by Ian Mann
May 12, 2018
Ian Mann enjoys the penultimate day at Cheltenham and performances by Wolves Are People Too, China Moses, Issie Barratt, Christian McBride, Kamasi Washington, Arun Ghosh and Vein with Stan Sulzmann.
Photograph of Arun Ghosh by Tim Dickeson
SUNDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL 06/05/2018
WOLVES ARE PEOPLE TOO, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
Sunday’s programme commenced with this innovative project led by Birmingham born pianist and composer David Austin Grey.
Grey is a graduate of the Jazz Course at the Conservatoire in his home city and subsequently formed his own band, Greyish Quartet, releasing the album “The Dark Red Room” in 2012. In time the quartet metamorphosed and expanded into Grey’s current group Hansu-Tori with whom he released the excellent “An Improvised Escape” in 2014.
As his band’s name suggests Grey is strongly influenced by the culture of the Far East and particularly martial arts and Japanese cinema. “Wolves Are People Too” was inspired by the 2013 Japanese animation film “The Wolf Children”, directed by Mamoru Hosada, and finds Hansu-Tori working together in a multi-media project with dancers from the Royal Birmingham Ballet choreographed by Kit Holman.
The story follow the paths of two half-wolf, half-human children as they mature into society and the project was premièred at the Hippodrome and Symphony Hall, Birmingham and the Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton before coming to Cheltenham. Earlier performances have also incorporated the work of artist and illustrator Nicholas Robertson
Today’s performance was slightly shortened to accommodate the hour long Festival slot but there was still much to enjoy from both the musicians and the dancers. Hansu-Tori were set up at the back of the PAC stage to allow the dancers room to express themselves at the front.
The band lined up with Grey on piano and electric keyboards, Eliza Shaddad on vocals, Chris Young on alto sax, Lluis Mather on tenor sax and flute, Nick Jurd on acoustic and electric bass and Euan Palmer at the drum kit.
The five dancers were Laura Day, Ruth Brill, Lewis Turner, Max Maslan and Lachlan Monaghan.
The performance began with the band playing “Ame’s Lesson”, essentially an instrumental piece with Shaddad singing wordlessly and with Grey delivering an impressive acoustic piano solo with empathic support from Jurd on double bass and Palmer at the drums.
Next we heard “How Wolves Change Rivers” a song with English lyrics sung by Shaddad which introduced the dancers with Brill and Monaghan as the ‘wolf parents’ seeing their children off to school before performing their own sensuous dance, which involved some impressive lifting of the ‘wolf wife’. Musically the piece saw Mather switching from tenor to flute and Young, on alto delivering the major instrumental solo.
The song “Two Empty Houses”, featuring solos Mather on flute and Grey on acoustic piano, was punctuated by a musical ‘knock on the door’ as the death of the ‘wolf father’ was announced, with Grey moving to electric keyboards while Brill danced a dance of grief using as a prop the fur trimmed parka coat that represented her late wolf husband’ body. A simple concept but moving, effective and expertly choreographed.
But I’m no dance critic so for much of the time I was more interested in what was going on instrumentally. Over the course of the performance Grey delivered several sparkling acoustic piano solos with excellent support coming from Jurd and Palmer. I know that Grey likes to work on a broader, conceptual canvas but nevertheless I’d like to see these three record a conventional piano trio album. That could be quite something.
Also impressing from a musical point of view was Mather who produced one particularly outstanding solo on tenor and doubled effectively on flute. Meanwhile Young, on alto, was both fluent and incisive in his solos. Jurd too impressed with his occasional solo excursions on acoustic and electric bass.
The story continued with the three ‘wolf children’ in school using chairs as props and with vocalist Shaddad acting as the teacher. After the harrowing death dance this was a more lighted hearted item with ‘wolf child’ Yuki (Day) flirting with classmate Sohei while arguing with brother Ame (Turner), the latter wearing a wolf head to emphasise his lupine identity. Later we witnessed a charming dance of love between Sohei and the coquettish Yuki, all this skilfully accompanied by the musicians.
Overall I enjoyed this multi-media performance rather more than I expected. A close up view from Row B allowed me to appreciate the skills of the dancers whilst also enjoying the contributions of the musicians. Having heard Hansu-Tori before I was pretty sure that I’d enjoy the music but “Wolves Are People Too” worked well as a complete event.
Musically the band were tight and well drilled with Grey, Jurd and the two saxophonists all delivering impressive solos. Shaddad also performed well but her vocals were sometimes a little too low in the mix, the only minor quibble about an otherwise excellent performance.
Grey impressed with both his writing and playing, moving expertly between acoustic and electric keyboards, making effective use of the latter as a source of orchestration.
The limited edition CD recorded to accompany the project works well in the home listening environment, although the running order of the recording does seem to vary a little from today’s production.
Nevertheless today’s performance was something of a triumph for Austin Grey and for his proud father, who I had the pleasure of speaking with beforehand and who was seated in the audience.
CHINA MOSES, JAZZ ARENA
At the 2017 Cheltenham Jazz Festival I witnessed a dynamic performance by Moses’ mother Dee Dee Bridgewater at Cheltenham Town Hall. Hoping that Bridgewater’s daughter would be a ‘chip off the old block’ I decided to investigate this performance in the Jazz Arena despite having no real prior knowledge of Moses’ music.
I’m pleased to report that I wasn’t disappointed. Moses, whose father is the film director Gilbert Moses, has inherited something of her mother’s powerful jazz/soul voice and also something of her on-stage charisma and joie de vivre. Moses describes herself as a ‘soul jazz singer’ but I was pleased to discover a real talent for jazz phrasing within her sound and the fact that she was today accompanied by a terrific, all star, mainly British, band was a considerable bonus. On piano was rising star Ashley Henry, on acoustic and electric bass Neil Charles and at the drums the splendidly named Dexter Hercules. Doubling on alto and baritone saxes plus electric keyboards was the Naples born Luigi Grasso, Moses’ musical director.
As a performer Moses exudes charm, sass and charisma but behind the big personality lies an accomplished, talented and supremely musical vocalist. She’s more than capable of satisfying those audience members who just want to be entertained as well as appealing to those who listen with a more critical musical ear. This was emphatically a ‘jazz’ rather than a ‘soul’ performance and to these ‘critical’ ears was all the better for it.
The band kicked off with “This Is Me Jammin’ At Home” with Moses singing her own sassy, streetwise lyrics. Another huge plus point about Moses is that she writes all her own material, albeit in conjunction with her producer Anthony Marshall. With Grasso on alto sax and Charles laying down the groove on electric bass there was a genuine jazz feel about the music, even when it sided off into Bob Marley’s reggae classic “Jammin’”.
The funky grooves of “Disconnected” were accompanied by some pertinent and witty lyrics about the perils of social media and included a virtuoso bass solo from the versatile Charles.
Moses worked the crowd, deploying a series of charismatic hand gestures, and was at her most lascivious on the acoustic bass and baritone sax led “Put It On The Line”.
“Breaking Point” introduced more of a soul and r’n’b feel with Moses delivering her typically articulate lyrics with a glass of wine in her hand. The piece also included a dazzling piano solo from Henry as Moses put down her drink and rattled a tambourine. Henry, the leader of his own trio has attracted a considerable amount of critical acclaim on his own account and on this evidence it was easy to see why. Note to self, check out this guy’s solo recordings, he’s clearly an enormous talent. As is the versatile Grasso who also featured as a soloist on alto sax.
“Whatever”, described by Moses as a “post argument song” was more introspective, performed largely acoustically and with a distinctly blues inflected after hours feel. Solos here came from Grasso, this time on baritone sax, and Henry at the piano.
“My Part Of Town” introduced a political element to the proceedings. Moses’ mother, Bridgewater, was born in Memphis but raised in Flint, Michigan, a once proud industrial town that is now the centre of America’s ‘Rust Belt’. The singer raged about the situation in Flint before singing a hard edged slice of political soul music with Grasso on organ and Charles on electric bass. The piece included solos from Henry on piano and Charles on electric bass, the latter in a spirited dialogue with Hercules at the drums.
Due to the vagaries of Festival scheduling I had to leave the performance at this point to ensure that I didn’t arrive late for the performance by Issie Barratt’s all female ensemble, Interchange, at the PAC, due to start at 1.45.
I was sorry to leave Moses and her band behind. I had thoroughly enjoyed what I had heard and was highly impressed by both the singer and her terrific band. On the evidence of today’s performance she should be well worth checking out on CD.
ISSIE BARRATT’S INTERCHANGE, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
The premise of saxophonist Issie Barratt’s ten strong all woman ensemble Interchange was to highlight the work of ten of Britain’s most accomplished female composers. Each composer had been commissioned to write a ten minute piece of music for performance by the band. Due to Festival time restraints we were only able to hear half of these today but the performance whetted the appetite for the release of the forthcoming album “Donna’s Secret” which will feature all ten works.
A number of the featured composers appeared on stage today in a line up that comprised of;
Issie Barratt – baritone saxophone
Tori Freestone - tenor sax, flute
Helena Kay – alto saxophone, clarinet
Yazz Ahmed – trumpet, flugelhorn, electronics
Brigitte Beraha – vocals
Karen Street – accordion
Shirley Smart – cello
Charlie Pyne – double bass, vocals
Katy Patterson – drums, percussion
Emma Bassett – trombone
The ensemble commenced with the folk influenced “Still Here” written by Street and ushered in by the composer’s accordion. A skilful arrangement full of big band style sonorities included solos from Ahmed on flugel and saxophonists Kay and Freestone plus the Norma Winstone influenced wordless vocals of Beraha.
Freestone’s “Spontaneous Symmetry” represented a musical response to the patterns found in nature and again incorporated Beraha’s wordless vocals with instrumental solos coming from Ahmed on flugel and the composer on tenor sax.
Beraha’s “Donna’s Secret” was inspired by the writings of the American author Donna Tartt and was the first piece to feature lyrics. This ambitious and complex piece was introduced by the pizzicato sounds of Smart’s cello and included a vocal duet between Beraha and Pyne, the composer singing in French, the bassist in English, her lines translations of Beraha’s words. The sight of Pyne singing and playing brought Esperanza Spalding to mind. The piece also included a further tenor solo from the consistently impressive Freestone.
Among the female composers commissioned for this project was the pianist Nikki Iles, the title of whose “Negomi” was the name of the composer’s young daughter, Imogen, spelt backwards. “Negomi” was how the late Kenny Wheeler always used to refer to the young Imogen and there was something of Wheeler’s influence in Iles’ writing and in Ahmed’s beautiful muted trumpet solo.
Other composers commissioned to write for the project include Ahmed, Smart, pianist Nikki Yeoh, Nerija saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi and Interchange’s regular trombonist Carol Jarvis. The latter is currently unwell but her place was ably filled by former NYJO trombonist Emma Bassett.
When present the composer of each tune announced their own pieces and only now, at the end of the set, did Barratt address the crowd. As well as her skills as a saxophonist, composer and arranger Barratt is also a great educator and is the founder of the Jazz Course at London’s Trinity College of Music. However as she pointed out the Interchange project is the only time during thirty years in the music business that she has led an all female band.
Barratt’s own “Samla Korna Med Kulning”, a piece based on a traditional Swedish cattle calling song, ended the proceedings and commenced in atmospheric fashion with the sound of sampled birdsong, cowbells (how appropriate) and rain stick. It was good to see Smart take her only solo of the set on cello, she’s one of the UK’s most accomplished players of the instrument in a jazz context, and fascinating to see her and Pyne playing arco simultaneously. Kay demonstrated her versatility with a clarinet solo with Ahmed again impressing on trumpet. Barratt’s skills as a composer and arranger found expression in the masterful orchestration.
Today’s performance was a successful and enjoyable event in its own right but also acted as a tantalising appetiser for the yet to be recorded album which will be eagerly anticipated and will hopefully appear in 2019, presumably on Barratt’s own Fuzzy Moon record label.
CHRISTIAN McBRIDE BIG BAND, CHELTENHAM TOWN HALL
One of THE events of the Festival was this appearance of the Big Band led by bassist and composer Christian McBride at the Town Hall. The magnificent Victorian edifice was packed t the rafters for the CMBB’s only British date on their European tour.
Born in Philadelphia in 1972 McBride was something of a child prodigy who first came to public attention as a seventeen year old in saxophonist Bobby Watson’s group. He later joined Joshua Redman’s band and released his début album as a leader in 1994.
Since then McBride has continued to record in a variety of contexts from trio to big band and has also been a prolific sideman. His music has consistently straddled jazz genres and eras and the personable and highly professional McBride has been a great ambassador for the music.
Bringing a seventeen piece big band over from the US is no small financial undertaking and it represented a considerable coup for the Festival organisers to bring the McBride Big Band to Cheltenham.
In the main the music was drawn from the CMBB’s second album “Bringin’ It” released in 2017. The band filed onto the stage first, introduced by Festival Director Ian George, and began playing with a youthful stand in bass player as McBride effected the great entrance with his young dep dutifully handing over the double bass.
Then it was ‘down to business’ with an arrangement of “Getting To it”, the title track of McBride’s 1994 début. It was immediately apparent that this was a juggernaut of a band, capable of a huge and authentic big band sound and a prodigious sense of swing, thanks in no small part to the leader on bass. This first item included a number of virtuoso bass breaks as McBride confirmed his leadership credentials and demonstrated his considerable chops. But McBride wasn’t the only star in this band, a glimpse at the line up reveals a number of other great soloists, some of them leaders in their own right. Here we heard the strident trumpet of Benny Burnett, the powerful tenor of Marcus Strickland and the fluent, agile trombone of Michael Dease as McBride urged the audience to clap along. Later the bassist revealed that this rousing opener was based on the groove to James Brown’s “Get It Together”.
McBride’s “Youthful Bliss” was more colourful and subtle, but no less powerful, and included solos from Todd Bashore on incisive, serpentine soprano sax and McBride again at the bass.
The leader’s arrangement of “I Thought About You” represented the first dip into the standards repertoire and was performed as a melancholy ballad with trumpeter Brandon Lee, originally from Houston, Texas providing a sumptuous trumpet solo that was fluent, thoughtful and subtly infused with the blues.
McBride’s bright arrangement of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s “Thermo” picked the pace up again with pianist Xavier Davis - “ the X Man” - prominent in the arrangement and with solos coming from Strickland, who brought his own Twi-Life band to Cheltenham in 2016, on tenor sax and McBride on double bass.
At this point McBride introduced his wife, the singer Melissa Walker, to the stage to perform the song “A Taste Of Honey”. Her voice was soulful and powerful but I’d suggest that this song wasn’t the best vehicle for her talents with only Gabrielle Garbo’s alto solo providing temporary relief.
Likewise the following “Mr. Bojangles”, although this was was at least enlivened by a trombone solo from the excellent Steve Davis and a skilful and entertaining feature for drummer / percussionist Quincy Phillips.
These are not favourite songs of mine and I didn’t find either of them particularly convincing as jazz pieces and was relieved when Walker left the stage and the band got back to instrumentals once more. A lovely ballad arrangement of “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” featured the leader playing the melody on beautifully controlled and articulated bowed bass before handing over to the warm toned tenor sax of Dan Pratt.
Energy levels were raised again with a gloriously funky arrangement of George Duke’s “The Black Messiah”, a tune originally written for Cannonball Adderley. This was to feature the dazzling keyboard pyrotechnics of pianist Xavier Davis and the raunchy, gritty baritone sax of the Canadian born Carl Maraghi. “Get some grease on it!” exhorted McBride as he and Phillips laid down a muscular groove with the drummer providing a powerful back beat.
Walker returned to the stage to sing the standard “The More I See You” with the ensemble now playing old fashioned 30s/40s big band swing.
This was my cue to exit the venue, anxious not to be late for the performance by Kamasi Washington in the Big Top.
In the main I had enjoyed this performance by the Christian McBride Big Band and particularly the attempts to bring the formula up to date. There were some imaginative compositions and arrangements here, supremely accomplished ensemble playing and some intelligent and frequently powerful solos. The instrumental sections of the programme were highly rewarding but I’m afraid Walker’s singing did little for me, too old fashioned, too retro and often the wrong choice of songs.
But I’d listen to the instrumentalists any day of the week.
KAMASI WASHINGTON, HENRY WESTON’S BIG TOP
Los Angeles born tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington (born 1981) seemed to emerge fully formed in 2015 with the release of “The Epic”, an ambitious, sprawling triple album that included a diverse range of musical styles ranging through jazz, rock and hip hop to classical. It was a work on a grand scale that more than justified its title and took Washington to the top of the jazz charts.
But Washington, who has also worked with rapper Kendrick Lamar, found that his music reached out to a wider constituency and “The Epic” turned him into a comparative superstar, as evidenced by this sold out show in a sweltering Big Top.
Washington has since released the mini album “Harmony Of Difference” (the artist actually refers to it as an EP), another ambitious and impressive piece of work that channels the spirit of John Coltrane for the 21st century.
A new full length album to be titled “Heaven and Earth” is due for release on 22nd June 2018 with items from that recording finding their way into today’s set.
Both “The Epic” and “Harmony And Difference” featured at their core Washington’s regular working band The Next Step, a collective featuring some of LA’s most in demand musicians.
At Cheltenham TNS lined up as follows;
Kamasi Washington – tenor saxophone
Rickey Washington – soprano saxophone, flute
Ryan Porter – trombone
Miles Mosley- double bass
Brandon Coleman – keyboards
Tony Austin – drums, percussion
Robert Miller – drums, percussion,
Patrice Quinn – vocals, dance
This was a show that divided critical opinion. I’ve enjoyed and been impressed by both of Washington’s releases thus far and was very much looking forward to this show but in some respects I was disappointed.
In a sense Washington has become a victim of his own success. The size of his following has necessitated a move into larger and larger venues with an attendant increase in volume and a corresponding decline in subtlety. This was a gig that was played at a rock band volume level and as a result the sound was muddy and the separation between the instruments indistinct. The use of two drum kits was a contributory factor with regard to this. Washingtom deploys two drummers on both recordings but live this appeared to be something of an unnecessary luxury. There seemed to be a lot of ‘doubling up’ going on rather than the inter-weaving, interlocking patterns characteristic of the UK’s own Sons of Kemet. As a result the volume of all the other instruments was increased accordingly.
“Change Of The Guard”, also the opening number on “The Epic” announced itself with military style drums and a rousing theme allied to an almost bludgeoning power. Coleman, surrounded by a bank of keyboards, contributed the first solo, fiery, bright and imaginative and deploying a variety of keyboard sounds. Kamasi’s tenor feature saw him moving up through the gears on a marathon solo of gathering intensity. Drummer Miller then featured above a funky, clavinet like groove generated by Coleman.
From the forthcoming album “Heaven and Earth” came “Fist of Fury”, a radical re-working of the theme tune from a Bruce Lee kung fu movie dating back to June, 1972. This was ushered in by Kamasi’s unaccompanied tenor sax intro and featured Coleman’s funky keyboards, Quinn’s spacey, soaring vocals and a flute solo courtesy of Rickey Washington, Kamasi’s father. Next up was acclaimed bassist Mosley, a composer, band-leader and recording artist in his own right. “He plays the upright bass like no-one else on the entire planet” declared Kamasi as he introduced him. Mosley responded with a stunning display of virtuosity, both with and without the bow, as he attacked his instrument with an angry vigour, sounding like Dan Berglund on steroids. But the sound was thick and distorted and partly disguised the full extent of Mosley’s abilities. The band’s other drummer Tony Austin, “our big homey” was also featured, furiously attacking his drums, his wandering of his kit bolstered by Coleman’s underpinning keyboard riffs.
A new Washington original, “Space Traveller’s Lullaby”, calmed things down a little with solos from Porter on trombone and Coleman on acoustic piano.
The set concluded with “Truth”, a piece sourced from “Harmony Of Difference”, a hugely ambitious composition that includes strings, a choir and a host of guest musicians on the recorded version. Featuring five intertwining melodies the piece represents a celebration of diversity - “It’s a metaphor for how beautiful the world can be” Kamasi declared, “our diversity is not something to be tolerated, but to be celebrated”. Like much of the rest of the EP with its one word titles the music represented an updating of the spiritual jazz of John and Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders for the current era and featured powerful solos from Kamasi and a strong vocal performance from Quinn who had caught the eye with her dancing but was at last given the opportunity to reveal her true abilities as a singer.
The majority of the audience rose to their feet to give the band a standing ovation and there was no denying that this was a very exciting and highly entertaining show. Any reservations seem to be the property of the critical fraternity but ultimately I have to admit to being a little disappointed. Somehow I was expecting just a bit more and the poor sound quality lessened this as an experience for me. Fellow crits aside I was probably in a minority and I still class myself as a fan of Washington and his admirably ambitious and far reaching music. I’d certainly be prepared to give him another chance live, he’s clearly a very significant artist, but I was still left with the feeling that today’s event, though enjoyable enough, wasn’t as good as it could have been.
ARUN GHOSH, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
If Washington had been somewhat disappointing my next event, a performance by the British-Asian clarinettist Arun Ghosh was an unexpected triumph.
Born in Bolton of Indian heritage Ghosh has become a popular and important presence on The UK jazz scene and has begun to explore his Indian musical roots on a series of acclaimed albums including “Northern Namaste” (2008), “Primal Odyssey” (2011) and “A South Asian Suite” (2014). His latest release “But Where Are You Really From” explores issues of race and cultural identity in music and is arguably his best album yet.
I’ve seen Ghosh playing live on a couple of previous occasions and always enjoyed his performances which combine a refreshing enthusiasm and energy with great musicality. Tonight though was something else again, in front of the largest crowd seen at the PAC all weekend there really was a sense of Ghosh and his new look band ‘going for it’.
Of the six musicians on stage only alto saxophonist Chris Williams, of Led Bib, Metamorphic and Let Spin fame, remained from previous incarnations. A very young, but highly accomplished, line up also included Chelsea Carmichael on tenor sax, Jessica Lauren on electric keyboards, Marli Wren on electric bass and Tansay Omar at the drums.
The majority of the programme was sourced from the new album and commenced with “Snakebite” , the recording’s opening track. Following the Washington show it was immediately apparent that the volume was much more modest. The sound balance at the PAC had been excellent all weekend (take a bow you sound engineers) and it was far more easy to distinguish the individual instruments in this particular three horn front line. Solos her came from the leader on clarinet and a nervous looking Carmichael, depping for Idris Rahman, on tenor. But Carmichael needn’t have worried, her playing was excellent throughout and she slotted into the Ghosh sextet seamlessly.
Also from the new album and based on Hindu mythology “Nataraja” was next, a modally based piece paced by a sitar like drone generated by a kind of electronic tambura cum shruti box operated by Ghosh. The piece was distinguished by the seductive blending of the horns and solos from Lauren at the keyboards and Williams on blistering alto sax, playing with the same intensity as he does with Led Bib, but in a very different musical context.
“Made In England (for Parv) honoured the Bengali film maker Parv Bancil who died during 2017. This began with a dazzling passage of unaccompanied clarinet from Ghosh as he skipped around the stage, his energy and enthusiasm boundless. The piece was later distinguished by its intertwining horn lines and another strong solo outing from Carmichael.
“Smash Through The Gates Of Thought” found Ghosh aiming for something more “astral” and was introduced by an opening horn fanfare before Wren established a propulsive electric bass line which proved to be the foundation for a theme with a definite TV cop show feel as Carmichael delivered her most assured solo yet, closely followed by Williams and Ghosh.
“Pastoral Sympathy”, subtitled “This Land Is Mine” was inspired by the beauty of the English landscape with Ghosh enthusing about the loveliness of the countryside during the drive to the venue. The piece had a suitably bucolic feel and a folk melody that was simple but peaceful, memorable and uplifting with Williams’ alto prominent in the arrangement.
Ghosh and his colleagues raised the temperature again with “Dagger Dance”, a brief but invigorating burst of energy with a heavy bass, drum and keyboard groove underpinning staccato horn riffs.
Finally we heard “Punjabi Girl”, a composition based upon a traditional wedding song with a feel good vibe and a uniquely Indian rhythm which underpinned a final mercurial clarinet solo from the leader.
At the end of this a packed house at the PAC rose to their feet to cheer Ghosh and his band. This was a standing ovation that felt far more spontaneous than those given to some of the bigger names on the Festival bill.
And make no mistake this band had earned it through their energetic, enthusiastic and welcoming display of musical skill. Ghosh himself charmed the audience with his relentless cheeriness and enthusiasm, which almost got a bit too much at times. But at the end of the day t was the quality of the writing and playing that counted. Ghosh has established his own unique Indo-Jazz sound and it’s a sound for the 21st century.
After the show the line for the merch desk to buy a copy of “But Where Are You Really From” was immense, the longest seen at the PAC all weekend. At one point Ghosh had to take a head count of the queue to make sure that he had enough CDs left. As I said, a total triumph.
I had hoped to speak to Arun afterwards but in these circumstances it was impossible, it took over half an hour for the venue to clear. I did however have along and illuminating chat with Chris Williams about the future plans of Led Bib and Let Spin and more, so my thanks to him for that. All will be revealed at a later date.
In the meantime this was an unexpected contender for “Gig of the Festival”.
VEIN with STAN SULZMANN, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
The final gig of the 2018 Festival programme at the PAC featured this collaboration between the Swiss piano trio Vein and the venerable British saxophonist Stan Sulzmann.
Formed in 2006 by brothers Michael Arbenz (piano) and Florian Arbenz (drums) plus bassist Thomas Lahns Vein have recorded several albums as a self contained unit with all three members contributing compositions. But they also welcome collaboration and have recorded and toured with several well known guest American musicians including saxophonists Greg Osby and Dave Liebman and trombonist Glenn Ferris.
In 2015 I was fortunate enough to witness an excellent performance by the trio with guest Dave Liebman in Birmingham and was keen to see how this collaboration with the versatile and imaginative Sulzmann would compare.
It’s probably fair to say that Vein select their guests wisely and Sulzmann’s playing fitted their music like a glove. The quartet, specifically assembled for the Festival, even began with one of Sulzmann’s tunes, the beguiling “Lake Song” featuring the composer’s fluent tenor soloing followed by Michael on piano.
The writing skills of drummer Florian Arbenz were demonstrated on the next two pieces. “Jammin’ In The Children’s Corner” was appropriately playful with its jagged, angular riffs and Monk-ish piano. Lahns flourished the bow on an attention grabbing arco bass solo while Sulzmann’s tenor work out, accompanied only by the composer’s drums, was equally captivating.
Sulzmann sat out as “Hoarding The Beat” featured Michael’s unaccompanied intro and feverish soloing in a fast and furious trio performance that matched Phronesis at their best.
Vein’s most recent album saw them interpreting the music of the French classical composer Maurice Ravel in a jazz context. It was a recording that included a guest appearance by the British saxophonist Andy Sheppard and Sulzmann stepped into the breach here, stating the theme to “Mouvement de Menuet” and taking the first solo followed by Michael’s thoughtful and leisurely outing at the piano.
Michael’s writing was featured on the boppish “No Change Is Strange”, the use of rhyming couplets in tune titles is something of a Vein trademark. Sulzmann took the first solo on tenor and he was followed by a jaw dropping drum solo from Florian that was both artfully constructed and almost frighteningly intense. It was undeniably impressive.
The quartet returned to the Ravel repertoire for “Pavane” with Michael working under the lid to produce a sound reminiscent of an African thumb piano on the intro before demonstrating his classically honed lightness of touch on a more conventional piano solo. A dialogue between Michael’s piano and Lahns’ bass then paved the way for Sulzmann’s lyrical tenor solo.
The performance concluded with Michael’s composition “Under Construction” which was ushered in by an extended passage on unaccompanied pizzicato bass by the impressive Lahns, followed by a muscular tenor solo from Sulzmann and a closing drum feature from Arbenz that made effective use of cowbell, a knowing nod to the trio’s Swiss origins.
This was an excellent way to close the Festival programme at the PAC and brought down the curtain on what had been arguably the best series ever at this venue. The PAC programme has been described as “a Festival within a Festival” and there are many audience members who attend every event here and rarely venture to the main Festival site.
I saw more concerts at the PAC than at any other venue and extend my congratulations to the sound engineers for a consistently excellent sound, whatever the instrumental line up, and to the highly efficient stage management team who ensured that every event ran to time and effected any in performance turnarounds quickly and efficiently. The stewarding was efficient and courteous and my only minor quibble would be the lack of tea and coffee making facilities at the bar and the non provision of snacks like chocolate or crisps.
I love the PAC and the consistently creative and cutting edge music that it hosts during the Festival with congratulations also going to programmers Emily Jones and Tony Dudley-Evans. The PAC is owned by Cheltenham Ladies’ College and it’s just a shame that the venue isn’t available to the Festival on the final Monday.
Helped by marvellous weather, it was almost TOO hot at times, the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival has been acclaimed as the best yet and I was certainly impressed by both the variety and quality of the performances. Founded in 1996 Cheltenham has become a major event on the UK jazz calendar, long may it continue to be so.
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