by Ian Mann
May 10, 2012
Ian Mann on the new look Cheltenham Jazz Festival plus performances from the Chris Potter Ensemble, Trondheim Jazz Exchange, Liam Noble Quintet, Fieldwork and Kit Downes & Seb Rochford.
Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 05/07/2012
It was all change at Cheltenham as the Jazz Festival finally parted company with Cheltenham Town Hall, it’s base since the inaugural festival of 1996. Recent years have seen the Festival becoming a bigger part of town life and in 2010 the creation of the Jazz Arena in Imperial Gardens behind the Town Hall took the main festival outside for the first time. For 2012 the festival moved to the larger open area of Montpellier Gardens just off the town centre with events taking place in an improved Jazz Arena and a new Big Top. Some of the more contemporary “cutting edge” events, the type that used to be held in the Town Hall’s Pillar Room were moved to the splendid new Parabola Arts Centre, part of Cheltenham Ladies College with supper jazz events continuing to be held at the Daffodil Restaurant and the Hotel Du Vin.
I’ll admit that when the festival brochure first dropped through my letterbox I was a little disconcerted to see that the festival was taking an even greater step into tented accommodation. However despite the unseasonably chilly weather (allied to some torrential downpours on Bank Holiday Monday) the new arrangements worked very well and with excellent attendances at virtually all the events the 2012 Festival was a great success. There were one or two teething difficulties which I’ll address later but overall the new look festival gets the thumbs up with some great music being heard over the three main days and beyond. The programming remains all encompassing, from the populist to the avant garde, and if the jazz credentials of some of the headliners are a little suspect that matters little if they help to subsidise some of the more esoteric (and to these ears more interesting) aspects of the programme. In other words Cheltenham has something for everyone.
CHRIS POTTER ENSEMBLE
My festival began in the new look Jazz Arena. The venue was certainly a big improvement on last year’s model with good sight lines and a suitably cushioned floor that solved the problem of people noisily clumping about, something that had marred 2010/11’s Jazz Arena events. I attended several events at the 2012 Jazz Arena and enjoyed them all, the music being enhanced by consistently excellent sound quality, sympathetic lighting and courteous, common sense stewarding. Introducing the final concert at the Jazz Arena on Monday the festival’s Artistic Director Tony Dudley-Evans thanked the Jazz Arena team for a job well done, sentiments I can but echo.
On then with the music. American saxophonist and composer Chris Potter last visited Cheltenham in 2011 as a member of the all star Overtone Quartet but this time his remit was very different as he played music from his 2007 album “A Song For Anyone” with a group of young players from Birmingham Conservatoire. The line up included instruments more usually associated with classical music and the full ensemble comprised of Pei Ann Yeoh (violin), Ruth Woolley (viola), Lucy French (cello), Gareth Fowler (acoustic guitar), Dan Casimir (double bass), Ric Yarborough (drums), Hannah Kitson (bassoon), Rebecca Woodcock (clarinet) and Hannah Smalley (flute) with Potter concentrating on tenor saxophone.
I’ll admit to not being familiar with Potter’s album but I’m told that he now regards it as something of an “educational piece” and has previously performed it with students from other institutions in different cities. Inevitably much of the focus was centred on Potter’s own playing, he’s a remarkably fluent tenor saxophonist who makes improvising on the instrument look easy and he was given plenty of space here, making his mark on the opening “The Absence”, his Michael Brecker inspired solo flights punctuated by neo classical interludes from the students.
“Chief Seattle” added a sly funk element to the proceedings with the strings becoming more fully integrated. Potter also gave the ensemble members more opportunity to express themselves. First the leader engaged in sparkling dialogue with the impressive young bassist Dan Casimir and this was followed by quality solos from Fowler on cleanly picked acoustic guitar and Yeoh on keening violin. The slow blues “Family Tree” then featured Woodcock’s clarinet alongside Potter’s smouldering tenor.
Potter presented the next four pieces from the album as a kind of mini suite. “Estrellas Del Sur” began with French’s solo cello before Fowler picked out the folk like melody on acoustic guitar before embarking on a subsequent solo. Potter followed him with one of his best tenor solos of the set before switching to bass clarinet for a duet with the excellent Yeoh which seemed to act as a bridge into “A Song For Anyone” itself with subsequent solos coming from Woodcock, Fowler and Potter now back on tenor. “The Arc Of A Day” began with a solo drum intro from Yarborough before adopting a mournful, dolorous tone underscored by brooding cello. The mood then shifted to something more spiky, angular and atonal, climaxing in a further feature for Yarborough before coming full circle. “Against The Wind” began with a stunning passage of solo tenor saxophone with Potter at times adopting a Jan Garbarek like tone. As the band came in his subsequent solo was both soaring and uplifting and climaxed a thoroughly enjoyable set with stunning playing from Potter and some excellent contributions from his student band with Yeoh, Woodcock, Fowler and Yarborough all featuring prominently and impressively.
However the best was saved for a deserved encore with the consistently impressive Dan Casimir providing a superb solo bass introduction to the gospel flavoured “All By All”, one of Potter’s most irresistible melodies and a piece garnished by one final flowing tenor statement from the great man.
This was a good start to the day with both master and pupils acquitting themselves well and all can take pleasure in a job well done. There were moments when the strings seemed a little “grafted on” but this paled into insignificance alongside the magnificence of Potter’s own playing. Some opined that they would rather have seen him with an orthodox jazz quartet but basically that’s what Overtone gave us last year. This was a good example of one of the giants of the music giving something back and the project fitted neatly into the festival’s education and outreach remit. Well done to all concerned.
As a postscript I heard Potter talking To Jamie Cullum on the latter’s excellent Cheltenham round up show on Radio 2 the following Tuesday. Potter spoke warmly of the contribution made by his student band commenting that the standard of their playing had exceeded his expectations. Cullum illustrated the feature by playing a recording of “Family Tree” which made for interesting and enjoyable listening.
TRONDHEIM JAZZ EXCHANGE
The last few years at Cheltenham have seen a fruitful series of exchanges between students on the jazz courses at Birmingham Conservatoire and Trondheim Conservatory. Indeed the whole festival has a strong Norwegian connection with the Norwegian Embassy acting as a festival sponsor in recent years. The Trondheim Jazz Exchanges have proved to be extremely popular events and this was my first time at one of them as previous years have been sell outs. The Parabola Arts Centre was commendably full for the 2012 event which brought together three very different quartets each containing two members from each faculty playing original music that had been workshopped in intensive rehearsals over the previous two days. It’s to the credit of the students that all three bands were incredibly well integrated after such little preparation time, they must all have worked extremely hard.
The first quartet consisted of Birmingham students Nick Dewhurst (trumpet) and James Banner (bass) plus Norwegians Eskil Gaare Hostad (guitar) and Matilda Rolfsson (drums). As with each of the ensembles every member brought along one tune each and Ensemble 1 kicked off with “Don’t Walk Naked” by Hostad which featured Dewhurst’s wispy Miles Davis style trumpet and Hostad’s subtly FX laden guitar. Rolfsson on drums graduated from brushes to sticks and brought a pleasing element of genial idiosyncrasy to the music.
Banner’s “Sesame Street Blues” proved to be a winning ballad with more cool school style trumpet from Dewhurst and an effective bass solo from the composer above a backdrop of delicate guitar shadings and gently brushed drums. Rolfsson was also deployed in a series of imaginative drum breaks and has already developed a highly personal style on her chosen instrument.
I first encountered Nick Dewhurst’s playing at the 2009 Lichfield Real Ale Jazz & Blues Festival where he appeared with his group Funktional. This was a big gig for such a young group and they rose to the occasion magnificently with Dewhurst revealing himself to be a gifted writer and also a pretty decent guitarist! He’s got a strong entrepreneurial streak too which should stand him in good stead if he decides to go fully pro. He was good then but as today’s show revealed he’s matured a lot since then and is now a highly versatile trumpeter. His upbeat tune “Tight Schedule” was inspired by watching bassist Euan Burton’s group at a recent gig in Digbeth, Birmingham. Here Dewhurst came on more like Freddie Hubbard, his bebop trumpet lines shadowed by clangorous guitar chords as he and Hostad traded solos followed by a Rolfsson drum feature. This catchy injection of pace proved to be a winner and was well received by the generous Parabola crowd.
The quartet closed their set with “M”, an atmospheric adaptation of a Swedish folk tune brought to the group by Rolfsson. An impressionistic intro featured arco bass and bowed cymbals with solos from Dewhurst on flugel horn and Banner on bass, the whole underpinned by Rolfsson’s painterly drumming. This haunting piece finished with the rich, dark sound of Banner’s bowed bass and concluded a well paced, highly successful set.
The other two groups were to be equally effective. Ensemble 2 featured Elsa Bergman on double bass and her companion Sondre Pettersen on vocals, lap top and piano. British involvement came in the form of alto saxophonist Chris Young and drummer James Anderson. This proved to be a highly unusual ensemble with the two Norwegians the most distinctive elements. Bergman’s grainy arco bass introduced her own composition, a deeply atmospheric number that built in layers of treated wordless vocals, cymbal shimmers and squiggling alto. It seemed to come deep from the Norwegian forests, with wolves, much like the one depicted on Bergman’s T shirt, lurking in the shadows. Pettersen’s self processed vocals were imbued with a shamanistic quality and seemed to owe something to his fellow countryman Arve Henriksen. An unorthodox but highly effective start.
Chris Young’s offering was more upbeat with Bergman’s propulsive bass figure the springboard for Young’s agreeably assertive alto soloing. This was less distinguished than Bergman’s opener but represented a necessary change of pace.
Anderson’s offering was a skewed version of “Pop Goes The Weasel” , a vehicle for Petterson’s fractured vocal loops plus a further alto solo from Young and a closing drum feature. It didn’t sound anything like Anthony Newley.
Pettersen’s contribution closed the set, a tour de force of eclectic vocalising with Norwegian lyrics looped and echoed and with the singer eventually moving to the piano for a hypnotic climax that featured an extended Young solo above pounding rhythms. This was the most idiosyncratic of the four ensembles and, allowing for the fact that jazz is an international language, the most obviously Norwegian. Pettersen divided opinion but I enjoyed his contribution which was original and distinctive, give me this type of electro enhanced eccentricity over a crooner any day. All were agreed that Bergman’s performance was highly impressive ranging from shadowy, atmospheric bowing to rock solid time keeping. A name to watch.
Ensemble 3 was rather more conventional but no less impressive. Norwegians Martin Olsen (alto sax) and guitarist Viljar Dyvik Sellevold proved to be highly fluent soloists and they were given muscular support by a British rhythm section consisting of bassist Stuart Barker and drummer Nathan England-Jones.
Olsen’s opening tune featured Sellevold’s fleet fingered single note soling and jazzy chords allied to the composer’s agile, bop tinged alto well supported by Barker’s muscular bass lines and England-Jones’ crisp, propulsive drumming. England-Jones climaxed the piece with a hard hitting solo, his macho approach an interesting contrast to the distinctively feminine drumming style of Rolfsson.
Sellevold’s ballad “Rise” then featured his own guitar plus the lyrical but resonant double bass of Barker. The bassist described his own “Friday Night Club” as “a dark tune”, something reflected by the subsequently subdued lighting with solos from guitar and bass again the order of the day. England-Jones’ lively hard bop style closer took things storming out with a blistering alto solo from Olsen and a final rousing drum feature.
Although more orthodox this final grouping was probably the slickest of the three ensembles with Olsen and Sellevold already exhibiting a mature confidence as soloists. They were well matched by a UK rhythm section who provided the kind of solid platform they needed and still found plenty to say on their own account.
Overall all twelve musicians impressed and it’s clear that the future of jazz in both countries is in very good hands. Finally it was interesting to note that saxophonist Hanna Paulsberg, a previous Trondheim Jazz Exchange performer was later headlining a set with her quartet on the festival Free Stage. I tried to catch a bit of this but the venue was rammed, as indeed it was for most of the weekend, something I was very pleased to see even if it did scupper my plans to dip in and out of events there. I didn’t get much more than a glimpse of Paulsberg but what I heard was impressive and she certainly seemed to be appreciated by the large crowd. Another time perhaps.
LIAM NOBLE QUINTET
I spent the rest of my day dropping in and out of the Parabola Arts Centre. This splendid new facility is part of Cheltenham Ladies College and is an intimate but surprisingly capacious performance space that is ideally suited for contemporary small group jazz. The sound and lighting were excellent here too with the only quibbles being restricted leg room (I think the seating must have been designed with schoolgirls in mind) and a rather rudimentary bar/café area. However the Festival plan to use it more next year, a decision I thoroughly approve of. In effect it has replaced the Pillar Room, the scene of many memorable festival gigs over the years. I’ll miss the Pillar Room but feel that the Parabola will be a more than adequate replacement with better sight lines and a greater degree of comfort overall. I invariably found myself standing at the back of the Pillar Room to get a good view so the new venue scores here and if the reaction to the performances today is anything to go by the Parabola is also going to match the Pillar Room for atmosphere and excitement.
For this gig sponsored by Jazzwise Magazine pianist and composer Liam Noble augmented his core trio of Dave Whitford (double bass) and Dave Wickins (drums) with the considerable talents of Chris Batchelor (trumpet) Shabaka Hutchings (reeds). Noble, Whitford and Wickins recorded an acclaimed collection of re-workings of Dave Brubeck tunes, simply entitled “Brubeck”, for Basho Records in 2009 but for this performance Noble decided to eschew his Brubeck repertoire and presented a series of brand new compositions. These showed great promise but this was only the quintet’s second gig and with everybody reading assiduously things sometimes seemed a little too formal. Hopefully Noble can keep the quintet together and they can develop the kind of inspired looseness that comes from regular live performances.
Having said that there was still plenty to enjoy with Noble’s “The Witch” enlivened by the colourful and inventive drumming of Wickins who supplemented his kit with a variety of small cymbals and other exotic items of percussion. His prompting conjured cogent solos from Noble, Batchelor and Whitford. Noble is a highly individualistic pianist who draws on influences such as Brubeck and Thelonious Monk to produce solos in which his left hand rhythmic patterns frequently demand the attention as much as his right hand melodic flourishes. It’s that characteristic low end rumble that persuaded Noble’s young daughter to remark that the tune sounded “like a witch”.
Inspired by the writings of a mediaeval Japanese monk “Essays In Idleness” was more impressionistic, a kind of tone poem that opened with Noble’s interior scrapings and the rustle of Wickins’ various percussive devices. Long intertwined horn lines, with Hutchings on tenor sax, added to the air of contemplation.
“Poacher’s Pocket” varied the pace with its chunky angular rhythms and dovetailing horns with Whitford delivering another fine bass solo over Noble and Wickins’ hypnotic rhythmic figures. The drummer opened the intriguingly titled “You’re Doing That Thing Again” which featured Hutchings extensively on clarinet, both soloing and in inspired dialogue with Noble. Further solos came from both Noble and Batchelor.
“Move Along Song”, still a working title as Noble explained, was introduced by Whitford at the bass before unfolding slowly and hypnotically, the gentle grooves framing a haunting Batchelor solo, his trumpet whispering eloquently above a backdrop of delicately brushed drums.
“Clint”, variously named after the actor and a friend’s cat of the same name, was more upbeat and playful with a subtle Latin inflection. This was notable firstly for Hutchings’ nimble clarinet solo and then for the sparky duet between Noble and Batchelor, the trumpeter producing seemingly impossible notes from his horn in a virtuoso performance.
The set concluded with “Geri”, a joyous tribute to fellow pianist Geri Allen (Noble was at pains to point out that it wasn’t for Geri Halliwell - or Harry Jellywell as I prefer to call her). Opening with a sparkling piano/drum duet the piece was distinguished by spirited solos cued by Noble with a nod of the head from the piano. Thus we heard from Hutchings on tenor, Wickins at the drums and Batchelor on trumpet.
This had been an enjoyable performance with Noble displaying considerable charm as an announcer and producing some great work at the keyboard. His band mates all acquitted themselves well and the quintet earned themselves a great reception from the knowledgeable Cheltenham crowd. This is an ensemble that can only get better and it is to be hoped that Noble gets the opportunity to document this material on record.
I’ve been a long term admirer of pianist Vijay Iyer’s work for the German ACT label, both solo and with his trio of Stephan Crump (bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums). An American citizen of Indian heritage Iyer has also worked with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and has also recorded an album (“Tirtha” on ACT) that explores his Indian roots.
However, for all this I knew nothing about his long running Fieldwork project prior to receiving this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival brochure. Iyer initially convened the group in 2002 with a line up featuring tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee. By the time of their second album, 2005’s “Simulated Progress” Stewart had been replaced by altoist Steve Lehman. The current line up of Iyer, Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey appears on 2008’s “Door” and was also the configuration present at Cheltenham.
Lehman made a big impression when he visited the UK with his octet in early 2011 playing acclaimed concerts in both London and Birmingham. One of the undoubted stars of these performances was dynamic drummer Storey, a mountain of a man and a ball of barely suppressed energy. As the trio took to the stage at the Parabola Arts Centre Sorey couldn’t resist taking a swipe at a cymbal before the concert had even started.
Iyer and Lehman are both musicians who are known for their intensity of focus and intellectual rigour but it’s Sorey, seemingly the wild card, the street kid to the others’ professors, who’s the predominate compositional force on “Door”. Given the qualities of the musicians involved it was perhaps no surprise that their Cheltenham set was fierce and uncompromising and sometimes almost frightening in its intensity. The trio played four lengthy pieces, all unannounced, but despite the austere nature of their approach there was still much to enjoy about the music.
The first piece began with Iyer reaching into the body of the piano to dampen the strings as Lehman blew dry, acerbic phrases on his alto and the ever restless Sorey set about re-arranging his kit as his colleagues duetted. When Sorey began to play it was with a simmering intensity, even in the quietest moments, when he really went for it his power was explosive, sometimes dislodging his cymbals from their stands. Arguably he was too loud, impressive as he was, either that or Iyer’s piano was buried to deep in the mix, although this didn’t seem to be a problem for the acts that came before or after. In any event I was disappointed not to hear rather more of Iyer, the group founder and a musician whose playing I have admired elsewhere as I’ve said.
That said the second piece did bring a degree of lyricism from Iyer and a shrewdly constructed solo from Lehman on alto, the saxophonist making use of the instrument’s key pads as a kind of auxiliary percussion.
Similarly it was Lehman’s solo alto that introduced the third piece impressing this time with his manipulation of breath and use of multiphonics. As the rest of the band came in Lehman continued to solo at length, urged on in his marathon efforts by Sorey’s powerful rock rhythms. Eventually Lehman dropped out leaving the stage to Sorey for a typically powerful drum feature. It was left to Iyer to introduce a degree of lyricism to the proceedings with an arresting melody that mutated via the way of an expansive solo into a pounding riff.
The final piece was Fieldwork in microcosm, building from Iyer’s solo piano introduction through Lehman’s powerful alto solo to a fizzing piano/drum exchange and finally to an explosive drum barrage from Sorey that had the audience whooping with delight.
Writing in the Telegraph Ivan Hewett complained that the trajectory of the four pieces was rather predictable and I’ll concede that he has a point. However the main disappointment for me was the rather indistinct piano sound. For all the blood and thunder there was still much here to enjoy and I couldn’t resist going out and buying the “Door” album which offers a greater degree of light and shade. Fieldwork will probably play better shows than this but they remain an intriguing prospect and I’m sure that for many the presence of Sorey was worth the admission fee on its own.
KIT DOWNES & SEB ROCHFORD
During Fieldwork’s set Sebastian Rochford was stood at the back of the hall drinking it all in. Rochford can often be seen checking out other artists, for all his abilities as a musician and composer he’s also a fan and his enthusiasm for all types of music is a joy to see. Even before I ever heard him play he was a familiar sight at Cheltenham, “the weird bloke with the big haircut at the back of the room”.
Both Rochford and Downes seem to have a particular affinity for Cheltenham. I’ve seen both give brilliant performances here, Rochford with Acoustic Ladyland, Fulborn Teversham, Polar Bear and Trio Libero, Downes with his trio, sextet and last year as a member of Django Bates’ TDEs. The festival seems to bring out the best in them and tonight’s brilliant duo performance at a sold out Parabola Arts Centre was no exception.
The stage contained just a grand piano and a modest drum kit but what a rich tapestry of sound the duo spun out of these apparently modest resources.
The music began with Downes’ tune “Jan Johansson”, a tribute to the late Swedish pioneer of “folk jazz” and a primary influence on the current Scandinavian jazz revolution. Rochford began with softly brushed accents, gradually developing a subtle hip hop groove that both complemented and contrasted with the pastoral melodies played by Downes at the piano. A lovely start.
It was surprising to see just how relaxed the duo were, sharing the announcements and bantering with one another like “the two Ronnies”. All Rochford’s tunes bore the same title “Iramu”, which sounds like something off Reeves and Mortimer and provided the springboard for much of the duo’s good natured humour. A segue of the first piece of this name with Downes’ “All The Dogs” was notable for Downes’ beautiful solo piano intro and the range of sounds Rochford coaxed from his kit with a variety of sticks, brushes, mallets and bare hands. This was painting with sound, something at which Rochford is a master. It was totally different to Sorey’s hammer and tongs approach but even more effective. But Rochford can do full on too, witness his work with saxophonist buddy Pete Wareham’s punk jazz outfit Acoustic Ladyland (now rechristened Silver Birch with the addition of electronics whizz Matt Calvert)). Only recently I tuned in to Later with Jools Holland and was presently surprised to spot Seb hammering hell out of his kit behind former Suede frontman Brett Anderson. There’s no end to this guy’s versatility. The second “Iramu” tune was a good example of this, the first half of the tune a spellbinding performance of painterly solo hand drumming before Rochford picked up the sticks to give just a glimpse of his latent power.
Rochford’s writing for Polar Bear often begins with simple, almost na?ve melodies and this childlike element was apparent in the theme of the lovely “When They Go They Don’t Come Back” (now rechristened, inevitably “Iramu”, it was Downes who gave the working title away). Once again the patter of hand drums melded superbly with Downes’ sublime touch at the piano.
This had been a spellbinding performance from the duo, their use of space almost as important as the notes and beats that they played. Not since Gary Burton and Chick Corea at The Barbican back in 2008 have I seen a duo totally mesmerise an audience in the same way. Everybody was totally engrossed and the rapturous ovation the pair received as they concluded their set represented a glorious release of tension, both audience and musicians had been concentrating intently and the air of hushed reverence had been palpable. It also has to be said that the Parabola was almost the perfect venue for them.
After this an encore was inevitable and the duo quickly regathered their thoughts and recaptured the mood with a beautifully controlled performance of Downes’ lovely tune “With A View”. This had been yet another Cheltenham triumph for the pair and was an unexpected winner of my “Gig Of The Day” award. The duo have played relatively few shows together but had “woodshedded” the material intensively and the intimacy and atmosphere of mutual trust that had developed from these sessions was apparent from the start. Let’s hope that they also get the opportunity to document this very fruitful, and hopefully long running, partnership on record.
Ian’s star ratings;
Chris Potter 3.5 Stars
Trondheim Jazz Exchange 4 Stars
Liam Noble 3.5 Stars
Fieldwork 3.5 Stars
Kit Downes & Seb Rochford 4.5 Stars
Overall 4 Stars
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