|Dave Douglas. 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Photo credit: Ruth Butler|
Dave Douglas Quintet; Ravi Coltrane Quintet; Troyk-estra; Mike Gibbs Ensemble; New Gary Burton Quartet; Mike Stern & Bill Evans Band
2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival Round-up review by Chris Parker
Cheltenham’s Jazz Festival Manager, Phil Woods (himself a trumpeter) was initially attracted to the music of Dave Douglas by its ‘lyrical melodic lines, absorbing solo playing and [its] strong modern groove’, and the US trumpeter’s quintet gig might have been specially crafted to please him. Douglas mined two albums, the Americana-focused Be Still (its repertoire including arrangements of folk songs and hymns his mother asked him to perform at her funeral), and the more recent Time Travel, for the material performed at this concert, and the resulting music drew deeply on his trademark strengths: intimacy, seriousness of intent and scrupulous attention to musicianly values. His own playing is a deeply personal yet communicative mixture of gentle, insinuating insistence and rousing – occasionally almost blowsy – vigour and pep, enabling him carefully to calibrate the music’s tone both for the constantly shifting, relatively complex (but consistently accessible) features from the latter (instrumental) album and for the sung material (here performed impeccably by the affecting, sweet-voiced Heather Masse) from the former recording. Douglas’s precise, elegant and controlled playing was perfectly complemented by the pithy, economical, gutsy tenor of Donny McCaslin, unfussily but tellingly ornamented by pianist Matt Mitchell, and flawlessly propelled by the crackling drumming of Jonathan Blake and the consistently impressive (particularly in her intensely melodic, lithe solos) bass playing of Linda Oh. Folk songs (both traditional – ‘Barbara Allen’ – and contemporary – Gillian Welch’s ‘One Morning’) and hymns drew subtly beautiful playing from all concerned; pieces such as ‘Beware of Doug’ brought driving, bustling energy to the fore, but whatever mode Douglas’s band were in, they performed throughout with wit, polish and panache.
|Ravi Coltrane. 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Photo credit: Ruth Butler|
Ravi Coltrane produced one of the most heartening successes of last year with his Blue Note recording Spirit Fiction, and his band began with one of the album’s stand-out tracks, trumpeter Ralph Alessi’s ‘Klepto’, a characteristically nervy but pungent composition, closely followed by a Coltrane original, ‘Word Order’, a relatively complex but pleasantly driving tune from his album From the Round Box. With Drew Gress on bass, no band could fail to swing, and pianist David Virellesand drummer Eric McPherson both provided tense, robust but sensitive support; slightly mysterious to report, then, that the quintet’s performance came over as somewhat dry, almost academic in tone, an impression only confirmed by their choice of Paul Motian’s typically oblique ‘Fantasm’ as a prelude to their closer, Monk’s ‘Skippy’ (itself one of the great pianist/composer’s least accessible, tricksiest tunes, albeit flawlessly negotiated by Alessi and Coltrane). Dave Douglas, of course, had already shown that seriousness and virtuosity might be more easily borne, so the contrast between his gig and Coltrane’s did the latter few favours in this regard; the venue, too (a creaking, rattling, rustling tent which allowed extraneous sounds such as ambulance sirens and music from the festivities going on outside to interfere with the concert’s quieter passages), worked against him, so that an undeniably tight, intelligent and cohesive band were not heard to best advantage.
|Troyk-estra. 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Photo credit: Ruth Butler|
Troyk-estra, on the other hand, simply bowled their audience over with their rousing mix of electronica, multi-textured electric guitar, dance beats and big-band whump and punch. The core trio, Troyka (keyboardist Kit Downes, guitarist Chris Montague, drummer Josh Blackmore), have swiftly established themselves as a leading UK jazz attraction with their viscerally exciting sound, captured on two Edition albums, Troyka and Moxxy, and it was with the latter’s opening track, ‘Rarebit’, that they began this collaboration with an Academy of Music-centred big band directed by Nick Smart. Downes self-deprecatingly remarked that the big-band members had ‘roasted us on our own music’, and the four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, vibes and bass guitar that made up Smart’s band did indeed pack quite a punch, giving the trio’s space noises, guitar-led scrabbles and quirky funk pieces considerable weight, heft and sheer presence. Bristlingly propelled by the wonderfully rackety but precise drumming of Blackmore, though, Troyka’s compellingly varied compositions (ranging from the controlled, rousing accelerando of Downes’s ‘The General’ to Gilmore’s quiet dedication, ‘Chaplin’) held their own perfectly, so this was a genuinely effective collaboration, rather than a trio performance with a big band tacked on to it.
|Mike Gibbs. Cheltenham 2013. Photo credit: Ruth Butler|
As anyone who’s ever spoken to Mike Gibbs about his musical enthusiasms will already know, the Zimbabwean-born composer/arranger is second to no one in his admiration of Gil Evans, who was born 100 years ago (13 May 1912). Much of this concert, performed by a 12-piece band led by pianist Hans Koller, celebrated this anniversary by concerning itself with music arranged by the great American, from the Horace Silver classic ‘Sister Sadie’ (from Out of the Cool), through Kurt Weill’s ‘Bilbao Song’ to W. C. Handy’s ‘St Louis Blues’ and Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’, but it also contained Gibbs’s own ‘Tennis, Anyone?’ (a ravishing encore), and, in any case, bore, like seaside rock, the Gibbs stamp throughout its length, whatever the band was playing. Said ‘stamp’, a unique mix of Evans, Messiaen and others filtered through a sensibility as open to rock and world music as to Ellington and Basie, is difficult to define, but none the less immediately recognisable (somewhat like Evans’s own touch) when heard, and it was unmistakably present throughout this utterly absorbing concert, which featured not only whip-smart but subtly evocative ensemble work but also cogent, powerful solo contributions from Julian Siegel (tenor/soprano/bass clarinet), Mark Nightingale (trombone) and (especially effective on the Handy blues) Finn Peters (flute/alto). But you don’t have to take my word for the classiness of this music; the bassist on this occasion, Mike Janisch, has recorded it all for immediate release on Whirlwind Records.
Similarly classy, and infused with the conventional but timeless jazz values of swing, buoyancy and fluency, was the set performed by vibes player supreme Gary Burton, whose fleet, chiming delicacy and robust, intelligent imaginativeness were tellingly complemented by the faultless playing of guitarist Julian Lage and effortlessly propelled by a Rolls-Royce rhythm section, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez. The band’s set was a cultured mix of classics (Mongo Santamaria’s ‘Afro Blue’, the Rodgers/Hart standard ‘My Funny Valentine’) and slightly more adventurous in-band originals (Holley’s intriguing ‘Never the Same Way’, Lage’s ‘Sunday’s Uncle’ from the band’s recent album Guided Tour), but whatever they played (and Lage was in no manner outshone by his illustrious leader, being a soloist given to neat but muscular single-note runs that were at once perfectly judged and delightfully unpredictable) the New Quartet were exemplary in their control, poise and delicate power.
|Mike Stern and Bill Evans. Cheltenham, 2013. Photo credit: Ruth Butler|
A glance at the line-up for the early-evening concert in the Big Top told you everything you needed to know: Mike Stern (guitar), Bill Evans (saxes, occasional keyboards), Tom Kennedy(bass) and Dave Weckl (drums) are the definitive fusion band, the partnership between the frontline pair forged in the Miles Davis post-comeback 1980s band and continued in the present century in New Steps Ahead, the rhythm section old sparring partners with an almost telepathic mutual sensitivity. Stern is simply an unstoppable force, magnificently verbose, apparently possessed of an insatiable appetite for soloing, with his uniquely attractive spangly sound, on his own refreshingly simple themes, both furiously fast and sweetly slow; Evans is a throaty, tireless grandstander (in the best possible sense; this music positively demands such a full-on approach) with a great ear for a catchy tune – and with Weckl and Kennedy tight and tautly bristling under them, this was ninety minutes of pure unadulterated pleasure from four masters of the genre. As Evans commented, pointing at his bandmates: ‘They’re the best at what they do.’ Amen to that.