Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Saturday and Sunday , May 4th & 5th: From Douglas to James with a couple of stops

cheltenhamsignpost Cheltenham festival, back under canvas in Montpellier Gardens for that authentic festival vibe replete with signpost and smorgasboard of music. As I listened on Saturday lunchtime to a friend down from Sheffield reel off his day (Dave Douglas, Ravi Coltrane, Go Go Penguin, Sons of Kemet – possible provided no toilet or food breaks were taken) I felt a bit light weight with my somewhat less is more selection of gigs; two on each of Saturday and Sunday with liberal ‘hanging’ time.  Now, I’m relieved I held my nerve with plenty to suck on. Random images: Jonathan Blake stroking a tear shaped cymbal as Dave Douglas‘ band launch into Be Still (hairs on neck – standing); Mike Gibb explaining the coruscating abstract piece Julian Siegel has just blown the socks off is based around a double augmented scale (nervous laughter – left of stage); Gregory Porter being, well, Gregory Porter (chocolate – in my ears); Reuben James, ah Reuben James. He blew me, and the rest of the Parabola Theatre, away just pick a moment – thunderous solo on St Vitus Dance for one (tears – pricking eyes).

Saturday began with the Dave Douglas Quintet. The band started with a couple of his own tunes the first a tense piece with an insistent pulse, the second a rolling swing feel with  typically angular fragmentary lines delivered at breakneck pace in unison by Douglas and Donny McCaslin on tenor. This band was a whole that was more than its parts. Linda Oh’s bass sounded like a constantly driving pulse until close listening revealed it was an impression created as much by not playing as playing; she seemed preternaturally aware of when not to play so that the momentum was emphasised by someone else. There were layers of rhythm as well as harmony in every piece. The arrangements of hymns and folk songs that followed from his Be Still album continued the theme. Artful twists of harmony or metre beneath the vocal from Heather Masse gave familiar melodies tension or darker moods with bursts of pure emotion from soloists. Dave Douglas on the title track Be Still  produced a moment of pure magic. The return to more overtly jazz orientated material gave pianist Matt Mitchell a few opportunities to show his inventiveness. As much as this was an absorbing and delightful set, it was clear that there was plenty more to hear from in repeated listens. Cue visit to CD store.

A lie down was in order before Gregory Porter to digest some of the Douglas inspired reflections (nothing to do with the ill timed cold I was fighting off).  Gregory pushes a different set of buttons and the buzz, as the Big Top filled up,  suggested that we weren’t the only people excitedly anticipating this gig. Somehow ‘Motor City’ and the music associated with it was never far away in this set.  The band are steeped in the grooves and inflections of soul as well as jazz, no more evident than when the  percussive style of pianist Chip Crawford launched the band into ‘1960 What‘ or alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato reeled out another emotionally pitch perfect solo on the Grammy nominated song ‘Real Good Hands’. But Gregory was centre stage and that voice with its range and control caressing our ears and stirring the hearts evoked the inevitable clamour for more by the time the closed the set.

If I thought I’d planned a more muted Sunday then I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’d saved the most electrifying until last!  First up was the Mike Gibbs Ensemble. This was an hour and half of pure magic. A project to mark 100 years since the birth of composer and arranger Gil Evans, it was a way of being reminded, via full immersion in sound, of how influential he was and how much of what we take as reference points for the sound of jazz,  he had a hand in.  In a set that included all sort of standards and classics either arranged by Evans or by Gibbs ‘in the style of ‘ , take Round Midnight. We learned, from Gibbs during one of his erudite and charming diversions, that the way Miles Davies’ Quintet of the 50s played the Monk standard (the ‘physical arrangement’ of the intro, coda between head and solos, variations in feel) was arranged by Evans though not credited. Gibbs took  this and gave us Round Midnight by Monk, via Gibbs, through Miles, from Gil Evans. And all of modern jazz was there. From the harmonies and abstractions of the the intro and sketchy references to the tune, until the muted trumpet played the bridge (ah.. there’s Miles) the piano inserted little chromatic embellishments (ah.. there’s Monk) and after those dramatic stabbed chords after the head (thanks Gil) a dramatic impassioned tenor solo from Julian Siegel – very contemporary but just perfect. There was much more, including that spooky piece based on a symmetrical augmented scale (ok, thanks Mike for the harmony class).  Back to the CD shop to pick up a pre-release copy of the album, coming soon on Mike Janish’s Whirlwind Records.

And so to the more intimate Parabola Arts Centre for the Reuben James Trio, my only preparation was a dim awareness of the buzz around his name and his youth and his membership of the Abram Wilson’s band in the year before Abram’s premature death.  Oh my. Lot’s of young trios will deconstruct standards, alter the metre, find hooks and riffs to slant familiar melodies. The zest with with which Reuben did it, the drive and energy in his playing with an exquisite instinct of when to stop or throttle back or delay a climax. This was of a different order. There was a fidelity and uproarious delight in the language of straight ahead contemporary jazz but of all the players I’ve seen who can play a few simple, unadorned phrases and create a sense of racing unstoppable momentum maybe only Jason Rebello springs to mind in comparison. The quality of the the rhythm section in Alex Danes and Dale Hamblett shouldn’t be underestimated but it was Reuben’s playing, harmonic freedom and rythmic drive that had me gasping. As well as St. Vitus Dance‘s relatively straightforward treatment, If I were a Bell and Sophisticated Lady were thoroughly, gloriously,  shredded.  That was enough for me. The festival is continuing today. I’m full up.


  1. […] Mike Gibbs Ensemble celebrating Gil Evans (note to self, must get the CD, available on Whirlwind as ‘plus 12′) – occasionally forgot to breath when I was chuckling at a Gibbs anecdote or shaking my head – big band arrangements of Ornette Coleman anyone? Reuben James a tantalisingly short piano trio set just dazzled me. There’s a special magic about his touch and feel – he’s young, so hopefully there’ll be plenty more chances to catch him. Both of these were at Cheltenham Jazz Festival. […]

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