by Ian Mann
May 08, 2014
Ian Mann on a memorable day of wonderfully diverse music at the 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival including performances by Paul Dunmall, Loose Tubes and Denys Baptiste.
Photograph of Iain Ballamy of Loose Tubes by Tim Dickeson.
Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 03/05/2014
The 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival was blessed with largely good weather and the main festival site at Montpellier Gardens was thronged with people soaking up the spring sunshine and the festival atmosphere. The crowds around the free stage were probably bigger than ever and business at the stalls of the food concession holders and others was remarkably brisk.
Founded in 1996 Cheltenham has become a staple of the UK jazz calendar with a programme that includes marquee names, some of them stretching the definition of jazz, alongside more cutting edge performers. Legends and veterans rub shoulders with promising newcomers and fearless experimenters to ensure that there really is something for everyone, from hardcore jazz fans like myself to the casual visitor.
As ever my focus was largely at the sharp end of the jazz spectrum and three intense days of concert going produced some real highlights. Away from the main festival site with its tented venues performances were also staged in the intimate confines of the Playhouse Theatre and the Parabola Arts Centre, two spaces admirably suited to small group jazz and improv and as ever several memorable events took place in these venues.
PAUL DUNMALL SEXTET
I started my jazz weekend at the Playhouse with a performance by saxophonist Paul Dunmall and his sextet. Dunmall is best known as a free player, a truly inspired improvising saxophonist with an international reputation ? indeed I remember seeing him at the 2009 Cheltenham festival with the brilliant Profound Sound Trio featuring seasoned US improvisers Henry Grimes (bass) and Andrew Cyrille (drums).
The Profound Sound Trio was indisputably a freely improvising combo but today’s set was very different. Instead Dunmall presented music from a commission from the Birmingham based Jazzlines organisation written to mark the occasion of Dunmall’s 60th birthday in 2013. The inaugural performance of “Life In Four Parts” was at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham in October 2013 with subsequent shows in London and Newcastle plus a Jazz on 3 transmission. The piece has also been recorded for a future album release.
At Cheltenham Dunmall again gathered around him the sextet of Birmingham based players who had appeared with him the previous October with Mike Fletcher on alto sax, flute and bagpipes, Mike Hurley on piano and keyboards, Percy Pursglove on trumpet, Chris Mapp on double bass and electronics and the peerless Mark Sanders on drums and percussion. All the players were reading music and it immediately apparent that this would be very different from the usual Paul Dunmall performance.
I’ve seen Dunmall play live on a number of occasions and this was by far the most structured performance I have seen him give with fully written passages linking a number of set piece improvisations featuring the individual musicians. The music began with the slightly menacing rumble of low end piano and Sanders’ toms followed by a series of horn fanfares featuring Dunmall on tenor alongside Fletcher’s alto and Pursglove’s trumpet, these evolving into dramatic, razor sharp unison horn lines.
The first solo went to Fletcher on alto, his increasingly impassioned playing spurred on by Mapp’s propulsive bass. Sanders drums seemed a little low in the mix, not miked closely enough perhaps, as he endeavoured to provide additional rhythmic impetus.
Hurley was the next musician to feature as he entered into a set of improvised exchanges with Mapp and Sanders, Mapp playing arco bass and Sanders also making use of a bow on his cymbals. Dunmall’s garrulous tenor subsequently took over as the leader edged ever further into improvised territory, blowing up a storm accompanied by Hurley’s spiky, percussive Cecil Taylor-esque piano.
A second written passage quenched the fires before Pursglove’s feature, the trumpeter’s often vocalised technique encompassing everything from a flutter to a growl. Meanwhile Chris Mapp’s solo bass feature embraced the use of a number of foot pedal operated electronic effects, a brief taster for what was to come later in the day ? but you’ll have to wait for that.
Dunmall and Fletcher teamed up on a pair of flutes, creating a delightfully airy contrast to Mapp’s bass generated darkness, these subsequently joined by piano and muted trumpet plus Sanders’ always apposite small percussion details.
Indeed it was Sanders who was to be next in the limelight with a drum feature that saw him deploying virtually every element of his kit with Fletcher’s alto and Pursglove’s smeary vocalised trumpet subsequently soloing above his turbulent rhythms.
The final set piece featured the twin bagpipes of Dunmall and Fletcher. These are not the Highland type, I suspect they may be from Galicia, and the softer tones were far more agreeable to these ears. The two sets of pipes combined to make swirling minimalistic drones and rhythmic patterns, briefly reminiscent of the sound of Steve Reich and his disciples. This brought the first part of the performance to a close and the music was well received by a knowledgeable Cheltenham audience.
A shorter second piece (still part of the commission I believe) began with the organ like drone of Hurley’s Nord keyboard this forming the backdrop for the unison statement of the theme by the three horns as the piece began in a broadly similar manner to the first. The leader soon cut loose on tenor, soloing in belligerent fashion above pounding piano and crashing bass and drums. Hurley’s solo piano eventually emerged from this , his playing ranging from minimalist gestures to dense, thunderous clusters.
A brooding final section featured tenor, alto and trumpet, low end piano, arco bass and the sheet metal sounds of Sanders’ gong as the music built to a powerful, Gothic crescendo. This was a jaw dropping way to conclude a set of uncompromising music that expertly blended structure and freedom, challenging but always remaining within the realms of accessibility.
Dunmall is a master of this style of music but his five colleagues from the Midlands all acquitted themselves superbly. A stimulating start to the festival weekend.
For many THE event of the weekend was the performance in the Big Top by the reformed Loose Tubes, their first gig for twenty four years. Back in the 1980’s I absolutely loved this band and saw them several times including two festival appearances at Brecon plus other shows in Cardiff and Birmingham. I’ve followed the solo careers of many of the individuals ever since and thirty years later their influence is still being felt through the presence of the F-ire, Loop and Chaos Collectives all of whom can claim a direct lineage from the Tubes pioneering democratic spirit.
It’s not surprising that a band containing such enormous individual talents as Django Bates, Iain Ballamy, Julian Arguelles, Mark Lockheart, Chris Batchelor etc. should eventually fall apart. It all seemed to hold together through some kind of mysterious centrifugal force and it’s a miracle that it lasted for as long as it did. Those six years (1984-1990) produced three magnificent, ground breaking albums (I’ve got them all on vinyl), a host of memorable live performances including a proms appearance and a series of legendary Ronnie Scott’s residencies. They even got on mainstream TV, an hour long documentary following the band on tour plus an appearance on Wogan!. Not much chance of anything like that happening these days. It also launched the individual careers of many of its protagonists and as I’ve already said, the influence lives on.
The three Loose Tubes albums have never been released on CD, probably the result of copyright disputes between the former members, and I certainly never expected the group to play together again. However Django Bates’ unearthing of a series of tapes from the band’s last Ronnie’s residency in 1990 resulted in the release of two live albums, “Dancing On Frith Street” and “Sad Afrika” on his own Lost Marble imprint with a third volume still to come. The availability of Loose Tubes material after such a long gap sparked a renewal of interest in the band and the unthinkable has happened, a full scale re-union some thirty years after the band’s founding.
Witnessing Loose Tubes perform again was something I never thought I’d ever see and there was a palpable sense of expectation in the Big Top as the band filed on stage to a terrific roar and commenced to play their first show for nearly a quarter of a century.
It was if they’d never been away, there are still twenty one of them (estimates used to vary in the old days) and virtually all the old faces are still there with trombonist Ashley Slater still introducing the tunes in his surreal cross Atlantic announcing style. But the 21st century Loose Tubes isn’t just about nostalgia, as they’ve stated “we’d hate to be our own tribute band”, and today’s performance included a number of new compositions commissioned for the occasion by BBC Radio Three.
But first we were transported back as the band launched into the Django Bates composed “Yellow Hill” ,from the band’s self released 1985 d?but album. It was immediately obvious that the playing was as razor sharp as ever, perhaps not so surprising given that in the intervening years many of these players have been honing their chops by carving out successful solo careers. There was always discipline behind the wackiness and an astonishing amount of technical skill, a requisite to playing this complex, endlessly mutating music. The Loose Tubes writing style, exemplified by keyboard player Django Bates was to throw everything into the mix, jazz and global styles jostling together, often in the course of a single tune. A Loose Tubes gig was always a roller coaster ride and in 2014 the journey is just as exciting as ever. This music still sounds remarkably contemporary and the band seemed to love having the opportunity to play it once more. The grin on Iain Ballamy’s face as he made his way to the front of the stage for his soprano sax solo seemed to say it all.
Next up another old favourite, Bates’ township flavoured “Sad Afrika” with its rousing vocal chorale, infectious tuba vamp, courtesy of the mighty Dave Powell, and at the other end of the scale Steve Buckley’s joyous penny whistle solo. Recalcitrant hippie Eddie Parker was seen dancing in his trademark striped trousers before delivering his flute solo, this followed by Bates’ keyboards, the composer affecting a melodica like sound. The political landscape may have changed since this piece was written as an anti apartheid protest but the music still sounds thoroughly relevant and contemporary.
Parker and clarinettist Dai Pritchard were often at the heart of the arrangements and the impish flautist was a significant presence throughout. His curiously titled tune “Exeter King Of Cities” (possibly the result of another commission) didn’t make it on to vinyl but appears on the"Sad Afrika” live album. Today’s jaunty rendition featured Bates demonstrating how to make truly creative use of the often maligned synthesiser.
Parker’s newly commissioned piece “Bright Smoke, Cold Fire” was as bright and multi faceted as anything from the band’s old repertoire with the composer soloing on flute before a typically abrupt change of pace ushered in Buckley’s acerbic alto. At the close a delighted Parker joined the audience in applauding the band.
Trumpeter Chris Batchelor’s commissioned piece “Creeper” featured sonorous horn voicings with Julian Arguelles featuring on baritone plus a decidedly eccentric Bates synthesiser solo. A second Batchelor piece, “Village” from the latter period of the first Loose Tubes era, was more uproarious with Bates conducting the ensemble and Julian Nicholas delivering a good humoured tenor solo.
Parker’s reggae flavoured “The Last Word” is one of the band’s most popular numbers and something of a you tube hit. Its catchy hook is an instant ear-worm and and provided the basis for full blooded solos by trombonist John Harborne and tenor saxophonist Mark Lockheart.
Bates’ newly commissioned piece “As I Was Saying” ingeniously follows on from “Sweet Williams”, the last piece he wrote for the first incarnation of the band, taking the last bars from that piece and moulding them into something new albeit with quotes from other old favourites along the way. This was an affectionate nod towards past glories with the composer the principal soloist.
Trumpeter John Eacott’s Hermeto Pascoal inspired “Sunny” evoked some of the chaos of old with its lusty vocal shouts, Slater’s growling trombone solo and the composer’s mariachi band style trumpeting. Great fun, with the audience adding their voices to those of the band.
Today the bassist’s role was undertaken by Steve Watts but previous incumbent Steve Berry was not forgotten. The band’s main composing presence (alongside Bates) in the band’s early days he too was invited to contribute a new commission. Berry’s distinctive, more pastoral writing style was represented by the piece “Smoke And Daffodils” with solos by Noel Langley on trumpet, Bates at the keyboard and Julian Arguelles on baritone saxophone. Berry, who was present at the concert scampered on stage to sound the last note on a bicycle bell.
Finally we heard Berry’s popular “Mister Zee”, a “hit” from the band’s first album written as a tribute to the late Joe Zawinul. Today’s version featured a solo from guitarist John Parricelli and squeezed in a quote from the Weather Report classic “Birdland”.
Officially this was the last number of the set but the band seemed keen to play an encore, Bates picking up his tenor horn which we hadn’t heard yet. Unfortunately time constraints prevented this as the performance has already overrun by several minutes. However for those of us with another gig to get to this was probably just as well.
No doubt many people were disappointed by this but it didn’t prevent the Loose Tubes re-union being a total triumph and many people’s highlight of the festival. The band now go back to Ronnie’s for a week long residency with all the nights totally sold out They will then make a second festival appearance at Brecon in August, I hope to be there for that one too.
The band line up included many old favourites but of the new faces I’d single out percussionist Louise Petersen Matjeka who linked up superbly with drummer Martin France and bassist Steve Watts to ensure that the soloists were given an impeccable rhythmic platform on which to build their wonderful creations.
The full line up was;
Flutes: EDDIE PARKER
Clarinets: DAI PRITCHARD
Alto / Soprano saxophones: STEVE BUCKLEY & IAIN BALLAMY
Tenor Saxophone: MARK LOCKHEART & JULIAN NICHOLAS
Baritone Saxophone: JULIAN ARGUELLES
Trumpets: LANCE KELLY, NOEL LANGLEY, CHRIS BATCHELOR, JOHN EACOTT
Trombones: JOHN HARBORNE, ASHLEY SLATER, RICHARD PYWELL
Bass Trombone: RICHARD HENRY
Tuba: DAVE POWELL
Keyboards: DJANGO BATES
Guitar: JOHN PARRICELLI
Bass: STEVE WATTS
Drums: MARTIN FRANCE
Percussion: LOUISE PETERSEN MATJEKA
DENYS BAPTISTE -NOW IS THE TIME
Tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste is a regular visitor to Cheltenham and the 2003 festival featured the commission “Let Freedom Ring” a suite inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s landmark “I Have A Dream"speech. The music was subsequently recorded for release on the Dune record label and Baptiste’s ambition was rewarded with unanimous critical acclaim and a string of awards.
After taking time out to look after his young family Baptiste returned to Cheltenham in 2011 and I remember seeing him give an inspired performance with his quartet at the old Pillar Room venue playing music from his superb “comeback” album “Identity By Subtraction”.
Now in 2014 Baptiste has written a follow up to “Let Freedom Ring”. Again inspired by the words of Dr. King and celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of their delivery “Now Is The Time” is even more ambitious and today’s performance featured a jazz group, string quartet, the poetry of Lemn Sissay and the voices of the Bristol based British Arts Gospel Choir. Several of the musicians who appeared on “Let Freedom Ring” are also involved in this latest project including the experienced rhythm pairing of bassist Gary Crosby and drummer Rod Youngs alongside percussionist Satin Singh. Joining Baptiste’s tenor were the horns of Jason Yarde (alto sax), Nathaniel Cross (trombone) plus guest trumpeter Byron Wallen. An unusually configured string quartet consisting of two violins and two cellos included violinist Omar Puente and cellist Jenny Adejayan.
“Now Is The Time” acts as a kind of prequel to “Let Freedom Ring” by concentrating on the early part of Dr. King’s speech and on the concept of “people on the move” as the Civil Rights marchers converged upon the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Today was the last date on a national tour that has seen the core touring band working with different community choirs in various parts of the country. The BAGC had brought their own director with them and opened the proceedings with the song “Oh Freedom”, the purity and power of their voices ringing out around the cavernous Cheltenham Town Hall. The BAGC was the perfect encapsulation of a community choir, mixed in race, gender and age but united in talent. They really did sound good.
So too did the core band, with the string section perfectly assimilated into the overall fabric of the music and with the exciting Cuban born violinist Omar Puente proving to be an inspired soloist as he pointed the way for Baptiste and Cross to follow.
Like the earlier “Let Freedom Ring”, which featured the words of Ben Okri the new work incorporates the words of a poet, in this case Lemn Sissay, and visuals of Sissay reciting his lines were projected onto a screen suspended above the band, his disembodied head periodically drawing the focus away from the musicians. Overall this worked well and was an integral part of the performance.
In the main the choir sang independently of the instrumental ensemble although piano and tenor sax were both integrated into their rendition of “Go Down Moses”. The band then took over with Crosby’s bass introducing another extended item that featured the blazing trumpet of Wallen, Yarde’s equally fiery alto and the soaring violin of Puente, the set piece solos punctuated by the words and visuals of Sissay.
Sardinian guitarist Giorgio Serci added a touch of blues to the proceedings as he blended with Baptiste and the horns and the audience were invited to join in with the band and choir as Sissay delivered the message “We Will Not Be Satisfied” with instrumental solos coming from young pianist Joe Armon Jones and Byron Wallen on muted trumpet.
The choir’s rendition of the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” presaged the ensemble’s “The Tide Will Be Turned”, the final movement of the suite. This was ushered in by a drums and percussion dialogue involving Youngs and Singh followed by a blistering tenor solo from Baptiste, a truly marathon excursion. Yarde, Cross and Wallen enjoyed less circuitous outings before the horns coalesced to bring the music to a temporary boiling point. Pizzicato strings acted as a bridge into a further feature for Singh on congas and Youngs at the drums, the latter smiting his kit with genuine savagery.
Overall this was an impressive performance from the ensemble and choir despite the Town Hall’s less than sympathetic acoustics. Besides impressing with his writing and organisational skills Baptiste also gave notice as to just how fine a tenor player he is and also provided an informative between tunes narrative. “Now Is The Time” is due to be recorded for release by Dune Records and like its predecessor should be well worth hearing.
MICHAEL WOLLNY TRIO
When applying for press tickets I asked to cover the performance by the Michael Wollny Trio at the Playhouse. Given the intimate nature of the venue I wasn’t totally surprised that my request was turned down as the venue was close to selling out. I’m a great admirer of Wollny’s work and didn’t want to miss this so I phoned the box office and attended as a paying punter, securing the last two seats in the house.
In the light of this it’s not my intention to write a full review but I will say that the trio’s performance was brilliant, one of the highlights of the weekend, a consensus shared by those reviewers who have covered the event elsewhere.
There’s plenty of stuff about Wollny elsewhere on this site and I intend to take a look at his latest trio album “Weltentraum”, which formed the bulk of today’s set, very shortly. In the meantime the trio are scheduled to appear at Brecon Jazz Festival in August. Again I intend to be in attendance and will hopefully review their live performance then.
Today’s performance by the Michael Wollny Trio will be broadcast on Jazz on 3 on BBC Radio 3 at 11.00 pm on Monday 12th May 2014.
THE EDGE PROJECT
This new addition to the Festival programme took place at the Playhouse, a late night showcase of largely improvised music featuring three different performances, each lasting approximately twenty minutes. The event was sponsored by Packt Publishing and the audience were encouraged to become involved by tweeting the festival hash tag with the comments being posted on an on stage screen. This proposed interaction didn’t really work and was frankly a bit of a distraction, fortunately it didn’t detract from the quality of the music.
The event was hosted by the festival’s artistic advisor Tony Dudley Evans who had introduced all the other shows I’d seen today. Tony talked briefly with each act, getting them to explain a little about the music before they started to play. First up was Tricko-Tareco, the duo of pianist Kit Downes and cellist Lucy Railton on this occasion augmented by Loose Tubes saxophonist Julian Arguelles. Downes explained that it was intention to produce music that blurred the boundaries between composition and improvisation and that the trio’s music was largely quiet and less aggressive than much improv. He confirmed that he and Railton regularly play with guest musicians, including drummer Seb Rochford who played a superb duo set with Downes at the Parabola Arts Centre in 2012. These days Cheltenham wouldn’t be Cheltenham without an appearance from Kit Downes.
The newly convened trio’s music confirmed the sagacity of Downes’ words as they placed the emphasis on timbre and texture in a spirit of gentle exploration. Railton’s playing embraced arco and pizzicato techniques and Arguelles, on his usual tenor sax rather than the baritone he had deployed earlier in the day with Loose Tubes, displayed his customary fluency. Downes mainly played acoustic piano but also made subtle alterations to the group sound via a small effects unit mounted on top of the piano. This was the type of chamber jazz that would be perfectly suited to the ECM label and the trio concluded their three tune set with a piece called “Parellax” which Downes described as “short and meditative”. Railton’s sublime cello introduction ushered in Arguelles’ breathy tenor sax as Downes produced almost subliminal textures from inside the piano. Later he played the instrument more conventionally, conjuring up shards of melody to offset Railton’s increasingly dark and grainy cello as the music took on a more funereal tune, literally a dirge but not in the pejorative sense. Quiet but engrossing this was often beautiful music that promised much for the future.
Tricko Tareco were followed by a solo set from Chris Mapp, this time playing bass guitar. The Birmingham bassist, co-founder with Percy Pursglove of that city’s Harmonic festival explained to Tony Dudley Evans that he has been getting more and more deeply involved with improvised music in recent years while simultaneously renewing his teenage fascination with heavy metal. These two strands of his musical personality expressed themselves in a solo bass set in which Mapp declared it his intention to make his audience forget that he was playing the bass, humorously describing his array of effects pedals as “talent boosters”.
During his conversation with Tony Mapp mentioned that he’d been strongly influenced by the Norwegian musician Stian Westerhus who gave a remarkable solo guitar performance at this venue in 2011. I’d already scribbled Westerhus’ name down as a reference point during Mapp’s solo double bass feature earlier in the day as part of the Paul Dunmall Sextet. This lengthier excursion
re-enforced the point with Mapp deploying an even bigger arsenal of floor mounted pedals, dials and other gizmos which generated an astonishing array of effects that made use of looping and layering effects and produced an astonishing variety of sounds from choral effects and church organ to apocalyptic heavy metal guitar via glitches and drones, industrial strength dance music beats and a barrage of bells and chimes that reminded me of the intro to Pink Floyd’s “Time”. Like Westerhus he deployed a bow on the strings of his instrument to produce layers of excoriating sound at rock volume. This was a remarkable solo performance, only the fourth of such that Mapp has given and he was accorded a very generous reception by a shocked but delighted audience.
This was an extension of the type of work Mapp has been doing with his Gonimoblast group featuring Polar Bear’s electronics whizz Leafcutter John. The group which also includes drummer Mark Sanders, keyboardist Dan Nicholls and trumpeter Sam Wooster recently supported Polar Bear at Birmingham’s Hare & Hounds venue playing a single forty minute improvised set. Mapp’s continued journey into the heart of electronic and improvised music will be well worth keeping an eye on.
The final set of the session provided a neat piece of continuity as Leafcutter John himself teamed up with Polar Bear saxophonist Pete Wareham. The two gave little way in their interview but Wareham declared that their set would be ” pretty strong” and he wasn’t kidding. Leafcutter brought along a smaller electronic set up than he uses with Polar Bear but with Wareham operating his own effects unit there was still plenty of variety in the sound.
The pair also made an arresting visual spectacle with the dry ice that been threatening to seep out at the venue all day clearly intended for this performance. The duo performed in a dense smoke rendering Wareham’s foghorn tenor blasts even more appropriate. This was a far less structured performance than Polar Bear with the dry ice giving the whole thing a distinctively club like atmosphere as Leafcutter’s often dubby beats combined with Wareham’s r’n'b style honking, harmolodics and bat like squeaks. The intensity of the music often mirrored that of Wareham’s new outfit Melt Yourself Down which also features the electronics of Leafcutter.
This was a fascinating end to a diverse day of stimulating music that embraced a variety of jazz styles, the performances all united by a spirit of adventure and a desire to push at musical boundaries. Cheltenham continues to strike a good balance between the populist and the experimental. Long may it continue to do so.
Ian’s Star Ratings;
Paul Dunmall Sextet 3.5 Stars
Loose Tubes 4 Stars
Denys Baptiste 3.5 Stars
Michael Wollny Trio 4 Stars
The Edge Project 3.5 Stars
Overall 4 Stars