by Ian Mann
May 11, 2010
Even the stormy weather couldn't spoil what had been a weekend of incredible music as Cheltenham goes from strength to strength. Photograph of Sebastian Rochford by Tim Dickeson.
Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2010-Monday
3rd May 2010
Bank Holiday Monday has traditionally been some thing of a wind down day at Cheltenham but with retro soul singer Paloma Faith accompanied by Guy Barker’s Jazz Orchestra topping the bill with a sold out evening show in the Main Hall the signs were that the last day of the festival is beginning to grow in importance. I subsequently heard the Radio 2 transmission of the Faith/Barker show and was pleasantly surprised at just how good it sounded and how high the actual jazz content was. Still anything involving the masterful Guy Barker is likely to have a touch of class.
Once again I managed to find four very different shows to see, beginning at noon in the Pillar Room with the Lluis Mather Quartet.
LLUIS MATHER QUARTET
It is now customary for the winner of Birmingham Conservatoire’s Dave Holland Prize to open the Pillar Room programme on the last day of the festival. Holland has never forgotten his Midlands roots and continues to support jazz education at the Conservatoire and this slot has delivered some memorable performances over the years from pianist Dan Nicholls,drummer John Randall and others.
I’d seen tenor saxophonist Mather earlier in the year at the Harmonic Festival in Birmingham (see reviews elsewhere on this site) where he played as a sideman with both the Ben Markland Quintet and Chris Mapp’s Gambol. I was impressed by Mather’s feathery, lyrical tone on the instrument. He’s a final year student at the Conservatoire but plays with an unhurried maturity beyond his tender years.
This Cheltenham performance also featured Mather the composer as his young band consisting of guitarist Dave Greatrex, double bassist Rob Anstey and drummer Jim Bashford delivered a programme of Mather originals that revealed his potential as a writer.
The quartet began with “Dissention” which introduced the Frisell like sound of Greatrex’s guitar alongside Mather’s tenor. There’s a similarity between Mather’s playing and that of Fly saxophonist Mark Turner. Both are quietly eloquent players who make their musical statements without recourse to bombast or bluster. Turner was due to give a master class at the Conservatoire in the week following the Festival and I can imagine young Mr Mather being first in the queue to pick up some tips from the master. Here Mather shared the soloing duties with Greatrex and Anstey above Bashford’s floating drum pulse.
“Ratcliffe’s Palm” was dedicated to pianist/organist Matt Ratcliffe, a fellow Birmingham student, and divided the group into two duos with Mather engaging in gentle dialogue with drummer Bashford, the latter deploying soft head mallets before handing on to the duo of Greatrex and Anstey.
“Catch It, Bin It, Kill It” added a greater air of urgency to the proceedings with Mather soloing powerfully and climactically and with Bashford also featuring forcefully. The lively, darting runs of “Cotes Du Rhone Village” (Mather is something of a wine expert) maintained the momentum and included an abstract central section, a powerful solo from Greatrex and Mather’s most full on playing thus far.
The next tune was unannounced but had an anthemic quality with Mather’s sax snaking seductively over Greatrex’s guitar vamp. The two were to team up again on the closing “My Washing Line” with Mather soloing over Greatrex’s circling guitar motif. Earlier the excellent Anstey had opened the tune at the bass and the later duet between Anstey and Greatrex was also a highlight.
This had been an important gig for Mather and on the whole the young saxophonist acquitted himself well. He’s already a distinctive soloist and although some of his themes were not particularly memorable he also shows promise as a writer. The set would have benefited from a wider emotional and dynamic range- “Cotes Du Rhone” was probably the pick of the pieces and the broadest in scope- but Lluis Mather is an emerging talent and well worth keeping an eye on.
Apart from his sideman work he also runs another band Noose, a bassless quartet featuring singer Holly Thomas, pianist Matt Ratcliffe and drummer Euan Palmer.
MATT CALVERT’S SOUNDTRACK
Cheltenham always throws up at least one delightful left field surprise. A couple of years ago it was trumpeter Neil Yates’ suite for jazz soloist and brass band “Sketches For A Northern Town.” Calvert’s “Soundtrack” project was similar in that it combined music with visual images but the sound was totally different.
Calvert’s group was one of Jamie Cullum’s picks and the guest director turned up at a sadly rather under attended Playhouse Theatre with Tony Dudley Evans to introduce the event. Calvert is an experimental musician best known for working in the field of electronic music but he has also worked with members of the Loop Collective including contributing live electronics to saxophonist Tom Challenger’s band MA. Calvert was introduced to Cullum by Jamie’s saxophonist Tom Richards and a friendship developed which culminated in Cullum asking Calvert to play at the festival.
“Soundtrack” is an offshoot of Calvert’s acoustic Typewritten band and for their Cheltenham performance the group played in front of a screen showing short silent films, some of them dating from the 1900’s, others the work of contemporary film makers. All were both entertaining and amusing with some having a darker, thought provoking edge. The music played by Calvert and his colleagues was largely written for the films and as such synchronised perfectly with the visual images. In the intervals between the showing of the filmed material the group improvised freely, the quartet of multi instrumentalists creating a rich array of quirky colours and textures.
Joining Calvert were Ivo Neame on piano and clarinet, Ben Bryant on drums and percussion and Tom Mason on jazzy double bass and folky violin. Calvert played guitar and banjo and also processed the sounds of the group through his lap top. Calvert, Bryant and Neame all took turns on vibraphone-is there anything young Ivo can’t play?
After a brief introductory improvisation which introduced the voices of the band the first film was the 1906 “Dreams Of A Rarebit Fiend” by the Edison Manufacturing Company. Seemingly a warning against the excesses of a dissolute lifestyle the scene of the gluttonous title character stuffing his face and then vomiting anticipated Monty Python’s Mr Creosote by some seventy years or so.
“The Motorist” directed by RW Paul also from 1906 was an animated adventure in which a cartoon car leaves the earth and drives into space bypassing the moon and driving around the rings of Saturn. The music was totally in sync with the pictures, shifting up a gear as the cartoon vehicle flew into space. The even earlier “Voyage A Travers L’Impossible” directed by Georges Melies in 1904 explored similar territory as a train both flew to the sun and descended under the ocean. As the films were being shown the four versatile musicians were constantly swopping instruments as they added even more zest to the colourful adventures on screen. The imagination of these early film makers was remarkable and some of their ideas, travel as freedom for instance, still echo with contemporary audiences.
After the fun of the earlier shorts contemporary director Geoffrey Taylor took the audience to an altogether darker place. “Isabella” is the tale of a disturbingly young and beautiful mortuary assistant who dances with one of the cadavers in her charge. The piece has a real erotic charge and Calvert and his colleagues reacted to this unsettling little item with typical skill and aplomb.
Finally Hattie Newman’s “The Theatre” added a bizarre twist to the tale of the characters in a child’s toy theatre as the little girl lets the puppets entertain her for a while before she gets bored and swallows them all.
Whilst the films were an entertainment in themselves the music was even better. Calvert’s delightfully quirky music stood up magnificently on it’s own terms and an album of this music would easily hold the attention without any visual enhancements. Each player revealed a genuine ability on more than one instrument as jazz, folk and burlesque elements combined superbly in music that evoked memories of the Penguin Caf? Orchestra, Orquestra Mahatma and Django Bates.
Calvert’s Soundtrack was the hidden gem of this year’s festival, loved by all who were lucky enough to seek and find it.
CHRISTINE TOBIN AND LIAM NOBLE-TAPESTRY UNRAVELLED
Irish born singer Christine Tobin has become an important figure on the UK scene with a series of wide ranging album releases on the Babel label. Her latest project sees her teaming up with one her long standing musical acquaintances pianist Liam Noble to take a fresh look at Carole King’s 1970 blockbuster album “Tapestry”. This isn’t as surprising as it might seem, Tobin has always brought other elements to her singing including pop, folk and world influences. Noble, meanwhile, is one of the UK’s most versatile pianists, equally as at home with song based material such as this as he is in the Sleepthief free improv project with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey.
The Tobin/Noble duo performance at a packed Pillar Room drew on the pair’s interpretations of King’s “Tapestry” songs plus a couple of Tobin originals carefully tailored to suit the project. In this intimate setting the soulful qualities of Tobin’s voice were apparent from the opening “Beautiful”. Her abilities as a scat singer were also utilised to the full and practically every selection included an inventive and frequently beautiful solo from Noble, one of this country’s top ranked pianists.
Virtually all the “Tapestry” tunes were here including “You’ve Got A Friend”, a mammoth hit for James Taylor,“It’s Too Late”, a hit for King herself and “Home Again” which Tobin said reminded her of Christmas. All were sung by Tobin with a profound sense of involvement and with Noble adding beautifully detailed accompaniment and decoration.
Then there was “So Far Away” , “I Feel The Earth Move” and “Way Over Yonder” which added a gospel flavour to the music. By way of contrast “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “Tapestry” itself both featured Tobin at her most reflective and Noble at his most lyrical.
The pianist also shone on Tobin’s original “Just Your Friend” which included a long instrumental break but his finest moment was on an instrumental version of “Smackwater Jack” when Tobin left the stage and gave Noble free rein to demonstrate the full extent of his capabilities.
The duo ended with the Tobin original “To Closing Time”, a piece introduced by Noble at the piano and one which later saw him reaching into the instrument’s innards as the pair stretched out, at last achieving a real synthesis between UK Jazz and King’s Tapestry.
Tobin and Noble were never less than entertaining and this was a classy show that was enthusiastically received by yet another sizeable Pillar Room crowd. It still left me a little disappointed though. I was expecting “Tapestry Unravelled” to be real deconstruction of the songs but in the main Tobin and Noble played it fairly straight apart from a scat vocal here and an extended piano break there. King’s material is so familiar that it’s practically folk music and perhaps Tobin’s affections for the record are so great that she didn’t want to push the boundaries too much. However I don’t think I was entirely alone in wishing for something a bit more radical.
2010 has been a good year for Polar Bear. The group’s new album “Peepers” recently released on the Leeds based Leaf label is a strong candidate for their best work to date and the band have received plenty of airplay (in jazz terms at least) bringing them more into the public eye than at any time since 2005 when “Held On The Tips Of Fingers” was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize.
In recent months the group have appeared on Radio 2 (Jamie Cullum’s jazz programme) and on BBC 2 where they were given one tune on Later With Jools Holland. I suppose we ought to be grateful to get any jazz coverage on Holland’s show but only letting let the Polars play one tune when everybody else got at least two and that BOF Paul Weller three was a bit much. Still Holland did redeem himself by having Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA as headliners a couple of weeks later. Some of the UK’s finest jazzers including Zoe Rahman, Finn Peters and Nathaniel Facey were hiding behind those pharaoh masks.
Polar Bear’s fresh momentum culminated in them playing an excellent gig in the Jazz Arena to round off my festival on a high note. Drummer/composer/leader Sebastian Rochford was joined by long term regular members Mark Lockheart (tenor sax), Tom Herbert (double bass) and Leafcutter John (electronics and guitar). With Pete Wareham absent due to the impending birth of his second child his place was taken by Shabaka Hutchings who deputised brilliantly as the other half of Polar Bear’s twin tenor sax front line.
In the main the band concentrated on material from the new album and despite the enforced line up change they exhibited confidence throughout. Lockheart and Hutchings intermeshed and traded solos as though to the manner born. Tom Herbert’s mighty double bass rumbled ominously in dark, brooding arco passages or interlocked with Rochford’s colourful drumming to form an irresistible groove. Rochford’s mix of simple, almost na?ve melodies and complex, unsettling arrangements is a unique combination that has earned the band a cult following. Leafcutter John is the wild card in this already unorthodox mix as he adds electronic and found sounds to the group’s sonic palette, sometimes sampling other instruments and these days often adding his own guitar to Polar Bear’s singular sound world.
The unique Polar Bear are not in any way “show biz” but increasingly I get the sense that they’re putting on a show-and a very good one. The group’s appearance is immediately striking with Rochford’s famous bird’s nest barnet and the extravagantly bearded Herbert’s resemblance to a character in a Victorian sepia tint-or Rolf Harris. Then there’s Leafcutter who looks about twelve especially when he performs his long running set piece when he conjures seemingly impossible sounds by inflating and deflating a pink balloon. I’ve seen him perform this trick several times and on each occasion it’s different. No two Polar Bear shows are ever alike, Rochford’s open ended themes and snatches of melody leave plenty of room for improvisation.
The material played at Cheltenham included the grooving “Tomlvesalicelovestom” from the group’s eponymous third album which featured Herbert’s bowed bass in dialogue with Hutchings in addition to Leafcutter’s balloon antics.
From the new album the celebratory “Hope Every Day Is A Happy New Year” was linked to “Drunken Pharoah”, a brilliant musical description of the perils of alcoholic over indulgence with Leafcutter’s live sampling technique to the fore.
“Want To Believe Everything” was another set piece for Leafcutter, the band’s resident boffin using a hand held console to generate flurries of electronic sounds which flitted dizzyingly from speaker to speaker in a mesmerising display of stereo effects.
But it wasn’t all about electronics, the interplay between Lockheart and Hutchings was consistently interesting and both men were responsible for some memorable solos that explored the full range of their instruments from wistful lyricism to funky slap tonguing.
As for Rochford his drumming was as thrillingly colourful and physically resourceful as never. The guy never plays the obvious rhythms yet always drives the group forward with his consistently inventive playing. I mentioned earlier the group’s increasing comfort with a low key theatricality. Rochford now talks far more than he used to , albeit in his charmingly idiosyncratic way (even Hutchings gently taking the piss didn’t put him off), and the group really know how to pace a show. They ended with two of the most joyous and accessible tunes on the new album “Happy For You” which Rochford dedicated to the absent Wareham, and finally “Peepers” itself. “Happy For You” featured the twin saxophonists trading solos and incorporated the distinctive sound of Leafcutter on a bizarre form of surf guitar.
After such a brilliant show the group were deservedly called back for an encore which proved to be an old favourite, “King Of Aberdeen” from “Held On The Tips Of Fingers”.
This was excellent stuff from the revitalised Polar Bear and Hutchings was an absolutely brilliant dep. With their best album for quite a while and with an increasingly enjoyable stage show Polar Bear should be around for a while yet. Their combination of virtuoso musicianship, colourful writing, daring improvisation and Rochford’s general air of other worldliness is a unique thing in British music (not just jazz) and is something to be treasured.
FRINGE ON THE TOWN
The 2010 festival made an even more concerted effort to involve the town and bring music to the people of Cheltenham. This is to be applauded, although the festival could never totally take over the town as used to happen at Brecon there is now more of a festival vibe about the whole thing. This year bars and food stalls were set out behind the Town Hall and a comprehensive range of free music events took place on an extended Budvar stage. The music ranged from funk to folk and despite the weather putting a bit of a dampener on things with torrential rain on Saturday afternoon and an unseasonably chilly north wind on Sunday and Monday the audiences were large and appreciative. I didn’t see much of the Fringe due to my concentration on the concert programme but I did catch a couple of things either side of the Polar Bear gig on Monday.
Cheltenham born but now based in Bristol pianist Andy Nowak leads a trio featuring double bassist Will Harris and drummer Scott Hammond. With Nowak on electric piano the trio played an enjoyable set of Nowak’s original tunes, the melodic hooks and tight grooves sometimes reminding me of E.S.T. They were very well received by a large and attentive crowd. And who says you can’t dance to contemporary jazz? Two little girls aged three or four or maybe even younger were clearly having a whale of a time as they skipped about to the trio’s music at the front of the stage.
Nowak’s accomplished trio had a higher jazz content than some of the other acts I’d noticed in passing. Similarly after the Polar Bear gig I caught a few numbers of a set by local hero pianist Alex Steele and his “All Stars”. The rhythm section looked like bassist Rob Anstey and drummer Jim Bashford from Birmingham Conservatoire and the Lluis Mather Quartet. Together with an unidentified tenor saxophonist they played a selection of standards and classic contemporary jazz compositions to an appreciative crowd. Particularly impressive was their version of Keith Jarrett’s beautiful ballad “Country”. I’d have liked to have stayed to hear some more but black clouds were gathering and the weather was staring to look extremely threatening. My decision to slip away rather guiltily (sorry Alex) was vindicated when it started pissing down just after I got back to the car. But even stormy weather couldn’t spoil what had been a weekend of incredible music. Cheltenham goes from strength to strength Roll on 2011.
Ian’s Star Ratings
Lluis Mather 3 Stars
Matt Calvert’s Soundtrack 4 Stars
Christine Tobin and Liam Noble 3 Stars
Polar Bear 4.5 Stars
Overall 4 Starsblog comments powered by Disqus