Cheltenham 2023

Paal Nilssen-Love’s Circus at Cheltenham Jazz Fest 2023

Paal Nilssen-Love’s Circus

(Parabola Arts Centre. 30 April 2023. Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Review by Peter Slavid)

Paal Nilssen-Love. Photo copyright JohnWatson/

Paal Nilssen-Love is one of the outstanding improvising drummers of his generation, appearing on countless albums with improvising musicians from all over the world. With his new band, the music is certainly improvised, but also very polished.

The stage is dominated physically by Nilssen-Love. Front and centre stage, his drum kit has three huge gongs behind it. Musically he dominates as well – not just by being louder (although sometimes that’s true), but lots of subtle adjustments to the tempo and sudden bursts from percussion usher in changes in the music without any obvious signals.

The other outstanding feature is the astonishing voice of South African vocalist Juliana Venter. She has a huge vocal range as she screeches, mutters, whispers and shouts. She sings – with and without words, in several languages, she introduces fragments of popular songs and political statements, and at one stage she dances centre stage.

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Juliana Venter. Photo copyright John Watson/

The programme is very tightly rehearsed with sudden changes of tempo. A section will often start with a gentle rustling from Nilssen-Love’s various percussion instruments, or the giant gongs behind his kit. Then other instruments join in. Thomas Johansson‘s trumpet and Signe Emmelut‘s alto sax often start quietly and the power is raised as the drums power a rock beat to a crescendo.

Other times a subtle instrumental riff will allow a fierce guitar solo from Oddrun Lilja, or yet another impossible vocal contribution. Or a whispered vocal will gradually build up speed to a rock beat. It’s all underpinned by the electric bass of Christian Meaas Svendsen, sometimes just rumbling. The accordion of Kalle Moberg was a bit understated here, possibly just an issue with the sound.

Oddrun Lilja. Photo copyright John Watson/

If it all sounds a bit chaotic, the circus analogy works – it can be very like those high wire acts that seem destined to crash but unbelievably get to the other side.

And in front of it all, when Nilssen-Love does decide to power his way through everything, he has the ability to build up to an impossibly thunderous drum crescendo. We always expect death-defying feats at a circus, and sometimes his drumming approaches that same feeling, with the audience holding it’s breath waiting for the finale. There’s an audible gasp as he finishes!

Peter Slavid broadcasts a programme of European Jazz on and various internet stations

Categories: Cheltenham 2023, Reviews

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