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Cheltenham Jazz Festival, review: 'packed with good things'

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Tuesday April 28, 2015

From The Telegraph

Cheltenham Jazz Festival, review: ‘packed with good things’
By: Ivan Hewett

The Cheltenham Jazz Festival is a reminder of what a vastly inclusive and tolerant art form jazz has become. If there are any “jazz police” around looking for signs of impurity, they keep a low profile.

The physical layout of the festival certainly helps, with marquees big and small dotted around Montpellier Gardens. You can stroll amongst them and hear the strange sounds of electronic jazz spilling from one, Afro-beat from another, and some good old straight-ahead swing from a third.

Saturday was packed with good things, but three gigs from senior American visitors stood out. The Sun Ra Arkestra couldn’t make it, alas. But their fans came along anyway to see veteran saxophonist Archie Shepp and his current quartet, who were a more than worthy substitute.

Shepp is often heard in the company of free jazz pianists like Joachim Kuhn, and it was a shock at first to hear him in such a straight-ahead, swinging mode. But once that had worn off, one could simply enjoy Shepp’s fabulously husky, flavoursome horn tone, and the interesting melodic kinks he brought to numbers like Ellington’s I don’t get around much anymore.

It was a strong quartet Shepp brought with him, but pianist Tom McClung stood out for sheer weighty decisiveness of his tone. Oddly enough, the one genuine blues number the quartet played seem somewhat routine. The real emotional gravity of the set came from the gritty modal-jazz numbers like Hope 2, which Shepp composed in memory of pianist Elmer Hope, and above all in Revolution.

This was one of those ballads about the African-American experience that have become Shepp’s trademark, which manage to be grieving and defiant at once. For a moment the jolly marquee atmosphere became sombre, as that tremendous gravelly voice rang out.

The emotional temperature was bound to cool for Lee Konitz, the veteran saxophonist who rose with the “cool” jazz trend of the late Forties and Fifties.

However there were times in this set when the temperature was not so much cool as tepid. Konitz is a charming genial presence, and the plangent sound of his sax is as distinctive as ever. Inevitably for a man of 87 it came in very short bursts, which meant the other members of the quintet had the ticklish job of maintaining the momentum, while not appearing to hog the limelight.

Guitarist Jacob Bro was actually too self-effacing, though bassist Linda Oh contributed a solo of spellbinding purity of tone and tuning in Play Fiddle Play, and trumpeter Dave Douglas shepherded Konitz’s own solos with affecting tact. But overall things felt stilted.

By contrast Joe Lovano, the big man of jazz saxophone, commanded the stage and his quintet with total ease. He and his Village Rhythms band summoned up the world of Nigerian Afro-beat, with sultry African percussion from Abdou Mboup and authentic high, sunny guitar from Liberty Ellman. It made for a joyful but harmonically static background, which is difficult to improvise against, but Lovano’s unstoppable invention made it seem easy.

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