Cheltenham Jazz Festival — evaluation

Christian Scott at the Chelteham Jazz Festival. Photo: Spencer McPherson©Spencer McPherson

Christian Scott at the Chelteham Jazz Festival. Photo: Spencer McPherson

“This one’s going out for Donald Trump,” vocalist José James announced midway by means of his Saturday lunchtime set. Three verses of sharply worded rhyming followed the opening line “No a lot more political monsters” then came syllable-crunching wordplay on “We’re living in a po-lice-state”, and oblique, beautifully sung references to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, swirling out of a mist of vocalese and jazz assistance.

James is a major figure amongst the growing quantity of musicians who blend hip-hop, classic black music and jazz extemporisation into a potent modern aesthetic. Musically, if not politically, he established the central theme of a festival whose primary jazz strand was dominated by the rhythms and textures of urban America.

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Earlier in the set, James had delivered a Bill Withers medley that riffed on “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?” and morphed “Grandma’s Hands” into “Ain’t No Sunshine”. In a outstanding overall performance, he simulated the scratches of a hip-hop DJ, pulled words apart and worked up a sweat with bass guitarist Solomon Dorsey.

But for the most part, the American presented original material. Some songs, such as the ballad “Let it Fall” and the hook-driven “Trouble”, were delivered straight. Mainly, though, James and his band deconstructed black American music with the flow of improvised jazz, switching simply from classic soul to the bleak textures and precise beats of hip-hop. The encore featured Takesho Obayashi’s gospel-infused keyboards and was devoted to Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. As it twisted and turned, James and his excellent trio conjured a lot of their spirit.

Later, US saxophonist Marcus Strickland and his band Twi-Life presented a set based on their recent CD Nihil Novi . Strickland is a powerful musical presence with a centred tone thickened by hints of electronica and an articulation as sharp as a snare-drum crack. The band opened with a pre-recorded monologue which had as its theme the artist as truth-teller and was supported by a piano figure that captured the bittersweet feel of a Dr Dre production.

Strickland stuck mostly to tenor sax and delivered his compositions in clumps of three. Clear-cut melodies acted as indicators, textures changed, and bursts of concentrated power raised the temperature of an currently heated functionality. There had been individual dedications — “Mingus”, a warm individual tribute to the late bassist the ballad “Truth”, name-checked for Prince — and three compositions featured solid R&ampB by guest vocalist Jean Baylor.

With the rhythm section as assured as the leader, this was a classic combo performance, albeit with a thoroughly modern vibe. Bassist Karl Miles was outstanding in the holding function, combining rhythmic drive with melodic flair.

1 of the quirks of this year’s festival was the pop-up performances of Alex Hawkins’s “Enviroment Music”, scored for trumpets and strings. Scattered throughout the various auditoria, the musicians involved would preface the principal acts with their ethereal drones and chirrups. Somewhat strange when encountered ahead of Jazz Jamaica’s orchestral tribute to Bob Marley, they reappeared as the calm before the storm before Tim Berne’s visceral Saturday night set in the intimate Parabola Theatre.

Brooklyn-primarily based alto saxophonist Berne has a relaxed, wisecracking stage persona that is somewhat at odds with the orchestrated higher-power abstractions of his music. This set presented four of his convoluted themes played in unison by Berne and clarinettist Oscar Noriega.

The opener, “Surface Noise”, was introduced by a smash of Ches Smith’s cymbals it was followed by “Spare Parts”, “Third Operation” and “The Imperfect Ten”, set up respectively by a slow rumble of piano, ululations of sax and clarinet, and a whisper of breath. In every single case, the band coalesced into a looped, Byzantine melody and progressed through a full spectrum of improv.

Impressively, Berne structured every single piece to stay away from repetition and developed a robust group sound that produced the most of his musicians’ talents. Smith is an outstanding percussionist/vibraphonist and new recruit Ryan Ferreira adds a variety of distortions and resonances on guitar. At one particular moment he would add crunch to the front line’s furious phonics, at yet another the resonant echo of a 1950s film noir soundtrack. Berne calls his band Snake Oil — a significant case of underselling.

Sunday opened with a tribute to the late British pianist John Taylor, who celebrated his 70th birthday at the festival final year, and had been due to play this year with the trio Meadow. Right here, the remaining two members — airy-toned saxophonist Tore Brunborg and supple percussionist Thomas Strønen — presented new music with guest bassist Anders Jormin. Together they delivered the folk-derived melodies, gentle rhythms and uncluttered structures of Nordic jazz in a moving and tranquil tribute.

It would be challenging to imagine a higher contrast with the polyrhythmic thrust of Christian Scott. The New Orleans-born trumpeter’s latest CD, Stretch Music , is laced with samples, sequencers and sparse funky beats. He reprised some of this material at his late afternoon set, but, he told us, this was a new band producing its debut, and some jazz classics would be thrown in. As a result Herbie Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane” and John Coltrane’s modal blues “Equinox” sat alongside characteristic Scott themes.

The contrast amongst the vintage numbers, with zip-and-ping drums driving strutting walking bass, and the newer ones, with their hip-hop inflected backbeats and bends, was plain to hear. But so also were the connections between jazz and the modern mainstream.

Scott adds technical edge to the plaintive melancholy of Miles Davis, and here identified the best foil with alto saxophonist Logan Richardson. It was a wonderful set from a band whose tight handle of light and shade belied its apparently impromptu nature.

The evening ended with an upbeat set from veteran saxophonist David Sanborn, an early mixer of urban rhythms and modern day jazz. Here he whizzed by means of back-catalogue favourites — “Mputo” and “Camel Island” stood out — and covered Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star” and D’Angelo’s “Spanish Joint”.

Politics surfaced once again right here, when Sanborn introduced his bittersweet, blues-laced instrumental “Common People”, with a passionate monologue bemoaning America’s self-serving political elite. “It’s the very same over right here,” I heard somebody whisper nearby. With an audience plainly on the same wavelength, good results was guaranteed.

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Section: Arts