Forming the audience of tomorrow, which will apreciate the infinite joy and variety of this music was happening before our very eyes in Cheltenham yesterday. The green behind the Town Hall was teeming with teenagers at lunchtime. A well-drilled and lively band from one of Cheltenham’s schools was backing a trio of harmonizing radio mic’ed glam blonde sixth formers. The Festival’s Education Department had lined up an impressive eleven local school bands over two days, who had participated in a “Heaven & Hell” project led by Sid Peacock.
And there was more. The results of the Yamaha Jazz Experience were also announced: the Under-15 winners and Under-19 winners were both from London- Junior Guildhall and Tomorrow’s Warriors respectively , but the Under -17 winners had travelled all the way down from Dumfries. That takes a dedicated teacher.
Education was also in evidence with the talks programme. Talks had been in abeyance last year, and made a welcome return. For the older generation, in the morning, Alyn Shipton and Harvey G. Cohen had both been feverishly busy unearthing fascinating stuff about Ellington. But in the question-and-answer, two elderly members of the audience (Jazzheimers anyone?) got themselves somehow trapped into an unedifying argument about Buddy Holly, which, mercifully, Alyn Shipton called quickly to order.
A younger sharper crowd was drawn in the afternoon to hear Stewart Lee interviewing Gail Brand about free improv. And young means young. The two speakers were put on their mettle by a one year-old baby girl in the front row who was letting her opinions (equally valid, the speakers insisted, at the beginning….) on free improv be heard from the front row, and with some force.
And then there were the gigs. The range on offer in Cheltenham is impressive, and the choice on Sunday night was bewildering. John Scofield, free improv or Jamie Cullum. I chose Cullum and there will be a review posted later.
Empirical and Fly both drew substantial audiences to the Town Hall Pillar Room. I also overheard from outside the very end of Cuong Vu’s gig, and regretted not having gone. There was definitely a buzz about that one from the audience emerging from the gig, and in the corridors afterwards.
Empirical were in their current alto sax/vibes/bass/drums format, playing a set of mostly dedicated to Eric Dolphy. The band favours fast, angular music, but I found the band at its most persuasive in their quieter, very affecting ode to Dolphy, Nathaniel Facey’s “A bitter end for a tender giant”, with bassist Tom Farmer playing a strong melodic line on arco bass. Shaney Forbes was often the dominant personality in the group. He asserts himself not by being loud, but by always something really interesting to say.
Fly are Mark Turner, surely one of the great saxophonists of our time, and Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jeff Ballard (drums), the drummer and bassist who make up two-thirds of the Brad Mehldau trio. These three consummate musicians have one common feature. Each has a quite astonishing balance and control on his instrument over wide dynamic ranges. The interplay, the balance, the quality of the listening-to-each-other are quite extraordinary. At a first hearing the ear grabs hold of what it can, for when Ballard leads with a simple hook of a recurring rock groove like “Boom/Ching/A-boom-boom-ching”. But for the rest, this is a band which needs, deserves, demands to be heard again. In fact I can’t wait, my ears are telling me they want more, a lot more: I shall be there this Friday 7th at Kings Place. To continue my education.