We dipped our toe into Cheltenham Jazz on Saturday dodging puddles between our gigs. A shame that the elements dampened the festival atmosphere in the gardens behind the town hall where there was a free stage, stalls and a new tented venue, but it didn’t lessen the intensity inside the more tightly clustered venues of the festival’s new format.
Our carefully selected taste of jazz started with the Nikki Yeoh Trio with John Surman in the afternoon, continued with Troyka in the evening and rounded proceedings off with a visit to the festival jam session at the sumptuous Hotel du Vin.
For once the sound in Town Hall’s main room was tolerable for Nikki Yeoh who had Michael Mondesir on bass and Martin France on drums – a fearsome rhythm section. Nikki Yeoh provided a very entertaining line in patter as the seven pieces in the commissioned suite reeled out (using the theme of the seven sins). They were largely based around funky vamps and grooves making the most of that deeply groovy rhythm section with some blazing modal solos from Yeoh. When John Surman joined, his instinct for building a solo really raised the energy levels. I did wonder how many of these pieces would get played again, based as several were on a single, albeit appealing idea. There were some intriguing excursions. A solo piano piece had lots of rippling arpeggios, a boppish head played in unison with piano and sax dissolved into a free improvisation and another piece, Shoes, seemed to have more twist and turns in the melody and structure and evoked an impassioned solo form Surman. The set ended with a rollicking, rousing blues that had us all leaving wanting a bit more. So a good set, that I think will be even more engaging when its been played a few times.We had time to explore (and get wet) before returning for Troyka and a very different sort of gig. The trio of guitar, drums and keyboard (Chris Montague, Josh Blackmore, Kit Downes respectively) made full use of the different sounds and effects available to them. Tunes often seemed to be a series of contrasting loops or sections that the band switched between in the blink of an eye: they incorporate clubby beats, driving rocky vamps and more ethereal noodling interspersed with ferocious improvising. Inspirations seemed to come from all sorts of places – a haunting cover of Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box was a standout moment. This was music that demanded serious attention and for me rewarded it – cosy its not, engaging it is. And so on to the festival jam. Hotel du Vin was getting sardine like as we got there. We amused ourselves with wondering if any of the diners has simply popped out for a quiet meal ‘a deux’ only to be swamped by eager festival goers. The Birmingham Conservatoire student house band were doing a sterling job, especially with a procession of trombones early on (s0me those innocent diners managed a chorus of Happy Brithday to try and put them off!) and then spark of magic – Stian Cartenson of Farmer’s Market appeared with his accordian. He counted in Cherokee at a crazy tempo and spurred the band on, perhaps to play as they didn’t know they could. A good moment to to head back down the M5. Well done Cheltenham, there was definitely a festival flavour to the proceedings.