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Cheltenham jazz – Saturday: Sheppard and Bates

May 1, 2011

Just two Saturday sessions from the crowded Cheltenham programme, leaving plenty of time for strolling, eating, drinking, chatting, and lolling in the sunshine – a welcome contrast to last year’s shivery winds and drizzle.

Quite a contrast, too, between Andy Sheppard at the start of the afternoon and Django Bates closing the day. After 2010’s appearance with Carla Bley Sheppard brought his new Trio Libero to the Town Hall’s only-just-comfortable-enough-for-85 mins main space. He was joined by the formidable rhythm section of French bassist  Michel Benita, known for everything from jazz to hip-hop, and Seb Rochford on drums. But it is recognisably Sheppard’s trio, with his characteristic insinuatingly simple themes, gentle grooves. Rochford isn’t known for restraint, but plays brilliantly in a more laid-back style than Polar Bear fans will recognise. Bonita has a fabulous, rubbery tone and great time.

And Sheppard? He presides benignly, rarely appearing animated. Combine with his deliberate restriction (he has technique to spare) to a fairly limited tonal and timbral range and slow-to-mid-tempo and some hear the result as teetering on the brink of the death in life that is smooth jazz. I disagree.

Sheppard’s aesthetic is only partly that less is more. That only gets you so far (and minimalism usually brings me out in a rash). I hear a commitment to melody, to beauty even. Does that need defending? Surely not. No-one ever criticised Art Farmer for dedicating his entire career to finding a beautiful sound. Sheppard seems to be heading that way too. And he has a reliable gift for pieces with the simplicity of folk tunes, which always sound to me as if they have unvoiced lyrics. Perhaps he’d be more fashionable if he was  Norwegian…

All the tunes were his, I think, aside from a snatch of Dewey Redman slipped into the middle of another piece, which passed unannounced. Not all of them worked. A couple of pieces, both called Space Walk (1 and 2?) doodled around in a space somewhere between In a Silent Way-era Miles and early Weather Report and outstayed their welcome. But the larger number which did work were often deeply affecting.

Simplicity of means is exciting in its own way. There’s the ever-present danger of missing the profound emotion which is accessible if it is done right and just collapsing into banality (the smooth jazz trap again). It looks easy but must be immensely hard to do this well. The encore, using Sheppard’s achingly lovely soprano sound to spine-tingling effect, confirmed he does it very well indeed. The tune, another exquisitely simple melody, or threnody, sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. But it evoked three minutes or so of haunting, yearning, melancholic phrasing, twisting this way and that. There were pauses for effect, a device he likes a little too much, but justified here, and all perfectly placed over bass and brushes. I was transported. The sunshine and bustle outside the Hall afterwards seemed strange for quite a few moments. Anyone who thinks this is “jazz lite”, as I once heard someone dismiss Sheppard’s playing, isn’t listening.

Django Bates, some hours later, also has a strong identity, of course – or maybe several of them. There is the enfant terrible/boy genius one, hard to bring off when you’re past fifty but still part of the persona. There is the virtuoso pianist, coming through here in a stunning opening solo set: “I’m supporting my own act – I hope I live up to my expectations”. That ranged widely, finishing with a spectacular piece dedicated to his father, which captured the drive and exuberance Abdullah Ibrahim’s solo recitals once had, long ago. It also had moments when his compulsive whimsy got in the way of actual music-making, but that, too has also always been part of the Bates package, and isn’t fading with time as one might hope.

And then straight on to the composer/arranger, here premiering a clutch of new pieces with a festival-special all-star band. This’ll get reviewed to death, but a few observations. Lots of great moments, and great playing (highest honours to Jay Phelps on a lovely Kenny Wheeler tribute and James Alsopp on baritone sax and bass clarinet). Lots of cleverly layered textures, and unusual time signatures – a few too many of those really. Like Bates’ attitude to beauty – not avoidance exactly as he can write a beautiful line, but a kind of suspicion, almost, or at least inability to let it rest – his attitude to straight time is ambivalent, at best. And a constant flow of ideas. If Shappard sometimes sounds as if he is seeing how far he can make the smallest number of ideas take him, Bates seems to be trying to get in as many as possible.

It can be completely absorbing,  intermittently exciting, or a little wearing, according to mood. This was mainly the former, and a great example of what festivals ought to be like. Enjoyed it a lot, and it will bear repeat listening on radio 3 on Monday week. But on one listening, a few reservations crept in. You can’t fault a man for having too many ideas. But there’s an additional quality which makes the music seem, I’m not sure, too crowded? If Bates wrote prose, it would be full of qualifications, or commentary on the commentary. The musical equivalent is never to quite leave a simple statement alone long enough to appreciate it (the Wheeler tribute was a clear exception here). It is all very post-modern, in the sense that someone who commands an immense range of resources and sources treats them all on much the same level, blends them at will, and seems pleased with the effect almost no matter what the blend. And it is enjoyable to hear, and looked enjoyable to play. It will need a bit longer to judge whether it is also memorable, in the way that Sheppard’s high spots were. But great to have a day that included both.

And still looking forward to the Overtone Quartet on a return trip up the M5 tonight…  Meanwhile, listening to a  CD acquired from the festival, Marius Nesset’s rather fine debut Golden Explosion, which has Django Bates on board as well. Too much music!

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