Cheltenham’s annual jazz festival signalled business as usual with a well-loved opener, Dame Cleo Laine, a razzmatazz finale from actor Hugh Laurie’s New Orleans Blues Band and a well-stocked fringe. There were differences, though. The royal wedding was referenced on the day by a “Jazz Royalty” special arranged by Guy Barker, who crammed as many regal references into the repertoire as possible – compositions by Duke Ellington and the “King of Swing” Benny Goodman capture the gist. And this year, left-field visitors were more likely to have come from Norway than the US.
Among this year’s highlights were the contrasting approaches of the British pianist and composer Django Bates and the American Overtone Quartet, normally led by bassist Dave Holland. Family commitments prevented Holland from appearing, and it was Larry Grenadier who joined saxophonist Chris Potter, Jason Moran on piano and drummer Eric Harland to headline on Sunday evening. The quartet’s free-flowing improvisation, precise rhythms and subtle segues were more than a match for Bates’s brilliantly orchestrated fragments, multi-genre references and dramatic juxtapositions.
Bates’s celebration of Charlie Parker, Beloved Bird, a stand-out last year, was presented on Sunday afternoon. The night before, a short solo piano spot set up his festival commission, five compositions for a new octet, the T.D.Es. Bates’s unaccompanied improvisations confirmed his instrumental facility and mastery of thematic development, and the ensemble pieces showed his maturity as a composer.
Bates is an amusing if slightly surreal host. He introduced his solo performance by saying, “I’m about to support my own act. I hope I live up to my own expectations,” and launched a blizzard of thematic ideas over a steady left-hand pedal. His compositions reference family, friends and fellow musicians. “JT” was a dense exposition of fellow pianist John Taylor’s pithy impressionism, while Bates’s father was the subject of a loving and technically adroit tribute that juxtaposed the throb of authentic stride with blocked modernist chords. Downsides were the occasional vocals and the oddly flippant voice-over to “Is There Anybody Up There?”.
Bates’s octet brought together leading musicians “from the noughties generation” who were also at the festival. They had three days to rehearse the intricacies of Bates’s written scores – Bates conducted from the front – and to develop the confidence to solo fluently over reconstructed beats, mangled metallic guitar and rhythmic stabs that seemed impossible to predict, let alone phrase together.
From the staccato riffs of “Chatter” to the stretched pulse of the concluding “Froot Bole”, Bates’s scores seemed designed to trip up the unwary. Sighs, slurs and velvet voicings were supported by wild, reconstructed funk, inherent swing would vacillate in time and shrewish shouts and wails scattered over an often-repeated bass riff. Yet each piece of the jigsaw fitted perfectly. Swirls of scales sat precisely on discordant guitar, askew beats chimed in unison and distortion blended with dissonance. Soloists Shabaka Hutchings and Jay Phelps developed their own voice while all around threatened to disintegrate.
Saturday’s headline spot was filled by the legendary American saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who drew on the legacy of his one-time mentor John Coltrane. It’s a familiar repertoire, but Sanders’s gorgeous tone, individuality of phrase and depth of understanding are unique. Few others could warm up on the outer edges of the twisty harmonic structures of a full-throttle “Giant Steps”, let alone use it as a soundcheck – Sanders had just arrived from Paris, while drummer Gene Calderazzo was a new acquaintance.
But everybody coped; the muddy sound cleared and the set settled. “Naima” was gentle and spiritual, a long-drawn blues echoed with field hollers and there was a caressing ballad. The band, with pianist Jonathan Gee on top form, was hitting its stride when the elegiac Sanders original “The Creator Has a Master Plan” announced the end.
All three of Sunday’s afternoon gigs were based on extensions to characterful piano trios. Kit Downes added two horns and a cello for a set of gentle chamber jazz, Neil Cowley a string quartet for his rhythmically strident minimalism and Norway’s Tord Gustavsen a single sax for his haunting explorations of texture and tone. Downes’s allusions to the blues stood out, Cowley’s high-volume loops were infectiously delivered and Gustavsen’s unhurried, whisper-quiet contours were entrancing. The contrasts could hardly be greater, but by the afternoon’s end I looked forward to a bit more bite and rhythmic interplay.
These were duly provided by the Overtone Quartet, whose set was launched without ado by Moran’s melancholic piano. A skitter up the keyboard cued a flutter from the drums, Potter’s soprano swooped low and a sunrise melody introduced 90 minutes of skin-tight themes and intense interplay.
Simple songs were expanded into complex collective narratives, convoluted modality set up extraordinary musicianship, and there were extended and purposeful improvisations. Contrasts came from a lovely ballad and a haunting gospel-tinged lope, both numbers phrased in unison at the very edge of the beat. And the quartet gathered compelling momentum. Potter enthralled through his warm tone, subtleties of phrase and clarity of articulation.
The Overtone Quartet was hard to cap, but Big Air’s stripped-down beats and quirky village-band ethos stood up well. The US/UK collaboration tempers free jazz with New Orleans marches, calypsos and Motown funk. And with spiky pianist Myra Melford, lean drummer Jim Black and Oran Marshall on amplified tuba, they have their share of virtuosity. Marshall’s steady time, whooping subtones and wah-wah bass are all outstanding, but his gentle, slightly maudlin ballad stole the gig.