There’s no doubt about it – the annual jazz festival at Cheltenham Spa (which is in its twelfth year) is undoubtedly one of the best the UK has to offer. In previous years, the festival has always achieved the right balance between commercial, mainstream acts and practitioners of the avant-garde and cutting-edge jazz. This year was no exception, with the likes of singers Van Morrison and Ruby Turner rubbing shoulders with innovative instrumentalists such as Bill Frisell, Ralph Alessi and Ravi Coltrane. Indeed, it was the festival’s sense of variety that made it such an enjoyable and rewarding event.
A rare UK performance by chanteuse-cum-purring-sex-kitten, EARTHA KITT, opened the festival at the Centaur venue on Cheltenham’s racecourse. Sadly, prior commitments prevented www.soulandjazzandfunk.com from witnessing it, though from all accounts, the 81-year-old diva’s performance sizzled with feline sensuality. We did get to see, however, that redoubtable purveyor of Celtic soul, the great VAN MORRISON, whose superb, two-hour-long set was jazzier than his usual fare. Indeed, the Belfast-born R&B troubadour played alto sax on several numbers and regaled the audience with a selection of new tracks (from his current album ‘Keep It Simple’) and old favourites. Among the latter was a tremendously vibrant, finger-clicking version of the classic ‘Moondance,’ a wistful reading of’ Tupelo Honey’ and a rousing rendering of the old Them ’60s number, ‘Gloria,’ which brought the show to a combustible climax. Backed by a fine 10-piece band and sporting his trademark trilby and opaque shades, Morrison was in fine form vocally – surprisingly, perhaps, he was in a self-deprecating mood and even cracked a few jokes at his own expense, though they were largely lost on an audience who had probably bought into the rock press myth of Morrison being a humourless curmudgeon. While Van The Man’s unique amalgam of R&B, jazz, rock and folk enthralled The Centaur audience, down the road at the Town Hall, saxophonist COURTNEY PINE wowed onlookers with his homage to the soprano saxophone pioneer, Sidney Bechet.
The next night, Thursday, ex-James Brown sideman and P-Funk alumnus, MACEO PARKER, tore the roof off the Town Hall with an incendiary mix of sax-led get-down party funk and soul. His band included British trombone player, Dennis Rollins – whose slippery solos were uncannily reminiscent of Fred Wesley – and ex-James Brown singer, Martha High. Maceo’s set included elongated versions of the old JB’s classics ‘Pass The Peas’ and ‘Gimme Some More.’
The following day – Friday – witnessed a performance at the Everyman Theatre by former Specials’ keyboard player, JERRY DAMMERS, and his Spatial AKA Orchestra. Not far away at the Park Bar, in the University of Gloucestershire, DJ and jazz guru, Gilles Peterson, hosted a night devoted to his Brownswood label. The excellent young American jazz singer, JOSÉ JAMES, was showcased along with pianist, ELAN MEHLER, and soul singer, TAWIAH.
The weekend was packed with many mouth-watering events. The highlight of Saturday night was SOWETO KINCH’S BASEMENT FABLES, where the young British saxophonist fused jazz with hip-hop to stunning effect. Sunday was even better. Legendary drummer JACK DEJOHNETTE – who played on Miles Davis’ epochal fusion album, ‘Bitches Brew’ – did a solo one-hour show at the Everyman Theatre. He started with a mesmeric 20-minute drum solo that began with oriental cymbals being struck in slow succession – after each hit, DeJohnette held a microphone close to each reverberating cymbal to generate eerie harmonic effects. Avant-garde saxophonist RAVI COLTRANE – son of John and Alice Coltrane – joined the drummer as a surprise guest half-way through the show and the two then proceeded to kick up a storm of mind-boggling improvisation.
Over in the Town Hall Pillar Room, another highly-regarded sticks man, BOBBY PREVITE, and his band New Bump (Brad Jones on bass, saxophonist, Ellery Eskelin and vibraphonist, Bill Ware) laid down some searing, edgy grooves that drew an enthusiastic response from the audience.
Shortly afterwards, it was a brisk walk back to the Everyman to catch trumpeter, RALPH ALESSI and his band THIS AGAINST THAT. They were joined by RAVI COLTRANE, and together played a fascinating set of exploratory, cutting-edge jazz. Two hours later, in the same venue, guitar wizard, BILL FRISELL, took to the stage leading an excellent quintet that included two horn players and renowned double bassist, LARRY GRENADIER. Frisell mostly played music from his enterprising new double album, ‘History, Mystery,’ including a soulful rendering of Sam Cooke’s plangent Civil Rights ballad, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’ Pianist ROBERTO FONSECA – who rose to fame playing with the Buena Vista Social Club – and his quintet followed Frisell. The ivory tickler’s sultry Cuban grooves took the Cheltenham Jazz Festival deep into the midnight hour.
The next day, Bank Holiday Monday, witnessed the festival closing on an exultant high note thanks to a truly memorable performance from veteran singer CLEO LAINE and her husband, saxophonist, JOHN DANKWORTH. The first half of the concert was devoted to Dankworth and his band, who interspersed fine solo and ensemble playing with humorous spoken asides and anecdotes. Cleo Laine came out to dominate the second half of the show – amazingly, at 80 years old, her voice is still a remarkable instrument and has not yet succumbed to the ravages of time. Indeed, her top notes were flawless in tone and timbre while her scatting was consummately executed. The octogenarian duo left the stage to a standing ovation, bringing down the curtain on what was a satisfying – and at times thrilling – jazz festival. Roll on 2009.