Live review

John Surman/John Warren Brass project + Rymden at the 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Magnus Ostrom at Cheltenham, 2019

Photo credit and © John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk

John Surman/John Warren Brass project (Cheltenham Town Hall)

Rymden (Jazz Arena)

(Cheltenham Jazz Festival. 4 May 2019. Reviews by Peter Slavid)


John Surman/John Warren Brass project (Cheltenham Town Hall)

The Cheltenham Town Hall is a very unforgiving venue at the best of times. A cavernous space, it’s never easy to engage with the audience, and the sound can be very dull. For this gig that wasn’t helped by the hall being under half full, and a very odd staging with John Surman at one extreme of the large stage almost behind the speakers, and John Warren with his back to the audience at the other end conducting the brass of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.


The structure of the concert was also a bit strange with the audience unclear whether this was a suite without pauses or a series of tunes with no announcements. At times people started to clap in the gaps only for the music to restart.

All of this made it hard for the audience to relate to the performers.

John Surman at Cheltenham, 2019

Photo credit and © John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk

Surman, on baritone sax, soprano sax and bass clarinet, and his fine rhythm section of Chris Laurence on bass and John Marshall on drums did their best. Laurence produced a showstopping bowed solo, and Surman unveiled his best circular breathing soprano showpiece.

For most of the time I found it difficult to get into the writing, and that may also have been exacerbated by the average sound quality. The Birmingham students performed well with some really good solos, but the overall effect didn’t seem to have the necessary energy. For some reason towards the end everything became sharper and brighter, the brass became crisper, the melodies more interesting, and the final 20 minutes was much better.

Talking to audience members after the gig there was clearly a difference of opinion about the quality of the event, and many were just happy for an opportunity to see Surman in action.

Bugge Wesseltoft at Cheltenham, 2019

Photo credit and © John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk

Rymden (Jazz Arena) 

The jazz arena as a venue has also had its critics in the past. Sit in the wrong place and quiet passages can be accompanied by sounds from outside the venue, a barking dog or the rattle of the tent. But that had no effect on Rymden. For a start Magnus Ostrom (drums, gongs etc) has more than enough strange noises in his own percussion kitbag. And there was too much interesting music happening on stage to let yourself get distracted. This Swedish trio is always spoken of in the same breath as the Esbjorn Svensson Trio which Ostrom and Dan Berglund (bass) were part of, but for me that undervalues Bugge Wesseltoft (piano & keyboards) who is a strong personality in his own right.

There’s no doubt that the rhythm section is one of the most powerful and dominant around. They drive through complex and intricate sounds, heavy rock beats, and delightful interactions with each other and with Wesseltoft.

The music moves seamlessly from the sound of a classic piano trio through to an electronic keyboard-driven prog-rock sound, interspersed with outstanding individual solos. Their excellent recent album was reviewed here, but, as it should be, the music was much more impressive live, with longer solos and more obvious interaction. This was clearly three friends enjoying their time at the office and sharing their music with us.

Peter Slavid broadcasts a programme of European modern jazz on the internet. LINK 

Categories: Live review

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