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Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 04/05/2024.

by Ian Mann

May 08, 2024

Ian Mann enjoys shows by the Birmingham / Siena / Hamburg Jazz Exchange, Brad Mehldau, David Ola's Lucumi Project, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Lakecia Benjamin, but is left disappointed by Nadine Shah.

Photograph of the Brad Mehldau Trio by Tim Dickeson



The long running annual ‘Jazz Exchange’ event has become a popular and successful part of the CJF calendar, almost an institution one might say. Showcasing the talents of students on the Jazz Course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire alongside their counterparts from various equivalent European institutions it has become a tradition for the ‘Jazz Exchange’ to open the Saturday programme at the Parabola Arts Centre.

For many years the visitors were from Trondheim in Norway but more recent exchanges have featured students from Paris and from the Siena Jazz-Accademia Nazionale del Jazz in Italy. For the 2023 event logistical problems meant that the Siena contingent were unable travel but a highly successful event still retained an international flavour thanks to the presence of student musicians from Milan and Hamburg.

This year Hamburg was represented again as was Siena itself, but of course Brexit has made travelling to the UK more difficult than it was before and today there were only three musicians from Siena and two from Hamburg with the other ten coming from Birmingham.  Pre-Brexit the split was far more even.

As is traditional at this event three different ensembles, in this case all quintets, known simply as Groups One, Two and Three each presented a short programme lasting around fifteen to twenty minutes.

The event was hosted by Tony Dudley-Evans and the standard of the musicianship from each of the three ensembles was as outstanding as ever. It has to be said that every year the skill levels of these young musicians, wherever they may be from, is hugely impressive. This is very much an indication of the high standard of the teaching at the various educational establishments involved.

Typically the students come together during the week leading up to the Jazz Festival to rehearse and develop ideas. Their first public performance then takes place in Birmingham on the Friday evening immediately prior to the Festival and all three groups had appeared on the previous evening at Birmingham Conservatoire’s own East Side Jazz Club.

Group one, mentored by trombonist Dave Sear featured the Birmingham based musicians Nathan Evans (alto sax), Juliane Deil (piano) and Yiu Lam (drums) alongside Hamburg’s Will Pethick (trombone) and Siena’s Francesco Bordignon (double bass).

No on stage announcements were made so the provenance of the four tunes that this quintet played remains unclear. Nevertheless the group were highly impressive with the unusual front line combination of trombone and alto sax making for some interesting sounds, colours and textures.

The first piece began atmospherically with Deil at the piano, soon joined by the shimmer of Lam’s cymbals. Pethick and Evans stated the melodic theme in unison, before diverging to deliver fluent individual statements, with Evans providing interesting alto sax counterpoint to Pethick’s solo. The interplay between the two horns continued to impress as Pethick returned the complement during Evans’ solo. Deil was the only one of these musicians that I had seen play before. She had appeared with bassist Thomas Marsh’s quintet at a gig at the Corn Exchange in Ross on Wye in February 2024 and impressed as a late ‘dep’ for the unavailable Ben Shankland. Her solo wrapped up the first number here.

Deil was also on hand to introduce the next piece, this time in conjunction with alto saxophonist Evans. Bordignon’s bass motif then formed the platform for the trombone / alto melodic statement, this followed by a trombone solo from the impressive Pethick, at one point accompanied by Lam’s drums only. Evans’ alto solo was followed by a Lam drum feature before Pethick and Evans came together once more for a riff based finale.

The quintet then cooled things down with an elegant ballad ushered in by a lyrical passage of unaccompanied piano from Deil. Evans stated the melody, underpinned by piano, bass and Lam’s brushed drums before handing over to Pethick’s warm toned trombone. Bordignon was featured for the first time with a melodic double bass solo, eventually handing over to Deil at the piano. The rich harmonies of trombone and alto sax were then featured on the closing section.

The quintet then rounded things off in swinging, upbeat fashion with a series of lively trombone and alto sax exchanges fuelled by Bordignon’s rapid bass walk and Lam’s crisp drumming. This was ecstatically received by the audience as this excellent young quintet signed off with a flourish.

Group Two featured three musicians from Birmingham, trumpeter Christian Kiely-Charalambous, trombonist Henry Hanssen and drummer Wilf McKenzie, who were joined by Siena’s Edoardo Ferri on guitar and Hamburg’s Lennart Meyer on double bass and vocals.

This group looked as if they might be slightly older and they also had more to say for themselves verbally with Kiely-Charalambous and Hanssen confidently sharing the announcements and adding an element of humour to the proceedings.

Mentored by bassist Arnie Somogyi they kicked off with a free-wheeling arrangement of the Benny Golson composition “Stablemates” (“we prefer to think of ourselves as ‘unstable mates” joked Kiely-Charalambous). Introduced by the combination of trumpet, trombone and drums the piece included expansive trumpet and trombone solos and also featured guitarist Ferri, who sang along wordlessly to his melodic inventions. McKenzie’s drum solo was then followed by another drums and horns trio episode as the piece ended much as it began.

The next item was very much unexpected as Meyer sang his original song “Woman” from the bass, the English language lyric also augmented by some wordless vocalising. The performance was introduced by an atmospheric, FX laden passage of electric guitar with the horn men sitting out for much of the performance, only adding trombone and muted trumpet harmonies towards the close. Meyer’s singing voice was surprisingly effective on this somewhat unconventional love song, but it was Ferri’s inventive guitar playing that took the instrumental plaudits here.

Hanssen took over the announcements for the quintet’s final tune, an arrangement of the Charles Mingus composition “Hora Decubitus” from the 1964 “Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus” album. Meyer remained in the spotlight for an extended solo double bass intro. Hanssen took the lead on the theme, augmented by Kiely-Charalambous. The trombonist then took the first solo, followed by trumpet and guitar, with Ferri delivering a second unaccompanied passage that again made judicious use of his range of effects. McKenzie’s closing drum solo injected a further element of humour into the proceedings and again this was a set that was very well received.

The final group, mentored by pianist John Turville,  featured alto saxophonist Reuben-James Gilbert, guitarist Oliver Canham, bassist Macy Wright and drummer Dominic Johnson, all from Birmingham. They were joined by Siena based vocalist Giuditta Franco.

They began with an arrangement of the Joe Henderson composition “Escapade” that featured the flexible wordless vocalising of Franco, very much from the Norma Winstone school. Guitarist Canham took the first instrumental solo, favouring an orthodox jazz guitar sound and delivering a mix of agile single note lines and sophisticated chording. Saxophonist Gilbert was also featured as a soloist while drummer Johnson came to the fore before the close.

Franco spoke immaculate English and handled the announcements. She also sang convincingly in the language during a sensitive performance of the Charles Mingus composition “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”. This was introduced by a voice and guitar duet and featured Johnson on brushed drums throughout. Wright was featured with a melodic double bass solo while Gilbert’s softly plaintive alto sax ululations complemented the yearning quality of Franco’s vocal.

The quintet ended with a fast paced rendition of the Lee Morgan hard bop classic “Gary’s Notebook”.  Franco’s acrobatic wordless vocals dovetailed with Gilbert’s alto sax and the pair also traded solos. Guitarist Canham and drummer Johnson also enjoyed their own series of lively exchanges before voice and sax doubled up once more to bring things to a joyous close.

Once again the Jazz Exchange event had delivered three short sets of excellent music with every performer making a significant contribution to the success of the music. The Conservatoires continue to produce young musicians with a high degree of technical ability and no doubt some of today’s players will go on to have successful professional musical careers. But the very success of these institutions means that it’s an increasingly crowded market place out there, so best wishes and good luck to all of them.


Brad Mehldau - piano, Felix Moseholm – double bass, Jorge Rossy drums

It represented something of a coup for the Festival organisers to attract the American jazz piano superstar to Cheltenham to perform at the Festival as part of his ongoing European tour.

Born in 1970 Mehldau first established himself as a significant musical force in the 1990s with a series of trio recordings for the major record label Warner Bros.

His first regular working trio featured bassist Larry Grenadier and the Barcelona born drummer Jorge Rossy. This line up worked together for a decade before Rossy was eventually replaced by the more forceful Jeff Ballard.

I saw the Ballard version of the group at the St. Georges venue in Bristol in 2005 and although I had always enjoyed Mehldau’s recordings I was a little disappointed, mainly because Ballard’s playing too often overpowered that of his colleagues. At around the same time I saw John Taylor’s trio with Palle Danielsson and Martin France at the same venue, with the Anglo-Scandinavian group coming across as a far more balanced unit. I have to admit that I enjoyed their performance far more.

In 2007 I saw Mehldau again, this time in London at the Barbican Centre as part of a quartet co-ed by guitarist Pat Metheny. The rhythm section comprised of Grenadier and Ballard, but once again I found the drummer’s playing obtrusive, suggesting that there was more to this than just bad sound at the venues. Again I was somewhat disappointed and the Metheny-Mehldau partnership was upstaged for me by the brilliant duo performance by vibraphonist Gary Burton and pianist Chick Corea at the same venue the previous night. Interestingly I never found Ballard’s playing to be a problem in the context of the more free-wheeling Fly trio, his collaboration with Grenadier and saxophonist Mark Turner, a group that visited Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 2010 and delivered an excellent performance at the old Pillar Room venue within the Town Hall complex.

Fast forward to 2024 and I determined to give the Mehldau live experience another go. The prospect of seeing the pianist re-united with original drummer Rossy was just too tempting to resist. The current trio line up also features the young Danish born, New York based bassist Felix Moseholm (born 1997).

Today’s show saw Mehldau and Rossy re-visiting some of the material from their shared musical past, with a particular emphasis placed on music from the 2006 release “House On The Hill”, Rossy’s last recording with the original trio.

The performance began with that album’s opener, “August Ending”, with Mehldau’s arpeggiated intro complemented by Rossy’s filigree cymbal work. The pianist subsequently soloed more expansively as Rossy continued to provide inspired accompaniment, his touch on skins and cymbals agile and precise, but never overbearing.

A lengthy opening segue saw the trio running several numbers into one another. The new tune “Blues Impulse” offered all three musicians the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities with each featuring as a soloist prior to a series of dazzling piano and drum exchanges as Mehldau and Rossy rekindled the magic of old.

The first sequence concluded with “A Walk In The Park”, a tune from the 2000 album “Places”. This was another piece to feature virtuoso solos from all three musicians. Mehldau is a pianist who largely confines himself to the middle of the keyboard, but who remains restlessly imaginative and inventive, exhibiting a strong right hand / left hand balance and making every note count.

The appropriately titled “Embers” saw the trio really catching fire with Mehldau and Rossy again sparking off each other. This piece was segued into the Mehldau original “Boomer”, again sourced from “House On The Hill”.

The final item in this sequence was an arrangement of the John Coltrane composition “Satellite”, introduced by an extended passage of unaccompanied piano from Mehldau, who later stretched out even more extensively with the help of Moseholm and Rossy. Although less flamboyant than Grenadier new bassist Moseholm is also an outstanding soloist, as he demonstrated here in a series of exchanges with Mehldau.

Mehldau’s approach to soloing and improvising is often rigorous and intense but there was a pause for breath with a lush and yearning ballad arrangement of the standard “Secret Love”, the pianist playing with great tenderness and sensitivity as Rossy provided sensitive accompaniment via a combination of brushes and mallets. The performance also incorporated a lyrical solo piano episode.

Two lengthy segues plus this exquisite ballad performance had taken us towards the end of the set, the time just seemed to have flown by. Mehldau announced that the final number would be “Generator”, a composition that he described as being “a bit on the wonky side”. A short piano intro was followed by Rossy setting up a groove that provided the platform for some increasingly expansive piano soloing with Mehldau ending the piece with a Morse Code style motif that had perhaps given the tune its title.

A capacity audience at the Town Hall had hung on the trio’s every note and beat and now erupted into rapturous applause. A rare Festival encore seemed to catch the band unawares and appeared to be genuinely unexpected with Rossi struggling to find his sheet music for the title track from “House On The Hill”. One of Mehldau’s most attractive melodies provided the basis for further inquisitive and incisive improvising from the leader as the intensity gradually began to build, before things resolved themselves with a brief return to the attractive melodic theme.

Mehldau’s may fans loved this performance and the feedback from the critical fraternity also seems to have been overwhelmingly positive. It was certainly the best performance I’ve seen from Mehldau while Rossi was a revelation, his drumming a marvel of delicacy and precision but also strangely propulsive, urging Mehldau on to whole new levels of inventiveness. The mere speed of Rossy’s hands was genuinely impressive, it was my first sighting of him and for me and many others he threatened to steal the show. I was also impressed by Moseholm, who played with great maturity and represented the fulcrum of the group, providing an anchor for the adventurous musical excursions of his colleagues. I’ve been listening back to the “House On The Hill” recording whilst writing this, and I’m really enjoying it, despite not having listened to it for years. Well done to Brad and the trio for an excellent show, I’m glad I chose to come to this one.


David Ola – drums, Christos Stylianides – trumpet, Simeon May – tenor sax, Emmanuel Adenira – electric bass, Marlon Hibbert – tenor pan, Marcus Cumberbatch-King - double seconds Kishan Shorter -  cello pan

The Lucumi Project is led by David Ijaduola, a London born drummer and composer of Nigerian heritage who abbreviates his name to David Ola. He has also performed under the name Juno Jaxxon.

The word “Lucumi” is defined on the Cheltenham Festivals website as;
The name Lucumí relates to the Lucumí language, a lexicon of words and phrases used as the liturgical language of Santería in Cuba and the Lucumí people, an Afro-Cuban ethnic group of Yoruba ancestry.

For Ola it represents the African diaspora as a whole and the music that he has written for this project draws on many elements of music with African origins, including jazz, Afrobeat, Afro-Cuban and calypso.

“The Lucumi Suite” was originally commissioned by the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston, London with support from the PRS Foundation and was first performed at the Vortex Jazz Club Festival in 2022. It tells the story of the African diaspora and embraces numerous musical styles.

The deployment of three steel pan players gives the music a unique flavour, but one that reaches way beyond the Caribbean.

As Ola pointed out this was a Festival set with a limited running time and the members of the Project were unable to perform the Suite in its entirety. However they were able to give us a vibrant and colourful introduction to a work that will be performed in full at the Tabernacle venue in Notting Hill, London on 1st June 2024. Ola was particularly keen to invite us all to that.

Today’s performance began with “Lucumi” itself, introduced by the leader at the kit, joined first by the brassy, strident sounds of trumpet and tenor sax and then the beguiling rhythms and patterns of the steel pans.  A passage of unaccompanied electric bass then led to a trumpet solo from Stylianides, with the brass and reeds helping to inject the flavour of jazz, another diaspora music, into the group’s sound.

Again introduced by the leader at the kit “Movement of the People” tells the tale of the forced emigration of the Lucumi people to Cuba and of other African people to other parts of the Caribbean and to North, South and Central America. The addition of electric bass helped to create a mighty groove that formed the basis for May’s powerful tenor sax solo and the lively rhythmic interplay of the steel pan players.

Ola, also a pan player himself, explained that steel pan music originated in Trinidad and Tobago, with impoverished musicians making music on everyday metal objects,  with large oil drums being preferred because they could be tuned through series of dents, with each one making a different note according to its position and size. He explained that the single tenor pan, played by Marlon Hibbert, equated to the lead singer. The ‘double seconds’, the two pans played by Marcus Cumberbatch-King was a harmony instrument that might be compared to a lead guitar. The cello pan, played by the imposing Kishan Shorter was actually three pans and equated to a bass cum string section.

“Box of Tricks” was a composition whose title didn’t reflect any great cultural or political significance, but it was an energetic, joyous, up-tempo piece distinguished by propulsive bass and drum grooves, punchy horns and the virtuoso steel pan soloing of both Hibbert and Cumberbatch-King.

Shorter also enjoyed a degree of solo space throughout the performance and it was his cello pan that introduced “Far From Home”, a title inspired by the diaspora and the attendant cultural migration. Bass and kit drums were introduced as the twin horns played stabbing phrases above the polyrhythms generated by the three pan players. Stylianides delivered a trumpet solo that began quietly, with the mute in place, but later became strident and brassy when he played with an open bell and entered into a series of lively exchanges with the pan players.

An all too short one hour set came to a close with “Afro de Cuba” an energetic and exuberant finale that embraced the kind of Afro-Cuban rhythms that jazz listeners immediately identify as ‘Latin’.  This encouraged lively solos from Stylianides on trumpet and Hibbert on tenor pan. Ola was also featured as a soloist at the drum kit and also entered into a vivacious series of exchanges with Hibbert on tenor pan.

At the close the audience at the Parabola rose to their feet to give the members of the Lucumi Project a terrific reception. This was an unusual show for the PAC, very energetic, vibrant and rhythmic. Had the seats not been quite so tightly packed together people may even have been moved to get up and dance. This was a show that would have worked at whatever venue it was presented in and was a highly visual show with the group members brightly dressed in African style garb. Meanwhile steel pan players, especially virtuosos of the instrument like these three, are pretty spectacular anyway. More importantly for a jazz festival they were also excellent improvisers who fitted in well with the more conventional jazz instruments.

In David Ola the Lucumi Project had a spokesman whose announcements struck just the right balance between seriousness and levity and who was also very informative. He was also the composer of these intelligent and uplifting pieces, so well done to him and to his fellow musicians.

My fellow scribe Peter Slavid, writing for UK Jazz News lives in West London and knows the Tabernacle venue well. He’s looking at going to that June performance. Lucky him.


Dee Dee Bridgewater – vocals, Carmen Staaf – piano, keyboard,  Rosa Brunello – electric bass, Marco Frattini - drums

This year’s schedule threw up a number of unfortunate clashes. The Festival’s admirable commitment to diversity saw a lot of female band leaders on the bill, but to my mind it doesn’t make sense for them to be competing with another.

One particularly annoying example was of two absolute vocal legends being pitted against one another, the American Dee Dee Bridgewater and the UK jazz legend that is Norma Winstone. Yes, their styles are very different, but surely I’m not the only listener who would have liked to have heard both of them. Bridgewater was leading her quartet at the Town Hall, Winstone was performing an intimate duo set with pianist Kit Downes at the PAC.

I’ve seen both Winstone and Downes on many occasion and love their music dearly, but I had a fair idea as to what we might expect from them, so I went for the ‘wild card’ American option.

I had seen Bridgewater once before when she performed a highly enjoyable show at the 2017 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Bridgewater was born in Memphis and had presented a themed show that celebrated the music of her home city. This embraced elements of blues, soul and gospel as part of a hugely entertaining package that was readily accessible to non jazz lovers. She was suffering from a broken leg at the time and performed seated,  but nothing fazed the energetic and charismatic Bridgewater as she and her band put on a hugely entertaining two hour show featuring a whole raft of classics from Memphis’ rich musical heritage.

With Bridgewater restored to full mobility today’s event was somewhat shorter but was also a themed show, this time with the theme of Social Justice. Bridgewater calls her current quartet We Exist. It’s normally an all female group but with drummer Francesca Remigi unavailable for this gig ‘token bloke’ Marco Frattini took over the drum chair and did a terrific job.

“I’m angry!” declared Bridgewater before a note had even been played. Given the state of the US at the present time with ghost of Donald Trump still lurking in the wings it’s easy to understand why. And let’s face it it’s no better here, even a predominately white, middle class audience in comfortable Cheltenham could identify with Bridgewater’s justifiable anger.

The quartet commenced with their version of the Roberta Flack / Donny Hathaway song “Trying Times”, from Flack’s 1969 debut album “First Take”. Bridgewater’s soulful, impassioned vocals were matched by Frattini’s explosive drumming as the new man immediately bought into the project. There were also featured solos from Staaf, who also acts as Bridgewater’s musical director, at the piano and Brunello on electric bass. There was a playful series of scat vocal / electric bass exchanges as Bridgewater quickly got the audience onside.

Bridgewater spoke warmly of the late, great Nina Simone and of Simone’s bravery, genius and unflinching commitment to the truth. The first of two Simone songs was “Mississippi Goddamn”, Simone’s response to the bombing of a Black church by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham. Alabama in 1963. Bridgewater delivered the song with a genuine anger and concluded the performance by raising her fist in a Black Power salute.

Bridgewater recorded Simone’s song “Four Women” on her 2007 album “Red Earth – A Malian Journey” and delivered a smouldering rendition that saw Staaf moving between electric and acoustic keyboards and soloing on grand piano. The impressive Staaf has previously appeared on the Jazzmann web pages as a member of a trio led by drummer and composer Jeff Williams, notably on the album “Bloom” (Whirlwind Recordings, 2019).

Bridgewater dipped back into the bag marked ‘soul’ for the 1973 Stylistics song “People Make The World Go Round”, a piece also given a jazz treatment by the vibraphonist Milt Jackson. This featured a percussive piano solo from Staaf and a joyous scat vocal episode that saw Bridgewater sparking off the instrumentalists.

The ultimate protest song “Strange Fruit”, forever associated with Billie Holiday, was performed in an innovative new arrangement created by soul vocalist Bettye LaVette, who had performed in the Big Top earlier in the day, and drummer Steve Jordan.  Military style drums helped to give the piece a funereal air, as did Staaf’s use of eerie organ sounds. Staaf was also to solo on ‘organ’ and also treated the sound of the leader’s voice via the use of echo. It was very different from the familiar Holiday version, but remained no less compelling.

Made famous by pianist / vocalist Les McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival the Gene McDaniels protest song “Compared To What” was also recorded by Roberta Flack on “First Take”. Today’s version featured an extended unaccompanied electric bass intro from the impressive Brunello. The song’s lyrics address 1960s issues such as the Vietnam War, but some of the concerns such as corporate greed and state censorship remain startlingly relevant. A typically impassioned Bridgewater vocal was augmented by a solo from Staaf that saw her doubling on piano and organ, plus a powerful drum feature from Frattini.

The Percy Mayfield song “The Danger Zone” was made famous by Ray Charles and has also been recorded by Bridgewater herself. With Staaf again doubling on organ this piece was given an authentic gospel feel with Bridgewater again in fine voice.

The performance concluded with Bridgewater paying tribute to a jazz great, the late Chick Corea, himself a former visitor to Cheltenham. The song chosen was arguably Corea’s most famous composition, “Spain”, normally played as an instrumental here delivered with a lyric written by Al Jarreau. Again featuring Staaf on organ and piano this was an exuberant performance that featured some dazzling scat vocals from Bridgewater, alongside her rendition of the lyrics.

Bridgewater remains a consummate entertainer, but an entertainer with a social conscience. Her passionate singing embraced a real anger but she was also an engaging and frequently amusing stage presence who clearly had a great rapport with both her band mates and her audience.

I very much enjoyed this show and was pleased that I chose to attend. However there was a pang of guilt about missing Kit and Norma. What a top man Kit Downes is. On exiting the auditorium at the PAC after the Lucumi Project gig I was recognised by Kit who was setting up his merch stand in the foyer prior to his own gig. I confessed that I wasn’t actually going to see him and Norma perform but he fully understood the difficult choices that fans (and writers) have to make at festivals and pressed a copy of his latest CD release into my hands. “If you can’t review the show review this” he urged. “Dr. Snap” is a live recording made at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam and features Downes leading a ten piece international ensemble through a series of new compositions commissioned by Bimhuis Productions as part of their “Reflex” series. I plan to take a look at this intriguing new release once my Festival coverage is complete. Thanks, Kit.


Lakecia Benjamin - alto sax, vocals, Zaccai Curtis - piano, keyboards, Elias Bailey - double bass, EJ Strickland - drums

From one force of nature to another. At the conclusion of the Dee Dee Bridgewater gig I made my way to the Jazz Arena for a performance by the New York based alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin.

This was another of those ‘festival clashes’ with Benjamin scheduled opposite the British tenor saxophonist Trish Clowes who was performing with her My Iris band and their guest, US trumpeter Dave Douglas, at the PAC under the project name EYES UP.

This represented another clash of loyalties for me. The Jazzmann has been very supportive of Clowes, and also of her band mates Chris Montague (guitar) and Ross Stanley (keyboards). But I have seen these musicians play live on multiple occasions and have even seen Douglas several times thanks to his regular visits to the Cheltenham and London jazz festivals.

So once again I took the American option and decided to go with Benjamin, a musician I’d never seen perform live before, but whose playing I’d enjoyed hearing on the now defunct BBC Radio 3 programme J to Z.

Benjamin made her recording debut in 2012 and has released six albums thus far but it was her latest recording “Phoenix”, a 2023 release for Whirlwind Recordings, that really made her name with British jazz audiences. The saxophonist has performed widely across a number of music genres and has collaborated with artists such as Missy Elliot, Alicia Keys and Robert Glasper.

Produced by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington “Phoenix” featured guest appearances from a host of star names, among them pianist Patrice Rushen and vocalist Dianne Reeves. There are also spoken word contributions from activist and academic Angela Davis and the late Wayne Shorter.

The ‘Phoenix’ quartet that Benjamin brought to Cheltenham featured the album’s drummer EJ Strickland plus keyboard player Zaccai Curtis and bassist Elias Bailey.

Opening number “Trane” was ushered in by the trio of keys, bass and drums, allowing Benjamin to make ‘la grande entrance’. She’s a flamboyant stage presence and likes to dress in gold coloured outfits, tonight sporting a white vest top and gold trousers. She’s also a musician who likes to engage the audience. Other than Courtney Pine I’ve never seen a British jazz musician whip up a crowd in the way that Benjamin did. But besides the show-womanship she’s also a serious saxophonist with technique and stamina to burn as she channels the spirit of John Coltrane for the 21st century, infusing it with r’n’b and hip hop influences. This opening piece featured a marathon alto solo from Benjamin and a further solo from pianist Curtis. It was dedicated to the memories of John and Alice Coltrane.

As previously mentioned Benjamin plays across the genres and “Amerikkan Skin” included elements of r’n’b and hip-hop. It also embraced elements of spiritual jazz plus a rap episode with Benjamin decrying the evils of contemporary American society. But there was also a degree of light-heartedness as Benjamin, a whirlwind of energy who was constantly prowling the stage, urged the audience to clap along during the more up-tempo moments. Curtis was again featured as a soloist, doubling on piano and organ.

The Coltrane homage continued with a version of “My Favourite Things”, which Benjamin dedicated to Alice. The leader’s alto sax represented a clarion call and her sax / drum duet with the great EJ Strickland was reminiscent of John Coltrane’s own duo performances with Rashied Ali and attracted the spontaneous applause of the Cheltenham audience. Curtis was then featured in the McCoy Tyner role with a tumultuous piano solo.

The ever loquacious Benjamin informed us that she and the band had been in Budapest the night before as part of their ongoing European tour. This was part of the pre-amble to paying tribute to pianist and composer Patrice Rushen with a performance of Rushen’s composition “Jubilation”. This was introduced by Strickland at the kit and also included solos from Rushen on alto and Gould at the piano, followed by a second drum salvo from Strickland.

Next came a remarkable version of “Amazing Grace”, done in a blues /  gospel style with Benjamin wailing on alto and encouraging the audience to clap along. A sax / piano duet introduced an element of humour that saw bassist Bailey smirking knowingly. It was all a long way removed from Judy Collins, but not entirely lacking in terms of spirituality.

“I’m going off script now” declared Benjamin, “just go with the flow”. With that the rhythm section struck up a funk style groove that acted as the platform for more hard edged alto sax soloing and eventually the bass soloing of Bailey, which was variously melodic, swinging and dexterous.

The quartet concluded with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, introduced by an alto sax / drum duet and with further solos from Curtis on piano and Benjamin on alto. The irrepressible Benjamin had the audience chanting along to the “A Love Supreme” mantra and at the close it was no surprise to see the quartet earning a standing ovation.

As this was the last gig of the day at the Arena the group were given the opportunity to play a deserved encore. I was already running late for my next gig and wasn’t sure whether I should stay, but in the end I decided to stick around, a very good call as it turned out.

I didn’t register the name of this final piece and I suspect that Benjamin didn’t actually announce it. However there was a change in the bass chair with Gregory Porter’s regular bassist Jamal Nichols taking over from Bailey and sharing the solos with the rest of the band as every musician was featured.

I very much enjoyed this show from Lakecia Benjamin, an infectious performer and a born entertainer with a presenting style that combines the earthy humour of the street with a Coltrane inspired spirituality and message of tolerance. Keen to promote the role of women in jazz she very much practices what she preaches.

I did wonder if the crowd pleasing antics might get wearisome if you were to see her more than once, rather as Courtney Pine’s have done, and musically it could be argued that there’s rather too much reliance on the Coltrane legacy (in 2020 Benjamin released “Pursuance”, a whole album of Coltrane tunes, albeit with them being given a contemporary twist).

That said “Phoenix” is a multi-faceted album that touches many stylistic bases and quite rightly won Benjamin a good deal of critical and popular acclaim.

A Lakecia Benjamin live show is definitely a spectacular and uplifting experience and it may well be that there were people in today’s audience that hadn’t heard much jazz before. Lakecia Benjamin is the kind of artist capable of converting jazz non-believers on the spot. I’d like to think that some people might have experienced that epiphany today.


The two 9.00 pm shows scheduled two rock artists opposite each other, Robert Plant in the Big Top and Nadine Shah at the Town Hall.

I reviewed Plant and his Saving Grace band at the same venue at the 2022 CJF and very much enjoyed the performance. I was tempted to go back for more, especially as the promise of the inclusion of some of Led Zeppelin’s acoustic songs had been dangled as bait.

However I wasn’t sure what I would find new to say about Saving Grace so soon after their previous CJF performance and instead opted for Nadine Shah at the Town Hall.

I enjoyed Shah’s 2021 album “Kitchen Sink” and also recalled seeing her performing tracks from her Mercury Prize nominated album “Holiday Destination” at the televised awards ceremony. The TV footage revealed that saxophonist Pete Wareham (Acoustic Ladyland, Melt Yourself Down, Polar Bear) was in her band. But although he appears on a couple of tracks on Shah’s new album “Filthy Underneath” he was conspicuous by his absence tonight. The possibility that Wareham might be playing was a factor in my opting for this gig. Disappointment number one.

The other disappointment was the quality of the sound. The acoustics at Cheltenham Town Hall are notoriously tricky, turn the volume up to high and the sound starts to bounce and echo around the walls of this Victorian edifice, an impressive building but eminently not one designed for rock gigs.

At more modest volumes it’s not too bad. Earlier in the day it had been fine for Brad Mehldau and even for Dee Dee Bridgewater and only last year Ezra Collective had proved that a good sound engineer can achieve a reasonable sound quality at a relatively high volume even in this cavernous venue.

That certainly wasn’t the case tonight. Shah was fronting a band featuring Ben Nicholls on bass, Evan Jenkins on drums,  Danny Crook on keyboards and guitar and a lead guitarist whose name I didn’t catch. I’m familiar with playing of both Jenkins (ex Neil Cowley and Matt Schofield) and Nicholls (with folk musicians Seth Lakeman and Sam Sweeney) so this was without doubt a very classy line up.

Unfortunately their playing couldn’t be heard at its best due to a filthy, muddy sound mix that to these ears was unacceptably poor and which spoilt the whole gig. The sound of the instruments descended into a murky homogenised sludge.

Shah, a charismatic performer with a strong voice and an equally strong social conscience plus a sharp line in lyrical observation could still be heard above the murk, but not quite well enough. She has been praised for the quality of her lyric writing but despite an assured vocal performance the clarity of sound wasn’t quite there and the meaning of the words didn’t cut through. I noted that Shah went to the side of the stage on several occasions to speak to the sound engineers, who were presumably touring with the band, but no discernible improvement in the sound quality was forthcoming. 

It’s a conceit common to rock performers that they assume that audience members already know the songs, and although Shah was happy to banter with the crowd no actual tune announcements were forthcoming so I don’t intend to try and write a song by song account.

However as rock acts tend to stick to the same set list for an entire tour here’s a set list culled from Shah’s Facebook page from her hometown gig in Newcastle on 26th April 2024. I suspect we heard most of these again tonight.

1. Even Light
2. Topless Mother
3. Sad Lads
4. You Drive
5. Fat Food
6. Ladies For Babies
7.Food For Fuel
8. Keeping Score
9. Twenty Things
10. Hyper-Realism
11. Greatest Dancer
12. Fool
13. French Exit
14. Stealing cars
15. Trad
16. Out The Way

Even the titles suggest that here is an intelligent and observant song writer at work It’s just a shame that her words couldn’t be heard properly.

It was all particularly frustrating as behind the wall of sludge there was a good gig waiting to break out. Shah is a seriously charismatic performer, a strong singer and a quality songwriter with a highly talented band behind her. It was such a shame that all these positive qualities were subsumed by an appalling sound mix.

Most of Shah’s legion of fans didn’t appear to harbour any such reservations and gave the singer and her band a standing ovation.

However I wasn’t the only nay-sayer. As we filed out of the hall I heard a man complaining bitterly to his companion about the quality of the sound and expressing the opinion that he had been short changed. I apologised for overhearing and told him that I felt exactly the same. To be honest if I hadn’t been attempting to review the show and had attended as a paying customer I’d probably have left long before the end, it was that disappointing.

I often make a point of thanking sound engineers for doing a good job. They’re such an important part of the live music experience and are often undervalued. Tonight’s show provided proof as to just how crucial a good sound engineer is – but unfortunately not in a good way.

It was a disappointing end to a day of largely excellent music. If I had my time again I’d definitely have opted for Robert Plant. I didn’t go to an event in the Big Top until Monday, but for such a large venue the sound quality was excellent. I rest my case.



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