Review: Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2017

John Watson finds top-flight jazz from Chick Corea, Chris Potter, Steve Gadd, Marius Neset and Dee Dee Bridgewater mixed with wine-bar fare

The Cheltenham Jazz Festival is like a heady cocktail, a potent mix of jazz legends, rising stars, with everything from swing to post-bop to wild improvised music . . . and a lucrative splash of pop to get the vital commercial bubbles fizzing.

So let’s start with those legends who are surely my heroes: pianist Chick Corea (pictured right) - with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Brian Blade; saxophone master Chris Potter with a band including pianist David Virelles and drummer Nasheet Waits; versatile singer Dee Dee Bridgewater (pictured below left); and the brilliant drummer Steve Gadd. Then there were the young heroes: the astonishingly inventive Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset (with an excellent UK quintet); the dynamic Danish/Swedish/British trio Phronesis with members of the Engines Orchestra in works by composer Dave Maric; quickly-maturing American singer Kandace Springs; and the eloquent trumpeter Yazz Ahmed.

The festival, from 26 April to 1 May, was staged at various venues in the beautiful Regency Cotswolds town. Most events were held on the main festival site in Montpellier Gardens: the Big Top, for major stars and the Pizza Express Arena, a slightly smaller marquee venue. Many significant and adventurous concerts were staged in the Parabola, an arts centre which is part of Cheltenham Ladies College. Other stars were heard at the less atmospheric, but spacious, Town Hall. Among the superstars, Corea gave an absolutely stunning performance with his trio, opening with his classic 500 Miles High. Blade and Gomez, as well as the leader, made this sound as fresh as if it had been cooked up yesterday.

Potter was in tremendously strong form, playing with yet more passion and intensity than usual – and with a more distinct Coltrane influence harmonically.

Dee Dee’s performance at the Town Hall was remarkable in very many ways: she had broken her right leg very badly in a fall in Indonesia and it is pinned together. Despite hopping on stage on crutches she gave an inspired, high-energy performance . . . though her repertoire of Memphis soul hits didn’t move me in the way her jazz shows always do. I was only able to catch a short section of Steve Gadd’s concert, but what I heard was strong, stimulating and inventive.

Among the rising stars, Marius Neset’s set at the Parabola with pianist Dan Nicholls, bassist Phil Donkin, vibes player Jim Hart and drummer Joshua Blackmore was furiously energetic and wonderfully structured (Neset pictured right). The Phronesis show at the Town Hall, with strings and woodwind from the Engines Orchestra, featured the world premier of a complex and stimulating new Maric work, Decade Zero.

Less successful was a quiet experiment by drummer Seb Rochford with AACM member Nicole Mitchell on flute and bassist Neil Charles – their slow-burn, whispering sounds at the Parabola seemed to be going nowhere . . . but I was. I quietly slunk away in despair at the music ever coming to life. I’ll skip over the has-been and wanna-be pop stars who help to bankroll creative acts at the festival, except to wonder how the local wine bar manages when singers like Valerie June and blonde beauty Earl are co-opted for a major jazz festival.

Photos by John Watson

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