by Ian Mann
May 10, 2022
Ian Mann enjoys a varied programme of music on the final day of the Festival with performances by Moses Boyd, Gabrielle, Brian Jackson and Myra Melford's Fire And Water Quintet.
Photograph of Myra Melford sourced from the Cheltenham Festival website http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com
Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 02/05/2022
MOSES BOYD – JAZZ ARENA
Drummer, composer and bandleader Moses Boyd is one of the rising stars of British jazz, a point emphasised by the large turn out at the Jazz Arena for this performance by the young tyro as he led his band through a selection of material sourced from his latest album, the Mercury Music Prize nominated “Dark Matter” (2020).
Boyd is probably best known for his free-wheeling and increasingly ambitious duo collaboration with saxophonist Binker Golding but he is also a bandleader in his right, first with the Group Exodus and later with the new “Dark Matter” line up. A prolific sideman who came up via the ranks of the Tomorrow’s Warriors organisation he has also worked with pianists Peter Edwards and Andrew McCormack, vocalist Zara McFarlane, bassist Gary Crosby, tuba player Theon Cross, and more.
“Dark Matter” represents Boyd’s first full length album release under his own name and features a list of stellar contributors, among them saxophonists Golding and Nubya Garcia.
A major player on the “Dark Matter” album is guitarist Artie Zaitz who was part of the quintet that Boyd brought to Cheltenham. The band also included Renato Paris on keyboards, whose mighty synthesised bass lines were a key component in the quintet’s sound. The band was fronted by alto saxophonist Tyrone Isaac Stuart, who had apparently been drafted in at short notice but who did an absolutely terrific job in this challenging role. This was a highly rhythmic ensemble with Boyd joined by a Venezuelan born percussionist whose name nobody seemed to catch. In any event he made an impressive contribution to the overall success of the performance.
Tune announcements were rare and I suspect that several pieces may have been segued together, particularly during an extended opening sequence that began with an atmospheric introduction that commenced with Boyd playing his kit with bare hands. The spacey sounds of keys and guitar, plus the shimmer and rustle of percussion added to the increasingly dark and sinister feel of the music. As Boyd finally picked up his sticks and Stuart’s sax eventually pierced the textured darkness the effect was genuinely dramatic.
Boyd eventually established a groove, aided by increasingly funky synthesised bass lines as both Stuart and the impressive Zaitz cut loose with incisive solos, Zaitz helping to bring a blues and rock element to the music.
Boyd’s music touches many bases, ranging from the spiritual jazz that inspires many of the current crop of young players on the London jazz scene to more contemporary urban developments such as grime and dubstep. The music of electric era Miles Davis also represents a discernible influence on Boyd’s current sound.
During this opening sequence the rhythms became increasingly complex as Boyd and his percussionist combined forces, meshing and interlocking. Boyd’s polyrhytmic flow was astonishing; relentlessly inventive and technically dazzling, this guy has technique to burn. His high energy approach transmitted itself to his colleagues with Stuart delivering another powerful alto solo and the Venezuelan an exuberant conga feature. Paris’ monstrously fat and squelchy synth bass lines helped to give the music something of a club atmosphere and this aspect of his playing was also afforded its own feature, with Paris’ keyboard solo also featuring a more conventional electric piano sound.
A brief pause to allow the crowd to show its appreciation and the band to draw its breath was followed by another blistering collective excursion, ushered in once more by Boyd at the drums, an introductory unaccompanied passage featuring the sounds of foot operated bass drum and the patter of hands on skins. Boyd’s picking up of the sticks then triggered searing solos from Stuart on alto from Zaitz on guitar.
“Too Far Gone” featured a solo introduction from Paris, later joined by Stuart, the sweetness of his alto sax melodies contrasting effectively with the murky rumble of the synth bass. Paris later soloed in more conventional fashion, his playing featuring the combined sounds of electric piano, organ and synth.
The next piece was initially gentler, almost ballad like at first with Zaitz providing an unaccompanied guitar introduction. This was to prove a real slow burner of a piece with the band throwing in a little wilful dissonance as the music developed via the soaring solos of Stuart and Zaitz. If jazz can be said to have ‘lighter wavers’, this was surely one of them.
The final item, “BTB”, celebrated the influence of West Indian music – soca, dancehall etc. - and incorporated more fluent solos from Stuart and Zaitz plus an extended drum and percussion battle that brought a very visual aspect to the performance.
With a less congested programme on the final day of the Festival bands were allowed to perform for longer. At around ninety minutes this was a long set by Festival standards and Boyd and his colleagues certainly relished the opportunity to stretch out. Some of the soloing, particularly by Zaitz and Stuart, was truly epic. Meanwhile the rhythmic interplay of drums, percussion and synth bass provided a high octane fuel for the soloists and was hypnotic, compelling and captivating in its own right. This was a hugely impressive performance that got the final day of the Festival off to a great start and represented one of the overall Festival highlights. Well done to Moses Boyd and to everybody concerned.
GABRIELLE – HENRY WESTON’S BIG TOP
One of the benefits of attending the Festival as a journalist is the opportunity to attend events that you would never have considered buying a ticket for out of pure curiosity.
Thus with no ‘serious jazz’ alternative on offer I found myself in The Big Top for this performance by the highly successful pop singer and songwriter Gabrielle. I lost interest in mainstream pop when still in my teens, which is a very long time ago, and thus the career of Gabrielle has largely passed me by, despite her many top forty hits, dating back to the 1990s.
Gabrielle still has an enormous following. The Big Top was absolutely rammed with fans, the majority, as far as I could tell clearly here to see her on what was the first date of her summer tour.
Fellow scribe AJ Dehany and I seemed to be about the only people there who hadn’t totally bought in to the Gabrielle experience. A guy in front of us had seen her more than thirty times, seated next me were a group of ladies who sang along ecstatically throughout. My only real knowledge of Gabrielle’s repertoire was the song “Out Of Reach”, which was on heavy radio rotation when I worked briefly in a local sports shop in 2002. It also appeared on the soundtrack of “Bridget Jones’ Diary” apparently. It was one of the better songs around at the time and certainly piqued my interest in today’s event.
In the presence of such uber fans I found myself getting caught up in the excitement of it all. I found that I actually recognised many of the songs, having heard them on the radio or the pub jukebox, although I couldn’t hang a title on most of them. She’s produced a lot of “bangers”, as AJ put it.
At first I was less than convinced and well out of my comfort zone. The sound was that of mainstream pop with all the rough edges smoothed off and the music had the generally antiseptic, synthesised feel, offset by faux emotion, that characterises modern pop production values.
Gabrielle’s band featured guitar, electric bass, keyboards and two sassy female backing vocalists. There was a good rapport between the band members, and particularly between Gabrielle and her backing singers.
Gabrielle chatted warmly to her fans and ensured that she worked every section of the tiered Big Top. I’m indebted to an excellent review of the event on the Building Our Nashville website for supplying me with some of the tune titles.
Opener “Thank You” was followed by the hit singles “When A Woman” and “Give Me A Little More Time”. It’s important to note that Gabrielle writes her own material, unlike some pop stars she is a genuinely creative artist – and she’s written a hell of a lot of hits.
One such is “Sunshine”, written for her then infant son, who, as she informed us, is now twenty seven! A huge hit in 1999 this was a piece that drew a rapturous sing along reaction from the crowd.
In addition to the singles the show also included much loved album tracks such as “Falling”, “Under My Skin”, “Tell Me What You Dream” and the rocky “Put Up A Fight”. These were clearly recognised by most of the fans and exhibited no discernible drop in songwriting quality.
A generous employer Gabrielle allowed her backing singers their moment in the spotlight, an opportunity that the duo grabbed with gusto as they romped their way through Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” and Sister Sledge’s “I’m Thinking of You”.
There’s more than a hint of Motown and American soul music in general throughout London born Gabrielle’s work and she was to sing her own choice of cover with a version of Womack and Womack’s “Teardrops”.
Returning to her original material she offered “Don’t Need The Sun To Shine”, “Young and Crazy” and “Shine” and closed the set with a version of her chart topping single from 2000 “Rise”, which saw the audience singing along and her guitarist cutting loose with a rare solo towards the close.
The inevitable encores were “Out Of Reach” and “Dreams”, her first number one from way back in 1993.
This was an event that was certainly something of an experience. Most members of the audience spent the entire gig on their feet, many singing along joyously. It was all very different to the average jazz gig and there will doubtless be some who would question the validity of Gabrielle’s appearance at one of the UK’s major jazz festivals.
I was certainly out of my personal music comfort zone, but after putting my musical snobberies aside I actually found it quite enjoyable once I’d taken my cue from my fellow audience members and just decided to ‘go with the flow’.
And if the presence of Gabrielle and some of the other pop performers on the programme helps to pay for visits by heavy duty international jazz acts such as Shake Stew and the Myra Melford Quintet (about whom more later) to appear on the Parabola programme then that’s just fine by me.
BRIAN JACKSON – JAZZ ARENA
And so to another artist that I didn’t really know that much about. I was aware that keyboard player, vocalist and songwriter Brian Jackson had been a regular collaborator with the late, great Gil Scott- Heron (1949-2011) but that was about as far as it went.
As Scott-Heron’s co-writer, keyboard player and flautist Jackson was an integral part of Gil’s band and appeared with him on a total of nine albums, the first two credited to Scott-Heron, the rest to Scott-Heron and Jackson.
The pair split in 1980 but Jackson has remained active, an in demand session player who has played with the likes Earth Wind & Fire, Kool & The Gang and Stevie Wonder.
Now aged sixty nine Jackson’s current band explores the legacy of his work with Scott-Heron, a politically aware music that has yet to date with the passing of the years. The themes that their music addressed, notably racial and economic inequality remain depressingly salient in 2022.
Jackson’s band at the Jazz Arena featured himself on piano, electric keyboards and vocals, Lex Cameron on guitar and keyboards, Steve Walters on electric bass and Paul Jones at the drums.
Their set ranged through the GSH / Jackson back catalogue with the leader doing a superb impression of his late collaborator’s vocal style. Jackson’s vocals were warm and soulful, almost laid back, but expressed the simmering anger behind those still pertinent political messages. Gil and Brian didn’t shout, but they got their point across with elegance and eloquence, these gentlemen have always exuded class. Scott-Heron was something of a poet and has been cited as an influence on the future rap and hip hop movement, but although his own delivery was rather less splenetic his anger was no less righteous.
Jackson talked at length as well as playing, the verbiage encouraged by the ninety minute running time. But the spoken words were not a distraction as the erudite Jackson spoke warmly of his time with Scott-Heron and the group they dubbed The Midnight Band.
In addition to his warm vocal style Jackson also proved to be an excellent keyboard soloist, whether on electric piano or the venue’s own acoustic grand. His band also proved to be highly competent musicians with Cameron moving between guitar and his own rack of keyboards. Walters was a propulsive bassist and Jones a crisp and forceful drummer. All the instrumentalists were to enjoy substantial features during the course of the performance, this wasn’t just a one man show.
Going into this gig I had more knowledge of the GSH / Jackson back catalogue than I did of Gabrielle’s, but my knowledge was far from extensive. Among the songs performed were the warm and soulful “Peace Go With You Brother” and the funky homage to the jazz greats “Lady Day and John Coltrane”.
“We Almost Lost Detroit” referenced 1970s race relations and was a song expressing a fierce political commitment. “Pieces of a Man”, the title track of GSH’s début album from 1971 addressed the problems in an American steel town where the entire work force of nine thousand was laid off at a stroke at the local plant, all of them informed by a letter in the mail. Jackson pondered about how Scott-Heron, who was just twenty one when the song was written, could have penned a work of such maturity, empathy and insight. Similar musings applied to “Home Is Where The Heartbreak Is”, a song written from the point of view of a heroin addict and “Your Daddy Loves You”, written from the viewpoint of an adoring parent for his daughter, the child that GSH didn’t actually have at the time. Even the seemingly silly audience sing-along “Guerilla” carried a serious social message.
I had to leave at this point for the Myra Melford show at the PAC. This meant that I didn’t get to hear GSH’s greatest ‘hit’ “The Bottle” and possibly “Johannesburg” too. Jackson may even have played some flute, which hadn’t happened prior to my departure. It was unfortunate that these two events overlapped, although no paying customers followed me to the PAC as far as I am aware.
I very much enjoyed my time in the company of Brian Jackson and his band and was sorry to miss the end of their set. This may have been nostalgia, but it was nostalgia that still carries a pertinent message for today. “When we wrote these songs we didn’t expect the same things to be happening in 2022”, explained Jackson ruefully.
In addition to the quality of the songs the singing and playing were first rate, albeit marred by occasional sound glitches. A rewarding experience nevertheless.
The Jazz Views website offers a more comprehensive overview of the Brian Jackson gig, written by AJ Dehany.
MYRA MELFORD’S FIRE AND WATER QUINTET – PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
When the Festival line up was first announced this was one of the first gigs that immediately caught my eye. I remember enjoying pianist Myra Melford’s dazzling playing with the Anglo-American quintet Big Air (Melford, piano, Chris Batchelor, trumpet, Steve Buckley, reeds, Oren Marshall, tuba, Jim Black, drums) at the 2011 CJF and have waited more than a decade to see her perform again.
Melford’s latest project is a stellar all female quintet featuring Mary Halvorson (guitar), Ingrid Laubrock (tenor & soprano sax), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Susie Ibarra (drums).
For me the novelty of ‘all woman’ groups has long worn off, I was drawn to this gig not because of the gender of the participants but because the line up features five superb improvising musicians, the majority of them bandleaders in their own right.
The music of the Fire And Water Quintet represents Melford’s musical responses to a collection of drawings by the American artist Cy Twombly. Twombly’s series is called “Gaeta (For The Love of Fire and Water)”, which in turn gives Melford her title. Twombly’s works were drawn in the Italian coastal town of Gaeta and concentrate on the relationship between light and water. Melford later visited the town herself to gain inspiration for her musical project.
The project began in 2019 when what was supposed to be a one off quintet performed the music at The Stone in New York City, the now defunct club run by John Zorn. Such was the reaction to the performance that the quintet were asked to record the music and to perform it more widely.
Covid caused an inevitable hiatus in the proceedings and the quintet finally recorded the album “For The Love Of Fire And Water” at The Firehouse in New Haven, Connecticut in July 2021 for release on the artist owned Rogue Art imprint.
Today’s date was part of an extensive European tour that had also included a London date at Ronnie Scott’s, a venue not commonly known as a bastion of the avant garde these days.
The album features ten Melford compositions numbered from “1” to “X”, so tune announcements were rendered pretty much redundant. “It would get pretty boring” explained Melford. She has explained that the pieces comprise of an “amalgamation of composed ideas, text directions for interaction and collective improvisation”. For me this represented a pretty perfect balance between the free and the structured, the composed and the improvised.
I acquired a copy of the album after the show, as did many other audience members, and Myra was kind enough to sign it for me. After listening to the recording I’m fairly certain that the quintet probably played the album in sequence, sometimes seguing some of the movements together. Given the open nature of the compositions the performances must surely be subtly different every time, totally in keeping with the true spirit of jazz and improvised music.
As he introduced the performance Tony Dudley-Evans referenced the fact that Ingrid Laubrock had played at CJF before, most notably as part of the Jerwood Foundations’s ‘Rising Stars’ series in the early 2000s. Since those days the German born saxophonist, who lived and worked in London for many years, has established herself as one of the leading figures on the experimental jazz scene in New York City.
The performance was introduced by Melford with a passage of unaccompanied piano, later joined in dialogue by the sound of Ibarra’s drums. The addition of Laubrock’s tenor sax and Reid’s cello, both bowed and plucked, led to an intricate, pointillist ensemble passage, subsequently punctuated by solo features from both Halvorson and Laubrock. Guitarist Halvorson was to make remarkable use of her range of effects pedals and of live looping techniques to create an extraordinary guitar sound, often possessed on a shimmering, translucent beauty that evoked the interplay between light and water in Twombly’s images.
The next section was ushered in by Reid at the cello, her subsequent dialogue with Melford at the piano generating an air of fragile beauty. As a drummer Ibarra was often deployed as a colourist, utilising a range of sticks, mallets and brushes and augmenting her kit with items of small percussion.
For all the beautiful and delicate moments there were also moments of no holds barred free improvisation, such as the loosely structured episode that introduced the third sequence, which incorporated an element of wilful dissonance and the use of extended techniques. The quintet would regularly devolve into smaller units, with this section including trio episodes (Halvorson, Reid, Ibarra) and a pared down dialogue between the leader’s piano and Laubrock’s tenor sax. Ibarra’s impressionistic passage of unaccompanied hand drumming became more forceful as she picked up her sticks to join in dialogue with Halvorson’s guitar. Reid was the next to feature with a solo passage distinguished by vigorously plucked cello, this morphing into a dialogue with Ibarra’s drums as Laubrock moved to soprano saxophone for a surprisingly lyrical final passage.
The next section was introduced by a passage of scene setting solo piano. Laubrock, still on soprano was then joined in dialogue by Reid on plucked cello before moving to tenor for a further series of exchanges with Halvorson.
At this juncture Melford introduced the band and thanked the audience, informing us that we were now entering the final section with movement “VIII”. Instead of the hand-clapped rhythms of the recording we heard dense, interlocking staccato lines played first on piano and guitar, subsequently joined by tenor, cello and drums. Melford played ‘under the lid’ during a spiky series of exchanges with Reid, who utilised the bow of her cello as a form of percussion. Laubrock again moved to soprano for a similarly fractious dialogue with Ibarra’s drums. Listening to the album as I write this vigorous, almost violent passage clearly represented both the eighth and ninth movements. This then segued into the final “X”, a delicately lyrical episode that evoked a ghostly, shimmering beauty, with Halvorson’s guitar effects helping to generate a woozy feeling of general other worldliness. Just stunning.
This was a work that was simultaneously challenging and beautiful. Melford’s furious Cecil Taylor like pianistics were less in evidence than they had been at the Big Air performance all those years ago but her playing was still wonderful, a perfect balance of precision and abandonment with technique to burn. Her colleagues in this well balanced ensemble represented the perfect foils, also adept at blending musical discipline with musical freedom.
This was a superb way to round off an excellent Festival. As the last gig of the entire event the audience wasn’t the biggest, with many Festival goers having already headed for home. But the enthusiasm from those that were there was palpable and post gig CD sales very healthy. Such are the reputations of the members of this band that some people had travelled long distances to see them (Sheffield, Cardiff), they were not to be disappointed.
FREESTAGE PROGRAMME and FESTIVAL OVERVIEW
It was such a joy to be back at Cheltenham for musicians and audiences alike. Almost every band I saw remarked about how great it was to be back on stage and performing to live audiences again, and Amen to that. I was worried that lingering Covid anxiety might mean that audience numbers would be down this year, but not a bit of it, the fans were out in force and determined to enjoy themselves, and with no Covid restrictions currently in place they did just that.
In addition to the ticketed concert events there were also large audiences at the Freestage in Montpellier Gardens and a real carnival atmosphere around the ‘Festival Village’, particularly on the Saturday, the warmest and sunniest day of the Festival.
I managed to catch a couple of performances on the Freestage, notably the Cotswold based gypsy jazz quartet Swing From Paris and the Birmingham based folk/world sextet Bonfire Radicals.
Swing From Paris (Andy Bowen & Sam Hughes, guitars, Tom Williams, double bass and Fenner Curtis, violin) play the Freestage most years and gig in Cheltenham on a regular basis. Their programme included tunes by Django Reinhardt, George Gershwin, Fats Waller, Astor Piazzolla and John Lewis (MJQ), an eclectic mix of material played in an overall ‘Hot Club’ style but with other influences thrown in. They’re very good at what they do and would be a good fit for the annual Oldham Foundation showcase.
Bonfire Radicals, fronted by the relentlessly energetic pint sized recorder virtuoso Michelle Holloway, are a high energy sextet playing folk tunes from England, the Balkans and more. They also feature Katie Sevens (clarinet), Sarah Farmer (viola), Emma Reading (guitar), Pete Churchill (bass) and Ilias Lintzos (drums). With the exception of Reading and Lintzos they all sing. Their shows are vibrant, high energy affairs, wilfully eclectic and often just plain silly. This is a band that is unashamedly about entertaining the audience, which they did here in spades, but which has a more serious side too. All are highly skilled musicians who are capable of operating across a variety of musical genres. They play traditional tunes as well as compositions written by members of the band, notably Stevens and Farmer. I’d seen these two performing at the Surge Festival in Birmingham a couple of weeks previously and this had whetted my desire to catch something of their set here before moving on to watch Moses Boyd. I certainly enjoyed what I saw, as did the rest of a large and appreciative audience.
I also dipped into the “Invisible Real” installation at a vacant retail unit on the Promenade. This was a collaboration between musician Faye MacCalman, visual artist Rhian Cooke and sound artist Nikki Sheth that explored the stigmas associated with mental illness. I had enjoyed MacCalman’s solo performances for sax, voice and electronics as part of the 2021 Cheltenham Jazz Stream and therefore wanted to check this out. I’d also seen her performing with bassist John Pope’s quintet in Birmingham in November 2021. Unfortunately I couldn’t catch one of Faye’s live appearances at the installation due to my concert commitments, but I did manage to get an overall feel for this very worthy project.
So overall a triumphant return for Cheltenham Jazz Festival, which again offered something for everyone, from the pop of Gabrielle to the experimental jazz of Myra Melford and so much more in between. I saw some brilliant performances across a wide range of jazz genres over the course of the Festival weekend and much more besides. It was so good to be back, to catch up with old friends and to celebrate Cheltenham Jazz Festival’s 25th anniversary.
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