Cheltenham 2023

Lizz Wright / Kit Downes Deadeye/ Laura Jurd Ensemble at Cheltenham Jazz Fest 2023

Lizz Wright; Kit Downes Deadeye; Laura Jurd ensemble.

(Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Sunday April 30 23. Review by Jon Turney)

Lizz Wright. Photo copyright John Watson/

Sunday afternoon (just) in Cheltenham, and it’s Lizz Wright’s turn to comment on an unaccustomed early start in the jazz arena, asking if she’s been booked for a gospel brunch. It’s a kind of a late start too, as she was booked for the Covid-cursed 2020 edition of the festival, so great to see a full house for her superbly skilled dip into the roots of the music.

She opens with a light and bright delivery of The Nearness of You, accompanied by just Kenny Banks Sr on piano. Then the rest of the band join for a mixed programme of standards, blues and, her real forte, gospel. A breezy stage manner complements the gravity of songs like Neil Young’s Old Man as well as the deep Gospel numbers, with their unmistakeable echoes of acapella specialists Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Her voice is arrestingly rich, and the band furnish the strong groove these songs need, with some commendable individual flourishes, especially from Banks when he turns to the organ. No doubt that the voice is the main attraction, though, and after one upbeat encore things are stripped back for a closer, with Wright herself playing piano. It’s Sandy Denny’s classic Who Knows Where the Time Goes, though presumably Wright heard it first from Nina Simone – a nice reminder how Anglo-American song streams have mingled over the last half century.

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Kit Downes. Cheltenham 2023. Photo copyright John Watson/

A very different kind of organ playing fell on the ears in the Parabola Theatre a little later, with Kit Downes’ Deadeye featuring Downes in perhaps the most interesting organ-guitar-drums formation since the original Lifetime. Reinier Baas on guitar, who also composes, and Jonas Burgwinkel on drums, are both strong presences, but the Englishman offers the most distinctive contribution to this scintillating trio. He takes full advantage of the versatility of a classic Hammond Organ, which can veer in a moment from overwhelming raunch to great delicacy. In between, it delivers chugs, blurts, chirps, rumbles, Gothic exclamations and strutting bass figures, as needed. It’s an aural treat that makes an hour of intricate trio music pass in what seems a fraction of that time.

Laura Jurd Ensemble. Photo copyright John Watson/

Then a return to the Parabola in the evening for a festival commission in honour of Tony Dudley-Evans’ contributions to decades of Cheltenham Programming in this, his final year. Laura Jurd accepted what she calls the “mad challenge” of producing music that combined a dream-team brass ensemble with tenor saxophone Paul-Dunmall’s free-improvising quartet featuring Miles Levin on drums, Dave Kane on bass and Liam Noble at the piano.

The results were genuinely thrilling. The brass writing, for two trumpets, Jurd and Chris Batchelor, two trombones, Daniel Higham and Raph Clarkson, and Oren Marshall on tuba, had Jurd’s characteristic bounce and brio, and the composer’s own trumpet was well to the fore, notably on a fine unmuted solo backed by just Kane’s bass. The freer episodes for the quartet really felt as if they grew out of the written passages, and magically found their way to prepared endings. Noble played a crucial role in bridging between the written and spontaneous music, moving adroitly between chords to complement brass chorales and lively, at times even violent, keyboard flights that inspired Dunmall.

Half a century after people got accustomed to the idea of freely improvised jazz, it’s the kind of thing that should happen more often – all the players, young or old, no doubt regard all of these sounds as part of the same continuum. This special occasion, and some special players, certainly showed there are possibilities in framing free playing with artful writing that can enhance both. It was a fitting performance to pay tribute to richness of the Cheltenham programmes Dudley-Evans has prepared and, as he said at the curtain call, to the open-minded audience he has attracted to the Parabola in recent years. Some of us now assume the really interesting music is to be heard in that agreeable space, while the real Cheltenham money-makers do their thing for the thousands who throng the big top a few minutes walk away. We can only hope this excellent arrangement continues after Tony’s departure.

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