The geographical centre of gravity of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival has shifted slightly from earlier years. Because of the absence of the much-loved Everyman Theatre, the action is now firmly centred on the Town Hall and the gardens behind it. But the change has done nothing to diminish the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of the festival. It’s just a nice place to hang around. Torrential rain late in the day was a dampener, but the Cheltenham audience is well-disposed, appreciative, and open to the vast range of different styles on offer.
In fact the only irate person I came across in the entire day was someone who hadn’t even heard there was a jazz festival on.She had descended from London on Cheltenham with her wadge of Pizza Express cheapo deals, and was incandescent to discover that heavy jazz festival traffic had filled every single table at the Cheltenham branch of the restaurant. “I’ve never had to book at Pizza Express in my life!!” she repeated. Er, Tough.
The programme of this year’s festival is so rich and so varied one misses more than one gets to.
I was very happy to catch Nikki Yeoh’s Infinitum with John Surman at lunchtime. Her Jerwood commission from 2009 – Seven Sins – had failed to get its premiere last year because of a power cut at the Everyman, but deservedly picked up rapturous applause in the Town Hall today, a year later.
Yeoh hangs curious stories around the sins. Try this one. “Now we come to Envy. My mum always told me not to envy people because you never know what they’ve been through. This number is called ‘Shoes.’ It’s about being happy in your own shoes. And some days it’s just about shoes. An arrangement by Manolo Blahnik.”
Nikki Yeoh and her band really did feel and sound completely comfortable in their shoes and happy in this music. They were like a family which, because they don’t always get time together, appreciate even more the times which they do. Nikki Yeoh gave special thanks to saxophonist James Allsopp for the assistance he had given in helping the band to prepare the music, because John Surman has his base in Norway and had only been available intermittently.
John Surman was spinning out long and appealing melodies on soprano saxophone. Nikki Yeoh was looping round two- and four-bar sequences, enjoying the fireworks from Michael Mondesir on bass and Martin France on drums. Great stuff.
Before the final sin, Lust, came Yeoh’s delightful folky “Dance of two small bears, ” a nice counterpoise. The tune for Lust was called “Wa-Hey,” a gutsy kicking blues with punched out altissimo from Surman, plainly enjoying himself hugely, and a superb solo from Mondesir, sending an audience away very happy.
I also heard Dave Holland’s flamenco project with Pepe Habichuela, now in its third year, with a CD on the way shortly. This formation was making is first ever appearance outside Spain. This was another happy band. Holland described this as a “special moment.”
His appoach to flamenco has been, as he described it, to become Habichuela’s student, to learn and internalize the music. It’s joyous stuff, some of the feverish downstrokes produce colour rather than chord, and the pair of percussionists mesmerized and egged each other on, and received massive applause.
I loved the first hour. The audience was paying rapt attention. Dave Holland’s bass solo earned complete silence and approbation from the audience. But then, after about an hour, the spell was broken, as if the format in this first outing had slightly outstayed its welcome. Flamenco without the physicality of voice or dance began to feel incomplete. A few people did start to leave the hall. The total commitment was there from every musician, but either the music is too small-scale for this large hall, or the variety is too subtle to really hold attention for a full ninety minutes.
As a CD, in close-up, I sense this project will be something very special indeed. I’m really looking forward to hearing it. This was the first outing beyond flamenco territory for the band, and the show could well have moved on even before it gets to the Barbican in the summer.