by Ian Mann
May 04, 2021
A five hour extravaganza of specially commissioned performances recorded both in the UK and internationally that really captured the spirit of the Festival and its sheer musical diversity.
Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Jazz Stream 2021
Saturday May 1st 2021
The shelving of the 2020 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, barely a month before it was scheduled to take place due to the initial Covid-19 lockdown, was a bitter pill to swallow for jazz fans, and more importantly for the Festival organisers and for all the artists who were scheduled to perform.
It was particularly disappointing because the 2020 Festival should have been a celebration of CJF’s twenty fifth anniversary, or ‘Silver Jubilee’ if you will. As it is these celebrations, in a physical sense at least, will now have to be put on hold until 2022. It should be quite a party when it eventually happens.
On a personal note I have attended every CJF, either as a paying customer or as a journalist, ever since the inaugural event in 1996 (I still have the T-shirt) and it was most upsetting to see an event that has become one of the key markers of my year effectively erased from the calendar.
The late cancellation of the 2020 event gave Cheltenham Festival precious little time to put an online alternative together. These were the days when livestreaming was still in its infancy and still regarded as something of a novelty. CJF did manage to produce a series of ‘virtual’ performances which were transmitted on what should have been the Saturday of the Festival.
I watched these, with notebook at hand, planning to write a review, but was disappointed with what I saw and, in the end, decided to abandon the project. Most of what we saw was archive footage from the Weston’s free stage, some of which stretched the definition of ‘jazz’ as the organisers avoided anything too ‘cutting edge’ in an attempt to court popular appeal.
There was also a smattering of recordings from artists from their homes, but overall little to satisfy the ‘serious’ jazz listener. For me the highlight was a set recorded by the electro-jazz trio Stillefelt, who had been scheduled to appear at the Parabola Arts Centre. Chris Mapp (bass, FX), Percy Pursglove (trumpet) and Thomas Seminar-Ford delivered a fascinating, largely improvised set that actually expanded on the promise their début album. I was highly impressed.
The other 2020 performance that captured my attention was by Irish vocalist and songwriter Imelda May. Recorded in her kitchen and shorn of showbiz trappings this stripped back performance emphasised the raw power of May’s voice and constituted another surprise highlight.
At that time we still weren’t expecting the Covid crisis to stretch halfway into 2021. Nevertheless the decision was taken during the winter lockdown that the 2021 Cheltenham Jazz Festival should be a totally online affair. With more time to organise Cheltenham Festivals came up with a two day extravaganza of specially commissioned performances recorded both in the UK and internationally that really captured the spirit of the Festival and its sheer musical diversity.
Instead of last year’s rather thrown together package this was a fully professional production that proved just what Cheltenham Festival are capable of when given the necessary amount of time to organise such an online event. Both the Saturday and Sunday of the May Day Bank Holiday weekend saw five hours of continuous music (roughly from 3.00 pm to 8.00 pm) featuring a rich variety of artists stretching right across the spectrum of jazz and its related genres, including plenty of experimental, cutting edge stuff for the more ‘serious’ fans to get their their teeth into.
The beauty of this was that the members of the online audience got to see performances by artists that they may never have even considered watching at the physical festival. The fact that it was all streamed for free on the Festival’s Youtube channel made it even more remarkable. Hopefully people will be generous with their donations, helping to make sure that the Festival returns to the town of Cheltenham with a bang in 2022.
On then with the music, which was presented with great enthusiasm by the irrepressible Cerys Matthews.
RITE OF TRIO
This Portuguese trio were due to appear at the Parabola Arts Centre and on today’s evidence their spiky, sometimes challenging music would have gone down a storm in this venue.
Andre Bastos Silva (guitar), Filipe Louro (double bass) and Pedro Melo Alves (drums) are a young band with one full length album, the bizarrely titled “GETTING ALL THE EVIL OF THE PISTON COLLAR!”, under their belt.
Today they performed a new two part piece specifically commissioned for CJF and titled “Free Development of Delirium”, the music inspired by the writing of the French writer Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) and his 1925 “Letter to the Medical Directors of Lunatic Asylums”.
Artaud himself suffered from schizophrenia, and this was a quality that Rite of Trio attempted to convey during the course of this intense performance. This specially commissioned film commenced with quotes from Artaud’s work before switching to footage of the trio, clad in long sleeved band uniform T-shirts, in the studio.
“Part 1” began atmospherically, with eerily bowed bass, pointillist guitar and icy cymbal shimmers, before erupting into something far more visceral, incorporating Silva’s jagged guitar chording and Alves’ explosive drumming. In keeping with the overall theme extreme shifts of moods and dynamics were a key part of the performance, with the trio members deploying various elements of extended technique, Louro deploying the body of his bass as auxiliary percussion and Silva manipulating his already extreme guitar sound via a floor mounted effects unit.
We had been promised “contemporary jazz with Hendrix-esque vibes”, but I was reminded more of Beefheart or Zappa as the trio exhibited a bizarre sense of humour, responding to the beat of a metronome in “Part 1” and punctuating the music with bouts of manic laughter as the drummer slapped himself about the face during “Part 2”, tellingly subtitled “You Won’t Mind If We Laugh”.
This second part was more wilfully aggressive than the first, which had punctuated the group’s bouts of aural violence with more reflective and impressionistic episodes. Meanwhile “Part 2” mixed thunderous passages of unison riffing with squalling free jazz episodes. Bursts of full on rock guitar helped to justify those Hendrix comparisons, countered by spoken word passages evoking the Hindu god Vishnu (“I am become the destroyer of worlds”) that reinforced the general air of eccentricity and weirdness. Shouts of “Where Am I?” and “What Is This?” evoked a genuine sense of panic, with the band members sounding genuinely unhinged. At the close the Arnaud quote “All individual actions are anti-social” seemed particularly pertinent, especially on this weekend of sport’s social media boycott.
The extreme nature of the performance certainly divided opinion. The accompanying comments feed included the wildly enthusiastic “Killing chaps! Great Festival opener” and “Bam !! The Future of Jam Core”, these contrasting with “What’s that whirring sound? Is it Jelly Roll Morton spinning in his grave?”.
As you may have gathered I rather liked them. I loved the energy and aggression, and the highly advanced instrumental technique. The energy may have been ‘punk’, but the humour, and the overall ambition of the piece was almost ‘prog’ in spirit. More than anyone else I was reminded of the UK’s own Trio VD, sadly now defunct, who played a blistering set in the Pillar Room on the occasion of the 2010 CJF.
I’m sure Rite Of Trio would have delighted the audience at the Parabola, surely their natural Cheltenham habitat, and I’d certainly be keen to hear more from them, either live or on disc.
A genuine cutting edge start to the day, with more to follow.
LEILA MARTIAL and BAA BOX
The second performance of the day was equally experimental and featured the French vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Leila Martial and her band Baa Box, with Eric Perez on guitar and vocals and Pierre Tereygeol on guitar, percussion and vocals.
In 2017 I was hugely impressed by Martial’s album “Baabel”, from which her band’s name is derived. Review here;
Perez and Tereygeol both appeared on that album and also on the follow up “Warm Canto”, released in 2019, by which time the trio name Baa Box had been adopted. Today’s item, a substantially expanded version of the song “Forget And Be” was sourced from this recording and in this ‘live’ incarnation represented something of a musical ‘tour de force’.
Filmed in what looked like a French château the performance began with Martial producing vocalised sounds on a slide (or swanee) whistle, accompanied only by Perez on acoustic guitar. It sounded nothing like “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue”, believe me!
Putting down the whistle Martial began to sing charmingly in French accented English, accompanied by acoustic guitar and the vocal harmonies of her two comparisons.
The trio then moved away from their shared vocal mic, Tereygeol taking up position behind a minimal drum / percussion set up and Martial re-locating behind a table like set up augmented by various percussive devices and other gizmos. In truth she barely deployed these, Martial is justly renowned for electronically manipulating her singing, but here she largely seemed content to rely on her extraordinary voice alone.
This heralded the beginning of a more animated passage featuring Martial’s astonishing wordless vocals, alternately sweet and powerful and possessed of an an almost primal quality. This section was strongly influenced by the music of the Middle East, with Perez’s guitar sounding almost oud like at times.
Perez and Tereygeol are both extremely talented instrumentalists, but at heart Baa Box is primarily a vocal band. In addition to Martial’s extraordinary singing her two male companions provided impeccable harmonies as well as delivering some pretty extraordinary vocalising of their own, with Perez’s muezzin like wailing complementing the swooping and soaring of Martial vocals.
Both vocally and instrumentally it was stunning. This was music that was quirky, mysterious and adventurous and quite brilliantly performed. For me the absolute highlight of the day and a performance that made me want to dig out those albums again.
The first in a short series of “Throwback” features was represented by Laura Mvula performing her song “Diamonds” on the Henry Weston’s stage back in 2014. Singing soulfully and accompanying herself on electric piano Mvula’s star quality was already in evidence and she’s since gone on to pack venues way larger than this, accumulating a large crossover following in the process. Her recent (2021) appearance on Jools Holland’s Later won’t have done her any harm either.
A former student at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and a one time receptionist at Symphony Hall Mvula has ‘paid her dues’ and deserves her success. Her archive performance here provided a nice link into the next set which featured tutors Mike Williams and Arnie Somogyi leading two bands of current students at the RBC.
MIKE WILLIAMS and ARNIE SOMOGYI and PLAYERS from ROYAL BIRMINGHAM CONSERVATOIRE
CJF has always placed a strong emphasis on music education and has fostered a long and productive association with the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. A well established tradition of the physical Festival has been the annual ‘Jazz Exchange’ event held at the Parabola, which has teamed Birmingham students with their overseas counterparts, for many years with students from the Trondheim Conservatoire in Norway and more recently with those from Paris.
Obviously any form of musical exchange visit is totally off the cards in 2021 and instead the Birmingham students were featured performing with their teachers in two performances filmed at Eastside Jazz Club, the purpose built jazz venue within the precincts of the RBC.
First to appear was a nonet led by tutor Mike Williams which lined up as follows;
Mike Williams – alto sax
Gabriella Liandu - vocals
James Borland – trumpet, flugel
Marcin Muras – trombone
Matt Kilner – tenor sax
Kimon Pallikaropoulos – piano
Aidan Pope – guitar
Louis Stringer – double bass
Oscar Richards – drums
The performance commenced with an unusual up-tempo and swinging arrangement of the standard “My Funny Valentine”, fronted by Liandu’s confident vocals and with the four horns coming over like some kind of mini big band. Instrumental solos came from Borland on flugel and Pallikaropoulos on piano, who both impressed with their imagination and fluency, with a further cameo from bassist Stringer.
The group’s arrangement of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” also incorporated “I Can Sing A Rainbow” and was introduced by a mellifluous horn chorale, with the reeds subsequently joined by Liandu’s voice for the “I Can Sing” part of the performance. The rest of the band joined in as the music segued into “Somewhere…”, with Pope’s fluid guitar featuring prominently in the arrangement.
They concluded with “Bergoatzi – With Affection”, Williams’ tribute to the American saxophonist / educators Jerry Bergonzi and Dick Oates, both frequent visitors to RBC in more normal times. This rousing instrumental boasted an impressively big ensemble sound with various instruments coming temporarily to the fore, plus extended solos from Pallikaropoulos at the piano and Muras on trombone.
The second group, billed as the Arnie Somogyi Band, offered a more contemporary, fusion-esque sound. Somogyi was featured on synthesiser rather than his usual double bass and was content to perform a largely textural role, leaving the solos to his students.
I surmised that the members of this group were slightly older than their predecessors with the line up as follows;
Arnie Somogyi – keys
Lucas Kelly – piano & keys
Julie Winch - vocals
Dan Lockheart – tenor & soprano saxes
Mike Anning – alto sax
Julian Durand – guitar
Dave Flannagan – electric bass
Tom Bevan – drums
Ushered by Flannagan on electric bass the Steve Grossman tune “Haresa” featured the soaring wordless vocals of Winch, with instrumental solos coming from Lockheart on incisive soprano sax, Anning similarly fluent alto on alto and Durand on heavily distorted electric guitar.
The group slimmed down to a sextet (with Somogyi and Anning sitting out) for a performance of the song “Here To Stay”, a tune by the late saxophonist Don Weller with lyrics by vocalist Tina May. Winch’s assured rendition of the lyric was complemented by lyrical instrumental solos from Lockheart on tenor and Durand on guitar.
With Somogyi continuing to sit out and with Anning replacing Winch the final piece featured the six student instrumentalists in a funky take on “Katona”, a second Steve Grossman tune. With Lockheart remaining on tenor this included a powerful solo from Anning on alto. Somogyi returned to fill out the sound as Kelly delivered a sparkling solo on analogue synth, with Flannagan adding some pleasingly funky electric bass.
The Birmingham students have always impressed at the annual Jazz Exchange events and the current crop maintained this fine tradition, albeit virtually, under the eyes of their illustrious tutors.
Laura Mvula is arguably the most famous name to come out of the RBC Jazz Course but the institution has produced many other acclaimed musicians who have gone on to become full time jazz professionals, bass player Nick Jurd, who was to appear later in the day as part of a trio led by Soweto Kinch representing just one such example.
It was clear from the interactive chat feed that the online audience were hugely impressed by these two student bands. Hopefully we will get to hear a lot more from these talented young musicians.
Continuing the music education theme the next set was to feature the saxophonist known as Xvngo, a product of the hugely influential Tomorrow’s Warriors scheme, founded by bassist Gary Crosby and administrator Janine Irons. Famous alumni include drummer Moses Boyd, saxophonist Nubya Garcia and the band Ezra Collective.
Tomorrow’s Warriors is another institution that has forged close bonds with CJF and this performance was one of two to be presented under the TW banner over the weekend during the year of the institution’s 30th anniversary.
Xvngo (Deji Ijishakin) is a tenor saxophonist who describes himself as a pioneer of the jazz-drill and post-trap genres. Today’s performance found him playing melodic tenor above the beats generated by his regular musical partner Maria Osu on laptop, electronics and samples.
Xvngo and Osu delivered a set of short pieces, beginning with “My Lady”, but with the titles of many of the others being inspired by aspects of neuroscience. These included such pieces as “Entropy”, “Hallucinations” (inspired by the writings of neurologist Oliver Sacks) and “Cerebrum”. Another piece was named for the American author and orator Booker T. Washington (1856 -1915).
Xvngo’s range of influences is certainly eclectic. “Prelude” was structured around a motif from Rachmaninov’s “Prelude in C Sharp Minor”, and was turned into a powerful new piece featuring Osu’s beats and samples, including the keyboard playing of Master Mac, and the live looped sounds of the leader’s tenor. The piece ended with the ominous sounds of a sampled thunderstorm. This was Rachmaninov as you’ve never heard him before. It was pretty damn impressive.
“Champagne Lick”, written as a celebration of the start of 2021 was teamed with the tune “Peter Pan” and also featured Mac’s keys somewhere in the mix.
The duo ended with “Faust”, inspired by Goethe’s anti-hero, as opposed to the German experimental rock group, but one suspects that the latter would approve of Xvngo’s sonic experimentations.
I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this. Xvngo is a gifted saxophonist and a highly melodic and fluent improviser. One would imagine that he could easily hold his own in a more orthodox jazz environment and he has previously worked with the Levitation Orchestra, the Afro-beat collective Kokoroko and in the band led by keyboard player Joe Armon-Jones, another Tomorrow’s Warriors product.
Osu’s beats, samples and soundscapes were consistently imaginative and inventive and even though there was a tendency towards sameness within the basic sax / electronics format the music was both melodic and varied enough to hold the attention. Also the fact that the programme was entirely comprised of short pieces ensured that no single item was allowed to outstay its welcome.
All in all this was a delightful surprise and this was an opinion that was shared by many of the online audience. Xvngo will have made himself a lot of new fans with this excellent performance.
“Damn, this is trippy”, enthused one new admirer, which summed things up very nicely.
CHICK COREA TRIBUTE featuring GARY HUSBAND and CHICK COREA
Jazz fans the world over were shocked by the death of the American pianist, keyboard player and composer in February 2021 at the age of seventy nine.
Corea’s demise was sudden and the result of a rare form of cancer. He had remained musically active virtually until the end and actually featured in this tribute, appearing alongside the British born multi-instrumentalist Gary Husband.
Equally adept on drums and keyboards Husband has recorded on both instruments, and today’s film saw him adding acoustic guitar to his armoury.
As friends and collaborators Husband and Corea spoke regularly on the phone during the first Covid lockdown in the summer of 2020. During the course of these conversations Corea mentioned that nothing gave him greater pleasure than seeing other musicians developing his ideas, starting perhaps with a simple riff or melodic motif. Soon he and Husband were exchanging ideas via audio files, eventually creating the piece “Lockdown Throwdown”, which was presented in today’s film for CJF.
Corea had a long association with Cheltenham and had brought bands to the Festival on more than one occasion. I recall seeing his acoustic sextet, Origin, at the Town Hall in 1997 and more recently his trio with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Brian Blade in the Big Top in 2017.
Corea was then aged seventy five and my coverage of that event included the following observation “looking at least twenty years younger than his actual age Corea was a sprightly, vivacious presence on the bandstand”. He looked to have plenty more years of music left in him and, for me, his demise was totally unexpected. Seeing him actually playing again in this wonderful short film of his lockdown collaboration with Husband was therefore a delightful surprise.
As the introductory statement explained;
“This co-composition was constructed section by section with both musicians exchanging ideas on pianos, synths and drums, plus a few other instruments for good measure! This is not a performance video but a compilation of clips & photos, moments captured in the creation of this musical collaboration”.
Husband’s spoken introduction explained more about the nature of the collaboration and then came the music itself, a brilliant, joyous tribute to Corea’s life in music. As the musicians played graphics briefly popped up giving the title of a particular section, or the name of a particular instrument that one or other happened to be playing, including a spectacular array of various models of synthesiser. It was like the visual equivalent of Viv Stanshall’s roll call of instruments on Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” !
“Opening Jam” featured Corea on grand piano with Husband on synths and drums, but reversals of roles were frequent with Corea, always a highly rhythmic player and composer later featuring on various percussion instruments including cuica, kit drums and marimba. As Husband explained the marimba was an instrument that Corea took up fairly late in life. Needless to say he was already frighteningly competent on it.
Although it was only filmed and recorded last summer Corea still looked fit and well and full of life throughout this “Lockdown Throwdown” and it was heart warming to see him and Husband bouncing ideas off each other with such obvious enthusiasm. Each sequestered in their private studios they were like a couple of kids given the keys to the candy shop.
Riffs and motifs were traded on an ever more exotic range of instruments. Chick’s drum kit boasted a cymbal signed for him by Roy Haynes, he showed off his new found marimba skills and Gary picked up his Spanish guitar for the first time in years as the music progressed through its various sections, the titles representing functional allusions as to what was going on - “Bridge”, “Ambient Bridge”, “Groove Section and Trades” “Abstract Section”, “Chick’s Ensemble Section”, Interactive Section”, “Gary’s Serene Section”, and most poignantly of all “Chick’s Epilogue”, this last illustrated by photographs from the various stages of Chick’s life and career.
What a terrific tribute to one of the giants of the music. This short film proved to be an undoubted Festival highlight and thanks are due to Gary Husband for sharing it with us. The very natural respect and awe that he has for Chick’s creativity and enthusiasm shone through both in his spoken words and in his playing. Credit also to the Troo Heath Crew for editing the live and still footage.
The music itself was terrific, and a particular pleasure for fans of vintage synths. I’ll leave the last word with the on line poster who commented “there wasn’t a dull moment or a single wasted note”. Absolutely spot on.
The next ‘Throwback’ featured pianist and vocalist Jamie Cullum performing at one of the Henry Weston’s sessions. Swindon born Cullum has enjoyed a long association with CJF, performing there regularly and at one time acting as an artistic curator and assisting with the programming.
I’ll readily admit that he’s not always been one of my favourites, but nevertheless I was impressed with this slowed arrangement of “If I Ruled The World”, which showcased his vocal and instrumental instrumental skills very effectively, with the economic support of an uncredited double bassist and drummer.
The Cullum feature was followed by a short film about Musicate, CJF’s musical outreach project. The programme sees student musicians from Birmingham Conservatoire going out into Gloucestershire schools and introducing the joy of jazz to young children. It’s a win win situation with the children discovering the excitement of music making while the RBC students hone their own teaching skills.
Each musician is allocated a school and visits it four or five times a year, liaising with the children’s’ regular teachers. The film included interviews with musicians, teachers and administrators and included footage of an end of year concert at a packed Cheltenham Town Hall.
Musicate is a vital part of CJF’s educational outreach programme and more information about the project can be found at http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/musicate
The third and final “Throwback” feature of the day featured the Latin / funk outfit Fujalada on the Henry Weston’s Sessions stage at the 2013 CJF. This featured two mallet men duelling on a single vibraphone, taking it turns to solo before finally sharing the instrument towards the close. This thrilling and entertaining ‘battle of the vibes’ was fuelled by a propulsive and funky electric bass groove and was inspired by the legendary vibes battles between Roy Ayers and percussionist Dwight Gassaway at Ronnie Scott’s back in the 1980s.
Unfortunately I’ve been able to find out precious little about Fujalada’s personnel but suspect that one of the ‘battlers’ may have Rupert Leighton, usually better known as a keyboard player.
Anyway, it was great fun and if anyone out there has more information about Fujalada do please let me know.
Back to the performances recorded specifically for the 2021 CJF Jazz Stream and a set from the vocalist and songwriter known as Quiet Man.
When Cerys Matthews described him as a ‘crooner’ I feared the worst, but Quiet Man proved to be charismatic singer and a highly accomplished songwriter rooted in jazz, soul, pop and r’n’b. Turns out it’s QM himself who describes himself as a “21st Century Crooner”, so I guess that’s where that line came from.
Online information about Quiet Man is hard to find, so maybe he’s well named, but I was genuinely impressed by the quality of his singing and of his songs. The fact that he was accompanied by a terrific band featuring trumpet/flugel, guitar, keyboards, electric bass, drums and two female vocalists also helped.
The musicians were introduced by their first names only and the pick of the soloists was trumpeter Freddie who delivered a string of fine solos on both trumpet and flugel. I did speculate as to whether this was jazz trumpeter Freddie Gavita, maybe somebody could enlighten me.
Other players included Ollie (guitar), Kwesi (bass), Louis (drums), Cottan (keys) and Alba & Phoebe (vocals).
The show was filmed at an atmospherically lit Kansas Smitty’s. Song announcements were scant but Quiet Man, in hat and shades still represented a charismatic presence with a convincing ‘lover boy’ persona. He sang with great assurance and the blend of his voice with those of his backing singers was also highly impressive.
The set included the seductive, sometimes funky “Soul Song” with its straight talking spoken word section and the soulful, and indeed jazzy, single “If Only”, which featured Quiet Man on vocals and keyboard. Quiet Man also seems to be the name of the band and they closed with the up-tempo, celebratory and ultra funky “Save Me”, with Ollie cutting loose on guitar and Freddie on trumpet.
I’ll readily admit that Quiet Man’s type of music normally falls outside my usual listening zone but I was pleasantly surprised and genuinely impressed by this, as were many of the online audience, some of whom had also started out fearing the worst before being won over by the quality of the songs, the musicianship and the overall performance.
This exposure will have done Quiet Man no harm at all and I predict a bright future for him if he can get his name ‘out there’ a little more. There is genuine potential here for considerable mainstream success.
Yelfris Valdes is a Cuban born trumpeter now based in London who has collaborated with a wide variety of jazz, rock and pop artists, ranging from drummer Moses Boyd to Madonna.
His début album “For The Ones” created quite a stir on the London music scene thanks to its mix of Afro-Cuban melodies and rhythms with hip hop beats and electronica, earning him a large, young, cross genre following.
I have to admit that Valdes represented a new name for me, but again I was very impressed with this short set performed specifically for CJF. Here Valdes dispensed with the beats and electronica and instead delivered an unadorned solo trumpet performance that was striking in its simplicity, fluency and beauty.
He only played two pieces, the first initially performed with the poignancy of a lament, before becoming increasingly powerful with Valdes striking some impressive high register notes.
His second solo excursion followed a similar trajectory and represented a second example of Valdes’ flawless technique. It was also a very soulful performance, rich in terms of emotion and with the sound of Valdes’ breath passing through the instrument helping to give the music a very human quality.
Valdes spoke and played with quiet elegance and dignity and his performance was deeply moving. As one on line observer remarked “there is no hiding place in a solo trumpet set”.
This tantalising glimpse of his talents suggested that Valdes is a musician worthy of further investigation. He is evidently a highly versatile musician and it would be intriguing to hear his playing in other contexts and formats.
Definitely one to watch out for.
SOWETO KINCH TRIO
From a new discovery to a name more familiar to me.
The Jazzmann has covered the music of the Birmingham born saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch on numerous occasions over the years and he has been a regular presence at previous Cheltenham Jazz Festivals.
Today’s performance found Kinch leading his regular trio with Nick Jurd on double bass and a mask wearing Jason Brown at the drums. Recorded at Kansas Smitty’s Spitalfields Studio the first item (unannounced) commenced with a passage of unaccompanied alto sax, with Kinch subsequently joined by the fluid rhythms of Jurd and Brown. Following Kinch’s fluent saxophone excursions RBC alumnus Jurd took over for a bass solo that combined muscularity with an admirable dexterity.
Kinch switched to tenor sax for the Thelonious Monk composition “Monk’s Dream”, which followed a similar arc, a solo tenor sax intro, further sax and bass solos and finally a powerful drum feature from the consistently impressive Brown.
“Riot Music” was sourced from Kinch’s latest album “The Black Peril” (2019), a conceptual work inspired by the race riots of 1919 that occurred in both the UK and the US in the wake of the First World War. It’s a recording that has acquired an additional significance in the light of more recent events. Today’s performance included the use of sampled sounds and featured the leader rapping, as well as playing his trademark alto sax.
This was followed by a short freestyle rap that served as a kind of outro.
Overall this was a confident and authoritative set that included some excellent playing in the challenging saxophone trio format, while throwing in some very different, altogether more contemporary, elements. As a British pioneer of jazz / hip hop crossover Kinch has created a soundworld that is unique in UK jazz.
Elsewhere he spoke of the joy of performing with other musicians after months of solo woodshedding and also thanked the online audience. “I can’t hear your applause, but I can feel it” he said, which seemed to encapsulate this year’s online Cheltenham Jazz Festival very nicely.
WARMER THAN BLOOD
Warmer Than Blood, the drummerless trio led by guitarist and composer Chris Montague has featured regularly on the Jazzmann web pages over the course of the last twelve months.
The trio also features the talents of the husband and wife team of Kit Downes (piano) and Ruth Goller (electric bass) and the album “Warmer Than Blood” (Whirlwind Recordings) was released in May 2020 and is reviewed elsewhere on this site.
The album title has since become a band name and I have also reviewed two livestream performances by the trio, one on behalf of Jazz at The Lescar in Sheffield and one from the Peggy’s Skylight venue in Nottingham hosted by the Jazz Steps organisation. Reviews of these can also be found elsewhere.
Today’s stream was inevitably shorter and was one of the few that looked to have been recorded at home. Nevertheless the audio and visual quality was good and the performance also featured some impressive new material.
Working without drums presents its own challenges, but WTB have always risen to these with aplomb, creating music that is still rich in terms of melody, harmony and rhythm.
A case in point was “Springtide”, a tune written by Montague within the course of the two weeks leading up to today’s performance. A year on from their début album release WTB are clearly preparing for the follow up. In keeping with its title “Springtide” exuded optimism thanks to its flowing melody and warm lyrical sound, with Montague’s, country-ish, Frisell like guitar twang a particularly distinctive component of the music. Solos came from Montague on guitar and Downes on piano, the whole underpinned and anchored by Goller’s mobile and flexible electric bass lines.
A second Montague tune, one that is still awaiting a title, featured a unison guitar/piano melody line followed by the intertwining of the two instruments above the quietly propulsive thrum of Goller’s bass. Downes was subsequently featured with a more expansive piano solo.
A short set concluded with “Rendered”, the final track on the WTB album. It’s hard to believe that such a beautiful, gentle and lyrical piece was actually inspired by the life of Jimi Hendrix. But you’ll have to read my review of the album to get the full story behind that. Link here;
Warmer Than Blood continue to expand the horizons of the unusual guitar / piano / electric bass format and their set was laid back but consistently stimulating. This was an unassuming performance that nevertheless delivered music that was consistently beautiful but also subtly complex. I may have seen the trio several times before, online at any rate, but I still found today’s performance captivating.
SK SHLOMO with LARA JONES and CLEVELAND WATKISS
And now for something completely different…
I believe that the beat boxer and live looper SK Shlomo has made previous appearances at CJF, but his style of music is so far from divorced from my listening zone that I’ve never paid him too much attention.
Unassuming is not a word that can be used to describe Shlomo, whose feature started with a bout of hyperbole akin to the announcements at a championship boxing match - “Record Breaking Beat Boxer”, “World Looping Champion” etc.
Shlomo has collaborated with Ed Sheeran, Bjork and Gorillaz and presents a regular Thursday night series on Twitter and Youtube, these shows, or ‘kitchen raves’, often involving collaborations with others. Thanks to these regular performances Shlomo has his own virtual ‘stage’ complete with a virtual audience and virtual canned applause. It’s all a bit overwhelming.
Shlomo is clearly a massive personality and his act is clearly aimed at a far younger audience than myself. Personally I found his relentless enthusiasm rather wearing.
I don’t deny that both beat boxing and live looping are valid skills and Shlomo delivered demonstrations of each before linking up with today’s collaborators, saxophonist and sound artist Lara Jones and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss.
The premise was that the trio would assemble a new work from scratch in twenty minutes. Question – it’s obviously improvised, but does that make it jazz?
Shlomo, Jones and Watkiss collaborated remotely by making use of the Endless app, allowing them to jam and improvise in real time. Shlomo set up a hi hat loop and the trio moved on from there, tentatively at first as they got to know each other, but with Shlomo and his ‘Beast’ looping set up very much in charge.
Jones, an accomplished electronic musician in her own right, as we were to see later on during the Festival weekend, threw a few of her own ideas into the mix, including some killer electronic bass lines, while Watkiss improvised vocal melodies. It was all effective enough in its own way, but for me the music was too reliant on pre-programmed beats and consequently became repetitive, lacking the true spontaneity of acoustic free jazz. Shlomo was also overly dominant, one got the impression that it was very much HIS show with guests, rather than a true collaboration of equals, also we didn’t hear anywhere near enough of Jones’ sax. A second piece reprised these ideas, but with Watkiss now beginning to assert himself more.
Inevitably this was a set that divided opinion. Although I was intrigued by the concept the end result did little for me, the music rooted too much in EDM and rave culture and a little too far from my personal listening zone. But then I hardly think that I’m part of Shlomo’s target demographic.
I was far more convinced by Jones’ solo set for saxophone and electronics the following day, but I’ll come to that later.
Saxophonist, broadcaster, educator and philanthropist YolanDa Brown has been a great populariser of the music and has become something of a television personality thanks to her children’s TV show “YolanDa’s Jam Band” for Cbeebies.
I remember enjoying a performance by Brown at the 2012 Brecon Jazz Festival. For all her popular appeal she’s a highly talented saxophonist with a big tenor tone and is an engaging, enthusiastic and charismatic stage performer.
Brown’s Cheltenham slot was the only performance to take place in front of a live audience, having been filmed in Autumn 2020 during a period of lockdown easing, albeit in the presence of a socially distanced crowd.
After all the previous performances filmed at empty venues it actually came as a shock to see a real live audience, and the way in which Brown and her band fed off the energy of the crowd was also palpable.
Brown and her band were also augmented by a string section as they performed selections from her latest album “Love, Politics, War”.
Opener “Dream, Dream, Repeat” boasted a happy jazz / reggae groove fuelled by Rick Leon James’ electric bass and with Brown on earthy tenor sax exchanging phrases with guitarist Dave Niskin as the audience clapped along.
Unaccompanied tenor introduced the funk and r’n’b grooves of “ConFusion”, with Oli Howe’s funky keyboards prominent in the arrangement. Brown, patrolling the stage with her bug miked tenor, teased the audience with allusions to the ‘Countdown’ theme as she soloed powerfully, before again sparring with Niskin. The guitar solo that followed exhibited a strong rock influence and was followed by a dynamic drum feature from the impressive Talbert Wilson that produced a rapturous reaction from an enthused audience.
Introduced by Niskin’s guitar “Wrangling On Bond Street” was the second piece to evoke a reggae groove and saw the horn section of Paul Jordanous (trumpet) and Tom White (trombone), two pedigree jazzers, stepping up to deliver powerful and fluent solos to considerable audience acclaim. They were followed by the leader on tenor as the show drew to an energetic close.
It’s easy to see why Brown is so popular with audiences, her energy and enthusiasm is infectious and the power of her personality is matched by that of her playing. She has surrounded herself with a bunch of top class musicians and her shows represent something of an ‘event’, but with the emphasis still very much on the music. It’s hard not to be charmed by her and this set was one of the most popular of the day.
Brown will be returning to Cheltenham in July 2021 to present the Big Digital Concert for Schools at the Cheltenham Music Festival.
Following the high energy Brown show we now enjoyed the contrast of this intimate solo performance by the cellist, vocalist and songwriter Ayanna Witter-Johnson.
A recent guest on Jools Holland’s later and something of a BBC Radio 3 regular Witter-Johnson’s profile has risen in later years and today’s beautiful performance will surely have served to enhance her reputation even more.
She commenced with her arrangement of the song “Declaration Of Rights” by the Jamaican roots reggae group The Abyssinians. The song can be seen as something of a companion piece to the Wailers’ “Get Up, Stand Up” as it shares the same sentiments. Resplendent in pendulous Africa shaped earrings Witter-Johnson sang the song with great conviction, accompanying herself on her cello, Reuben, her playing technique incorporating both bowing and plucking.
The classically trained Witter-Johnson has been influenced by many genres of music, including jazz, reggae, classical and r’n’b. Her jazz leanings found expression in an Ella Fitzgerald inspired “Cry Me A River” and in an arrangement of “Misty”.
She closed out a powerful and emotive set with her own song “Unconditionally”, a song dedicated to her mother and the theme of maternal love and sourced from her 2019 album “Road Runner”. This was a more overtly rhythmic piece that saw Reuben variously bowed, plucked and struck, with additional rhythm coming from ‘Penny’, a foot operated cowbell. The positive message of this song saw Witter-Johnson ending this intense but beautiful and moving set on an uplifting note.
CJF had offered audiences the carrot of a performance by Festival patron Steve Winwood as the ‘headline’ act and there was a palpable sense of excitement about his appearance with the size of the online audience increasing markedly as the time drew close for Winwood to appear.
Recorded at his home studio in the Cotswold’s Winwood performed just one song, appearing on guitar and vocals in the company of a five piece band featuring electric bass / backing vocals, organ / backing vocals, drums, percussion.
The song chosen was “Can’t Find My Way Home”, Winwood’s song from the 1969 album “Blind Faith”, recorded with the ‘supergroup’ of the same name, which saw him collaborating with guitarist Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Rick Grech.
Winwood may be seventy two but his voice sounds as good as ever and he also took the guitar solo as the rest of the band offered sympathetic but understated support, with the gospel drone of the Hammond a central part of the arrangement.
Unfortunately that was it. Winwood and his friends had thrown us a very tasteful morsel, possibly the highlight of the day for some, but there was to be no more. Obviously this was a disappointment, especially for those of us who would have liked to have seen Winwood positioning himself behind that Hammond.
Nevertheless this was an immaculate performance of one of Winwood’s best loved songs. I guess you can’t ask for much more than that.
So ended a day that captured the spirit of the Festival in all its musical diversity. One could imagine the venues that these acts would have appeared in had they actually come to Cheltenham, starting with Rite of Trio in the Parabola and ending with Steve Winwood in the Big Top.
Let’s hope some of them come back next year and do it all for real in front of capacity paying audiences.
Sunday coverage to follow.
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