Chris Potter, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Sunday 30th April

Chris Potter and Nasheet Waits were locked together telepathically. Surely.  At the climax of ‘a blues’ that closed the Potter quartet’s set in front of a full Cheltenham Festival house , pianist Davide Virelles and bass man Joe Martin dropped out and showers of notes from the tenor, fused into jagged patterns. They  seemed to be nudged and sorted into rythmic groups by Waits’ bristling drumming as the two paused and chopped up the phrases in lock-step at a dizzying tempo.  It was an electrifying moment in a set full of burning intensity.

Playing mostly pieces from Potter’s latest release on ECM, the band tore into his compositions. Snappy angular themes and bursts of rhythmically arresting hooks bookended and provided a platform for improvisation.   The explorations were unfailingly intense, frequently abstract and dense with explosive moments.  The opener Yasodhara launched with a spiky rhythmic volley and Potter showed why he’s one of the most admired tenor players on the planet with a solo that started with exploratory, darting phrases, before building to a a blizzard of tangled lines.  Ilimba, with an atmospheric sample of drums  developed a an implied poly-rhythmic groove, before Virelles unleashed another solo.  It was an extraordinary display, squalls of notes bundled up into clusters of rhythm with two fisted pummeling of the keyboard interspersed with glittering runs.

Waits was in danger of stealing the show even before the climatic dual at the close of the set.  He boiled with energy continually, building and building momentum. On Ilimba by contrast, he developed a muted solo with beaters; call and response and space to draw breath, as the atmosphere thickened. A second solo later in the set was unbridled energy by contrast, the fusillade pinning us back in our seats. The Dreamer is the Dream was more overtly melodic and rhapsodic, Potter unfurling singing lines on soprano with Joe Martin stepping forward to solo.

On the final blues, the flavour of the form surfaced occasionally through the swirl of colour and texture; bursts of scintillating swing, a sudden switch to surging post-bop lines from the sax, a series of ringing chords from the piano.  Then it would all be chopped up again, perhaps stitched together by a hooting riff from the tenor.

The energy and invention never let up. There was a sense of elation at the end and the feeling we’d witnessed something special.  It is multi-faceted and complex music and the gig an invitation to get hold of the recording, listen again and take in more of that richness.


Cheltenham Jazz Festival Round -Up, April 30th & May 1st

Cheltenham Jazz Festival  just gets better. Uncertain sunshine and icy squalls couldn’t take the gloss off, although it may temporarily have driven a few punters out of the open air festival pitch in Montpellier Gardens. Capacity of the wallet and ability to absorb sublime music limited me to a couple of gigs on Saturday and delicious trio of them on Sunday, almost all of which have been reviewed by London Jazz News’ near wall to wall coverage , so brief impressions here.


Having in recent years come across various alumni of either Birmingham, or Norway’s Trondheim Conservartoires, I thought it was about time I caught up with the Trondheim Jazz Exchange‘s now annual showcase of the current generation of students on Saturday lunchtime. Three ensembles, each a mixture of students from both institutions performed mainly original music seasoned with a few classics. The second drumless ensemble, performed a piece based around a haunting theme that emerged after much atmospherics, and the ethereal sound of Sondre Ferstad‘s harmonica. A sparse pulse from Ben Moorhead‘s bass anchored Simon Ovinge‘s Frisell-esque guitar solo, all lingering phrases and country-ish reverb.   Vittoria Mura‘s tenor completed the quartet that rather stole an absorbing show for me, sandwiched as they were between two very classy sets full of vim and explosive and exploratory playing.  An absorbing hour or so in the present that augered well for the future.

After a bit more dodging of showers, I was back in the Parabola Theatre for The Printmakers to show just why they’ve been nominated (again) for a Parliamentary Jazz Award.  After a few introductory riffles and sighs from the band, Breath Away developed a seemingly effortless headlong momentum, James Maddren on drums and Steve Watts‘ bass a master class in how to lock together and generate propulsive energy without filling all the space up. With Norman Winstone‘s vocal twisting around Mark Lockhart‘s sax it was glorious whilst being familiar.  Niki Iles‘ Tideaway had a ‘natural effects central’ intro with Winstone and Lockhart evoking breezes whilst Mike Walker supplied the seagulls from somewhere inside his guitar. His Clockmaker had the band flying and Maddren lighting a fire under them on a vamp out, no wonder Walker was grinning. They are surely one of our finest small groups, with a playful energy and restrained lyricism that enfolds the listener.


It didn’t take long for the FDR Big Band to warm the cavernous Town Hall early on Sunday afternoon, playing Julian Arguelles‘ arrangements of South African Jazz, much of it penned by the exiles, like Chris Macgregor, Dudu Pukwana with whom he, brother Steve and Django Bates played. Those three were the guests with the big band. Arguelle’s arrangements were sublime, packaging up the irrepressibly joyous tunes and grooves for maximum impact and bouncing the melodies around the band, so they were like a massed choir.   The repertoire was largely that of the CD release Let It Be Told,  but this was a rare, possibly not to be repeated chance to see the live set. I for one left wondering how anything was going to come close for the rest of the day (or maybe the year).

Trumpeter Christian Scott provided a total contrast later in the afternoon on the smaller of the two tented stages, the Jazz Arena.  Tony Dudley Evans (who must have been getting quite a bit of exercise as he popped up introducing every band I saw), described Stretch Music as an embracing  different types and inspirations for music beyond classic jazz. That could have been a metaphor for the whole festival as I’d arrived there via the future  of North European jazz, the cream of English bands and a German big band playing South African music.  It was ironic then, that this set stretched the definition the least although it was no less thrilling for that. This was a new line-up for Scott, with alto Logan Richardson and pianist Tony Tixier joining Scott. As a result, there were just a couple of forays into stretch territory with pre-recorded loops, heavy beats, distorted twisting melodies and lots of effects producing ghostly hoots and keening screeches from the trumpet. Most of the set however was an exuberant, burning versions of some classics with Eye of the Hurricane, Equinox, a modal Donald Harrison piece that even had Scott quoting solos from So What before the tune suddenly veered off into a racing take on Miles Davis’ Dolores.  It was exhilarating stuff, Richardson showing just why he’s so lauded currently and TIxier on piano a revelation. The packed Jazz Arena crowd loved it.

My day ended with another contrast, back in the Parabola Theatre for a Sunday evening set IMG_0002.jpgwith Gioavanni Guidi‘s trio.  The intimate space could have been designed for a set like this.  The trio weave between quite simple themes, sometimes a tone poem, at others the most delicate of Bach – like decorated melodies, still others repeating growling motifs. There may be a hail of notes, sounding like they might be pouring from a bucket, or a single bell like tone allowed to fill the room. Joao Lobo shadowed and complemented every move with rustles, disruptive flurries of rhythm and moody squeals using what looked like random ‘objet trouves’.   A delightful set, ending with an encore of, getting its second airing of the day, the South African stomper, You aint gonna know me cos you think you me dedicated by a grinning Guidi to Claudio Ranieri.

There may be bigger festivals, there may be louder festivals, but the diverse programme and concentrated buzz of Cheltenham’s annual jazz feast is surely hard to beat.




A slice of Cheltenham: Arguelles, Scofield and M & M (and W)

Pic by jez matthews

Pic by jez matthews

Saving the best ’til last can be a bit a risky – will the reality bear the weight of expectation?  There were no worries on that score as Julian Arguelles‘ band, swelled to a septet at the behest of the Cheltenham  festival, delivered an exultant performance last Sunday to bring the curtain down on the sequence of gigs at the beautifully appointed Parabola Arts Centre. His core band of Sam Lassserson on bass, Kit Downes at the piano and James Maddren behind the kit were augmented by the bass clarinet and saxes of George CrowleyPercy Pursglove’s  trumpet and flugelhorn and the trombone of Kieran McCloud. IMG_1453There were so may moments to savour, with composer and arranger in chief Arguelles making full use of the expanded pallette. Fugue, gave us a typically thrilling one.  The central idea was a quintessential Arguelles theme – a mazy extended line that played straight could have had a classical, perhaps Iberian tinge to it, but in his hands had a gutsy swagger with the whiff of a New York cellar bar to it. By the time the layers had built up, there was a hue and cry to wake the dead.  Triality closed the hour and half set with a similar tumult. But even when the band were blazing, there was fiercely controlled intensity to everyone’s playing.  There were tender and more lyrical moments, ballads, individual flurries, including a segue from Percy Pursglove reminding us trumpeters do circular breathing too, that had the audience bug-eyed as he produced a sound from his trumpet that sound for all the world like a microphone in a hurricane.  And at the centre the sublime playing of Arguelles whose phrases flow and spiral, rising and falling in volume like a sigh and growling and grooving in an elemental way.  As Tony Dudley Evans reminded us, this is another voice first heard with Loose Tubes that has become a major  creative force.

That was a great end to a day at Cheltenham’s Jazz festival that had another very good year. Deep pockets are needed if you want to attend more than a few gigs so mine was a day trip on Sunday with the climax in the Parabola Theatre, dipping into a programme that started during the week and intensified over the week end (reviews of much it on Bristol 24/7 and London Jazz News from messrs Benjamin and Turney respectively including ‘Sax legend Saturday’ that saw appearances from Archie Shepp, Lee Konitz and Joe Lovano).   My Sunday started with the intriguing collaboration between fusion guitar legend John Scofield and young, making waves German Pablo Held Trio who showed the Montpellier Gardens audience why they have been getting excited reviews.  Grooves appeared out of swirling abstractions  Pablo Held built layers dissonant arpeggios and stabbing chords over fractured surging IMG_1450pulses from Jonas Burgwinkel on drums and Robert Landfermann on bass.  Somehow it fit seamlessly John Scofield’s guitar as he sometimes seemed to gouge short phrases and notes out with his unabashedly rocky sound, at others deliver silvery bursts of boppish runs thread through the trios accompaniment. At times they kicked into familiar bluesey riffs and they finished on a post- bop burn up on a standard whose title tantalisingly eluded me.  A dense, absorbing gig in stark contrast to Medeski, Martin and Wood who wowed the Big Top with there furious organ trio blend of rock, blues,  New Orleansy gospel. I picked up a fair bit of social media muttering from MMW aficionados about the second half of the gig with guest Jamie Cullum. It did have the air of a jam as they reached for Nature Boy and Caravan, the latter a natural victim for John Medeski’s howling synths and organ, but they gave every appearance of having a great time on stage and it was hard not to relax into it and enjoy from where I was sitting.

A thoroughly satisfying day of jazz immersion with the  festival vibe around the Montpellier Gardens hub and late night jam at Hotel du Vin irresistible. I’ll be back

The shock of the familiar; Welcome back Loose Tubes, Cheltenham Festival, Saturday 3rd May

“I’m feeling a bit emotional” declared Tony Dudley-Evans, Cheltenham Festival host and programme advisor, as he took the stage to introduce the first gig of the re-formed Loose Tubes. He wasn’t the only one. With preview features galore in the jazz press and I’m sure a deluge of reviews to follow, I’m not going to add to them with an account of the gig and the music, but with a brief personal reflection on the emotional response.

Like a significant portion of the audience, I had never seen Loose Tubes live (Ashley Slater‘s wildly divergent repartee in between tunes included an invitation to previous initiates to raise their hands; it was a minority) and yet from the first chord of the huge ensemble, there was something breathtakingly familiar about the sound. It wasn’t the familiarity of a much listened to recording, more like the sound of an old friend’s voice, something that has made up the warp weft of life’s routine.  This was momentarily a puzzle until I reminded myself, with a quick scan of the stage, just who was in the band.   My personal discovery of jazz started around 1990 with a ‘hear something you like – listen to something connected’ odyssey that quickly led to all sorts of music that moved and excited me and was surprised to find under an umbrella marked jazz; Iain Ballamy‘s All Men Amen, Julian Arguelles‘ Phaedrus, bands like The Perfect Houseplants and Django Bates‘ Human Chain and Delightful Precipice.  Which of those bands didn’t have Martin France on drums? Hallf of them had Steve Watts on bass. There they all were on the stage.  Chris Batchlelor was there as well , animator of so many diverse bands, so too was Mark Lockheart. Without knowing it at the time I was delighting in the legacy of the creative maelstrom that was Loose Tubes and an approach to music making that was unapologetically eclectic, often politically committed, always passionate and frequently delivered with a huge grin and a wink.  No wonder the band sounded like an old friend, I’ve been listening to them all in different incarnations for approaching 25 years. And their individual and collective influences are readily apparent if you listen carefully to new generations of musicians all around. Once those Tubes were Loose, there was no putting them back in a box.  I can report that on the evidence of Saturday’s gig, their joy and exuberance in music making is undimmed (old and freshly penned alike) .  Long may they continue. It’s life enriching and life affirming stuff.

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.

Cheltenham Festival 2012 – the wrap up

The venues and organisation of this festival have evolved over the last few years to the point where most of the action is now concentrated on a mini festival site on Montepellier Gardens and what a good move its been. With the Big Top, another large tented stage (the Arena) a free stage, smattering of stalls, a bar there’s a great feel to it. You can just hang out. The occasional beat of a different drum leaked from one stage to another , but it wasn’t disastrous. We went for the ‘less is more approach’ this year (sometimes I’ve overdone it and found myself only half listening to my nth world class gig in a few hours); just a few booked gigs, going to the festival jam at Hotel du vin after hours and lurking near the free stage. I’ve also a sneaking admiration for a booking policy that meant we could have gone from the New York cool of Jeff Williams to the very funky and loud Phantom Limb via Norwegian euro jazz and on to uber classy cabaret entertainment. There was something here for most folk and ages. Truly fabulous moments provided at the jam when Gregory Porter showed up and pushed the Birmingham Conservertoire students to outdo themselves accompanying him (was that Jeff Williams under that trilby on drums?). A bleary eyed friend told me the previous evening he’d watched Chris Potter letting rip with half of Marcus Miller’s band there into the small hours. Another great moment or two were to be had watching the finalist of the Yamaha Jazz experience on the free stage on Monday. An awesome arrangement of Eye of the Hurricane by some very young Jazz Warriors had me whooping.  The weather could have been improved on (webbed feet not compulsory, but they helped), but I’m not sure I’ve got too many other suggestions. See you next year Cheltenham – if you need any help just call.

Cheltenham Jazz Festival contrasts: Jeff Williams, Sunday May 6th; Lighthouse, Monday May 7th

Jeff Williams, American drummer and part time Londoner with a CV that stretches back to the 70s and includes stints with Stan Getz and Dave Liebman was at Cheltenham with his New York Quartet. This seemed like a deliciously contrasting gig to the earlier John Taylor one when we booked the tickets and to Lighthouse the following day which whilst back on mainly European territory seemed like another flavour again (Gwylim Simock’s piano meets Tim Garland’s sax to joust with percussionist Asaf Sirkis). If we’d had to lay bets as to which gigs we’d be humming the tunes to as we skipped down the street afterwards, I’m not sure it would be have been Jeff Williams’ group. The slightly smokey atmosphere on stage might have drifted on with the band from the streets of New York and Jeff’s trilby and shades seemed like a slightly tongue in cheek nod to the urban vibe. The alto sax, trumpet, bass and drums delivered a series of catchy themes, some more angular, some boppish with changes of pace and stops and starts a-plenty. Fez had an arabic souk hint to it and it was trumpet player Duane Eubanks’ Purple Blue and Red that we were humming as we left.  Its the approach of the band that’s stayed with me. They frequently seemed to stop and listen to each other so that there was often only one or two instruments playing – it didn’t seemed to matter, just added to the sense of a joint exploration of some ideas. Jeff Williams has assembled a group of sympathetic voyagers. His drumming is like this, as striking and interesting for what he’s not playing as what he is, even when he’s playing time you can feel the pulse more in what he’s not playing.

Lighthouse by contrast play a lot. There’s plenty of words like breathtaking and dazzling in the press to describe this trio, all richly deserved. Whether its the exuberant vibe and rich harmony wrapped around the simple pentatonic scale of the Hang drum, the slightly bonkers frenetic clubby rhythm of  Ibiza scene inspired Space Junk, the excursions into folky pastoral jazz ballads or thunderous soloing on pieces based on flamenco like grooves, its quite simply exhilarating. Tim Garland and Gwylim Simcock lock seamlessly on intricate themes with Sirkis grinning delightedly following them through every rhythmic swerve. The virtuosity was unforced, I sat back, tapped my foot (there was no dancing in the seating for sardines) and whooped as the pyrotechnics proceeded. We weren’t humming many of the themes after this one, but I was musing on another little insight of the festival; that Gwylim Simcock has a funky left hand. For all the torrent of notes and lyrical lines, he was very funky.