When Van Morrison invites Gregory Porter to sing “Tupelo Honey” with him as he closes the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, he sums up its open spirit. Grammy-nominated Porter is a barrel-chested, bearded giant with a strange deerstalker for headgear, who as the festival’s tireless Artist in Residence was already unmissable and omnipresent.
The soulful baritone’s barnstorming Saturday evening set had ranged from the defiant ballad “No Love Dying” to the sparely funky, prayerful reverie on Martin Luther King’s assassination “1960 What?” He showed the audience a good-hearted, big-voiced jazz performer can still reach. The running, karate-kicking jump of joy he gave after an earlier song recalled Van Morrison in his prime. Morrison, watching and, festival staff claimed, actually smiling in the wings, clearly thought the same.
Morrison’s own soulful freedom song “Tupelo Honey” was a perfect choice for the pair, begun by him declaring with uncharacteristic modesty, “This is the part where I hide behind my guitar”. They traded phrases in rare, thrilling harmony. Morrison was in playful and demanding form throughout his set, issuing peremptory commands to his band and blowing his own sax in what was largely a jazz show: “Moondance” carried echoes of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”. A suite of songs finishing with last year’s “Born to Sing” wasn’t in his old visionary mode. A bullish Morrison was standing right here in the moment.
This festival’s centre wasn’t, though, in the Big Top where the stars performed, but the Georgian square where several venues sat amongst free music, food, drink and record stalls. The locals strolling slowly through it got a contact hit of jazz as an approachable, positive force at the heart of their town.
Lianne La Havas is amongst the pop headliners with slivers of jazz in their DNA. When she sings “Empty” with just a guitar, she shows she could sing just jazz if she wished, amongst the rock, soul and confessional singer-songwriting which dominates her lightly appealing music. Like the exuberant, anything goes creator of “circus swing” Gaby Young, and Mercury nominee Kit Downes’ electronic-tinged big band Troyk-estra, La Havas has inviting human warmth. Seven-times Grammy-winning vibes player Gary Burton and his quartet have that as much as anyone, playing intensely skilled jazz with easygoing, companionable delight. The hum of pleasure as his crowd left was constant in this corner of the Cotswolds last week.