 he appeared with the Anglo-French quartet Barbacana, which also featured keyboard player Kit Downes, and in 2015 he and Downes returned as part of the trio In Bed With…, a band that also included the French guitarist Julian Desprez.

The drummer brought a very French eccentricity and whimsicality to both these projects and it was no surprise to see him bringing similar qualities to tonight’s performance. Darrifourcq is a very ‘theatrical’ drummer, augmenting his kit with various small devices including toys and kitchen implements, the ‘toys’ including children’s play things as well as implements of a more sexual nature!

Darrifourcq is a very visual player, always fascinating to watch, and its own way this was as much a ‘piece of theatre’ as the Cuban trio’s show had been, despite all the avant garde trappings.

Darrifourcq had obviously been remembered from his previous visits and this event was pleasingly well attended despite the comparative lateness of the hour and the experimental nature of the music. The French trio had certainly attracted a larger audience than the Michael Formanek quartet the previous evening.

The trio commenced with On A Brule La Tarte”, the opening piece from their album, written by Ceccaldi and with a title translating as “We Burn The Pipe”. An introductory staccato riff incorporating cello and drums was joined by the wailing of Biardeau’s sax as the newcomer began to find his niche within the group. Extreme dynamic contrasts were a feature of the piece with Ceccaldi attacking his instrument with a savage, violent vigour that would probably appal many a classical musician – heavy metal cello anyone? Darrifourcq continued to roam around his kit, adding the sounds of those small devices to the more conventional percussive noises while Biardeau continued to unleash barrages of fog horn like sax. This was real ‘pin your ears back’ stuff, pretty full on but totally exhilarating.

The introduction to the next piece was more impressionistic with a passage of unaccompanied cello from Ceccaldi that included both pizzicato techniques and grainy bowing. Darrifourcq later added the sound of various small devices and Biardeau joined in on over-blown tenor, extended techniques are something of a hallmark of this trio. This, I think was Hermia’s composition “Du Poil De La Bete”, the absent saxophonist still making his presence felt through his writing.

Drums and pizzicato cello then established a riff or groove above which Biardeau floated wispy sax melodies as the music segued into Darrifourcq’s “Les Flics De La Police”. A more staccato riff then emerged, the odd meter groove encouraging much head nodding around the venue as the trio ‘got down’ albeit in a highly cerebral, King Crimson sort of way. Biardeau topped this with an increasingly confrontational sax barrage to complement Ceccaldi’s continuing assault on his cello and Darrifourcq’s explosive drumming.

A solo drum feature from Darrifourcq ushered in Hermia’s piece “Ho Chi Minh”, with the pregnant pauses before each series of percussive attacks stretching out to such lengths that one was periodically reminded of John Cage’s “4 min 33 sec”. Darrifourcq’s pauses may not have been that long, but they were positively ‘Pinter-esque’. Next Ceccaldi set up a simmering drone on the cello that became increasingly buzzy and distorted as he placed objects under the strings. The re-introduction of the drums plus Biardeau’s belligerent tenor sax then provoked another bout of intellectualised head banging as Biardeau’s sax honked, wailed and fluttered above an increasingly frenetic staccato riff. In their own strange way these guys were more ‘death metal’ than Starebaby had been the previous day.

I’m fairly certain that the trio actually played the whole of the “God Is In The Casino” album, albeit with this being primarily improvised music much of it sounded very different to the recording. So I’m fairly sure that we concluded with Darrifourcq’s “Chauve Et Courtois” which included a set piece percussive introduction featuring the full range of the drummers ‘objects’, as they’re classified on the album cover. Even with the good sight lines in the PAC I still couldn’t make out everything he was doing, it was a bit like watching Tony Buck of The Necks, a possible influence.
Pecked sax and plucked cello were added to the mix, augmenting the percussive wizardry before Biardeau began to assert himself with some increasingly gruff and garrulous sax harmolodics.

This last ‘Trio With A Twist’ earned themselves a great reception from the PAC audience. This was music that was, in many ways, totally ‘out there’,  but which still possessed of enough structure to remain accessible, that fine balance between the composed and the improvised again. The rapport between Darrifourcq and Ceccaldi was obvious throughout, with Biardeau having to find his own way into the music, something he did very successfully. The combination of some ferocious odd meter riffing plus the visual spectacle of Darrifourcq’s almost relentless drumming ensured that the music remained accessible and the memories of those aspects of the performance help to ensure that the “God Is At The Casino” album remains a good listen in the home environment too.

This show was very different to anything else I’d heard at the Festival but in its own eccentric, and very French, way it represented one of the highlights of the Festival. This was adventurous, experimental music delivered with a Gallic smile on its face.


FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

I was unable to travel to Cheltenham on the Monday due to family commitments so this was the end of Cheltenham for me for another year. As ever the Festival produced some superb music with the ‘Trio With A Twist’ strand really delivering. Sunlight, Joshua Redman, Vula Viel and today’s Cuban and French trios all performed superb shows under this banner.

The number of female led bands was also impressive (Cheltenham certainly can’t be accused of gender bias) with the majority of these being spearheaded by instrumentalists. Nubya Garcia, Vula Viel, Yazz Ahmed and Hanna Paulsberg all impressed with Yilian Canizares forming part of a trio of equals. And there were many more women on the bill including Rachel Musson, Julie Campiche and the duo of Zoe Rahman and Nikki Yeoh, I was sorry to have missed all of these but such are the choices one has to make at Festivals.

I’m grateful to Bairbre Lloyd and the other staff at the Festival press Office for supplying my press tickets and to photographer Tim Dickeson for allowing me to use the images that illustrate these pages.


‘WATERGATE’

The only sour note concerns the over zealous stewarding at the Town Hall. These were not the friendly and courteous volunteer stewards in the pink polo shirts that staffed all the other venues, I have only admiration for them.

Instead these were paid professional security guards presumably funded by the Cheltenham Trust that now appears to administer the Town Hall and Pillar Room. I turned up for the John Surman gig and was commanded to have my bag searched. It’s a long day when you cover as many events as I do and I was extremely annoyed when I was asked to either abandon the water bottle that I’d brought with me, hopefully to last me through most of the day, or to vacate it of its contents. I made a show of emptying it over the Town Hall steps, hoping to fill it again later. “We have a no fluids policy”  I was told.

I’m used to this kind of bullshit at football matches, I don’t expect to encounter it at a jazz festival. The issue it seems was not the potential of the bottle as a missile, as at the football, but the possible smuggling in of elicit alcohol. I suspect that this may have been a problem at rock gigs at this venue in the past. But at two in the afternoon for a jazz ensemble led by a seventy five year old and with an audience of a similar age – come on! Of course they were selling alcohol inside, and I could even have purchased a replacement bottle of water, something that I chose to do elsewhere. If this was just some kind of money making scheme they weren’t going to be making any out of me. Yes there was free water inside, as promised by the stewards, served in plastic cups from a water cooler.

I can’t stand this kind of unnecessary officiousness and I’m not going to let it pass without comment. The medical profession warn us of the dangers of dehydration, making the actions of these ‘goons’ totally irresponsible in my book. What happened to ‘innocent until proved guilty’?

And then there’s the environmental issue, the replacement water bottles, the hundreds of single use plastic cups. These ‘guys’ were professionals, the kind that are in the job because they like bullying people. Effectively they’ve taken money off every single person who had to buy a replacement bottle of water thanks to their over zealous, bloody minded pettiness – and they did it three times in my case. We don’t need them at Cheltenham. Don’t employ them at this or any other venue and don’t let them spoil our Festival.

Rant over.  Apart from that it was great.


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