Even though this year’s annual pilgrimage to jazz’s favourite spa town was bookended by opening and closing performances from West End show doyenne Elaine Page and pop-soul princess Paloma Faith – and also included sets by blues man Eric Bibb and rockabilly chick, Imelda May – it was still a festival that the purists could enjoy.
Those into the edgier side of jazz would have revelled in the performances by the Kit Downes Trio – too cerebral and self-indulgently abstract for my liking, though the blues-tinged number, Skip James, was a highlight – and the sharply-dressed London quintet, Empirical, who impressed with their Eric Dolphy-inspired music in Cheltenham’s Town Hall Pillar Room.
The nine-member ensemble, Fringe Magnetic – with Norwegian singer Elisabeth Nygaard providing ethereal vocals – and a trio called Troyka also caught the ear while Fly, a US threesome comprising Brad Mehldau’s rhythm section (ace drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier) along with tenor and soprano saxophonist, Mark Turner, delivered a superb contemporary acoustic set. London pianist, Nikki Yeoh, and her trio – augmented by legendary UK reed man, John Surman no less – delivered a performance that was also well worth witnessing. Her 75-minute set featured the world premiere of a specially commissioned work, The Seven Deadly Sins.
The much-touted post-modernist darlings, Polar Bear, didn’t disappoint either, though in truth, it was two old jazz hands Dave Holland and John Scofield (both former Miles Davis band members) that set the festival alight. Holland delivered an absorbing Flamenco-infused 90-minute set with a quintet that spotlighted the Spanish guitar virtuoso Pepe Habicuela. The veteran bassist included a couple of striking original songs, Joy Ride and Whirling Dervish. As for John Scofield, the 59-year-old guitarist – who’s played at Cheltenham’s Jazz Festival three times now – led a quartet and played a straight ahead jazz set which included two new tunes and plenty of bebop-inspired riffs over hard-swinging grooves. Scofield showed his lyrical side by including a wistful rendition of the standard My Foolish Heart and played the lovely, self-penned The Guinness Spot as a deserved encore.
Judging from the enthusiastic audience reaction they received, two other acts also made a profound impression on festival goers. First was the six-piece group, Phantom Limb – led by the majestic gospel-hued vocals of ex- Massive Attack singer Yolanda Quartey – whose amalgam of deep soul and country music proved both haunting and irresistible. Second was the Norwegian group, Beady Belle, whose music married skewed contemporary soul and atmospheric electronica with acid-jazz to striking effect. Fronted by the soaring vocals of singer/songwriter Beate Lech, near the end of their set the quintet was joined on stage by Jamie Cullum – who performed his own set at the Town Hall a few hours later – for the beguiling duet, ‘Intermission Music,’ taken from their 2008 ‘Belvedere’ album.
Overall, then, the fifteenth Cheltenham Jazz Festival with its wide range of acts proved hugely enjoyable and rewarding. Roll on next year’s festival.