The long-running Cheltenham Jazz Festival has always fluidly negotiated the terrain between popular appeal and the demands of its core jazz audience. This year, that range came via bookending concerts from Dionne Warwick and Van Morrison and a solid roster of established players that showcased recent recordings or celebrated long-standing relationships.
Saturday’s highlight came early with a blast of energy and emotional focus from trumpeter Dave Douglas. The American presented music from two current albums; the first a homage to his Appalachian roots, written soon after his mother’s death; the second inspired by his turning 50. Douglas marked the milestone by performing in every US state – the “exotica” of Wyoming and Oklahoma meriting a mention at the gig.
The tight structures and kaleidoscopic textures of Douglas’s compositions seemed to be second nature to his adept and subtle young band. But what really impressed was the fire, flare and dynamic range they were able to muster, romping through Douglas’s twisty dialogues and throwaway lines, and deftly marking each signpost and turn. Linda Oh on bass, drummer Jonathan Blake and pianist Matt Mitchell brought a contemporary take on the discipline and adventure of the great Blue Note rhythm sections of the 1960s. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin complemented the leader in texture and tone.
Four numbers in, Douglas changed pace and style with a mid-set celebration of the hymns and folk songs of his childhood, featuring vocalist Heather Masse keening authentically over a muted jazzy chatter accompanied by the horns’ hymnals and solemn laments. As Douglas soared out of “Be Still My Soul” and the band shifted gear behind “Barbara Allen”, sentiment and soul were in perfect accord. They ended with “God Be With You till We Meet Again”, and played as though they meant every word.
Later in the afternoon, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane presented material from his recent album Spirit Fiction, with an acoustic quintet featuring trumpeter Ralph Alessi, whose tone has the same bright and brittle focus as Dave Douglas’s. Fluid roles, dexterity to spare and a rhythm section that pulled at the pulse were other elements they had in common.
Coltrane has his own voice – more pensive and softer-toned than his iconic father’s – and keeps flurries of notes to a minimum. Cuban-born pianist David Virelles adds a spiky touch to the Herbie Hancock legacy. But with longer improvisations, denser detail and less light and shade, they suffered by comparison to Douglas’s band.
The Coltrane gig was followed by a storming set from artist-in-residence Gregory Porter. The 41-year-old American vocalist’s rise has been rapid and recent: he was virtually unknown before the song “1960 What?” was a YouTube hit in 2011 and Grammy nominations followed.
This satisfying and substantial set introduced new material to his established repertory – he has just finished recording his first album for Blue Note – and unleashed the oomph in his long-standing band. Pianist Chip Crawford was a force of nature, left hand striding and thumping into the lower register while his right rolled and rocked. Alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato won hearts with his soulful inflections and wild be-bop.
Porter and his mainly self-penned songs, though, are the focal point. He has a beautifully rounded baritone that runs smoothly into the upper register and makes the most of his storytelling lyrics. Personal relationships, the gentrification of Harlem and striving parents were all sensitively covered and clearly articulated. Add in romantic forays deep into the bass register, a commanding stage presence and spine-tingling dynamics, and Porter’s career seems set for the long haul.
Sunday’s afternoon programme began with composer/arranger Mike Gibbs paying homage to one of the all-time great orchestrators, Gil Evans. The 12-piece ensemble, conducted by Gibbs, captured the panoramic voicings and emotional riches of the original by reproducing the same combination of brass and woodwind. A sprightly “Sister Sadie” and the atmospheric “Las Vegas Tango” were early highlights, with trombonist Mark Nightingale and saxophonist Julian Siegel adding intrigue. Soon afterwards, the set settled into a comfortable mid-tempo range, and needed more dynamic pacing to fully engage.
The late afternoon slot, featuring vibraphone master Gary Burton’s New Quartet, was the day’s highlight. Burton’s dazzling four-mallet technique and subtle voicings have beguiled audiences for nearly half a century – 70-year-old Burton first came to notice with saxophonist Stan Getz in 1964 – and his current quartet ranks with his best. His relationship with guitarist Julian Lage, 25, is striking – they have been working together since Lage was 12. Both are extraordinarily fluent improvisers with a light touch and a mastery of harmonic texture.
Burton largely sticks to well-established practices – pedal-points and riffs, walking bass lines and chorus-length themes – but he makes them sound remarkably fresh. And with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez constantly finding a new angle, calling the second number “Never the Same Way” was particularly apt. “Afro Blue” and “My Funny Valentine” gained a new lease of life while original material came with compound riffs and rocky rhythms. Burton’s playing was inspirational, and when he stood aside, contemporary shades came seamlessly into play.
The following set of adrenaline-fuelled fusion could not have been more of a contrast. The quartet led by guitarist Mike Stern and saxophonist Bill Evans emphasises speed of execution and a blistering attack, and as the notes piled in, there was no room for error. Both musicians played with Miles Davis in the early 1980s, and, we were told, bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Dave Weckl teamed up as 13-year-olds. They are certainly single-minded in their virtuosity, but at times the screeching phonics and muscular trades, power chords and rocky riffs bordered on parody. Ballads provided a contrast, Stern’s enthusiasm and commitment were infectious, and they deserved their encore, a rust-belt rocker called “Ode to the Working Man”.