Cheltenham Jazz Festival | Cheltenham

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The Independent Culture

Back in the early Eighties, jazz in the US was supposedly in decline. In retrospect, it looks like a golden age. Lester Bowie with Brass Fantasy, and the saxophonists David Murray, Oliver Lake and "Black" Arthur Blythe were creating a new postmodern music by taking free improvisation back into the neglected traditions of early jazz, blues and gospel. Blythe, who had a contract with CBS, sounded like a real star, and his album Lenox Avenue Breakdown was close to a masterpiece. But he was dropped by his label and more or less fell out of sight.

Blythe reappeared last Saturday night in Cheltenham, playing in a trio with the tuba player Bob Stewart - the engine for Bowie's Brass Fantasy - and the percussionist Klod Kiavue. Now 59, Blythe has lost none of his old majesty. The format was a simple one, but its acres of space gave Blythe and Stewart ample room to demonstrate their unforced virtuosity.

Freed from his old Brass Fantasy role of simply keeping the pulse (although in truth he never made it sound simple at all), Stewart displayed a stunning command of his ungainly instrument, moving from French-horn-like plangency to ridiculously deep basso profundo, parps and breathy, multiphonic effects that seemed to imitate an eccentric air-conditioning system. On alto saxophone, Blythe was perhaps more restrained than the occasion demanded, but his effortlessly apt solo features recaptured that aching, blues-drenched wail that made his old albums so exciting.

Later the same evening, at the Town Hall, Courtney Pine was doing his patented thing: rocking the house with an energising blend of jazz, funk and soul. He's been at it for so long that there's not much hope of surprise any more, but you can't help admiring the intensity of the experience. A version of Curtis Mayfield's "Hard Times" was given a rousing vocal spin by Mary Pearce, and Alex Wilson's keyboard playing was impressively funky.

On Sunday evening, the Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson played a solo gig at the Town Hall's Pillar Rooms. His delicate, pointillist improvisations were rather compromised by the punters' constant exits and entrances, which enraged one member of the audience. When one poor chap innocently opened a packet of crisps, he went over to remonstrate; it was clearly a Quaver too far. Just as the errant crisp-eater had been coerced into silence, a group of men at the side started to shoot the breeze, and the exterminator was up out of his seat again. It was just like Taxi Driver, only with pointing fingers instead of .45s. I left before the final shoot-out.

Meanwhile, at the Everyman Theatre, the vocalist Christine Tobin and her all-star band were going through material from her new album, Deep Song. With a repertoire of dreamy standards such as "Little Girl Blue" and "You Go to My Head", the music could easily have aspired to the Tristano-esque aesthetic of quiet chamber-jazz but for the inclusion of Hart, whose relentless swing pushed the band into decidedly more corporeal territory. That suited Tobin's rock-chick-style singing down to the ground and led to the enjoyable anomaly of the recessive genius of trumpeter Kenny Wheeler being made to work largely against his favoured grain, playing full-bodied solos of considerable dynamism. Guitarist Phil Robson and bassist Peter Herbert sounded great, but it was all a bit too Elkie Brooks for me.

Back at the Town Hall, Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra were doing a Courtney Pine in spades. As the saxophonist Pete Long played an incredibly extended note, Jools wondered aloud whether it might not have been the longest note of the entire festival. Yes, Jools, but it was far from the best.

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