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Archiving Cheltenham (and Fieldwork post mortem)

May 15, 2012

Managed to compose five reviews over the Cheltenham jazz festival weekend. They will stay up at LondonJazz, (where there are also some pics and one other review). I’m putting them here now as well just to make them easier to refer to.

A word also about the one that got away. Was keen to hear the star threesome Fieldwork in everyone’s new favourite venue, the Parabola, but where we sat sound problems defeated the music. There were (some) interesting things going on, but it is possible the impressively talented drummer Tyshawn Sorey doesn’t need three mikes on his kit to be heard. The mikes being installed, the other two need some serious amplification to compete. It is a shame not to be able to hear what the piano player is doing, especially when it is Vijay Iyer. A shame, and a bit more surprising, to find it hard to make out what the alto sax was playing at times, either. It may all have been ever so subtle and interactive, but from the left hand gallery it was just an unrelieved percussive onslaught, and hard on the ears in a busy festival. Shame. The rest, as I record below, were all pretty splendid.

Chris Potter Ensemble
(Jazz Arena, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 5th May 2012. 

Last seen at Cheltenham in the all- star Overtone Quartet, Chris Potter returned with something completely different: an intriguingly instrumented group of Birmingham Conservatoire students. They had worked with the leader to present pieces from his 2007 recording Song for Everyone. Its string and wind trios enrich the settings for Potter’s virtuoso reed playing and offer some challenging ensemble writing.

To begin, there was that slight sense you tend to get with maestro- and-student ensembles of the younger players being, not overawed exactly, but certainly on their best behaviour. But they all soon warmed to the task of rendering Potter’s nicely textured scores. He’s no Maria Schneider, but the music deploys some pleasing sonorities – a brief encounter between violin and bass clarinet; tenor sax combining with bassoon.

These pieces are mainly written to offset the tenor man’s dry, angular facility, and it goes without saying that the leader played brilliantly. With a soloist of Potter’s calibre calling the shots, the students’ contributions were, understandably, more tentative, but there were spirited efforts from Rebecca Woodcock on clarinet, Gareth Fowler on guitar and, especially, Pei Ann Yeoh on violin. Outstanding for me, though, was Dan Casimir on bass. He did everything a bass player should, cruising with the orchestra, responding creatively to the soloists, duetting impressively with Potter on one number. And when it came to the gospelly encore, he dug into a superb, rootsy intro which laid a trail for some of the most heartfelt sax playing of the afternoon. The least orchestrated of all the pieces they played, it swung mightily. But it needed the ambition of what had gone before to make its contrasting simplicity so simply enjoyable.

ENSEMBLE

Violin – Pei Ann Yeoh
Viola – Ruth Woolley
Cello – Lucy French
Guitar – Gareth Fowler
Bass – Dan Casimir
Drum kit – Ric Yarborough
Bassoon – Hannah Kitson
Clarinet – Rebecca Woodcock
Flute – Hannah Smalley

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Liam Noble Quintet
(Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Saturday May 5th 2012.)

A full set of original music from Liam Noble, his regular trio expanded with two horns, and a spiffy new Cheltenham venue in the Parabola Arts Centre. All seemed auspicious for this set, and it delivered, giving the Saturday a real lift.

Noble writes memorable pieces, most often strongly anchored in the left hand, and his long partnership with trio cohorts Dave Whitford on bass and Dave Wickens, drums, gives each of them just the right feel.

So we had bop with a gothic tinge (The Witch), impressionistic rumination (Essays in Idleness) and the appealing Move Along Song – a working title, apparently – breezing by on the gentlest of grooves. All featured wonderful horn work from Chris Batchelorand Shabaka Hutchings. The latter, to my ear, has grown richer and more confident in his playing in the last couple of years on both sax and clarinet. Batchelor was outstanding throughout, but surpassed himself on the playful Clint. His beautiful tone was well in evidence, and he responded eagerly to Noble’s piano provocations. All three players have a quality often evident in the very best, of having space to breathe and think no matter how many notes they are peeling off.

The closer, Geri, was a fitting tribute from one great pianist to another. And not just a great player, but a cunning writer and arranger, too.

“As soon as I started playing, I forgot how nervous I was”, he remarked at the end – the words of a man who sets himself dauntingly high standards, then achieves them.

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John Taylor Octet
(Arena, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 6th May 2012.)

Here was a BritJazz event worth settling in for at the unnatural hour of 1.15 p.m. John Taylor, one of the great UK players who came up in the 1960s and 1970s, has built a solid international career since then without ever quite getting famous. To celebrate his 70th birthday, he gave us a festival commission from BBC Radio 3, performed by the band of his choice.

Not for the first time, he turned to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. for inspiration (come to think of it, he looks a little like the late writer these days as well). This time, the text was Harrison Bergeron, an early brief satire on the perils of enforced egalitarianism in which the talented are officially handicapped. It is pretty heavy-handed, by Vonnegut’s standards. The music, fortunately, wasn’t.

The text is dark, with flashes of humour, but Taylor presented a suite of mostly pretty jaunty pieces. Bass, trombone and tuba (Chris Laurence, Henning Berg and Oren Marshall) gave the sound a nice density, and Taylor gave free rein to the more rhythmic, percussive side of his playing and writing. There were excellent solos from those four, and from Chris Batchelor on trumpet, and especially generous helpings of saxophonist Julian Arguelles. The latter, whose work with Taylor goes back more than 20 years, just goes on getting better – he is certainly one of the world’s finest saxophonists nowadays, whether on tenor or soprano. A lustrous tone, complete command of the horn, clever dynamics, lines that are somehow simultaneously sinuous and springy: all combined with real emotional force.

Family support came from sons Leo on drums and Alex on guitar and, in a couple of brief scene-setting moments, on vocals. These were surprisingly affecting, the second introducing a lovely song theme which had echoes for me of Kit Downes’ recent ballad Skip James. Other influences abounded, but there seemed a definite nod to Kenny Wheeler in one of the mid-set pieces’ lilt. By then, Taylor was on a roll, his inspiration seeming to feed off the audience, the band and the occasion in the best possible way. I don’t think I’ve heard him play better.

There was real drama in the following piece, cued by the climax of the story (an execution), a reprise of the opener, then a genuinely festive encore. No boundaries were stretched at any time, but there was any amount of confident, carefully crafted music, played with huge enjoyment by all. Jazz on 3 will be broadcasting the gig on May 14th. I’ll be listening.

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Bill Frisell Beautiful Dreamers Trio,
(Big Top, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 6th May 2012.)

Bill Frisell’s 90 minute set made me smile. A lot. This has happened before. The Cheltenham set had all the hallmarks of what I think of as his mature style, which emerged, I guess, from the late 1980s. He makes good-humoured, open-hearted music, hinting broadly at cheesiness but with an implied knowing wink. So we began with his trademark mid-tempo countrified lopes, all rural twang and gently snapping drums. In this trio, the spooky mythical-American dreamscape is filled out by the brilliant viola of Eyvind Kang, wholly sympathetic to Frisell’s affectionate eclecticism. The viola (not violin) range is vital. Viola in the lower register, pizzicato, creates an interweaving bass line. Viola bowed, upper register, soars with the guitar.

Both lean into simple melodies, but adapt them freely with jazz elaborations. Both like the occasional freakout, aided by Rudy Royston, whose drumming ranges from pattering grooves to a whiplash ferocity which would make you lean back if the seats in Cheltenham’s impressive new Big Top allowed it (they don’t).

The freakouts are pretty freaky. I was hearing more shades of Sonny Sharrock than usual tonight, I think. The effect can be startling: as if Chet Atkins suddenly threw out some death metal. Sometimes, like the whiff of cheesiness, it isn’t clear whether this is tongue in cheek – but done with such verve, who cares?

That facility to switch fluidly between modes and moods, with equal commitment to each, is part of the fun. As ever, Frisell is a master of guitar effects, and a cunning user of dynamics. There is never a dull moment. Critically, you could probably write a book about a Frisell set. Dichotomies abound: Urban/rural, simple/complex, traditional/avant garde, tonal/atonal, primitive/postmodern, genre/pastiche would all get a chapter. My take is that he makes elements of the avant garde palatable for those who might not partake, mainly through being warm and approachable, sharp and spiky by turns. But never too much of either. The audience understands: we may be going quite far out from safe territory here, but don’t worry, there will be another great tune along in a minute.

Tonight’s great tunes included Misterioso, with its nursery-rhyme quality emphasised by the two string players, a bebop tune played more or less straight, a piece with a distinctly Ornette Coleman-like twist. Oh, and a ridiculously over the top Strawberry Fields near the end. Heroic synthesis or mish-mash? I’m not sure. But it was hugely enjoyable. And in large part, I think, because while Bill-the-guitar is a big beast who shows teeth and claws, he is basically a pussycat.

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Jeff Williams Quartet
(Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 6th May 2012.)

The practicalities of a musical life on both sides of the Atlantic meant that drummer Jeff Williams launched his latest CD Another Time at the London Jazz festival last year with a British band. It was a great gig with the music – many sheets draped over music stands that night – refracted through the personalities of the players.

The CD, though, features Williams’ New York band, and Cheltenham offered a welcome chance to hear them in action. It would be an injustice to the November band to say this set was better. Williams chooses well wherever he is, and the best of British rising to the challenge of sometimes quite complex new music gave that winter evening quite a charge. Still, the comparison was fascinating.

Not surprisingly, this quartet – John O’Gallagher on alto, Duane Eubanks on glowing-toned trumpet, John Hébert on bass – respond differently to music written by and for these players. They inhabit the tunes more naturally, seem to have all the time in the world even at faster tempos, and like to acknowledge small good deeds in each other’s playing with musicianly smiles.

And there were good deeds aplenty. Both horn players can seem laid back, but they also pack a punch – qualities shared by Williams, whose loose-limbed flicker around the kit generates a continually propulsive commentary. The overall sound reminded of Andrew Cyrille’s late 1970s band, another ensemble energised by a drummer of great power who deploys it with enormous subtlety.

Highlights included O’Gallagher’s lovely long-lined ballad Go Where You’re Watching, the descending figures of Hébert’s mid-Eastern inflected Fez, and Williams’ ruefully soulful She Can’t be a Spy. And in a band of such equal partners, everyone gets composer’s space, so Eubanks’ Purple, Blue and Red was memorable for trumpet soloing taking off from his sweetly melancholy theme.

Before the Festival, I was afraid that 90 minutes of Bill Frisell immediately beforehand would make this one harder to hear properly. It also seemed an unmissable set. I went with the latter hunch. It was the right one.

All in all, quite a weekend…

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