by Ian Mann
May 05, 2022
Ian Mann enjoys performances by the Birmingham / Siena Jazz Exchange, Lady Blackbird, Kansas Smitty's, Shake Stew, Graham Costello's STRATA, Dave Douglas / Joey Baron Duo & the Nubya Garcia Quartet.
Photograph of Shake Stew by Peter van Breukelen sourced from the Cheltenham Festival website http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com
Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2022
BIRMINGHAM / SIENA JAZZ EXCHANGE, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE (PAC)
The annual Exchange event featuring students from the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire and their counterparts from a similar leading institution in a European country have become a Cheltenham Jazz Festival tradition.
The event has also become a tradition for many jazz fans, with several naming it as their favourite Festival event.
For many years the event was billed as the Trondheim Jazz Exchange as the Birmingham students linked up with their contemporaries from Norway. In 2019 there was a break with tradition with the first Paris and Birmingham Jazz Exchange.
Following the inevitable Covid hiatus there was another change in 2022 as the Birmingham students linked up with their counterparts from the Siena Jazz-Accademia Nazionale Del Jazz in Italy. As he introduced the show Tony Dudley-Evans was quick to praise the Faculty Heads, Jeremy Price from Birmingham and Francesco Martinelli from Siena.
Despite the different institutions involved the format of the Exchange event remains unchanged. The European students fly to England and link up with their British colleagues to workshop tunes for live performance. It’s an intense process and the finished pieces are usually performed at the free ‘commuter jazz’ event at Symphony Hall in Birmingham early on Friday evening before being showcased at Cheltenham Jazz Festival on Saturday morning. The Exchange event has become the traditional ‘curtain raiser’ for the Festival’s Saturday programme over the years.
The format remained constant with Dudley-Evans presenting three different groups comprised of a mix of Birmingham and Siena students, all of whom performed a short set consisting of three tunes.
Group One featured four Birmingham students, Dan Lockheart (tenor sax), Torin Davies (guitar), Joe Kessel (double bass), Dom Johnson (drums) and just one Italian, trumpeter Iacopo Teolia.
With no group member handling the announcements the three tunes played, presumably originals by the band’s members went untitled.
The first piece began atmospherically with the sound of Teolia’s trumpet and the shimmer of Johnson’s cymbals. The addition of bass and tenor sax led to some delicately intertwining horn melody lines before Lockheart’s tenor burst through like the sun piercing a clouded sky as he took the first solo. With the music now adopting a more straight-ahead direction we also heard from Teolia who played with a pinched intensity. Davies followed on guitar, his solo combining sophisticated chording with sparkling single note runs.
The group’s second piece was a contemporary ballad gently ushered in by tenor sax, guitar, double bass and brushed drums. It included a delightfully melodic bass solo from Kessel and a further outing on guitar from Davies as the horn men took something of a back seat.
Lockheart and Teolia were back with an unaccompanied tenor / trumpet introduction to this group’s final piece, doubling up on the theme as they were joined by bass, drums and guitar. Lockheart took the first solo before handing over to Teolia. The horns were followed by Davies, who delivered a wonderfully lissom but unhurried solo. The full band then coalesced as the music gathered intensity, Teolia pointing the bell of his trumpet skywards as the quintet built towards a rousing finish. The rapturous reception from the audience was proof of just how much they had enjoyed this first band.
Tony Dudley-Evans mentioned that Group One had been mentored by the leading British trumpeter Steve Fishwick. The members of the second had been tutored by saxophonist Jean Toussaint, another hugely influential figure on the UK jazz scene.
Group Two featured two musicians from Siena, alto saxophonist Laurenzo Simoni and pianist Guillermo Santimone, plus three from Birmingham, trumpeter Zac Demou, bassist Ben Love and drummer Aidan Amann. I later found out that Amann is the son of that fine Midlands based pianist and composer Tim Amann – so something of a jazz dynasty there.
Again there were no announcements and the three pieces played by the quintet remained unidentified, at least by me.
The first began with an unaccompanied piano passage from the impressive Santimone, with bass and drum colourations subsequently added. Demou and Simoni subsequently joined their colleagues to provide the unison melody lines that eventually formed the jumping off point for the individual soloing of Santimone and Simoni. The saxophonist’s neatly constructed solo was cool, fluent and elegant at first, before becoming more strident and incisive as the momentum of the music increased. The piece concluded with a colourful drum feature from Amann.
The second tune was a genuine ballad introduced by Simoni’s alto with sympathetic support from piano, double bass and brushed drums. Demou’s muted trumpet added intriguing counter melody lines and the whole piece exhibited a smoky, after hours feel despite the earliness of the day. Simoni’s alto solo demonstrated both his ballad skills and his overall versatility. Demou followed on trumpet, now unmuted, and his solo featured clean lines combined with a subtle but emotive blues tinge. Love was to feature on melodic double bass before alto sax and muted trumpet combined again towards the close.
An impressive solo sax cadenza from Simoni then provided the link into the final tune, a piece with a more obvious bebop flavour that featured blazing unison horn lines and a blistering Simoni alto solo, the saxophonist driven on by Love’s rapid bass walk and Amann’s crisp drumming. The horns coalesced before Demou followed on trumpet and Santimone on piano, both delivering sparkling solos that helped to bring this set to a storming conclusion.
This second group attracted an even more enthusiastic audience reaction than the first. It has to be said that the Italians, although once again outnumbered, more than held their own in this collaboration. In fact it’s probably fair to say that Simoni and Santimone were the most outstanding soloists of the whole event.
Group Three was to feature the Birmingham based musicians Oscar Lawrence (alto sax), Dave Bustos (tenor sax) and Andrew Duncan (drums) with bassist Francesco Timo representing Siena. Completing the Group was guitarist Lucas Echeverria, a Brazilian born student now based in Hamburg.
This set had the benefit of some announcements with drummer Andrew Duncan handling the formalities. First up was an arrangement of the Charles Mingus composition “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”, played in homage to the 100th anniversary of its composer’s birth. I assume that it’s this piece that has also inspired the name of the Peggy’s Skylight jazz club in Nottingham.
However, I digress. The Group’s performance of this piece was notable for the unison melody lines and subsequent interplay of the two saxes, plus the impressive soloing of Lawrence, Bustos and Timo, a gifted double bass soloist.
Timo switched to electric bass for “De-construct”, a piece written by guitarist Echeverria. Appropriately this was introduced by a passage of solo guitar, to which bass and drums were added before the two horns combined to state the theme. Bustos later delivered a powerful tenor sax solo and he was followed by the leader on guitar, whose neatly constructed solo made judicious use of an array of effects pedals as the music continued to gather momentum.
Finally we heard Duncan’s composition “King’s Cave”, introduced by his own martial drumming and Timo’s grounding electric bass pulse. Lawrence stated the melody on alto before the two saxes combined. Subsequent solos came from Lawrence on alto and Timo on electric bass. Composer Duncan was to enjoy something of a drum feature before Bustos’ muscular tenor took things storming out.
As ever the Exchange event delivered some terrific music with all three groups acquitting themselves well, with Group Two just about shading the honours. Several of the players at these annual events have gone on to become fully professional jazz musicians and I’m sure that many of today’s performers will follow suit.
My only quibble would be the lack of announcements, something perhaps enforced on the students due to time constraints, but to have heard something about the stories behind the tunes, or at least their titles, would have been nice. The music however was excellent, well up to the high standards we have come to expect from this event. I’m already looking forward to the 2023 event, whether the visitors come from Trondheim, Paris, Siena or somewhere new.
LADY BLACKBIRD – JAZZ ARENA
With the Jazz Exchange event severely over-running my decision to request a press ticket for Lady Blackbird’s performance at the Jazz Arena was looking overly ambitious.
I did manage to catch the last couple of numbers of her set, arriving in the middle of the ballad “Fix It”, a song drawn from her acclaimed début album “Black Acid Soul”.
The Los Angeles artist formerly known as Marley Munroe was performing with a band featuring Kenneth Crouch (keyboards), Chris Seefried (guitar), Jonny Flaugher (electric bass) and Rich Pagano (drums), who all performed admirably in support of the charismatic vocalist. Flamboyant jazz style solos weren’t their thing, although Crouch was afforded a couple of opportunities to stretch out on electric piano.
Blending soul with gospel and blues Blackbird’s voice exhibited a genuine soulfulness inspired by influences including Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Gladys Knight and more. At her raunchiest there were hints of Chaka Khan, Tina Turner and even Janis Joplin. With her peroxided afro she is a striking and commanding stage presence who had clearly drawn the Cheltenham audience into her orbit.
Blackbird has a knack of bringing a fresh, contemporary insight to old and often relatively obscure material. She concluded her set her with an imaginative cover of folk singer Tim Hardin’s “It’ll Never Happen Again”, which also appears on the “Black Acid Soul” album.
Arriving late and standing at the back I found it difficult to immerse myself in Blackbird’s performance but those that had been there throughout clearly loved it. Blackbird’s approach is probably a bit too mainstream for my tastes and I wouldn’t have wished to leave the Exchange event early. Nevertheless I wish I’d seen a little more of this.
KANSAS SMITTY’S – CHELTENHAM TOWN HALL
Kansas Smitty’s is a bar and music venue in Broadway Market, Hackney, East London.
Both the venue and the band of the same name are the brainchild of the Italian/American saxophonist and clarinettist Giacomo Smith.
Born in Italy, raised in upstate New York and now a fully professional jazz musician in the UK Smith is an interesting character with degrees in classical clarinet performance from the North American Universities of Boston and McGill (Montreal). He first moved to the UK in 2011 to work in Boston University’s London Programmes administrative office, but spent his evenings absorbing himself in the London jazz scene, playing with many of the UK’s leading jazz musicians before eventually turning pro in 2013 and concentrating on music full time.
It was then that he formed the band that was to become Kansas Smitty’s, a group of young musicians with an interest in a broad range of jazz styles. A couple of years later the basement venue itself was opened and has since played host to many of the emerging stars of the young and vibrant London jazz scene including saxophonist Nubya Garcia, keyboard player Joe Armon Jones and drummer Moses Boyd, all of whom were to appear elsewhere on the programme of the 2022 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
The rise of Kansas Smitty’s has coincided with that of South London’s Steam Down venue, with much cross fertilisation occurring between the two scenes.
Kansas Smitty’s have been Cheltenham Jazz Festival regulars and this year were hosting a series of late night events at the Daffodil venue under the generic title “Kansas Smitty’s Takeover”. These events feature late night jams with the band joined by illustrious guests, among them vocalist Gregory Porter.
This afternoon event at the Town Hall presented Kansas Smitty’s in a more formal concert situation, but it did include a couple of guest appearances, about which more later.
My appetite for this gig had been whetted by a recent performance by the trio Webb City, featuring Smitty’s pianist Joe Webb and guitarist Dave Archer at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny. Indeed some Black Mountain Jazz regulars had made the trip to Cheltenham to witness the full Kansas Smitty’s ensemble in action. Webb City review here;
Although Kansas Smitty’s are well known for their absorption of a variety of earlier jazz styles their original material also embraces more contemporary influences, as can be heard on their excellent 2020 release “Things Happened Here”. Review here;
It was to be this side of the band’s output that we were to hear today with several of the pieces performed being drawn from this album. As far as I could tell the band lined up as;
Giacomo Smith (alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet), Alex Harper (tenor sax, flute), Daniel Higham (trombone), Joe Webb (piano), Dave Archer (guitar), Ferg Ireland (double bass) and Will Cleasby (drums).
After enjoying both the “Things Happened Here” album and the Webb City live performance I was very much looking forward to this show, but ultimately found it disappointing, although this wasn’t really the fault of the band.
The problem lay in the sound mix, which was unsatisfactory throughout. The Town Hall has never been the most sympathetic of venues acoustically and Smitty’s were to suffer particularly badly. Cleasby’s drums were loud and ‘boxy’, Webb’s piano buried so deep in the mix as to be inaudible at times and it was difficult to pick out the details in the playing of the three horn frontline in a mix that sounded fuzzy and muddy throughout. Even Smith’s tune announcements were indistinct.
Nevertheless there was no disputing the power of the horn section on an opening number that included a tenor sax solo from Harper and a guitar solo from Archer, playing in a very different style to the Abergavenny show and demonstrating his mastery of a variety of guitar styles.
From the recent album the tune “Sunnyland” embraced something of a ‘Township Jazz’ feel with Webb’s piano flourishes managing to cut through the sonic haze. The solos included a rousing trombone feature from Higham and a dynamic drum feature from Cleasby.
The third item featured a brooding, atmospheric intro with Smith featuring on crepescular bass clarinet. As the piece gathered momentum Archer cut loose on guitar with an outstanding solo that incorporated both blues and rock influences.
The piece concluded with a horn chorale, something that was also to introduce Harper’s composition “Skyline”. This moved on to feature a supple, rolling groove that formed the backdrop to Smith’s alto sax solo. Cleasby’s drums were always prominent in the arrangement and the piece concluded with a second drum feature.
During lockdown Smitty’s established KSTV which allowed the band together online and also gave them the opportunity of collaborating remotely with other musicians. Among these was trumpeter Laura Jurd who joined the band on stage for the rest of the performance, beginning with the Toulouse Lautrec inspired “Cha-U-Kao”. Introduced by Webb’s piano arpeggios and featuring spiralling, interlocking horn lines this piece also included solos from Jurd on trumpet and Harper on tenor sax.
We could at last appreciate Webb’s exquisite touch at the piano as he and Smith, the latter on buzzy, woody bass clarinet played a duo piece paying homage to Duke Ellington on the day after the Duke’s birthday (April 29th). “Happy Birthday, Duke Ellington” announced Smith as the last notes faded away, but unfortunately he omitted to announce the title of the tune – I’m assuming that it was one of Ellington’s. Perhaps somebody can enlighten me.
The band’s second lockdown guest was to be Vermont singer and multi-instrumentalist Sam Amidon, best known as an ‘Americana’ artist but one who works regularly with jazz musicians.
The bluegrass staple “The Cuckoo” featured Amidon’s banjo and vocals alongside flute, clarinet, trombone and trumpet and featured instrumental solos from Harper on flute and Archer on guitar.
“Face In The Crowd” was an original co-written by Amidon and Smith that saw Amidon switching to violin and sharing the instrumental solos with with Smith on clarinet and Ireland on double bass. The piece was also notable for a series of instrumental exchanges between Amidon and Smith.
Following Amidon’s guest appearance the band played their new single “Sunday Davison” with Smith informing us that the band intends to record a new album later in the year. Introduced by Cleasby at the drums this featured some powerful collective blowing from the horn section as a whole, plus incisive sax solos from Harper on tenor and Smith on alto.
Amidon returned for the final number, an arrangement of “Judgement”, the final track from the “Things Happened Here” album, which saw the band adopting a bluesy, New Orleans feel with Jurd the featured soloist on trumpet.
Overall I enjoyed this set from Kansas Smitty’s and their friends, but it could have been so much better if it had been staged in a more sympathetic venue such as the PAC or even the tented Jazz Arena, where the sound was largely very good throughout the weekend. The acoustics definitely detracted from what was otherwise a good performance, I cast no aspersions on the musicianship.
The introduction of Jurd and later Amidon certainly gave the set a lift. Jurd is always a highly imaginative soloist and Amidon’s voice, banjo and violin temporarily steered the music in another direction and injected a welcome element of variety. Most observers seemed to be very impressed with the contributions of both the guest performers.
SHAKE STEW – PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
From the comparative disappointment of the Smitty’s show to what proved to be one of the best gigs of the Festival.
In 2018 I reviewed the album “Rise and Rise Again” by the Austrian septet Shake Stew, a recording that featured a guest appearance on tenor sax by the UK’s own Shabaka Hutchings. I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard, as can be read in my review here;
Under the leadership of bassist and composer Lukas Kranzelbinder the prolific Shake Stew have since released a further two albums, the double set “Gris Gris” (2019) and the current album “Heat” (2022).
With its two bass line up (is Shake Stew jazz’s answer to Ned’’s Atomic Dustbin?) and with twin drummers it comes as no surprise to find that Shake Stew’s music is highly rhythmic. Elements of jazz, rock, funk, Ethio-jazz and Afro-beat inform their music and the group’s sound also owes something to the spiritual jazz of the 1960s (John and Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders etc.) and the futuristic Pan-African space jazz of Sun Ra.
Stylistically it’s not a million miles away from some of the groups that Hutchings has been involved with in recent years including The Comet Is Coming, Shabaka and the Ancestors, Melt Yourself Down, and of course Sons of Kemet, another band with a twin drums line up.
The Shake Stew line up has evolved since the 2018 line up and today’s edition of the band featured Kranzelbinder on double bass, electric bass and guimbri, Oliver Potratz on double bass, electric bass and guitar, Astrid Wiesinger on alto sax, Johannes Schleiermacher on tenor sax, Mario Rom on trumpet, Niki Dolp on drum kit and percussion and Christian Eberle on drum kit, the last named depping for Heat’s Herbert Pirker.
After enjoying the “Rise and Rise Again” album I had been keenly anticipating this performance, as had the band, for this was a show that had originally been scheduled to take place at the 2020 Festival.
Even before the band took to the boards the stage lay out raised expectations, a visually striking array of instruments including a plethora of basses plus two large drum kits, behind which was a strung a huge gong – shades of the ‘Golden Age of Prog’!
Shake Stew are the winners of the German Jazz Prize for Best International Act but despite the Hutchings connection this was their first ever show in the UK, so today’s gig represented a big deal for them. This was a band that was clearly ‘up for it’.
Shake Stew are a big deal in their native Austria, and it’s easy to see why. They entered the stage to a collage of sound bites, among them “you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into” and “very unusual”. This aspect was perhaps a little overdone but the group are also an intriguing visual proposition with their gold and black hooped band uniforms, with only Wiesinger exempt from the fashion code.
But there’s more to Shake Stew than these rock style showbiz trappings, as they were to prove over the course of the next hour.
A stunning twenty five minute opening sequence comprised of a segue of the pieces “Heat” and “So He Spoke” from the new album began with the sound of twin drums and percussion. Dolp and Eberle were soon joined by Kranzelbinder on guimbri (the Moroccan bass lute) which helped give the music a tremendous rhythmic drive and energy. Wiesinger was doubling on some kind of thumb piano (an mbira or kalimba) which helped to impart the music with even more of an African flavour. Trumpeter Rom and tenor man Schleiermacher sported long hair and beards that made them look like refugees from the Edgar Broughton Band circa 1970. But these gentlemen could play jazz, as Schleiermacher’s garrulous tenor solo attested. Potratz played guitar on this opening sequence and made good use of his range of FX during a quieter, dreamlike passage. Shake Stew’s music is in a constant state of flux, ever evolving and making good use of dynamic contrasts. Kranzelbinder moved to double bass and delivered a melodic solo above Potratz’s eerie guitar soundwashes. Potratz then moved to double bass, playing arco in contrast to Kranzelbinder’s pizzicato. Rom’s stentorian trumpet soloing then raised the energy levels again before this opening sequence concluded with a chorale of horns above the sound of mallet rumbles and those twin double basses. Astonishing.
From the “Gris Gris” album (a title borrowed from Dr. John) came “No More Silence”, introduced by a bout of furious double bass bowing from Potratz. Kranzelbinder then established a pizzicato motif, combining with Potratz, Dolp and Eberle to create a mighty double drums and bass groove which provided the backdrop for the horn section’s unison melodies and the incisive solo statements of Wiesinger, Schleiermacher and Rom. Shake Stew’s music may be intense but there was also an element of humour in the band’s approach that helped to endear them to the Cheltenham audience.
From the band’s début album “The Golden Fang” (2017) came “Shake The Dust”, introduced by twin drums, these later joined by twin electric basses. Wiesinger’s alto sax melodies added a North African element and the music progressed via a trumpet solo from Rom and squalls of belligerent tenor from Schleiermacher.
An ‘encore’ (the stage was too crowded for the band to leave) featured uplifting melodies, driving, trance like rhythms and a dramatic twin drum feature, plus a solo from Portatz on electric bass that recalled the playing of Peter Hook.
Shake Stew’s music was vibrant, rhythmic, colourful and exciting but there was also an edge and a subtlety about their sound that set them apart from being mere ‘entertainers’. This was music with depth and gravitas.
It was of course also hugely exciting and highly entertaining and the capacity crowd at the Parabola rose as one to give them a spontaneous standing ovation. Audiences at the PAC are always discerning, knowledgeable and supportive but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a reaction quite like this at this venue.
After the show business was brisk at the ‘meet and greet’ with CDs and vinyls selling in considerable numbers. Lukas, Johannes and Niki came out to meet their public and I’m grateful to Lukas for providing me with a review copy of the new album “Heat”, which I intend to take a look at in due course – I’d already purchased my own copy of “Gris Gris”.
A notable factor in the success of Shake Stew’s performance was the quality of the sound. The sound at the PAC is always excellent anyway but the band had also brought along their own sound engineer, which improved things even further. It’s a smart move for bands to do this if they can afford to, as artists such as pianist Tord Gustavsen and the bass playing Avishai Cohen will attest. All the rhythmic nuances of the drums and basses plus the intricacies of the horn interplay could be discerned in fine detail. It was all so different to the boomy, muddy, indistinct mix at the Town Hall.
Shake Stew’s first ever UK gig represented a total triumph for the band with many of the audience naming it as the ‘gig of the Festival’. There’s nothing like word of mouth for spreading the news about an exciting new musical discovery, even in the age of the internet. Despite the problems imposed on musicians by the disaster that is Brexit I suspect that this will not be the last time the Shake Stew visit the UK. Everybody who witnessed today’s show will be looking forward to their return.
GRAHAM COSTELLO’S STRATA
My third visit of the day to the PAC featured a performance by STRATA, a sextet led by Glasgow based drummer and composer Graham Costello. I was largely drawn to this event due to the presence in the band’s ranks of the award winning young pianist Fergus McCreadie, a musician who has featured on the Jazzmann web pages on numerous occasions.
First formed by Costello in 2016 today’s edition of STRATA also featured guitarist Kevin Cahill and electric bass specialist Mark Hendry plus horn players Harry Weir (tenor sax) and Liam Shortall (trombone). Guitarist Joe Williamson, leader of the band Animal Society, appears on STRATA’s latest release for Gearbox Records “Second Lives” but Costello has also worked extensively with Cahill, whose playing was an integral part of today’s performance.
“I write music inspired by minimalism, noisy stuff and jazz” Costello has stated and the ‘m’ word appears to have alarmed some listeners. The odd bits of STRATA I’d seen online suggested something closer to old fashioned fusion than minimalism, there was certainly a strong rock influence, but ultimately it’s Costello who describes his own music best.
“Second Lives” features eleven individual tracks but today the sextet performed their set as a single unbroken entity, suggesting that improvisation plays a vital role in their music making. Guitar and electric bass introduced the performance, with both Cahill and Hendry deploying an array of FX pedals to create an eerie, ambient soundwash embellished by the shimmer of the leader’s cymbals. McCreadie joined in, playing sparse atmospheric acoustic piano.
After an extended opening passage in this vein the band suddenly shifted gear, kicking in in fusion-esque, almost metalloid fashion with Costello adding hip hop inspired rhythms to an already heady and powerful mix.
Contrast is obviously a central component of Costello’s writing and following this bombardment we were treated to a passage of gently rippling piano lyricism from McCreadie that recalled the pianist’s solo work. But soon the pianist found himself engaged in a vigorous dialogue with the leader’s drums, their vigorous conversation underpinned by the drone of Cahill’s guitar.
STRATA is perhaps the perfect name for this band as the music continued to develop via a series of contrasting layers. A passage of liquidly melodic electric bass from Hendry was followed by a more powerful group section featuring the powerful, burly sound of Weir’s tenor sax, culminating in a series of gargantuan collective riffs.
The relationship between Costello and McCreadie is central to the sextet’s music and we were to hear something of that minimalist influence as McCreadie’s solo arpeggios eventually drew a response from Costello at the kit and the subsequent extended dialogue featured McCreadie utilising the piano’s innards.
The pianist and drummer were then joined by guitar and electric bass for a lengthy quartet passage with Costello leading from the kit. Set up sideways to the audience and facing his colleagues the drummer was a busy and visually compelling presence, often playing with an explosive power.
Shortall, hereto relatively underused, was next to come to the fore with a passage of mellifluous trombone, before being superseded by another bout of ferocious riffing with Weir’s baleful tenor sax coming to the fore.
McCreadie was to feature again with a lyrical and flowing piano solo before the jagged, staccato, math rock riffing returned, with Shortall delivering some guttural trombone sounds that metamorphosed into a full on trombone feature.
Costello and Mccreadie were to feature in another extended drum and piano dialogue. This was a brilliant, sparkling musical conversation that was reminiscent of the partnership between drummer Bill Bruford and keyboard player Michael Borstlap.
More metalloid riffing was followed by a more reflective ambient style passage featuring guitar and electric bass before the set built to a climax with some more dynamic collective riffing distinguished by Costello’s dynamic drumming.
Overall I was very impressed with STRATA and thoroughly enjoyed the group’s music. As well as being a great technician behind the kit Costello is also an intelligent and imaginative composer who has absorbed a broad range of influences. He was well supported by an excellent band, although one felt that the two horns might have been deployed a little more fully.
In closing Costello thanked the group members, gave a plug for the Gearbox album and mentioned that STRATA would be playing at the 2022 Love Supreme Festival in Sussex later in the year.
The only real disappointment was that the album wasn’t available for sale in the lobby after the show, otherwise I’d have treated myself to a copy. What more can I say?
DAVE DOUGLAS / JOEY BARON DUO, JAZZ ARENA
A clash of scheduling found STRATA and the duo of trumpeter Dave Douglas and Joey Baron were playing at the same time in different venues. The clash seemed to split the ‘serious jazz’ vote and neither the PAC nor the Jazz Arena were full to capacity.
I couldn’t come to Cheltenham and not see Dave Douglas so as the overlap was only partial I requested a ticket for this event also and was very glad that I did.
I arrived at the Jazz Arena at the mid point of the duo’s set as Douglas was explaining what the pair had played in the first half, a mix of jazz standards, Thelonious Monk compositions and off the cuff collective improvisations.
I quietly found myself a seat towards the back of the auditorium and settled down to enjoy the final part of the duo’s performance. The quiet and intimacy of this performance represented quite a contrast to the sound and fury of much of STRATA’s set, but I quickly attuned to the duo’s wavelength.
I wasn’t sure how such an intimate collaboration would work in the environs of the Jazz Arena but it succeeded brilliantly as Douglas and Baron drew the audience into their soundworld. Even the sounds that leached in from the other stages failed to upset their equilibrium - “they play that shit so we don’t have to” quipped Baron to the amusement of the crowd.
Douglas and Baron go back a long way and have often played together in a variety of contexts, but rarely as a duo. They seemed to relish the exposed nature of the situation. This was like sitting in on a conversation between two old friends. This was highly sophisticated music making but the duo’s approach seemed almost casual with Douglas playing off mic and the pair bantering between numbers.
The first tune I saw was Baron’s “Boss Hogg”, a composition drawn from the repertoire of his Barondown trio featuring saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trombonist Steve Swell.
This was followed by a Douglas original from his album “Other Worlds”, a recording featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Linda May Han Oh and pianist Laurence Fields.
Standard material included a remarkable version of “I’ve Got The World On A String” while Monk was represented by “Well You Needn’t”. They closed with “Lady Be Good”, which included a riveting series of trumpet and drum exchanges.
This was a thoroughly absorbing duo performance with the Douglas / Baron alliance right up there with Gary Burton and Chick Corea or Dave Holland and Kenny Barron (no relation).
Douglas played with an almost casual insouciance, his inventiveness seemingly effortless. Meanwhile Baron must be the most musical drummer around, subtly coaxing a broad array of sounds and colours from his kit via sticks, mallets, brushes and his bare hands. He’s more than capable of playing melodies on the drums and this was very much a partnership of equals.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see Douglas performing live on a number of occasions at the Cheltenham and London jazz festivals but this was my first sighting of Baron since 2008 when I saw him with an Anglo-American trio led by the British saxophonist Julian Siegel. Tonight was a welcome reminder of just what a phenomenal musician Baron is. I’m so glad that I managed to catch something of this show, if only the second half.
NUBYA GARCIA QUARTET, TOWN HALL
The rise and rise of tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia has been one of THE success stories of British jazz in recent years. I first saw her play as a member of Tomorrow’s Warriors back in 2013 and have since championed her work with the all female ensemble Nerija, a band that I enjoyed seeing at The Green Note in Camden in 2015.
She’s come along way since those days and is now capable of filling a venue the size of Cheltenham Town Hall.
I last saw Garcia perform at the 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival when she appeared with her quartet in the ‘club space’ of the House of Fraser basement. This was a high energy and hugely entertaining show with a real ‘club’ atmosphere.
Tonight in the more formal setting of the Town Hall Garcia was leading exactly the same quartet with Joe Armon-Jones on piano and keyboard, Daniel Casimir on acoustic and electric bass and Sam Jones at the drums.
The sound difficulties that had blighted the Kansas Smitty’s set earlier in the day hadn’t entirely gone away but as this was a smaller line up the problems were less intrusive. Nevertheless the drums were still too loud, despite a brilliant performance from Sam Jones, and the piano and keyboards too quiet.
Like the basement show this was another high energy affair that began with the sounds of the trio, allowing Garcia to make the ‘grand entrance’. In my review of her previous Cheltenham appearance I described her music as;
“an updating of the ‘spiritual jazz’ of Pharaoh Sanders and John Coltrane blended with Afro-Caribbean influences from 21st century London”, which still pretty much holds true, particularly as the band struck up a jazz-reggae groove as Garcia delivered the first of many fluent and powerful tenor sax solos. Armon-Jones first keyboard solo featured an electric piano or ‘Rhodes’ sound generated from his Nord keyboard. But this more formal setting also allowed him to make use of the venue’s grand piano. It was unfortunate that we couldn’t have heard it a little more clearly. Nevertheless his playing was exciting, exuberant and imaginative with Garcia dancing at the side of the stage as the group went into piano trio mode.
Garcia continued to channel the spirit of Coltrane, bringing it to London via the filter of the Caribbean. An increasingly confident performer she was very much at home on stage, conversing matily with the crowd, although very few tune titles were actually announced. Nevertheless one could still absorb oneself in the music and the high quality playing of all the group members, with both Casimir and Jones enjoying solo features along the way.
Garcia’s début album “Source” was released in 2020 following a series of EPs. From that recording came a segue of the tunes “Stand With Each Other” and “Before Us in Demerara & Caura”, a homage to the Camden born Garcia’s Guyanan and Trinidadian roots. The announcement of this second piece evoked loud cheers from members of her family seated in the audience.
The segue was introduced by Jones at the drums, who was subsequently joined in dialogue by Garcia’s tenor, a homage perhaps to John Coltrane’s duo recordings with Rashied Ali. The introduction of the full band saw Garcia’s sax cutting through the rhythmic backing like a spear before she handed over to Armon-Jones who delivered a feverishly inventive acoustic piano solo. The segue closed with a feature for Sam Jones at the drums.
An as yet untitled tune received its world première, its syncopated grooves providing the backdrop for solos from Garcia and Armon-Jones, plus another drum feature for Sam.
Casimir’s bass introduced “Inner Game”, another tune from the “Source” album and one which featured powerful solos from Garcia on tenor and Armon-Jones on acoustic piano.
Also from the album came the final tune, “Pace”, again introduced by Casimir who enjoyed a more extended bass solo. He and Jones then set up a groove that allowed Garcia to deliver a towering sax solo, her tenor wailing and screaming as she reached Coltrane like levels of intensity. Armon-Jones followed, switching between electric and acoustic keys.
This was another impressive performance from Garcia and her quartet and it was easy to see why this quartet has become such a popular festival attraction and a band with an international reputation.
The energy of the performance and the quality of the playing carried the day, overcoming any quibbles about the actual sound quality. Garcia has recently enjoyed considerable media exposure and this, combined with live performances of this quality, should ensure that her star will continue to rise.
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