In the first of our three reports from Cheltenham 2011, Tom Gray reports on the Saturday of the festival:
By noon of the third day of this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival, a sizeable crowd had already gathered in the spring sunshine of the Imperial Gardens, nursing Royal Wedding hangovers to the strains of a varied and vibrant fringe festival programme on the free stage. It is encouraging to see that the festival now has such prominence in the annual life of the town. However, perhaps the most reliable health-check of a festival is in the size of the paying audience, and I am happy to report sell-out or near sell-out audiences at all four of the concerts I attended.
In the Town Hall’s Pillar Room, John Taylor and Julian Argüelles kicked off the afternoon’s entertainment in sublime fashion. Their musical camaraderie goes back over two decades and their ability to step inside each other’s way of thinking was clear throughout. Even when peering through his specs at a couple of new compositions from Arguelles, Taylor instantly assimilated the material and embellished it with his sophisticated harmonic vocabulary. In addition to some classics from the Taylor and Arguelles catalogue (including ‘Ambleside’ and ‘Phaedrus’), a highlight of the set was a gospel-drenched arrangement of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. This duet really swung, albeit in a very folk-inflected, British sort of way. The concert will be broadcast on Radio 3’s Jazz Line-Up in July, while Taylor’s new trio album on Cam Jazz, ‘Requiem for a Dreamer’, features Arguelles and promises great things on the basis of this concert.
Led Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones was the big-name draw in Martin France’s Spin Marvel, playing in the Jazz Arena tent. However, any casual punters in search of Zep-style riffs and knockout hooks may not have got what they were expecting here. These extended jams incorporated freeform ruminations, glacial electronic soundscapes and bustling cutting edge beats showcasing France’s considerable talents. The set had plenty of absorbing moments including the atmospheric contributions of Norwegians Terje Evensen on laptop and the inimitable Nils Petter Molvaer on trumpet. John Parricelli evoked Silent Way-era John McLaughlin on guitar and provided the most substantial melodic content. But compared to similar projects such as Food and Presenz, the music sometimes lacked shape and direction, and didn’t always hold the attention.
Pharaoh Sanders shuffled on to the Town Hall main stage, making an arresting visual impact in a gold lamé kaftan with an immaculately gleaming tenor saxophone to match. Sanders may have made his name playing on some of John Coltrane’s late-period albums, but this set appeared to be a homage to the earlier work of his former employer, including ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Naima’. Initially Sanders seemed ill at ease with the cavernous sound in the town hall, and he depended heavily on his fine pick-up rhythm section (Jonathan Gee on piano, Mark Hodgson on bass and Gene Calderazzo on drums) to drive the first three numbers, making minimal and rather brittle solo contributions.
On ‘My Favourite Things’, however, something clicked. Inspired by the trance-like groove set up by his rhythm section (channelling the spirit of the McCoy Tyner- Jimmy Garrison-Elvin Jones unit), Sanders opened up to produce some playing of ethereal beauty, alternating between wispy smoke rings of phrases and occasional multiphonic blasts, which challenged even the robustness of the Town Hall’s marble pillars. At times his playing brought to mind a more spacious version of Joe Henderson’s. He followed this up with some characterful ballad playing on ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’, where Gee also impressed with a lyrical, expansive solo. After an uncertain start he had won round the capacity Town Hall audience, many of whom I’m sure, like me, will now make a beeline toward his recorded work.
There was a palpable air of excitement back in the Pillar Room in anticipation of Django Bates’s late evening set which featured a new suite from him, commissioned by Jazz on 3. It was indeed a tantalising and intriguing prospect, with an octet (‘The T.D.E.s’) hand-picked and conducted by Bates that united some of the different camps of rising and recently risen stars in UK Jazz: Troyka’s Chris Montague (guitar), Kit Downes (keyboards), and Josh Blackmore (drums) were joined by Jasper Høiby (unusually on electric bass) to form the band’s powerful rhythmic nucleus while Shabaka Hutchings (alto sax), Jay Phelps (trumpet), Denys Baptiste (tenor sax) and James Allsopp (baritone sax and bass clarinet) made up a stellar horn section.
The quality of the writing and the playing more than lived up to expectations. Much of the suite had a stuttering M-base feel, with time signatures you’d need a degree in mathematics to fully get your head around, but which nevertheless packed a visceral punch with some assured, fired-up improvisation from all of the horn players. The title of one of the pieces, ‘We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way’, summed it up aptly, as the players took obvious delight in navigating this dislocated funk chart, its metre pulled every which way. This was how I imagine Loose Tubes in their prime would have sounded live. I am sure most of the audience will look forward to re-examining this music when it is broadcast next Monday, as there was so much detail to process on a first listen.
Earlier in the set, Bates reminded us of his versatility as a musician with a typically quirky, romantic set of solo originals. One of the pieces, ‘J.T.’, was dedicated to John Taylor and sounded like it was loosely based on Taylor’s composition ‘Ambleside’. Later on, during the T.D.E.s’ set, Taylor could be seen returning the compliment, watching on appreciatively from the wings. It was a special moment, the type of thing that happens at a festival with programing of this quality.