by Ian Mann
May 03, 2022
Ian Mann is thrilled to return to Cheltenham Jazz Festival to enjoy performances by Nitin Sawhney's band and Zoe Rahman's new quintet.
Photograph of Zoe Rahman by Tim Dickeson
Friday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 29/04/2022
After a three year gap Cheltenham Jazz Festival returned in triumph in 2022.
The 2020 edition was cancelled at short notice due to the first Covid lockdown, with little time available for the Festival organisers to arrange a viable online replacement.
2021’s “Cheltenham Jazz Stream” was a highly successful ‘Virtual Festival’ with a diverse array of streamed performances across a variety of jazz genres that very much captured the spirit of the ‘real thing’. The Jazzmann offered comprehensive coverage of this hugely enjoyable online event which took place in early May 2021. Links to reviews here;
As good as the 2021 Jazz Stream was nothing can quite compare with the thrill of watching real live music and the return of Cheltenham Jazz Festival, with no Covid restrictions whatsoever, was an absolute joy. Thousands of people came out to enjoy both the ticketed concert events and the performances on the Freestage in Montpelier Gardens and there was a real sense of celebration about finally being back, a ‘carnival atmosphere’ if you will, particularly on the Saturday of the Festival, which was a gloriously warm and sunny spring day.
The Festival actually began on the evening of Wednesday April 27th but I waited until the Friday evening before making my return, the principal attraction for me being the performance by a brand new quintet assembled by the brilliant pianist and composer Zoe Rahman, but more on that later.
I then attended for three full days on Saturday, Sunday and Monday and will give full coverage to events on these days in due course. My thanks are due to Bairbre Lloyd of Cheltenham Festivals for generously arranging press tickets for my wife and I as we enjoyed a typically broad range of events, beginning with;
NITIN SAWHNEY - JAZZ ARENA
Nitin Sawhney (born 1964) is a British Asian musician and composer whose music embraces a wide variety of genres, including jazz, rock, electronica, contemporary classical and the Indian classical music that he inherited from his parents. A true ‘renaissance man’ he has written for orchestras and has composed film, dance and theatre scores, collaborating with a broad range of artists across a wide variety of artistic disciplines.
I recall enjoying Sawhney’s performance on the Stroller Programme at Brecon Jazz Festival in the late 1990s, around the time of the launch of his breakthrough release “Beyond Skin” (1998), still arguably his best known album and the first of many award winning recordings.
The band that Sawhney brought to Cheltenham featured the leader on piano, keyboards, laptop and guitar alongside vocalists YVA and Shapla Salique, violinist Eos Counsell and tabla master Aref Durvesh. The music was drawn from across his now near thirty year career and included pieces from the landmark “Beyond Skin” as well as his latest release, 2021’s “Immigrants”, which explores similar themes of race and identity.
Taking to the stage with the minimum of fuss Sawhney and his band commenced proceedings with “Down The Road” from the “Immigrants” album, which saw the leader playing guitar as well as making use of pre-recorded sounds generated via his keyboard/laptop set-up. Sawhney was backed by the soaring vocal harmonies of the two singers and the percussive drive of Durvesh as the music explored a variety of European and Asian influences.
“Sunset”, from Sawhney’s 2001 album “Prophesy”, featured the leader on acoustic guitar as Salique and YVA exchanged verses in Hindi and English respectively, thus establishing a pattern for the rest of the set.
YVA was the featured singer on “Dark Day”, a song from Sawhney’s 2013 album “Dystopian Dream”. Given the album title this was a piece that featured suitably apocalyptic lyrical imagery (It’s a Dark Day in Heaven”), while introducing a subtle blues element to the music courtesy of Sawhney’s acoustic guitar.
The first piece from the “Beyond Skin” album was “Broken Skin”, which featured sampled sounds and introduced a soul and hip hop influence as Sawhney moved back to his bank of keyboards, adding a convincing electric piano solo.
From the same album “Let Him Go” combined sampled sounds with acoustic guitar. The audience reaction to these two songs from a key recording in the artist’s catalogue was proof that Sawhney is a musician with a large and loyal following.
Two songs from the “Immigrants” album followed, and from these it was immediately clear that there has been no reduction in the quality of Sawnhey’s output in the intervening years. “You Are” was based on a poem written by Sawhney pre-pandemic in response to the immigrant crisis on the US / Mexico border. Featuring YVA’s vocals and Sawhney’s acoustic guitar this was a haunting piece with each line commencing with the couplet “You Are… (shades here of Peter Hammill’s “A Way Out”). The poignancy of Sawhney’s poetic lyrics was heightened by Counsell’s emotive violin solo.
The “Immigrants” album features contributions from a number of guest performers, among them cellist /vocalist Ayanna Witter-Johnson. “Movement Variation 1” is a collaboration with violinist Anna Phoebe. The piece was played here as a duet by Sawhney on acoustic grand piano and Counsell on violin in a beautiful performance that could perhaps be best described as ‘semi-classical’. Two versions of this piece, one featuring Phoebe and the other featuring Witter-Johnson were recorded live for the album at London’s Wigmore Hall.
The dramatic “Homelands” featured Counsell’s violin soaring above a pre-recorded wash of synthesised sounds prior to the addition of voices, tabla and Sawhney’s acoustic guitar. He and Counsell exchanged solos and the piece also included Salique’s incantatory Hindi vocals plus a cameo from Durvesh on tabla.
The next piece also featured Sawhney on acoustic guitar, his flamboyant flamenco style flourishes augmented by further Hindi vocalising and a further series of exchanges between Sawhney and Counsell as each demonstrated their virtuosity on their respective instruments.
From the “Immigrants” album “Box” saw a continuation of the flamenco theme but also included a mix of Hindi and English language vocalising, with Salique making a particularly powerful contribution.
Sawhney explained that one of his primary influences has been the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-97), a Pakistani born singer of Qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music. The Qawwali tradition was explored in the song “Differences”, which featured a powerful performance from Salique and which saw her singing in both Hindi and English. Sawhney featured on grand piano but the piece was also given a contemporary twist via the use of pre-programmed beats.
Sawhney recalled his 2001 meeting with Nelson Mandela as he introduced the Mandela inspired “Breathing Light”, essentially an instrumental piece despite Durvesh’s deployment of konnakol, an Indian form of ‘vocal percussion’. Featuring the leader on grand piano and sampled beats this uplifting piece also featured a soaring violin solo from the increasingly impressive Counsell.
A key set piece in Sawhney’s sets is his dazzling series of konnakol exchanges with Durvesh, an episode that also allows the percussionist to demonstrate his equally spectacular tabla skills.
From the “Beyond Skin” album “For Nadia” is one of Sawhney’s most enduringly popular pieces. Featuring sampled voices and beats this also included Salique’s lead vocal and the leader’s acoustic guitar.
The deserved encore was the title track of “Prophesy”, a song about the connectedness of the planet written during Sawhney’s world travels back in 2001. Featuring some terrific interplay between Sawhney’s sitar like acoustic guitar and Durvesh’s tablas this piece eventually accelerated to a furious pace with Sawhney encouraging the audience to clap along. This represented an energetic and highly enjoyable conclusion to a diverse and often thought provoking evening of music making.
I’ll admit to not having followed Sawhney’s career too closely since the “Beyond Skin” days but he’s still clearly a hugely creative and highly principled artist. Musically he casts his net wide and his skilful way of bringing together different musical strands across a range of cultures sometimes reminded me of Jah Wobble, another boundary crossing musician with a loyal and substantial following.
Overall I was very impressed with Sawhney and all the members of his band. I don’t think I’d realised just how accomplished a guitarist he is until now. The material from “Immigrants” suggests that his creative impulses are just as sharp as ever. His music may stretch the definition of ‘jazz’, but its spirit of inclusiveness makes it a good fit for this most broad ranging of jazz festivals. An excellent start to the Festival weekend.
ZOE RAHMAN QUINTET – PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE (PAC)
My decision to see two British artists of Asian heritage on the same evening was wholly coincidental. Pianist and composer Zoe Rahman is far more deeply rooted in the Jazz tradition, despite her musical explorations of her Bengali heritage in the company of her brother Idris Rahman (saxophones, clarinet).
Rahman has often recorded in the classic piano trio format, most notably with the characterful drummer Gene Calderazzo, but this evening saw her introducing a brand new quintet playing a programme largely consisting of recently written music. A ‘world première’ in effect.
Introducing the show Tony Dudley-Evans recalled previous Cheltenham Festival appearances by Rahman, including a show with the trio at the Pillar Room in the Town Hall back in the day and the two piano showcase with Nikki Yeoh at the PAC as recently as the last ‘real’ Festival in 2019.
The new line up features an unusual front line featuring Rowland Sutherland (flute, alto flute) and Byron Wallen (trumpet), plus an all female rhythm section comprised of Flo Moore (double bass) and Cheryl Alleyne (drums).
The performance actually opened with a new arrangement of an old Rahman favourite, the appropriately lively “Red Squirrel”, which was ushered in by a passage of unaccompanied piano from the leader. Sutherland and Warren initially doubled up on the melody line before entering into a bout of inventive interplay as they began to diverge, their explorations encouraged by Moore’s supportive bass and Alleyne’s crisp, neatly detailed drumming. The principal soloists were Wallen with a powerful trumpet feature and Rahman with an inventive and typically audacious piano solo.
“Go With The Flow” originated when fellow pianist and composer Nikki Iles requested Rahman to write a Grade 8 piano piece. Whether the title is a reference to the quintet’s bass player remains a matter of conjecture. With Sutherland now featuring on alto flute the front line delivered some complex unison melody lines before progressing to another example of imaginative interplay. Rahman’s piano solo was simultaneously precise and percussive and she was followed by both Sutherland and Wallen.
“Sweet Jasmine” was written for Rahman’s young daughter and was appropriately playful. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Rahman perform many times over the years and she always brings a welcome sense of playfulness and vivacity to her music, encouraging those same qualities in her bandmates.
This piece was no exception as Rahman shared the solos with Wallen, whose trumpeting was truly incendiary, and Alleyne at the drums. The way in which Rahman and Alleyne bounced ideas off each other throughout the evening suggests that she has found another kindred spirit to replace Calderazzo.
Wallen featured on muted trumpet and Sutherland on flute on the introduction to “Louise”, which promised to develop into a ballad until Wallen discarded his mute as the music began to gather momentum. Solos came from Sutherland on flute and Rahman on piano, an extended and exhilarating excursion in classic piano trio mode.
The next piece was a genuine ballad as Rahman dipped into her back catalogue for “Maya”, a tune written for her young niece and sourced from the “Kindred Spirits” album. Introduced by a combination of piano, flute and muted trumpet, plus Alleyne’s atmospheric cymbal shimmers the piece developed into a feature for the delightfully melodic bass playing of Moore, who stepped out of the shadows to a warmly appreciative round of applause from the appreciative audience.
Rahman paid verbal tribute to the late, great Czech born bassist and composer George Mraz (1944-2021). In 2013 the pair recorded a duo album at Greville Lodge near Cheltenham, which was released on the Cube-Metier label under the title of “Unison”. With Paul Vicek of Greville Lodge present in the audience Rahman then paid musical homage to Mraz with her composition “Bass in Your Smiling Face”, the title suggested by daughter Jasmine. This wasn’t actually another bass feature, but it did include excellent solos from Wallen on trumpet and Sutherland on flute.
Not every new piece had been titled and the quintet concluded with one such item. This was introduced by an extended passage of unaccompanied piano from Rahman, a virtuoso tour de force of sometimes highly percussive playing that was a reminder of her love for such artists as McCoy Tyner and her one time mentor JoAnne Brackeen. Sutherland on flute and Wallen on muted trumpet then doubled up on the complex melody prior to solos from Sutherland, Rahman and a closing feature from Alleyne at the drums.
The new quintet enjoyed a great reception from the knowledgeable crowd at the PAC and returned for a well deserved encore. This was to be a brief rendition of “Conversation With Nellie”, a tune written by Rahman for her Irish born grandmother which appears on the “Kindred Spirits” album.
It’s always a pleasure to see Zoe Rahman play and I was particularly impressed with this new quintet on their inaugural performance. As one would expect from musicians of this calibre the standard of playing was uniformly high throughout. At this stage of the proceedings all of the band members were still reading music but as the project develops I expect them to stretch out further on these tunes as an already impressive group rapport continues to grow to full fruition. But even at this early stage in its evolution this is an absolutely terrific new quintet that can only get better and better.
Hopefully they will eventually get the chance to document this music on disc. In the meantime audiences can catch them again on July 23rd 2022 at the Guiting Festival in the nearby village of Guiting Power in the Cotswolds. Details can be found in the Jazzmann news story here;
Thus ended a superb evening of music to kick-start my visit to the 2022 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
More reviews to follow.
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