by Ian Mann
May 14, 2012
Ian Mann on a curious last day of the festival with performances by Abram Wilson, Hilde Marie Kjersem, Lighthouse and Paloma Faith with the Guy Barker Orchestra.
Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 07/05/2012.
The final day at Cheltenham offered rather less choice than the Saturday or Sunday but still unearthed a couple of gems. It’s a shame that the Monday sometimes seems to come over as a bit of a “winding down” day, something that a series of torrential downpours only seemed to encourage. Nonetheless the festival still signed off with a flourish with singer Paloma Faith performing an extravagant sold out show in the Big Top backed by the assembled ranks of Guy Barker’s massive orchestra. Elsewhere Abram Wilson’s all star septet and the increasingly impressive Lighthouse gave rousing shows whilst simultaneously increasing the jazz content. Meanwhile Norwegian vocalist and songwriter Hilde Marie Kjersem won a lot of new admirers with her blend of pop and rock with just a sprinkling of jazz.
Trumpeter and composer Abram Wilson made a big impression at Cheltenham in 2007 when he performed a Jerwood Foundation festival commission, the jazz opera (for want of a better phrase) “Ride The Ferris Wheel To The Modern Day Delta”, the music subsequently captured on CD by Dune Records.
Originally from New Orleans Wilson was today celebrating ten years of living in London where he has become an integral part of the UK jazz scene. Gregarious and likeable Wilson is also a great jazz educator and had performed a Family Show in the Jazz Arena just before this concert. His energy levels showed no sign of dipping as he and his all star septet delivered a hugely entertaining performance enhanced by a remarkably high standard of musicianship.
Once again Wilson had selected a theme for his Cheltenham concert, a celebration of the 2012 Olympic Games with Wilson taking folk songs from each of the five continents on the Olympic rings and arranging them for a jazz septet featuring saxophonists Peter King (alto) and Jean Toussaint (tenor), trombonist Winston Rollins and a rhythm section consisting of brilliant young pianist Ruben James, Leeds based bassist Alex Davis and Derby born Dave Hamblett at the drums.
Wilson stated that his aim was to bring elements of blues, swing and improvisation to his chosen material and he delivered on his promise in abundance. Some of these tunes were hundreds of years old and their melodic strength allowed plenty of scope for re-interpretation with Wilson and his colleagues using these timeless melodies as the jumping off point for some memorable solos. First up was the English folk tune “Scarborough Fair”, the theme enlivened by rich, blues inflected horn voicings and acting as the springboard for punchy solos from Wilson and Toussaint.
Wilson first heard the South African folk tune “Notano” (English translation “Will You Get There”) in a version by the Soweto gospel Choir. Wilson described the music as being the “South African blues” and many of his choices carried a socio-political message informed by the events following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in his home city of New Orleans. Wilson makes no secret of being on the side of the underdog and the oppressed, many of these tunes were from the leftist tradition and rightly so. James introduced the tune at the piano with the excellent Davis subsequently delivering a wonderfully deft solo as the group remained in piano trio mode. James’ own solo was thrilling, both driving and percussive and imbued with a vitality that has led to him being regarded as one of Britain’s most exciting young pianists. Wilson matched him for excellence with a bravura solo that saw him hitting almost impossibly high, sustained trumpet notes. Scintillating stuff.
From Australia came the Aboriginal song “Gwaldidaro” (English translation “Summer Sky”), another song rooted in cultural oppression. This was a particularly interesting item as Wilson and Rollins affected circular breathing to approximate the drone of the didgeridoo as King and Toussaint centred on the melody. Hamblett introduced the song at the drums and paved the way for a string of thrilling solos. Wilson went first, his playing a combination of blazing open horn and muted growls. King’s alto was biting and incisive and he was followed by the rasp of Rollins’ trombone as Wilson slipped back into the engine room. Next up were Toussaint and James before Wilson reprised his earlier solo.
From Sudan the tune “The Green October” celebrated Mohammad Wahdi who led the protest against the ruling militia during the years 1964-70. Another song inspired by political unrest Wilson told us that the music was meant to represent “prayer, victory and celebration”. James set the celebratory tone with his exuberant piano stylings inspiring brief solos from Rollins and Wilson and a major statement from the peerless King for whom the piece was chosen as a feature.
The Chinese tune “The Olive Tree” was a song of “searching and escape” and of female empowerment. Wilson’s lengthy spoken introductions to each piece were cogent, absorbing and interesting and often involved him reading something of the lyric to establish the tone. The music here was hard driving and swinging (perhaps surprisingly so) with James and Wilson both delivering rousing solos.
From New Zealand the Maori love song “Pokarl Kari Amu” (or something close to it) introduced perhaps the most obviously “folk” melody thus far, a simple almost child like tune that lowered the temperature and allowed for more lyrical soloing from Davis, James and Wilson. It was highly affecting in its simple charm.
This globe trotting set then relocated to Brazil for Francisco Braga’s love song “A Casina”, a vehicle here for Toussaint’s muscular Coltrane styled tenor plus a final send off from Wilson.
Wilson’s whistle stop world tour had been a breathlessly thrilling ride with some brilliant music making augmented by informative and impassioned verbal comment, the whole adding up to a terrific package, both entertaining and thought provoking. An impressively large lunch time audience clearly agreed and called the septet back for a deserved encore. For this Wilson went back to his own roots as Hamblett’s martial drums took us straight to New Orleans for a rousing trad jazz closer featuring a dynamic trumpet/trombone duet, Toussaint on Sidney Bechet style soprano and King’s highly personalised alto. A delightful way to round off a very classy set full of imaginative arrangements and a great way to start the final day.
HILDE MARIE KJERSEM
In an oddly scheduled day Norwegian singer and songwriter Hilde Marie Kjersem was the only ticketed act on between 2.30 pm and 7.15 pm. Kjersem (Tony Dudley Evans pronounced it Chesham, as in, er, Buckinghamshire) appeared with a well drilled four piece band including Christer Knutsen, one of Norway’s leading singer songwriters on guitar, piano and vocals. I didn’t catch the names of the other two (my Norwegian isn’t even a tenth as good as Kjersem’s English) but my research leads me to suspect that they may have been Jo Berger Myrhe of the group Splashgirl on electric bass, guitar and backing vocals and In The Country’s Pal Hausken on drums, percussion and backing vocals. Kjersem, freshly dyed blonde, played autoharp clutching the instrument to her chest as she sang soulfully.
The event was sponsored by the Norwegian Embassy and the show was attended by Fiona Talkington who has championed Kjersem and Norwegian music in general on BBC Radio 3’s influential Late Junction programme. However it has to be said that this was emphatically not a jazz gig even though Myrhe and Hausken are arguably best known as jazz players. However like many Norwegian musicians they don’t like to confine themselves to just one genre. Instead this was a mix of Americana influences, Nordic melancholy and Kate Bush style weirdness with Kjersem’s autoharp adding an agreeably individual element to the otherwise more or less conventional rock band instrumentation. The vocalist varied her delivery, sometimes singing with strength and clarity, at other times displaying a winsome vulnerability as on the highly personal “To Moses”, a paean to her deceased pet dog. Kjersem described her output as “songs of tragic love” but there was an element of fun in there too with one song dedicated to the Kenny character in TV’s South Park. Playful, raunchy and vulnerable by turns Kjersem proved to be a charismatic performer and the support she received from a very accomplished band was excellent. Knutsen proved to be a talented performer in his own right and sang one of his own tunes which revealed him to be an assured vocalist and a very talented guitarist. Elsewhere he also doubled very effectively on piano. I was also impressed with Hausken’s spare but imaginative drumming and would be keen to see him again in a more jazz orientated context.
Song announcements were rare but I assume that most of the material was sourced from what appears Kjersem’s most recent album “A Killer For That Ache” (2007), her début “Red Shoes Diary ” dates back to 2004. Newer material included “We Wipe Ourselves Out” which featured both Kjersem and Knutsen seated at the piano.
The fact that this wasn’t a jazz performance didn’t really encourage me to engage with the music but nevertheless I could appreciate Kjersem’s potential, the quality of her voice and the musical expertise of her colleagues. The rest of the audience (not a sell out by any means) seemed to get behind what she was doing and like Wilson earlier she was called back for an encore, the chorus declaring “Love Me For All The Right Reasons”, presumably also the song’s title.
I’d like to think that Hausken and Myrhe enjoyed their time in Cheltenham and on the assumption that the Festival’s Norwegian strand is going to continue it would be good to seem them coming back next year with the more jazz orientated In The Country and Splashgirl respectively.
Thanks to a curious piece of scheduling there was a three hour gap between the Kjersem group and the appearance by the UK based trio Lighthouse. This did at least allow my wife and I the luxury of temporarily departing the festival site and enjoying a leisurely restaurant meal rather than eating home made sandwiches on the hoof as we’d done the previous two days. Somehow we managed to miss the worst of the weather too, we were either in performances (you could hear the rain drumming on the Jazz Arena roof) or in the restaurant when the conditions were at their worst, torrential rain, hail, you name it. We enjoyed our visit to the Ask Italian restaurant located close to the festival site. The proprietor told us that the festival’s move to Montpellier Gardens had been good for his business and it’s good to learn that the Festival is bringing trade into the town. Maybe they should change their race horse logo to a saxophone!
Lighthouse originated as Lighthouse Trio, an outlet for the compositions of Tim Garland (reeds) and began life as something of a chamber jazz group. However the group’s début for the influential German label ACT shows them adopting a far more rhythmic approach, partly the result of drummer and percussionist Asaf Sirkis’ ever expanding battery of instruments. The brilliant young pianist Gwilym Simcock completes the group and the new album sees him sharing compositional duties with Garland pretty much equally, previously it had been purely Tim’s project. The ACT release, simply entitled “Lighthouse” is the trio’s most focussed and assured recording to date and was recently reviewed elsewhere on this site.
In that review I mentioned the group’s increased rhythmic drive and this stunning show carried on where the album leaves off. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay to the end as we also had tickets to see Paloma Faith in the Big Top and as that concert was being filmed it was a proviso that the audience be seated at 8.15. Initially I was less than pleased with this and on the face of it the scheduling did seem ridiculous with a three hour gap in the afternoon with absolutely nothing going on and then two acts (albeit very different ones) placed almost opposite each other. I consoled myself with the fact that I shall get another chance to see the excellent Lighthouse when they visit one of my favourite venues, The Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock, in September.
But maybe the organisers were on to something. It turned out that Lighthouse and Paloma Faith don’t exactly share the same audience. Instead of the mass 8.00 exodus I was expecting the only departures were us and Alyn Shipton of the BBC and The Times, one of the doyens of British jazz journalism. We exchanged pleasantries and mutual admiration as we walked swiftly between the venues. Alyn told me he reads my blog, I was suitably honoured, it quite made my day I can tell you.
The four Lighthouse pieces I heard made for a marvellous primer for the Wenlock show later in the year. The flamenco flavoured “Bajo Del Sol” from the double set “Libra” got the show off to a tremendous start with a sparkling solo piano intro from Simcock, a blistering soprano sax solo from Garland and propulsive percussion from Sirkis, seated behind an enormous set up of kit drums, ethnic frame drums, clay pots and a hang drum. This was a piece that the trio know well and have developed over the years. It got the concert off to an exhilarating start.
From the new album Garland’s “The Wind On The Water” was more impressionistic, a musical depiction of a midnight walk on a Northumberland beach featuring his own soprano saxophone.
Sharing the announcements with Garland Simcock explained the inspirations behind his piece “King Barolo”. The title acknowledges Acoustic Triangle leader Malcolm Creese’s love of fine wines (Garland and Simcock are concurrently members of that more obviously chamber jazz ensemble). The tune itself appears on the ACT album and is based around the B flat scale of Sirkis’ hang with Simcock endeavouring to find unusual harmonies to match with it. Whatever the theory may be the results are consistently thrilling with Sirkis’ hang motifs and other percussion providing the springboard for joyous, dazzling solos by Garland on tenor sax and Simcock at the piano.
This was followed by Garland’s “One Morning”, a gorgeous tenor sax led lament also featuring Simcock’s delicately lyrical piano with Sirkis providing subtle percussive impetus on the udu, one his a range of clay pots.
Unfortunately we had to leave at this point which was a great shame but which is so often a fact of festival life. Still there’s always the splendid new album to enjoy and the prospect of an even better show in September.
PALOMA FAITH & THE GUY BARKER ORCHESTRA
Routinely described as a “retro soul sensation” London born singer and actress Paloma Faith performed at Cheltenham with the Barker Orchestra two years ago. My own musical snobbery kept me away from that show but I did hear it on BBC Radio 2 and was surprised by just how good it was. This time I was determined not to miss out so my thanks to Cheltenham Festivals press officer Amy Hulyer for squeezing me in to what was officially a sell out.
With Barker at the podium his enormous orchestra, a cross between a jazz big band and massed Hollywood strings, struck up the introductory music and in due course a trio of exotically clad female backing singers appeared followed by La Faith herself in a gold sheath dress and vertiginous high heels. She launched into “Picking Up The Pieces”, the first single from her soon to be released (May 28th 2012) new album “Fall To Grace”. It quickly became apparent that she possesses a huge, powerful voice well suited to her soul orientated material. She’s also a great crowd pleaser with a “Cockney sparrer” intonation that invites comparisons with the late Amy Winehouse. However Faith doesn’t quite have Winehouses’s jazz sophistication (the latter had a teenage stint as vocalist with NYJO, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra) and her homages to jazz divas Nina Simone on “Love Me Or Leave Me” and Billie Holiday on “God Bless The Child” were not entirely convincing as my new friend Mr Shipton pointed out in his festival review for The Times (May 9th 2012).
Although, like Kjersem, she dispensed with announcing song titles the best moments came with her own material which was more suited to her white soul voice. Some of the music was imbued with an almost Dr. John style funk notably “Blood, Sweat and Tears”. Sweeter moments came with soul ballads such as “Let Your Love Walk In” which saw confetti falling like snow from the ceiling and covering the spectators in the front rows of the stalls. See what you get for fifty quid.
Faith enjoyed some spirited repartee with Barker, it’s a shame we didn’t get to hear him play as he’s a brilliant trumpeter, but I guess that tonight that wasn’t part of his remit. Indeed jazz soloing wasn’t what this concert was all about despite brief cameos from Martin Shaw on flugel horn and Barnaby Dickinson on trombone. Other jazz faces spotted in the ensemble were Jim Watson on piano and organ, Ralph Salmins at the drums and Paul Clarvis on percussion. Violinist Sonia Slaney, another player with strong jazz credentials was leading the strings.
The concert concluded with Faith paying homage to the recently departed Etta James with a gutsy version of “I’d Rather Go Blind”, a song far better suited to her belter of a voice and this brought the audience to their feet before Faith settled them down again for a gospel inspired encore.
This was very different to anything else I’d seen over the weekend and overall I enjoyed it. This was purely about entertainment and the reaction suggested that most people were well satisfied with what they’d seen. For many I suspect that it may have been their only event of the festival. Let’s hope that they will be tempted to return although a rather chilly Big Top didn’t represent the most sympathetic of venues.
One member of the “jazz police” stormed out during the first number but this was a show that never had any pretensions to being anything other than pure entertainment and it did make you wonder just what the hell he was doing there in the first place. The tickets were a bit too pricey to just be “taking a punt”.
With ticket sales holding up well Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2012 was a considerable artistic and commercial success. Overall the move to the new location worked well and the Parabola Arts Centre represents a very welcome addition to the list of venues. One or two issues need to be addressed at the main site regarding noise pollution between venues and unsympathetic scheduling but the new look Jazz Arena definitely gets a nod of approval. All in all the festival continues to enjoy rude health and some of the music was terrific. If I had to pick out individual highlights Kit Downes & Seb Rochford would top my personal poll closely followed by Roberto Fonseca, Helge Lien Trio and Abram Wilson, all these performances delivering more than I’d expected. I suspect that Lighthouse would have been up there too if I hadn’t had to leave early. It’s fair to say that I got something out of every performance, even the more pop orientated ones I saw today. The overall prognosis for Cheltenham is good and I’m already looking forward to an even better 2013.
Ian’s Star Ratings;
Abram Wilson 4 Stars
Hilde Marie Kjersem 3 Stars
Lighthouse 4 Stars
Paloma Faith 3 Stars
Overall 4 Stars
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