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Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2017.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2017.

Ian Mann on performances by Monocled Man, Schnellertollermeier, Meshell Ndegeocello, Chick Corea, Chris Potter and Yazz Ahmed.

Photograph of the Chris Potter Quartet by Tim Dickeson


Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2017

MONOCLED MAN

Another early start at the Parabola Arts Centre saw the day’s music begin with a performance by trumpeter and composer Rory Simmons and his group Monocled Man.

As trumpeter of choice for Jamie Cullum Simmons has been a frequent visitor to Cheltenham, both as a sideman and as a leader of his own projects.  In 2010 he appeared with his now sadly defunct large ensemble Fringe Magnetic.

Among Simmons’ latest projects are the trios Monocled Man and the more song orientated Eyes of a Blue Dog, the latter featuring vocalist Elisabeth Nygaard and Norwegian drummer and sound artist Terje Evensen.

Monocled Man features Simmons on trumpet, flugel, keyboards and electronics alongside Troyka guitarist Chris Montague and in demand drummer Jon Scott. Their 2014 début for Whirlwind Recordings “Southern Drawl” was an all instrumental affair, a powerful collection of material inspired by electric era Miles Davis and by the music of more contemporary trumpeter/composers such as Dave Douglas, Cuong Vu and Arve Henriksen.

2016’s “We Drift Meridian” proved to be a conceptual album  inspired by the German author Judith Shcalansky and her tome “Pocket Book of Remote Islands”, a non fiction work written in the style of a novel and featuring tales of far flung islands and their current or former inhabitants. A number of these stories sparked Simmons’ imagination and an idea for an album began to emerge. 

Simmons has described the concept behind the album thus;
‘We Drift Meridian’ is inspired by the stories of real people who have lived on remote islands across the world. In a broad sense the lyrics, sound world and artwork draws from this narrative of isolation, solitude and landscape of these archipelagos”.
He continues;
“The history of these people and the islands where they lived is alluded to in an abstract and ambiguous way in the music and lyrics of ‘We Drift Meridian’. The stories have many dimensions and are both folkloric and historical in content. They are stories which resonate with social, political and geographical context”.
“We Drift Meridian” is very different to its predecessor and features the singing of guest vocalists Emilia Martensson and Ed Begley. Simmons has a particular affinity for the sound of the human voice and Nygaard has been a part of both the Fringe Magnetic and Eyes of a Blue Dog projects.
Indeed the music to be heard on “We Drift Meridian” is often more reminiscent of that of Eyes of a Blue Dog than it is of “Southern Drawl”.

Today’s performance included guest appearances from both Nygaard and Begley and featured Peter Ibbotson in the drum chair replacing the unavailable Jon Scott. The young drummer had only had a couple of days to learn the group’s music but acquitted himself superbly.

The musical performance was accompanied by a film collated by Simmons depicting life on remote islands, some them tropical, some of them polar, much of it grainy but atmospheric archive footage shot mainly in black and white. The film contained many interesting and evocative images but didn’t relate directly to the music that was being played. In this respect it was somewhat distracting and therefore only partially successful. Nonetheless there was one moment of perfect synchronicity where black and white footage of nuclear testing on a remote atoll combined perfectly with a suitably incendiary Montague guitar solo.

The music itself placed a heavy reliance on electronics with Simmons playing keyboards in addition to his customary trumpet and with Ibbotson deploying sampled beats alongside more conventional humanised drumming. Montague’s guitar was employed as much as a textural device as a lead instrument as he produced deep layers and washes of multi-textural sounds, sometimes ethereal, sometimes threatening, but always deeply atmospheric. That said he was sometimes a little too low in the mix as Simmons amplified trumpet and electronica dominated the group sound with the leader emerging as the principal soloist.

Nygaard was the first of the singers to appear, her voice first employed wordlessly to add greater colour and texture to the music before singing the words of the album title track. Begley joined her for the song “Fiction Afloat” which also featured the sounds of Simmons on flugelhorn. To be honest it wasn’t easy to pick up on the lyrical subtleties in the live environment but this may prove easier when the concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s “Jazz Now” programme later in the year.

That said Begley’s rendition of the words to “Fantasy Will Flourish”, a new song inspired the life and work of the eccentric German adventurer and treasure hunter August Gissler, was easier to understand as the trio provided gentle but atmospheric accompaniment. In the second half of the piece the music became more dramatic as Montague erupted into pedal driven guitar meltdown, accompanied by the images of those billowing mushroom clouds.

Nygaard returned to vocalise in wordlessly ethereal fashion on the closing “Scott Moorman Adrift”  which was performed in front of a blank screen, presumably to emphasise Moorman’s isolation. The song’s subject was lost off the coast of Hawaii and his jawbone subsequently found on the uninhabited island of Taongi several years later. As with all the pieces forming part of the “We Drift Meridian” project the music was inspired by a true story.

Simmons, his band mates and guests were treated to a warm reception by a knowledgeable and pleasingly populous Cheltenham crowd. The performance was never less then interesting and the playing and the singing first rate but as a complete multi-media event it was, in truth, only partially successful, enjoyable as the film with its images of people, wildlife and topography was.
It will be interesting to listen back to the music exclusively when the BBC broadcast is made.

On International Jazz Day Monocled Man’s performance was one of five at the Parabola – the others were by Schnellertollermeier, Amok Amor, Julian Sartorius and Mark Sanders/John Butcher – to be recorded by sound artists Iain Chambers and Pascal Wyse for their “Recomposed” project, the results of their remixing later aired in the foyer area at the Parabola prior to the final performance of the day by trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and her group. 

SCHNELLERTOLLERMEIER

Next up at the Parabola were the young Swiss jazz power trio Schnellertollermeier. The jazz scene in Switzerland is particularly vibrant at present and has spawned a number of innovative single name bands including Rusconi, Plaistow and Vein.

Signed to Cuneiform Records Schnellertollermeier’s uncompromising attitude is reflected in their tongue twisting name. Their first album for the label, simply titled “X”, released in 2015 has attracted a compelling amount of crtitical acclaim and followed their début  “Zorn einen ehmer üttert stem!!”.

Today’s performance was supported by the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia, but nearly didn’t happen. An airline mix up found the band in Birmingham and their equipment in Amsterdam and it was only thanks to a superb effort by the staff of Cheltenham Jazz Festival that the trio were able to appear at all, playing on a collection of hastily assembled hired gear.    

Nevertheless there was still a substantial array of Vox and Ampeg amps on the stage, and if the band’s performance didn’t sound quite as they themselves would have liked it was still pretty damn impressive.

Bass guitarist Andi Schnellman, guitarist Manuel Troller and drummer David Meier played with skill, flair and attitude on the hired kit, their music a convincing amalgam of jazz, rock, electronica and contemporary classical music influences. Today’s set included selections from “X”, among them “Massacre du Printemps” with its implied nod to Stravinsky, plus new material from the band’s forthcoming album. Tune announcements were scant, but really this was all about the music.

The repeated figures and interlocking rhythms of the lengthy opening piece suggested the inspiration of both the minimalism of Steve Reich and the beats of contemporary electronic dance music. It was a quiet start, but a hypnotic one, as the music gradually became more layered and complex, the interlocking rhyhtmic and melodic patterns sometimes recalling “Discipline” era King Crimson, something emphasised by the periodic squalls of rock power and math rock riffage that inspired something close to head banging among some members of the audience. The group have toured widely and have appeared in the UK and Ireland before so it’s quite possible that they’ve already acquired something of a cult following on these shores.

Orthodox soloing in the jazz tradition isn’t what Schnellertollermeier are about. Instead the trio comes over as a single conjoined entity, a textural and rhythmic juggernaut. This was epitomised by the second piece which combined Troller’s chiming guitar riffs with the crisp sound of Meier’s sticks on rims. But for all their abrasiveness Scnellertollermeier can also be highly atmospheric, suggesting further influences from the world of ambient or film soundtrack music, as evidenced by Schnellman’s eerily bowed electric bass. Elsewhere there were the now familiar bursts of dynamic drumming and jagged guitar riffing in the style of Crimson or Frank Zappa, with Troller even contriving to throw a few shapes.

The third piece began almost subliminally and featured Troller making use of e-bow alongside Meier’s ethereal cymbal shimmers. Gradually the music began to build in ever accreting layers of sound developing into chunky math rock riffing and an angry, shredding climax.

The well deserved encore was a shorter excursion into the trio’s unique world of prog rock precision and punk rock attitude.

Although one or two jazz purists were less than convinced the general reaction to
Schnellertollermeier was overwhelmingly positive. I was certainly extremely impressed and would love to hear more of this band – sadly no CDS were made available for sale at the Festival. If the trio could sound this good on hired equipment what would they be like utilising their own gear? 
In any event they were definitely one of my Festival highlights.

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO

I was tempted to remain at the Parabola for the performance by Amok Amor, the international quartet led by bassist Petter Eldh and featuring virtuoso American trumpeter Peter Evans.

However having reviewed the band’s performance at the Vortex as part of the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival I decided to try something else, bassist and vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello’s group at the Pizza Express Live Arena.

I’ll admit to being less than familiar with Ndegeocello’s work but my interest had been piqued by the fact that she was credited as producer on the album “Nihil Novi” by saxophonist Marcus Strickland whose Twi-Life group who had performed an excellent set in the same venue at Cheltenham 2016.

Ndegeocello’s own material turned out to be far more song orientated and her performance was a lot less “jazz” than Strickland’s had been. Playing electric bass and singing she fronted a four piece band featuring guitarist Christopher Bruce, drummer Abraham Rounds and keyboard player Jebin Bruni.

Ndegeocello delivered a mix of original songs and inspired covers, the latter including a radically altered, but very effective, “Suzanne” in which she altered the meter of Leonard Cohen’s song and ended up sounding more like Joni Mitchell in the process. This after the show had opened with a vaguely threatening interpretation of the Maggie Jaffe poem “Continuous Performance”

A funky, soulful interpretation of Nina Simone’s “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” also worked but in the main I found her original material less convincing.

Ndegeocello is a politicised writer and promised that her band’s music would be “representative of what it’s like to be of colour today in America, we’re going to be loud, we’re going to be brash”. As she spoke the sound of music being played on the free stage leaked yet again into the Live Arena - “let’s drown that out!” exclaimed Ndegeocello.

And to a degree they did but for me the music of the quartet wasn’t actually loud or brash enough as Bruni’s gloopy, glutinous,s syrupy synth sounds too often threatened to overwhelm the music. Bruce and Rounds, who both also contributed backing vocals, performed well enough, as did the leader with some powerful electric bass lines, but too often their efforts were undermined by the sound of the keyboards. Personally I couldn’t get on with Bruni’s playing at all, and judging by the number of early departures I got the impression that I probably wasn’t alone. Not all of the walk outs were due to Festival scheduling and the need to get to the next event.

And despite the promises I found Ndegeocello’s own performance disappointingly low key. The band had flown in from Eastern Europe that morning and had obviously experienced a degree of racism in that part of the world. But their anger at this treatment wasn’t truly expressed in the music, they certainly didn’t react to adversity in the spirited way that Scnellertollermeier had done. This was a decidedly perfunctory performance from Ndegeocello and her band ,one sensed that they didn’t really want to be there.

The self penned material included “Rapid Fire” with its semi-spoken lyrics, plus “Forget My Name” and the closing “Good Day Bad”, both sourced from Ndegeocello’s latest album “Comet, Come To Me”.

There were some who clearly loved this set, but many like me, who were less impressed and an encore was not forthcomimg. Given Ndegeocello’s reputation and her associations with some of the biggest names in music across a variety of genres I was expecting something more from this set and I sensed that the leader has given far better shows than this and that she is an artist with many relevant things to say, but today her ideas didn’t get across, certainly not to me at any rate. Perhaps I should have done more research before committing myself to something different, but sometimes, and particularly at festivals, it’s nice to be surprised by the unexpected.

But if I had my time again I’d have stuck with Amok Amor, who apparently gave a powerful and uncompromising performance at the Parabola during which they also managed to alienate a few listeners of their own. That said I think I’ve had enjoyed them a lot more than this - even now I can’t quite believe that I passed up a chance to see the great Peter Evans in action.

CHICK COREA TRIO

Many of Ndegeocello’s audience had left early in order to catch this much anticipated performance by pianist and composer Chick Corea, at seventy five years old now officially acknowledged as one of the legends of the music.

Corea has amassed a vast back catalogue embracing all genres of jazz from straight-ahead to jazz-rock fusion to breezy Latin to full on free improvisation. It hasn’t always worked but the hits have largely outnumbered the misses and many of Corea’s tunes have become modern day standards. One of the best gigs that I’ve ever seen was his 2007 duo performance with vibraphonist Gary Burton which held a capacity audience at the Barbican totally spellbound for the best part of two hours.

Today’s performance was a celebration of Corea’s back catalogue delivered with great élan by the man himself in the company of a stellar trio featuring Eddie Gomez on double bass and Brian Blade at the drums. Looking at least twenty years younger than his actual age Corea was a sprightly, vivacious presence on the bandstand and immediately engaged the audience as he and the trio tuned up - “give us an A” etc.

The first tune was the enduringly popular Corea classic “500 Miles High” which still sounded as fresh as a daisy. The sound in the Big Top venue was remarkably good with the piano particularly well defined. This first item featured solos from all three protagonists, something that set the template for much of the remainder of the set.

“Alice In Wonderland” acknowledged the influence on virtually all jazz piano players, and specifically on Corea, of the great Bill Evans, with whom Gomez once played. This was introduced by a passage of solo piano that demonstrated Corea’s supreme lightness of touch on the instrument. Corea sounded suitably Evans-like and once more there were features for Gomez and Blade.

Gomez announced the performance of “Work”, a little known Thelonious Monk tune that was played in honour of the centenary of its composer’s birth. This was a playful, splendidly swinging interpretation that included a solo from Gomez and a spirited dialogue between Corea and Blade.

Corea revealed that his own “A Spanish Song” had been written remarkably quickly and there was a similar spontaneity about the instinctive trio interplay and the more expansive individual features, something that continued into the final (unannounced) number.

The encore was a segue of Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez” (famously adapted by Miles Davis and Gil Evans for “Sketches of Spain”) and Corea’s own early Return To Forever classic “Spain”. Gomez picked out the familiar concerto melody with the bow to great applause, and Corea, ever the crowd pleaser, had the audience singing along to the complex but familiar melodic lines of “Spain”. Gomez also impressed with some agile pizzicato soloing, as he had done throughout, although I have admit that I found his Jarrett like habit of singing along to his solos highly distracting.  Meanwhile Blade’s contribution was widely praised and his playing was superb throughout.

I wasn’t sure whether Corea’s acoustic music would work in such a vast venue as the Big Top but he succeeded admirably thanks to a combination of warmth, wit, excellent material and great musicianship. Sure there was nothing particularly new here but to be in the presence of one of the giants of the music, and one still capable of playing brilliantly, seemed to be enough for most people.

CHRIS POTTER QUARTET

Over at the Pizza Express Live Arena another American musician was to deliver the goods in style in what, for me, was THE gig of the festival.

Saxophonist Chris Potter has quietly developed a hugely impressive reputation, first as in demand sideman and latterly as a leader of his own projects. Also an acclaimed educator Potter performed at the 2012 Cheltenham Jazz Festival leading an ensemble of students from Birmingham Conservatoire on a series of performances of pieces sourced from his 2007 album “A Song For Anyone”.

Now signed to ECM Potter has made a series of acclaimed albums for the label including 2012’s excellent “The Sirens”, a semi-conceptual work and his label début. Fast forward to 2017 and Potter has just released another superb ECM record, “The Dreamer Is The Dream”, from which most of today’s material was sourced. 

Joining Potter at Cheltenham were album personnel David Virelles (piano) and Joe Martin (double bass) plus the superb drummer Nasheet Waits, a more than adequate replacement for the album’s Marcus Gilmore.

Potter enjoyed a lengthy stint with guitarist Pat Metheny’s all star Unity Band on on the evidence of the new album something of Metheny’s melodic gift seems to have rubbed off on the saxophonist. Potter’s themes are complex but arresting as typified by the opening “Yasodhara”, a tune sourced from the new record. Introduced by Waits at the drums the piece provided the ideal framework for Potter to demonstrate his remarkable technical prowess and total fluency as a soloist. This was a musician totally on top of his game and in setting the bar high he inspired great things from his colleagues as Virelles responded with a correspondingly imaginative piano solo. Meanwhile Waits’ playing was a consistently rich source of inventiveness throughout the set, his virtuoso drumming performance ensuring that the band remained fired up throughout the performance.

Also sourced from the new album “Memory And Desire” was more relaxed but no less impressive as Potter and Virelles again shared the solos. The Cuban born pianist also appeared on “The Sirens”, sharing keyboard duties with Craig Taborn. He also leads his own groups but for me the most enjoyable sightings of him have been as a sideman, first with Ravi Coltrane back in 2012 and now with Potter.

“Ilimba” opened with the sampled sounds of that instrument, as originally played by Potter. Piano, bass and drums were subtly added before Potter picked out the melodic theme on tenor before embarking on a lengthy solo as the music gathered momentum. He was followed by the excellent Virelles and finally the brilliant Waits with an extended drum feature.

Some of Potter’s solos had been truly epic affairs, but these were marathons that were rich in colour and invention, constantly unfolding and consistently engaging, a true master-class of the improviser’s art. And so, seemingly in a flash, we found ourselves coming towards the end of the performance as Potter announced the title track of the new album before adding “Then we’ll finish with a blues”.

This brilliant segue began with Potter on soprano sax for the beautiful, folk tinged “The Dreamer Is The Dream”. A passage of solo double bass from Martin, previously seen on UK shores as part of a trio led by guitarist Gilead Hekselman, acted as the segue into the blues with Potter now switching to tenor sax. Here the playing of the whole group was a tour de force as both Virelles and Potter stretched out at length with the leader’s barnstorming, free-wheeling tenor solo evoking a suitably volcanic response from the restlessly dynamic Waits.

This was a brilliant, spirited performance, not just from the leader but from the entire band, that, for me, ranked as the best of the whole Festival. Potter is the natural heir of John Coltrane and Michael Brecker and is arguably the best jazz saxophonist in the world right now.

Let’s hope that this event, which was sponsored by Jazzwise Magazine, was also recorded for radio broadcast. If not there’s always Potter’s splendid new ECM album to enjoy. The record offers many moments of beauty but there’s a warmth and vitality about it that transcends the label’s reputation for chilly abstraction.  Thanks to Chris for signing a copy for your rather star struck reporter in the record store after the show.

YAZZ AHMED HAFLA BAND

Back at the Parabola a pleasingly large crowd assembled to see and hear the last Festival gig at the venue for 2017. Trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed appeared with her seven piece Hafla Band, the group named after an Arabic word meaning “a friendly social gathering”.

British born of Bahraini heritage Ahmed has been honing the music of this septet for a number of years and is due to release her new album “La Saboteuse” in May 2017, the long awaited follow up to her 2012 début “Finding My Way Home”.

Although largely raised in The UK Ahmed has spent time researching her Bahraini heritage and her growing fascination with Arabic sounds has been finding its way into her music. Today’s set included material that has been in the Hafla Band’s set lists for some time in addition to pieces sourced from her suite “Alhaan Al Siduri” which was commissioned by the Birmingham based Jazzlines organisation in 2015.

The regular line up of the Hafla Band features Ahmed on trumpet, flugel and electronics, George Crowley on bass clarinet, Ralph Wyld on vibes, Dudley Phillips on electric bass, Naadia Sheriff on piano and keyboards, Martin France at the drums and Corinne Sylvester on a variety of percussion instruments. It’s a stable line up and consists of musicians drawn from Ahmed’s smaller four and five piece groups.   

The performance commenced with “Jamil Jimal”, a piece that has been in the Hafla Band’s repertoire since at least 2014 when I caught them at The Vortex in Dalston as part of that year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. This introduced the group’s sound, intricate but melodic and underscored by a lattice of underlying rhythms. Hafla is a highly rhythmic band but in very subtle and consistently interesting ways and certainly not at all ‘in your face’. As a percussionist Sylvester is particularly understated, yet still makes a hugely significant contribution to the band sound, for Ahmed the ensemble is paramount.

In 2014 Ahmed was selected as a “Jazzlines Fellow” and her Fellowship commission, Alhaan Al Siduri” was premièred at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham in 2015. Based on the work songs of the Bahraini pearl divers the suite included the piece “Parading In” which was featured here with sampled sounds complementing the playing of the ensemble. Here Ahmed gave her musicians more room to stretch out and the piece included solos from Ahmed on trumpet and the impressive Crowley on evocative bass clarinet. Wyld dazzled at the vibes with his four mallet technique and Phillips underpinned an absorbing dialogue between France on kit drums and Sylvester on percussion.

“La Saboteuse”, the title track of the forthcoming album emerged from a freely structured intro featuring Sheriff on grand piano and progressed via solos from Crowley and Ahmed. Crowley’s bass clarinet playing helped to give the music an authentically Arabic feel and he was followed by Ahmed on flugel horn who manipulated her sound electronically by means of her Kaoss Pad, a device described as “ a touchpad sampler, controller and effects unit”.

“Her Light” from the “Alhaan Al Siduri” suite was segued with “2857”, a piece written in honour of Rosa Parks’ historic bus protest. Densely written but eminently melodic the performance included features from Ahmed on trumpet, Wyld on vibes and Phillips on six string electric bass, the latter’s feature acting as the link between the two pieces. Now we heard again from Ahmed and from Crowley on bass clarinet above the busy rhythms generated by France and Sylvester.

Ahmed has worked closely with rock bands such as Radiohead and the Manic Street Preachers and has enjoyed a particularly fruitful partnership with the group These New Puritans. Ahmed’s arrangement of their song “Organ Eternal” closed the set with the interlocking flugel and bass clarinet lines of Ahmed and Crowley a consistent source of interest alongside Wyld’s lyricism on the vibes.

An unexpected encore, well it was the last gig of the Festival at this venue, came as a considerable bonus. Unannounced it was ushered in France’s drums and again featured the Ahmed / Crowley combination with Ahmed again using electronics to manipulate the sound of her solo. Sheriff impressed with her keyboard solo but her role as a colourist and texturalist throughout was also essential to the success of the music. Finally Phillips underpinned a further dialogue between France and Sylvester prior to a closing ensemble theme statement.

This was an excellent performance from Ahmed and the Hafla Band that was warmly appreciated by the Cheltenham crowd. This is now a highly accomplished ensemble and it’s a shame that advance copies of the new album were not available on the night. Judging by the enthusiasm of the audience reaction they would surely have flown off the shelves.

I’m very much looking forward to the release of “La Saboteuse” and hope to bring you a review of the album at some point in the future. 



 


    


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