Music: Preview: Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2017

Tony Benjamin, April 21, 2017

Here comes May Day and for Bristol jazz buffs that means one thing: a weekend banquet of tasty items just 40 minutes up the M4 at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. In fact this year’s programme stretches out over a full 6 days, from Laura Mvula’s opening gig on Wednesday 26 to Gregory Porter’s Bank Holiday Monday closer (sadly already sold out). As ever the festival combines big name mainstream entertainers with cutting edge jazz acts and a few legendary figures from the jazz legacy, reflecting the continued support of BBC Radio 2 and ‘artistic curator’ Jamie Cullum.

A flick through the helpful on-line planner reveals that soul, blues and R’n’B is a definite theme for this year’s programme whether it’s vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater (pictured at top) exploring the 60s Memphis sound or the definitive organ playing of Booker T Jones (above), one of the true giants of the Stax label. That classic R’n’B is balanced with very contemporary styles from the likes of Kandace Springs, Jodie Abacus and the artful singing bass player Meshell Ndegeocello as well as rootsy blues from acknowledged masters Robert Cray and Eric Bibb.

But this is a jazz festival, of course, and while Sunday’s Snarky Puppy and Chick Corea big gigs may have been quickly (and unsurprisingly) sold out there’s still a chance to catch the brilliant contemporary US saxophonist Chris Potter (above) as well as Denys Baptiste’s tribute to the spiritual jazz of The Late (Col)Trane, a gig that also features the genius of elusive former Jazz Warrior Steve Williamson. And you might want to sneak into tireless Australian improvising piano trio The Necks for something completely made up.

Another neck makes its Cheltenham debut when drummer Sebastian Rochford (above) appears without the trademark hedge of hair that has distinguished him since the early days of Acoustic Ladyland. He brings an intriguing new trio with AACM bass flautist Nicole Mitchell and bass player Neil Charles. Other Cheltenham faves reinventing themselves (musically) are Norwegian sax dazzler Marius Neset who brings vibes player Jim Hart into his new quintet and the explosive trio Phronesis. Their collaboration with composer Dave Maric and the classical 8-piece Engine Orchestra should be a remarkable interplay of planned and spontaneous music.

There’s even more spontaneity coming from Europe, however, in the shapes of Berlin-based quartet Amok Amor and Swiss punk-jazz deconstructionists Schnellertollermeier (above) while solo improvising percussionist  (also from Switzerland) shares a double bill with the two of the UK’s premier free musicians, namely Mark Sanders and John Butcher.

Messrs Neset and Rochford might have already had their days as ‘young hotshots’ but they would surely recognise the fresh talents of pianist Elliott Galvin’s trio or trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s Hafla Band (above) let alone the showcase of BBC Introducing bands hosted by Radio 2’s Jo Whiley.

And finally, just to keep things global, there’s usually some top quality world music treats at Cheltenham and this year is no exception, with re-formed Senegalese Afro-Cuban pioneers Orchestra Baobab and indefatigable Colombian megastar Totó la Momposina both well-deserving of the label ‘legendary’ and the Afro-jazz inspired guitar of Lionel Loueke should catch the ears of many.

All in all, then, an exhaustive (and exhausting) trawl through the breadth of the current jazz scene – and there’s plenty more to check out on the festival website, including family-friendly performances and a free Jazz In The Gardens programme to boot.

Cheltenham Jazz Festival runs from Wednesday April 26 – Monday May 1

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