by Ian Mann
May 07, 2019
Ian Mann enjoys an evening of performances by Leah, the Sunlight Trio of Soweto Kinch, Andreas Schaerer & Kalle Kalima and the Nubya Garcia band.
Photograph of Andreas Schaerer (at the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival) by Tim Dickeson.
FRIDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 03/05/2018.
The 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival was already into its third day by the time I finally hit town. Arriving in good time I braved the drizzle to enjoy some music at the Free Stage at the main Festival site in Montpellier Gardens before moving on to ticketed events in the Parabola Arts Centre and a new venue for 2019, the House of Fraser Basement.
LEAH, FREE STAGE, MONTPELLIER GARDENS
Playing the five thirty slot on the Free Stage was a quintet fronted by vocalist Leah Bullock, simply known as Leah. The band was completed by Oli Pickering (guitar), Jack Givens (keyboards), Tomasz Williams (electric bass) and Jack Quance (drums).
Leah is due to release her début EP “In With The In Crowd” later in May 2019 with the official launch gig scheduled to take place at the Apartment venue in Cheltenham on May 24th.
Leah and her band play a blend of soul, funk and jazz and today’s set featured a blend of familiar covers plus the occasional original. Fronted by Leah’s soulful vocals the jazz content was smuggled in via the guitar solos of Pickering, the star instrumentalist in a tight and funky combo.
The set list included creditable covers Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard Through The Grapevine”, a funked up version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and a cover of Nora Jones’ “Don’t Know Why”.
I was less keen on Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, which has been done to death by these kind of bands. An inventive arrangement of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” was actually an improvement on the original with Leah’s soulful singing infinitely preferable to the affected vocal warblings of the Gibb brothers (no, I don’t like the Bee Gees).
“Valerie”, originally written and performed by the Zutons, but subsequently claimed by the late Amy Winehouse, steamed along infectiously as did a version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”. The originals, which presumably will be included on the EP, included a song called “All Night Long” (not the Lionel Ritchie one) and were pretty decent efforts in a soul / funk vein.
Leah and her band were well received by a commendably large crowd at the free stage. There was nothing particularly profound here but this was an enjoyable set by a highly competent band that probably doesn’t go short of work. All in all a very enjoyable way to while away an hour prior to the ticketed events.
SUNLIGHT; SOWETO KINCH meets ANDREAS SCHAERER & KALLE KALIMA, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
The opening performance of this year’s Festival events at the PAC was also the first of the “Trios With A Twist” strand that ran at various Festival venues throughout the weekend. This series produced some phenomenal music making, with this inaugural performance setting the benchmark for what was to follow.
Sunlight proved to be an international collaboration created specifically for the Festival and brought together British saxophonist Soweto Kinch, Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer and Finnish guitarist Kalle Kalima. Schaerer’s involvement ensured that the event was supported by the Swiss Arts Council, Prohelvetia, with further support coming the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation.
Apparently Kinch and Schaerer had collaborated once before at Cheltenham, although this wasn’t a meeting that was covered by myself. However I’ve seen Kinch leading his own groups on numerous other occasions while my introduction to Schaerer’s extraordinary vocalising came at the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival.
On that occasion the Swiss was part of the European ‘supergroup’ Out Of Land, a quartet that also included the German pianist Michael Wollny and the French musicians Emile Parisien (saxophones) and Vincent Peirani (accordion), all artists closely associated with the ACT record label.
Kalima I’ve only heard on disc, notably in the trio Oliwood, led by Berlin based drummer and composer Oliver ‘Oli’ Steidle.
I have to confess to having had reservations about that Out Of Land at London’s Cadogan Hall. Although their set included some dazzling playing and received a standing ovation from a sell out crowd the group too often felt like a collection of individuals rather than a real ‘band’.
Schaerer’s remarkable wordless vocals draw on the influences of such vocal pioneers as Bobby McFerrin and the UK’s own Phil Minton plus those of modern day ‘beat boxers’. In the context of the Out Of Land group his singing often seemed to be just a little too much of a ‘novelty’. Tonight, as part of a smaller unit, he seemed a more integral part of the proceedings and I found myself enjoying his contribution here more than I had done in London.
Tonight Schaerer played a greater role rhythmically, his frequently astonishing ‘vocal percussion’ forming a core part of the trio’s sound as he shared rhythmic duties with Kalima’s guitar as Kinch moved between alto and tenor saxophones, mainly concentrating on his favoured alto.
None of the pieces played tonight was formally announced, so no titles, but the trio started out with a great sense of purpose, the intertwining melody lines of Kinch’s alto and Kalima’s guitar underpinned by the rhythms of Schaerer’s vocal percussion. The singer and Kalima then switched roles allowing the vocalist time and room to stretch and soar, demonstrating his astonishing range and judiciously treating the sound of his voice via an array of electronic gadgetry. Pertinently all three performers were reading music, these presumably being pieces written or arranged specifically for performance by this trio. This was emphatically not a one off totally improvised free jazz performance, although the interaction between the musicians was of a remarkably high standard throughout.
One should not forget that Schaerer isn’t the only vocalist in this band. Kinch has made his reputation with a blend of jazz and rap and the next piece featured his own vocalising with a rap referencing the Sunlight of the trio’s name - “If we let the light in we might get enlightened” he sang above a backdrop of Kalima’s textured guitar and Schaerer’s own vocal percussion.
The next piece featured an unaccompanied guitar introduction with Kalima deploying a slide. The performance then metamorphosed into a song, with Schaerer delivering the lyrics in French. Nevertheless there was still plenty of space allowed for individual virtuosity with Kinch’s biting and incisive alto solo raising the energy levels prior to a stunning vocal ‘solo’ from Schaerer that incorporated beat boxing, birdsong and the kind of yodelling that makes Thijs van Leer look like a mere dabbler. This was surprisingly rhythmic and truly joyous music, and there was more to come as Kinch traded up to tenor to deliver an earthy solo on the larger instrument before moving back to alto for a series of dazzling sax and vocal exchanges with Schaerer.
With all three musicians incorporating a plethora of electronic effects into their individual sounds the stage was a tangle of wires. Echoed alto sax introduced the next piece with Kinch entering into a spidery dialogue with Kalima’s guitar. Schaerer’s wordless singing here sometimes reminded me of the late Brazilian percussionist/vocalist Nana Vasconcelos as he now engaged with Kinch’s alto. The saxophonist then moved to tenor once more to deliver a powerful solo prior to another vocal set piece from Schaerer that included some astonishingly flexible high pitched vocalising prior to a final flourish that showcased his equally remarkable beat boxing techniques.
Kalima, now based in Berlin, introduced the penultimate piece on guitar, this leading into a song with Schaerer again delivering the lyrics in French prior to an alto sax solo from Kinch.
The final item began with the sound of Kinch’s echoed tenor, this joined by Kalima’s guitar generated bass lines and Schaerer’s vocal percussion as Kinch cut loose with a wailing tenor solo. Putting down his horn Kinch now delivered a reprise of his “Sunlight” rap, this time incorporating references to the PAC and Cheltenham. Schaerer then took the whole concept of ‘voice as instrument’ to another level as his solo simulated the sound of a trumpet as Kinch moved back to alto.
The Sunlight trio enjoyed a terrific reaction from the Parabola audience. Inevitably it was the performance of the extraordinary Schaerer that was most talked about. Theatrical it may be but there’s no doubting the sheer brilliance of his technique or his innate musicality. Kinch’s contribution was nearly as fine, although some expressed reservations at the lyrical content of his rapping. I’m no fan of rap but at least I can understand Kinch’s words and appreciate his distinctly British approach to the genre. Selflessly combining rhythmic and textural roles Kalima was less spectacular than his colleagues, but nevertheless his more low key contribution was integral to the trio’s success.
This was an excellent performance that got my Festival proper off to a great start. The Out Of Land group began as a one off collaboration that evolved into a regular band, one suspects that this trio possesses an even greater potential to follow suit.
NUBYA GARCIA, HOUSE OF FRASER BASEMENT
The 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival offered a new venue for fans to check out, the basement of House of Fraser’s flagship store on Cheltenham’s Promenade, Cavendish House.
I’d assumed that following Fraser’s much publicised financial problems that the store itself had closed and that the basement space had been rented out to the Festival. However the shop itself still appeared to be open.
Tonight’s performance was one of three at the venue forming part of the ‘Gilles Peterson Presents’ series. Peterson himself introduced this performance by a quartet led by rising star saxophonist Nubya Garcia and featuring Joe Armon Jones on keyboards, Daniel Casimir on acoustic and electric bass and Sam Jones at the drums.
I first saw Garcia play as a member of Tomorrow’s Warriors back in 2013 and have since championed her work with the all female ensemble Nerija. As a long term admirer of her talents it’s good to see her making such an impact on the British jazz scene, along with several other members of that Tomorrow’s Warriors ensemble, among them Armon Jones and Garcia’s fellow saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi.
As Peterson mentioned in his introduction as Garcia’s star has continued to rise her playing has also received recognition from the international jazz community leading to guest appearances with such American luminaries as fellow saxophonists Gary Bartz and Pharoah Sanders and trumpeter Christian Scott.
Turning now to tonight’s performance in a hot and crowded basement. The new venue is a long, low ceilinged room and having arrived from the Sunlight gig with little time to spare I found myself halfway back in a standing only crowd and could only really see Garcia and Casimir, who were both standing, and the occasional glimpse of Jones through gaps in the crowd. Armon Jones I couldn’t see at all.
In the circumstances it didn’t matter too much. This was music to absorb yourself in, an updating of the ‘spiritual jazz’ of Sanders and John Coltrane blended with Afro-Caribbean influences from 21st century London.
The quartet commenced with a near half hour segue that included the tunes “Fly Free” and “The Source” and incorporated marathon Coltrane-esque tenor solos from Garcia, these prompting equally feverish responses from the excellent Armon Jones at the keyboard as Casimir and Jones, two other rapidly emerging jazz talents, stoked the fires with their fluent but highly muscular and propulsive grooves.
It was all hugely exciting and invigorating stuff and just in case anybody might have been starting to think it was all a bit too much ‘Coltrane by numbers’ Garcia and her band quickly sidestepped any potential doubters by adding elements of ska and dub reggae to the mix with Armon Jones’ shimmering keyboards and Casimir’s monstrous bass grooves helping to fuel Garcia’s powerful tenor soloing.
“Hold” was introduced by a rousing solo drum feature from the consistently impressive Jones, this helping to fuel similarly spirited responses from the leader on tenor and Armon Jones at the keyboard. As I mentioned previously I couldn’t actually see Armon Jones but the range of sounds that he produced, particularly during his ear catching solos, suggested that he was probably surrounded by a whole bank of keyboards. After the gig when I wandered down to the front of the low stage (complete with crush barrier) I was mightily surprised that all these remarkable sounds had been produced from just one tiny Nord keyboard.
It was Casimir’s turn to take the spotlight as his solo bass feature introduced the aptly named “Pace”, which featured the clarion call of Garcia’s tenor in another blistering marathon solo, Armon Jones responding with a similarly thrilling keyboard excursion.
Casimir took up the electric bass for the title track of Garcia’s latest EP “Where We Are”, a piece introduced by the leader’s unaccompanied tenor. Subsequently Casimir’s hypnotic electric bass grooves and Jones’ fluid drumming combined to provide the ignition for the incendiary soloing of Garcia and Armon Jones.
This was a high energy show that again generated a highly enthusiastic reaction from an appreciative audience in a well attended venue. If one were being hyper-critical one could cite a lack of light and shade in the music but this was very much a ‘club’ gig with the focus firmly on energy and excitement, and in this respect Garcia and her band delivered in spades while also exhibiting a universally high standard of musicianship. It was easy to see why they’ve been making so many waves on the London jazz scene and pulling in a younger constituency in the process. This jazz festival crowd was perhaps a bit older on average than the audiences to which Garcia has been playing lately. But the generation barriers were quickly broken down with everybody that I spoke to, of whatever age, declaring this to be an excellent performance.
I’ve been following Garcia’s career for several years now and I’m delighted to have witnessed the progress she has made. And, like her, I’m in it for the long haul. It would be good to see her make a full length album following the success of the two EPs she has issued so far.
Meanwhile Armon Jones, also of the Ezra Collective, was to return to the venue the following evening leading his own group in the last of the three events in the ‘Gilles Peterson Presents’ series.
I couldn’t attend that but would be interested in seeing or hearing his band sometime in the future.
The other Peterson performance at the Basement was also on the Saturday and featured Vels Trio. That event will form part of my Saturday festival coverage.
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