There’s many different ways to look at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, which accounts for its continuing success. Over six days the programme offers some quality mainstream entertainment – Beverley Knight, Brand New Heavies, Guy Garvey and more – that brings in a big audience, while the arrival of the tented festival site in the middle of town creates a popular weekend carnival for the local citizenry. Crucially, however, there’s also always a stream of top jazz acts, new discoveries and rising stars that more than satisfies the discerning fans of the music.
That’s largely down to ‘advisor’ Tony Dudley-Evans, a man who has his finger very much on the pulse of international jazz and four gigs from Sunday’s programme reflected this, starting with electro-acoustic trio Shiver led by trioVD guitarist Chris Sharkey. Thanks to any amount of fancy foot-tapping gizmos their music lifted the classic guitar/bass/drums thing into contemporary electronica territory with Sharkey rolling processed arpeggios or unleashing cascades of sound over Joost Hendrickx’ deceptively evolutionary drumming. Thrillingly metal at times, understatedly ambient at others, it was never less than engaging.
After the suitably shadowy (and Shivery) Parabola Theatre the Town Hall’s big and brash Let It Be Told was a mighty contrast. Last year’s festival highlight was the return of 80s UK superband Loose Tubes and Let It Be Told allowed Tubes alumni Django Bates and siblings Julian and Steve Argüelles to celebrate the band’s inspirational relationship with exiled South African musicians in those apartheid days. Working with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and led by Julian Argüelles they played arrangements of pieces from Chris McGregor, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba and others. After the inevitable struggle with the Town Hall acoustics (which more or less obliterated Bates’ acoustic piano work) the sound and the playing came together beautifully, notably in the elegant brass undertow to Ibrahim’s The Wedding, punchy three-way counterpoint in McGregor’s Sea Breeze and an emotional wind chorale version of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Amabutho. It felt wrong to be seated through the riotous shebeen energy of Dudu Pukwana’s Come Again – more suited to 2.30am than 2.30pm – but it was great to see Julian A take his place among the big band reed players for the sheer pleasure of joining in such joyful music.
Scandinavian trio Meadow’s performance in the Parabola was a much more elegiac matter, however, with the unused grand piano on stage a poignant reminder that founder member John Taylor had passed away last year. Now joined by Norwegian saxophonist Tore Brunborg, bass player Anders Jormin and percussionist Thomas Stronen were clearly managing a transition by bringing the group’s careful and precise approach to spacious improvisation to Brunborg’s understated compositions. At times, indeed, it almost felt like an exercise to find how much you can strip away from the flow of music before it disappears altogether. This could not, however. repress Jormin’s fantastic tone and control on the bass which, if anything, was showcased on each number and for me became the centre of the music both melodically and acoustically.
After such healthily minimal fare the arrival of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s Stretch Music was an unashamedly meaty barbecue that left proper jazz gravy running down both arms. This was not the band behind last year’s album, however, but a debut touring outfit more or less throwing together a mixed set of Stretch numbers with old-school modern jazz. While the ebullient bandleader dominated the stage with hard-bopping Miles-style flourishes played on his customised reshaped trumpets saxophonist Logan Richardson was equally impressive with his devotedly Coltrane-inspired playing. It really was a band of top players that could energise Coltrane’s Equinox or Herbie Hancock’s Eye of the Hurricane – the latter featuring a splendid thumping piano solo from Tony Tixier. The closing number – a Scott original called The Last Chieftain, an atmospheric blues over tribal drumbeats that led to a brooding, angry climax – was a tantalising foretaste of what the band will do once they properly come together but there really was no reason to be dissatisfied with this excellent set or, indeed, any of a day’s excellent music that ensured Cheltenham Jazz Festival’s reputation continues to shine.