Review: Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2023

This year Cheltenham included reminders of Freddie Mercury from pop singer Mika and jazz from Kurt Elling, Stanley Clarke and Andy Sheppard

Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2023, clockwise from top left: Andy Sheppard, Stanley Clarke, Rosie Frater-Taylor and Mika. Photos © Brian Payne

In mixed weather, this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival spanned six days from 26 April to 1 May. Most performances took place in Montpellier Gardens, the site of the Big Top and Jazz Arena. Other locations in town included the Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham Town Hall and the Daffodil Restaurant.

The Daffodil is a restored 1920s cinema with a balcony, sweeping staircase and superb art-deco features. Singer and guitarist Rosie Frater-Taylor backed by a drummer opened the festival to diners there with a self-penned set of compositions that crossed the boundaries between pop, jazz and folk.

The introspective nature of Frater-Taylor’s songs was in contrast to the performance over at the Big Top where flamboyant singer Mika strutted the stage in Freddie Mercury style. Backed by his slick, white-suited band and a six-strong choir, Mika was the ultimate showman. At one point he announced his trousers were falling down (“I really shouldn’t stand here in my briefs”) and disappeared to change from an emerald green suit into a bright red one. Then he promptly jumped off the stage into the cheering audience and traversed the furthest aisles of the Big Top still singing. The capacity crowd loved it.

If you’d happen to walk past the Jazz Arena on Thursday evening when Connor Selby and his band were on you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Eric Clapton playing in there – he’s that good. Selby impressed the audience with his formidable guitar work and vocals. He’s only 25 but sounds like he’s been round the block for decades.

Later, the Soul Jazz Summit in the Big Top had Guy Barker’s Big Band and the BBC Concert Orchestra celebrating the outpouring of jazz and soul from the late 50s and early 60s. Special guests included Madeline Bell (sprightly at 80), Kurt Elling, Vanessa Haynes, Strictly Come Dancing’s lead singer, Tommy Blaize, Mica Paris, Ian Shaw and Mica Millar.

Mica Millar is an up and coming Mancunian soul singer and with her backing band and support singers she delivered a performance in the arena on Friday, featuring songs from her debut album. Judging from the reception, she’s attracted quite a following already. Later on Friday evening, Acoustic Ladyland and Let Spin bass guitarist Ruth Goller with vocalists Lauren Kinsella and Alice Grant graced the Parabola Arts Centre with their trio, Skylla. It was avant-garde stuff and certainly original with unusual bass tunings and ethereal voices but a little bleak at times.

Saturday morning saw two young singer-guitarists – Tamzene and Immy – in a double bill at the arena. Immy was on first with a set of soulful, self-penned numbers followed by Tamzene (who played keyboards as well) drawing on influences from Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

In the afternoon, Tony Hadley backed by Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra wowed the Big Top audience with classic big band numbers and songs from his back catalogue. Later on, Scottish singer Georgia Cécile impressed the crowd with her set at the arena. She was recently voted UK Jazz Act and Vocalist Of The Year at Jazz FM’s awards. Inspired by the likes of Nina Simone, Duke Ellington and Stevie Wonder, Cécile informed the audience that many of her compositions were co-written with pianist Euan Stevenson, whose trio backed her that day.

One of the high spots of the festival was the Norwegian Espen Eriksen Trio with Andy Sheppard at the Parabola. It was good to get a break from the razzmatazz of some of the acts and hear a slice of “real jazz”. With Eriksen on piano, Lars Jenset bass, Andreas Bye drums and Sheppard on saxophone they delivered an innovative and melodic set that was much appreciated by the attentive audience – as was Eriksen’s dry sense of humour. At one point he announced there was a problem with the monitor which meant the musicians couldn’t hear each other. During a momentary break while it was being fixed, Eriksen suggested the gremlin in the works was Liz Truss. The absurdity of this tickled the audience who laughed out loud. Not content with wrecking the economy in 49 days she was at it again – here in Cheltenham!

The mellifluous tones of Lizz Wright opened the festival on Sunday. The last time I saw the American singer was at North Sea Jazz and today, 10 years on, she sounded better than ever. Accompanied by piano, she began with Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness Of You and when the rest of the band came on stage proceeded with an engaging and varied repertoire of jazz standards, blues and gospel.

Later on, gypsy jazz guitarist Mozes Rosenberg and clarinettist Giacomo Smith’s quartet delivered an exhilarating session in the arena with Oswald Remi on rhythm guitar and William Brunard on double bass. The music of Django Reinhardt featured strongly throughout. Their performance of numbers such as After You’ve Gone, Minor Blues and Cole Porter’s Just One Of Those Things was well received by the highly appreciative audience.

Over at Cheltenham’s Town Hall, with its Corinthian columns and coved ceiling, Cuban guitarist and singer Eliades Ochoa provided a splendid set for the 900-strong capacity audience. Ochoa featured strongly on the acclaimed Buena Vista Social Club album and he starred in the 1999 film of the same name. As part of the repertoire at the Town Hall he and his band played and sang songs from the highly acclaimed album to the clear delight of the audience. Chan Chan, perhaps the most famous of these, went down particularly well. I understand that Eliades Ochoa may now be the sole surviving member of the Buena Vista Social Club.

American bassist Stanley Clarke and his talented band N’4Ever provided another superb session in the same venue later in the day. With Emilio Modeste on saxophone and EWI, Colin Cook on guitar, Beka Gochiashvili on keyboards and Jeremiah Collier on drums, this was some performance. Clarke’s virtuoso technique on bass was explosive. Each piece that he and the band played turned out to be a marathon and by the end of the set they’d only completed three numbers – but no one was complaining.

I’d been looking forward to Laura Mvula’s concert on the Monday as when I first saw her impressive 2014 performance at Brecon the singer seemed to be a star in the ascendancy. Indeed she’d just won Best Female Act and Best R&B / Soul Artist at the MOBO Awards. Her delivery today though seemed to lack much of the earlier pizzazz and at times was a little flat in comparison.

I hadn’t come across Damian Lewis before. He’s a television and film actor by day yet here he was at Cheltenham fronting a cracking band. I was pleasantly surprised. Lewis sang and played a mix of roots, blues and rock ’n’ roll and his vocals and guitar accompaniment were spot on. Some of the numbers were his own compositions. He was backed by members of Kansas Smitty’s House Band with Giacomo Smith on alto saxophone, David Archer on guitar, Joe Webb on piano, Will Sach on bass and Will Cleasby on drums. Kitty Durham supplied backing vocals, hand-held percussion, harmonica and at times also guitar.

Probably better known for his duo work with Moses Boyd, tenor saxophonist Binker Golding brought his quintet to Cheltenham and delivered a great set in the arena with numbers largely from his recent album. With Billy Adamson on guitar, Sarah Tandy on piano, Daniel Casimir on bass and Sam Jones on drums it was a heady mix of blues, country, bluegrass and Americana. Every member of this superbly tight and supportive band was on top form.

Gregory Porter has “curated” the festival for several years and this was to be his last time in the role. Fittingly, he headed up the closing concert. Special guests included Lizz Wright, Van Morrison and Giacomo Smith. Porter is a charismatic stage performer with an extraordinary voice and he powered his way through this final act. The applause at the end hit the roof. Also, Tony Dudley-Evans, who’s been the festival programmer for most of its years and the Parabola’s programme adviser, has decided to hang up his boots. He’s now 80 and we wish him well in his retirement.

There were several other acts I would like to have seen but inevitably timetable clashes precluded this. The festival’s Free Stage hosted a succession of emerging artists and showcased a series of school bands from across Gloucestershire. Numerous artists and bands played at fringe venues throughout the town and the Family Tent, with its programme of musical exploration, clearly contributed to the high number of families with young children present throughout the week. All in all, Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2023 had something for everyone.

Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham, Glos., UK, 26 April – 1 May 2023