Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2019, May 1-6

David Sanborn at Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2019. Photo by John Watson

“I love this beautiful town”, said Joshua Redman. “Maybe I’ll retire here – but not yet!”

The US tenor saxophonist is still in powerfully creative mode, and very far from retirement, as his trio’s concert in the Gloucestershire regency town’s festival well demonstrated. With bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, Redman spun endless vibrant lines of imaginative, passionate improvising to the delight of the Town Hall crowd.

There was plenty of vibrant improvising, too, from another American saxophone giant: David Sanborn. The altoist is best known for his fusion grooves, but after the 1980s he spent a lot of time in non-electric settings, as shown in albums such as the excellent Another Hand (Elektra Musician, 1991). He brought his Acoustic Band to Cheltenham: trombonist Michael Dease, pianist Geoffrey Keezer, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Billy Kilson. It was an absolute joy – darkly soulful, and flowing beautifully in repertoire including Pat Metheny’s Tumbleweed.

There were plenty of internationally celebrated artists at the festival – staged in various venues around the town but with major stars in the Big Top and Jazz Arena marquees, plus the Town Hall. Brazilian veteran Sergio Mendes still seemed to have plenty of energy, if not variety, and Madeleine Peyroux once again plodded through her dreary songs – but to the obvious delight of a crowd of more than 2,000.

Another vocal star who drew a sell-out crowd, Gregory Porter, showed how gloriously expressive a slow song can actually be. Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim brought his African beats to the Big Top with his group Ekaya, but I only had time to hear a short, and very tentative, section of the performance.

I’d been looking forward enormously to reed master John Surman’s Brass Project with composer John Warren conducting, but despite John’s gorgeous soloing and the rhythmic drive of bassist Chris Laurence and drummer John Marshall, the performance with brass students from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire didn’t quite gel. Surman, in particular, was far too far away from the brass ensemble.

Two trio groups gelled magnificently in the Jazz Arena: the Scandinavian trio Rymden, with pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Ostrom, and The Bad Plus with new pianist Orrin Evans joining bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King.

Also in the Jazz Arena, I was delighted by the Middle Eastern-blended music of trumpeter Yazz Ahmed (pictured left by John Watson) with her expanded group Polyhymnia, including six brass players. A new album is expected in October.

It’s hard to create truly satisfactory tributes to Billie Holiday without resorting to pastiche, but singer Julia Biel does a magnificent job. Her Buck And Billie dinner show at The Daffodil club with Alyn Shipton’s Buck Clayton Legacy Band was a joy: expressive, passionate and sincere.

Progressive bands remain a strong feature of the festival, usually performing in the nearby Parabola arts centre. A piano duo concert there by Nikki Yeoh and Zoe Rahman produced brightly inventive, sparking sounds, and students from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire teamed up with young musicians from the Conservatoire de Paris in three groups of immensely promising quartets.

One of the most electrifying performances came from Cuban pianist Omar Sosa with the brilliant violinist-singer Yilian Canizares and percussionist Inor Sotolongo in the Jazz Arena. Yilian is actually Swiss, but clearly has Latin music pulsing throughout her being – this was a sizzling, fabulously energetic performance.

All the crowds really needed was more sunshine, and a great deal more warmth, to accompany the glow of the music. Bring on the sun next year.

Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2019, May 1-6