It’s 100 years since the first ever recording of ‘jass’ in 1917 and though for a while it was a global sensation and dominated popular music in the mid 20th century it has fallen on harder times. The sax player and rapper Soweto Kinch used to speak wishfully of a ‘jazz planet’ where the music and its practitioners were given maximum respect and a festival like Cheltenham nearly succeeds in creating that illusion. For three or four days it seems everyone you meet and everywhere you go it’s all about the jazz, with an international mix of venerable elders and young hopefuls vying for attention and the music ranging from good time R’n’B to loudly impenetrable free jazz onslaughts. For the loyal jazz fan it’s great and this year’s programme seemed to provide nonstop satisfaction for chinstrokers and fun seekers alike.
For me the weekend began and ended with defining saxophonists. I hadn’t seen Norwegian Marius Neset (pictured at top of page by Tim Dickeson) performing live for some time so was forcefully reminded of how devastatingly good he is, combining dazzling talent with real emotional expression in a way few others could achieve. His interplay with virtuoso vibes player Jim Hart set the bar very high on Friday evening. Drummer Seb Rochford’s appearance on the same stage a bit later was a much subtler affair, the trio with AACM flautist Nicole Mitchell and bass player Neil Charles creating careful chamber jazz, each note or beat savoured for itself and each player given their own space. The newly embaldened Rochford barely used sticks, pattering mostly with bare hands while smiling, as he does. The set closed with a bit of a groove, however, and a riff that strangely echoed Black Sabbath as all three let their hair down a little. Or not, in Mr Rochford’s case.
Next day the big buzz on Planet Jazz was about Phronesis, a long time festival favourite, playing a newly commissioned piece by David Maric involving the 8-piece Engine Orchestra. Their lunchtime gig started, confusingly, with short orchestral pieces followed by familiar sounding jazz trio numbers until it gradually dawned that the collaborative piece would be the finale. When it came, Decade Zero was excellently conceived and realised, with tingling moments when the scored orchestral music rode the pulse of Anton Eger’s tumultuous drumming or a fluent clarinet pierced the Phronetic hubbub and a full range of musical textures was achieved. For me that left The Necks’ mesmerically introspective music, also played on the Town Hall stage, at a disadvantage. Since they began these unrehearsed improvisations 30 years ago the Australian piano trio’s method of looping accretion has been usurped by cheap technology, making their undeniable self-discipline in doing it by hand slightly nostalgic, like artisan baking. Nevertheless, as a fan of good sourdough, I savoured the attention to detail in their minimal revisions.
Finding the venue for Viamanikal later that evening proved a real challenge but a respectably numerous audience did locate Dean Close Chapel for an acoustic duo between Tom Challenger’s tenor sax and Kit Downs playing the church’s organ. It was a remarkable experience, the physical growl of the bass pedals grounding the ethereal breath of the higher manuals and the saxophone. The music was carefully composed, making full use of the shifting voice possibilities of the organ and retaining an inevitable ecclesiastical seriousness. It was riveting to listen to throughout and spledidly contrasted when, shortly after, I found myself hearing Stax legend (and assured showman) Booker T Jones play Green Onions on a full Hammond organ set-up with stereo Leslie speakers – another visceral thrill.
Sunday’s highlight so nearly didn’t happen – Swiss trio Schnellertollermeier’s gear had apparently been sent to Birmingham by mistake. Playing on a hastily assembled borrowed set-up their lack of panic was admirable and quickly eclipsed by their music, a relentlessly tight and intense combination of clockwork interactive patterns and sudden grunge rock outbursts, playing the full guitar/bass/drums thing for all they were worth. The fractured sections of Massacre Du Printemps thus owed more to Captain Beefheart than Stravinsky, but the careful design of the music was its own thing. This young adventurism will definitely go far and was unquestionably my weekend highlight. I had high hopes of German/US quartet Amok Amor, too, and there was much to find in their music – introduced as ‘really scary’. All four players obviously meant it, from the slamming pulse of the unison opening through to the fast bebopping end piece and at various time they referenced older jazz forms, layering bits of Blue Note over fragments of cool school. For one piece a surprisingly unified opening in the bebop style got stuck in the mud, unpicking a single bar for minutes before reassembling for the next crash. Bandleader Petter Eldh is a demon bass player but he largely underplayed, leaving the spotlight to mercurial trumpeter Peter Evans whose relentlessness, however impressive, often felt disconnected from the others. It was one of those gigs where some audience left and you felt the group might regard that as a success.
There was nothing at all abrasive about Chris Potter’s gig, however. Widely considered a defining master of the contemporary saxophone the US player’s performance was predictably poised and stylish, his obviously talented young quartet suitably respectful until given their head. That worked for pianist David Virelles , following Potter’s eloquently melodic sax solo with washings of sound , rich chords and dense interpretations. Drummer Nasheet Waits was a meticulous underpinning throughout but only really got to show off at the very end. There was never a note out of place, it was all great music, but at times it felt a bit ‘chopsy’ as though Potter needed someone else (like Dave Douglas or Dave Holland, perhaps) to jog his elbow and ask for more. Thinking back to Marcus Neset’s blistering passion on Friday it was a definite case of ‘another day, another planet’.