JAZZ: Cheltenham Jazz Festival

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The Independent Culture
In the space of only two years, Cheltenham's annual jazz festival has become perhaps the leading English event of its kind. The long weekend's four days of music were shoehorned into two main venues, which had the benefit of concentrating the action so that the traditional enemy of festival- fatigue was kept to a minimum. Although there was a special mini-festival of "New Sounds", a day-long programme of contemporary British bands associated with Django Bates, the big guns were mainly Americans who don't usually get to play outside London. The chance to see saxophonists Chico Freeman, Jackie McLean and Johnny Griffin, as well as the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago, attracted impressive crowds.

McLean, who played with the wonderful trio of pianist Cedar Walton, was particularly good, with a sound on alto saxophone that seemed to provide the missing link between his friends Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. Though he's 64 (and age is a factor in jazz festivals, where many elder American brethren see out their days in cautious pipe and slippers mode), McLean played with passion, rifling off hard, fluent phrases at maximum velocity, the tone of his horn pitched to the emotional rather than the well-tempered scale. When, for an encore, he started to weep out the intro to "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square", it was one of the great jazz moments.

Chicago tenorist Chico Freeman had an equally expert band, and they began brilliantly on appropriately blues-drenched themes whose speed and power were sufficient to mock most home-grown efforts at bop styles. But then Freeman - who is a terrific player and a great showman - rather took his foot off the accelerator, and the band never quite re-captured the intensity of the opening onslaught. The quartet of the Art Ensemble of Chicago have been playing together for nearly 30 years and they meandered through long arabesques of improvisation in which Roscoe Mitchell's diffident saxophone solos were outstanding. One extended burst on soprano, where every single note came filtered through a screen of overblown harmonics, chordal rasps and multi-octave squeaks, sounded as if he was translating the voice of his instrument into another, infinitely more complex tonal language.

But of all the saxophonists, no one blew the house down like Courtney Pine. Though Pine has been doing this kind of thing for a long time now, it's easy to forget what a star he is, and at last he seems to have come up with a formula of fusion that goes beyond the template established by Miles Davis 30 years ago. Against a background of Fender Rhodes keyboard textures, chopping guitar riffs and more than a hint of drum and bass from the rhythm section and two DJs, he wailed like Albert Ayler in long, uproarious solos that were gloriously up to the mark.

In contrast, Nigel Kennedy, who closed the festival with a mix of Bach, Bartok and excerpts from his new "Jimi Hendrix Concerto", did not play in a jazz format. Instead, his small chamber group featured guitarist John Etheridge (who can sound as near to Jimi as anyone, given the correct equipment) playing acoustically, and the result was more polite Palm Court than Woodstock, though Nigel's own playing was sufficiently virtuosic to prevent any embarrassing comparisons with his hero.

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