Review: Cheltenham Jazz Festival

John Watson braves Cheltenham's miserable weather to be rewarded with magnificent music from a festival that this year had a distinctly funky flavour

The Cheltenham Jazz Festival has been one of the UK's most significant celebrations of fine music for 20 years. The event, over six days at the end of April and beginning of May, attracts huge crowds to the gorgeous Cotswold town, with concerts mainly staged in marquees in Montpellier Gardens, plus the Town Hall and the Parabola Arts Centre.

The 2016 festival had a distinctly funky flavour, with stylish performances by soulful American saxophonists David Sanborn (pictured right) and Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Christian Scott, singers Jose James and Lizz Wright, plus a sprinkling of box­-office-boosting pop stars including Beverley Knight.

Sanborn always gives an eloquent performance, and his band in the Big Top provided snappy sounds to back the cry of his alto. Strickland has a freer approach, quite Coltrane-oriented, ­ while Scott’s band is underpinned (or undermined, perhaps) by earth­shaking subterranean bass beats. Scott is a very fine, dynamic trumpet player, but his band was even more painfully loud than the Strickland band. Jose James operated at a more sensible volume level, but I enjoy his smooth voice more than I like his commercially inclined current material.

Lizz Wright (pictured left) delighted a packed Town Hall with her interpretations of songs from the Gershwin repertoire, expertly backed by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, with the marvellous arranger Jim McNeely conducting. This band was back in action the next day with UK saxophonist Julian Arguelles, playing his arrangements of South African-­inspired jazz gems, featuring Julian’s brother Steve on percussion and Django Bates on keyboards. The ensemble sounds were much more mellow than those of the unforgettable Brotherhood of Breath and the playing often lacked a wild edge, but overall it was a worthwhile venture.

The festival offered a range of adventurous and explorative music to satisfy those fans who crave something challenging, from the fiery and complex improvising of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, the powerful tonal adventures of the group Shiver, the spacious mellow tones of Meadow, to the imaginative improvising of Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi’s trio. All these groups appeared at the Parabola Arts Centre, where many of the weekend's most intriguing concerts were staged. Meadow with percussionist Thomas Stronen, bassist Anders Jormin and saxophonist Tore Brunborg gave a moving tribute to group founder member the late John Taylor. There were also impressive performances at the Parabola from The Printmakers (with singer Norma Winstone making, astonishingly, her Cheltenham debut), alto saxophonist Mike Fletcher’s trio with Spanish trumpeter Julian Sanchez as special guest, and altoist and hip-­hop exponent Soweto Kinch, whose group featured the celebrated American drummer Gregory Hutchinson.

It’s impossible to catch every event at major festivals, so I had only brief hearings of performances by blues veteran Taj Mahal, Afro-­Cuban star Omar Sosa (see our review of him at Ronnie Scott’s), and Courtney Pine with pianist Zoe Rahman, while having to miss shows altogether by the Darius Brubeck Quartet and Jamie Cullum.

The weather was frequently miserably cold and wet, but a great deal of magnificent music warmed the heart, and Cheltenham will hopefully have more luck with the sun for its 21st birthday.

Photos by John Watson

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