Over the course of this evening in Cheltenham, you could hear at one end of the spa town, in the town hall, the immensely dignified South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, accompanied by the 17-piece BBC Big Band. At the other, at the University of Gloucestershire, freestyle rap and booming rhythms signalled that Soweto Kinch, the young alto saxophonist from Birmingham, was bringing his message to a student body who might normally think jazz was something their parents listened to.
The contrast in surroundings, audience age and musical styles could hardly have been greater, yet a better pairing for the opening night of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival could not have been found, so vital and exciting were both acts.
Jazz is sometimes described as America's classical music. Wrong. It belongs to everyone, and it should never be as rigidly defined and notated as that tag suggests.
But, if there is a tradition in jazz that might be described as classical in terms of sophistication and seriousness of intent, Ibrahim belongs to it. There are traces of an early mentor, Duke Ellington, in his music, and occasionally of Monk in his piano-playing. The happy-sounding consecutive thirds and tonic- subdominant chord movements of township jazz are to be heard, but they do not define Ibrahim's sound in the way they do that of his former Jazz Epistles bandmate Hugh Masekela.
In his music, thumping riffs give way to more complex harmonies, in which dissonant notes are suavely melded so that they add richness to the texture rather than jagged edges. One never feels that he has taken the most obvious, or the easiest, route. Although his manner is warm, there is a steely mysticism underlying both Ibrahim's speech and his compositions. Do not take this too lightly, he seems to warn.
The "classical" aspect to this concert was emphasised by the magnificent arrangements, which were so complete in themselves that for much of the time Ibrahim was content to sit back and merely lend a chord here or splash a high note, Basie-like, into the rich orchestration.
The BBC Big Band surpassed itself and did full justice to the scores, producing a full dynamic palette and providing plenty of muted effects. In "Bombella", inspired by a train journey across South Africa, one could almost see the dust rising as the heavy train of the horns moved through the aural landscape.
There were terrific solos, particularly from the two alto saxophonists and from the trumpet section, reminding one that a large ensemble can be a better place for an instrumentalist to feature than leading his or her own group.
Later, at the student bar on the university campus, Kinch roused his audience with a rawness and power that mark him out from his peers in British jazz. Backed by double bass, guitar and drums, Kinch alternated between uncompromising horn-playing that sounded like a bebop for today, and the rap with which the students were more familiar. His rhyming brought the audience in; he then kept them with him when he ventured into tougher territory.
Remarkably, he managed to get the crowd to join in with him on "Jazz Planet", his number about a world in which being a jazz musician is seen as the highest calling. It was as though they all knew it, which couldn't possibly have been the case.
Joined by Abram Wilson on trumpet, Kinch showed that rap and jazz are more intimately connected than one might think, both demanding instant creativity from practitioners with something original to say. At one point, he asked the audience for words to work into a routine. Managing to link "antidisestablishmentarianism", "Coltrane", "customisation" and "oranges" was some feat. So was eliciting this response from a young audience at a jazz gig. If Abdullah Ibrahim represented the classical side of jazz, Kinch and his band sure represented its future.Reuse content