Cheltenham hosts a festival of a different, jazzier kind for six days next week. Peter Bacon marks his card.
The runners might be notes and sounds, the riders might be saxophonists, pianists and drummers, but the excitement is just as palpable as when the venue is Cheltenham racecourse. And the added bonus with the Cheltenham Jazz Festival is there are far fewer losers.
From Wednesday the jazz musicians begin to arrive from all over the globe, the tent flags billow in the Montpelier Gardens breeze and the Cotswold town takes on a much cooler vibe. And it’s not all about stroking beards any more – Cheltenham’s jazz crowd is younger and funkier these days, due to the way it has broadened out into jazz-inflected pop with the accent on singers.
With so much to see and hear, how do you make those difficult choices? Do you opt for the favourites and potentially lower returns? Or put all your ticket money on an outsider and hope for a pot of gold? Well, for what they are worth, here are my tips.
Trumpeter Dave Douglas has been a regular Cheltenham visitor down the years but the band he brings this year is strikingly different, just as his 2012 album, Be Still, was different. It features a singer with a folkier style – on the album, Aiofe O’Donovan; for Cheltenham, Heather Masse – and material with a church feel.
It’s gorgeous stuff, in which Douglas and fellow musicians like saxophonist Donny McCaslin and pianist Matt Mitchell weave their jazz harmonies through hymns and traditional folk songs.
* Saturday, May 4 at 1.30pm in the Jazz Arena.
Vibes master and long-time teacher at the legendary Berklee College in Boston, Gary Burton is not a frequent visitor to these shores, so it’s particularly exciting to see him on the bill.
He has always had a keen eye for an up-and-coming guitarist – Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Kurt Rosenwinkel have all benefited from his employment – and the youthful Julian Lage is the latest. Along with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Antonio Sanchez, this is the New Gary Burton Quartet.
* Sunday, May 5 at 4.30pm in the Jazz Arena.
A guitarist with a Berklee background – which means he must have played for Burton at some point – is Mike Stern, who made his name at an early age by being in a Miles Davis band. For Cheltenham he has teamed up with another Davis alumni, saxophonist Bill Evans, and together with Dave Weckl on drums and Tom Kennedy on bass they should be a jazz fusion force for good. Expect some rock power and soul passion along with immense jazz chops (as we call them).
* Sunday, May 5 at 5.45pm in the Big Top.
To be the son of a jazz legend cannot be easy, but saxophonist Ravi Coltrane seems to be doing just fine following his own personal and very contemporary acoustic jazz path. On the back of Spirit Fiction, his first album on the Blue Note label, he leads a quintet which includes another Cheltenham favourite in trumpeter Ralph Alessi and the pianist on every jazz aficionado’s lips at the moment, David Virelles.
* Saturday, May 4 at 4.30pm in the Jazz Arena.
If vocalists are your thing, you need to be at Cheltenham. This year the place is crawling with great singers, from jazz to soul and pop, and among the favourites are Dionne Warwick (Wednesday, May 1, 8.30pm Big Top); Madeleine Peyroux (Thursday, May 2, 8.30pm Big Top); Laura Mvula (Friday, May 3, 6.30pm Jazz Arena); Gregory Porter (Saturday, May 4, 5.45pm Big Top); Joe Stilgoe (Saturday, May 4, 7.30pm Jazz Arena); Claire Martin (Sunday, May 5, 7.30pm Jazz Arena); and Lianne La Havas (Sunday, May 5, 9pm Big Top). Providing some soul-pop class are Noisettes (Saturday, May 4, 9pm Big Top).
If cutting edge, younger jazz is more to your taste, the following are worth a punt: Marius Neset leading his own band (Friday, May 3, 8pm Parabola Arts Centre) and as part of the Edition Quartet (Saturday, May 4, 9pm same venue); Sons Of Kemet (Saturday, May 4, 6pm Parabola Arts Centre); Troyk-estra (Sunday, May 5, 12noon Parabola Arts Centre); Barbacana (Sunday, May 5, 6pm Parabola Arts Centre); and a double bill of Polar Bear and Roller Trio (Monday, May 6, 6pm Jazz Arena).
Then there are all the valuable extras a proper festival provides, including a film series in the neat little cinema tent (they include the excellent animated story of Cuban music Chico & Rita and Woody Allen’s Manhattan), and workshops and talks that range from Songwriting (Theo Jackson) and Finding Your Voice (Gregory Porter) to Surgery Meets Jazz, which explores how improvisation might be surgery without a scalpel (Liam Noble and Professor Roger Kneebone – appropriate, huh?).
Birmingham musicians are featured in the Trondheim Jazz Exchange as students from Birmingham Conservatoire and the Trondheim Conservatory get together in this annual swapping of ideas (Saturday, May 4, 12noon Parabola Arts Centre), and the Reuben James Trio, a Jazzlines-linked band, is joined by singer Zara McFarlane (Sunday, May 5, 3pm Parabola Arts Centre).
And my tip for a real outsider promising long-odds returns is Jason Adasiewicz’s Sun Rooms (Sunday, May 5, 9pm Parabola Arts Centre). The young Chicago vibes player is creating a real stir and Cheltenham Jazz Festival has a great tradition of introducing us to the important players in jazz’s future.
* For full details of all these events and the many others over the six days, go to cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz