It’s time for us to leave the Cheltenham Jazz Festival but before we actually depart leafy Montpelier Gardens, the festival site, we thought we’d give you a review of what made this year’s gathering so very good – the best yet in the views of many regulars we talked with.
We’ve already posted about the fabulous Friday Night is Music Night, hosted by the BBC. People spent all weekend talking of it and it really was that good – how often do you get to a 70 piece band with a full string section and seasoned jazz men playing together? Saturday was, for many, ‘Loose Tubes Day’. The appearance of the 20 strong collective, their first in 20 years, was eagerly anticipated and it didn’t disappoint. Playing a mixture of old material and newly commissioned compositions by BBC Radio 3 it was pure delight. With Django Bates conducting much of it from his keyboard it was tight, fresh and above all, just how many of the audience remembered them. A show of hands had maybe a third of the packed Big Top having seen the band, “back in the day.” As one of the band quipped, “the rest of you were probably not born when we were around in the old days.” Among the new compositions was one named, ‘Smoke & Daffodils’ which was outstanding.
Among the other highlights of Saturday was Denys Babptiste and his composition, ‘Now Is The Time’ marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assignation. It was everything it was hoped it would be and more. Robert Cray brought his unique blend of blues and soul to the Big Top; his four piece of Hammond B3, bass, drums and Cray’s stellar guitar work was superb. For some it was a rush to take the 10 minutes walk to the Town Hall for Kurt Elling’s solo show. Whereas in the big band setting he was outstanding, his performance hit a new level with his four piece band of piano/organ, bass, guitar and drums. Elling’s vocals are exposed in all their glory and he took the audience on a musical journey in songs of love from France, Poland, Cuba, England and America. When it was over the audience were left, wanting more… it’s the sign of consummate performer that he did just that.
While all this was happening Jamie Cullum broadcast his BBC Radio 2 show, live from the backstage area, which at times was technically demanding and it was to Jamie’s credit that he held the thing together so brilliantly and proved that he is a master of radio, much like he is at the keyboard and microphone. Late night Saturday at the Town Hall was the eagerly awaited appearance of Snarky Puppy and their funked-up modernized take on all things 70s –there were hints of the Ohio Players, Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder meets the Funk Brothers – is it jazz? Who knows, and who cares when it is so popular and brings people to the world of jazz. Their set was followed by Gilles Peterson who played his usual eclectic mix of world, hip hop, afro beats and in this 75th year of Blue Note a good smattering of classics from the label.
Sunday lunchtime may not be the obvious time for jazz – unless it’s a Sunday brunch with a three piece going through the GAS with more intent than panache. However, we were treated to Ambrose Akinmusire (pronounced Akin-muse-ery) and his unique and beautiful chamber jazz. Much of his set was from his new Blue Note album, the brilliant, ‘The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint’. Along with pianist Sam Harris, drummer Justin Brown, and Harish Raghavan on bass Ambrose weaved a kind of magic rarely heard from jazz trumpeters these days. The audience was captivated and there was a sense of having witnessed something very special on appropriately, a Sunday. We missed Jake Isaac and Lake Street Dive but caught them later doing a couple of acoustic numbers and what is clear is that Isaac is a star turn. Other standouts from Sunday were veteran drummer Billy Cobham who gave a master class in drumming brilliance and also Liane Carroll was back doing her trio thing and it was further proof of her immense talent.
For many the highlight of Sunday was the return of Cheltenham’s own prodigal son, Gregory Porter. He’s been claimed by many Cheltenham Ladies as their own and there were not a few men who fell under his spell with his unique take on jazz, Marvin Gaye and deep soul. His voice commands respect and his stage presence is huge and he did not disappoint with the audience in raptures – with the added bonus of Akinmusire guesting on trumpet. There are still some who have not heard his Blue Note album, ‘Liquid Spirit’, which to those of us who have been n his secret for so long find strange, but then again they are in for a special treat – hearing it for the first time. Quite simply it is a game-changer. From 9pm until 11 Clare Teal was broadcasting live from the backstage area and like Jamie did an outstanding job – as well as singing quite a few songs. We caught the last part of the show and her afternoon rehearsal with her trio at which she did a beautiful version of Peggy Lee’s ‘The Folks Who Live On the Hill’ among others.
Sadly we shall be missing Curtis Stigers’s solo show on Monday as well as Jools Holland and his Rhythm And Blues Orchestra with Gregory Porter as his special guest.
Ian George. the Festival’s director, does an amazing job in collecting together so much talent in one place and the way the whole thing is organised leaves most festivals in the shade. Kudos! Like Kurt Elling did we’ve been left wanting more, which means we shall definitely be back next year.