Review: Cheltenham Jazz Festival

John Watson braved the bank holiday heatwave to enjoy the wonderful music presented by Christian McBride and others at the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

The cymbals were sizzling ... and so was the weather. A bank holiday weekend heatwave, combined with a programme richly laced with commercial pop and soul acts, helped to bring record crowds to the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Many dedicated jazz fans - and many UK jazz musicians - deplore the presence of pop stars in the Cheltenham programme, but they overlook the fact that without this commercial boost the festival would not be able to afford so many jazz legends, or UK and European groups.

And there was so much wonderful music to enjoy. I’ve been thrilled by the recordings of the marvellous Christian McBride Big Band (pictured right) and to hear the bassist’s joyful outfit live on their only UK date during a European tour was exhilarating. The warmth of the ensemble, combined with absolute precision, is a thrill and yet the music is delivered with such relaxed ease. Masters at work. This year’s festival presented plenty of power-focused bands, notably Courtney Pine - on tenor saxophone with soul singer Omar - and US superstar saxophonist Kamasi Washington (pictured below left) with his heavily bass-driven blend of driving jazz and R&B. But another US tenor saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, offered a powerful straightahead combination that I found much more musically satisfying. His quartet - with pianist Jason Lindner, bass guitarist Kevin Scott and drummer Zach Danziger - delivered power with sophistication and the leader’s use of electronics was tasteful and imaginative.

Guitar master Bill Frisell is an acquired taste for many and he opened his concert of duets with bassist Thomas Morgan by slowly exploring the melodic potential of Moon River. Personally, I can’t settle on a view of Frisell’s music - I hear wonderfully colourful work on some occasions and on others I find too little happening to engage my ear.

But I have no doubts about the potential of one remarkable artist: the Estonian singer, pianist and composer Kadri Voorand (pictured below right). I first heard her at the EFG London Jazz Festival last year and was absolutely bowled over by the engaging quality of her voice, her imaginative arrangements and the wonderfully controlled energy of her delivery. She appeared at Cheltenham with guitarist Marek Taits, bassist Mihkel Malgand and drummer Ahto Abner, who offered suitably subtle support, but it is Kadri’s voice that stays in the memory.

American pianist Jason Moran is another artist whose music is often strongly engaging, as was certainly the case when he appeared with his trio The Bandwagon: bass guitarist Tarus Matten and the marvellous drummer Nasheet Waits.

UK bands abounded, of course, from free improvisation veteran Evan Parker, with electronic wizards Trance Map Plus, to saxophonist Andy Sheppard creating drifting musical colours with guitarist Eivind Aarset, bassist Michel Benita and drummer Seb Rochford; then there were all-woman ensemble Interchange led by baritone saxophonist Issie Barratt, ambient band Portico, driving group Roller Trio and trumpeter Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur. But I’m sure that one band has strong appeal for many longstanding jazz fans. Kansas Smitty’s House Band recreates swing and early jazz styles with technical aplomb, good humour and a sense of dedication. They made several appearance in various settings at Cheltenham over the weekend, but their sell-out concert with the excellent singer Clare Teal was the one I managed to catch. Fans who are purists seem rarely to be satisfied with any musical recreations, but some may perhaps feel that the jazz heritage is safe in the hands of these musicians.

Photos by John Watson

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